5 Reasons Your Story Needs Fixing (and What to do About it)

    your story needs fixing - man with head in hands

    There’s no denying it.

    Your story needs fixing. It’s rotten.  A monkey could have written something more coherent.
    Maybe you thought it was great while you were writing it, but after some cooling-off time you recognized its sub-mediocrity.

    Worse: perhaps someone else read your story and told you it was fit for compost.
    Where did you go wrong?  Why is your writing odoriferous, and how can you fix it?

    Poo-poo Plot

    Imagine you’re trying to describe a book to someone, but all you can think of is, “It’s one of those books where nothing happens.”

    There’s a trend these days–in both short stories and novels–to write down a rambling road without a plot in mind.

    That isn’t to say works can’t be more introspective than plot-based.  Sometimes the ‘happenings’ occur within a character, rather than externally. However, if you didn’t have a clear course of action mapped out before you began writing, your story might stink because its plot is poopy.

    Think diapers.

    There’s also a possibility that your plot is no good because:

    • It’s just plain boring
    • The stakes aren’t high enough
    • It’s totally unbelievable
    • It only appeals to a very small audience

    In all likelihood, if your plot lacks power, the reason lies in poor planning.

    Clammy Characters

    There’s something fishy about your story.  The characters… well, they don’t seem to think, behave or talk like real human beings.

    Stop and take a close look at the stars of your story:

    • Are they well developed?
    • Do they have believable motivations?
    • Do your characters speak using credible dialogue?
    • Are there so many characters your reader can’t distinguish between them?
    • Will people easily identify with them and their problems?

    It’s irrelevant how gripping your plot is, if the characters who carry that plot aren’t real enough to speak to the reader.

    Putrid Pacing

    Pacing a story is a real art. You need a beginning, middle and end, but making sure you don’t linger too long at any given point is tricky.

    When you read your manuscript, do you notice it takes forever to get to the important stuff?  Or, perhaps, there’s a bomb on every page and you quickly tire of too many major events close together.

    Ask yourself:

    • Have I given enough background information on my characters or crucial information about their situations?  Have I given too much?
    • Did I foreshadow all major events?
    • Does my conclusion come too quickly after the story’s climax, or does it drag on too long afterward?
    • Have I created a great enough number of significant events to carry the story from the inciting incident to the climax?

    Like plotting, pacing benefits from being organized and having a plan ahead of time.

    Loathsome Language

    Have you ever opened a book, read the first paragraph, and then scoffed at the lack of thought put into the language?

    Remind you of your own story?  Consider the following:

    • Do you use the same words too often?
    • Are you going ‘thesaurus-happy’ trying to find new vocabulary?
    • Do you spend too much time describing things or people?
    • Have you overused adjectives and adverbs?
    • Is your language too frilly for your story?  Too sparse?
    • Have you resorted to using cliches?
    • Does it all just sound lazy?

    Remember, a story is only as good as the words with which it’s told.

    Sweaty Similes & Malodorous Metaphors

    Try teaching a high school writing class and, inevitably, you’ll come across some rather interesting ideas of what makes a great simile or metaphor.

    It isn’t uncommon to read vain attempts such as, ‘”Her eyes sparkled like a silver spoon,” or, “The clouds were cotton balls dancing through the sky.”

    When you use literary techniques in your writing, do they make sense?  Do they add to the richness or meaning of the text?  After all, cotton balls don’t usually dance, and having one’s eyes compared to a spoon is hardly a compliment.

    Better to use plain, direct language to get one’s point across than trying to force creativity down its throat.

    How to Come Up Smelling Like Roses

    Now that your nose has been offended by all that sniffing through your manuscript, you should have a fair idea of why your story stinks.

    To avoid similar problems in the future, remember the following 5 key ways to improve your writing:

    1. Careful Organization: Great plots don’t just happen along the way–they should be planned before you ever start writing.  The initial time taken to plan major story events and essential elements will save you time spent revising.
    2. Memorable Characters: Create well-developed characters with strong motivations so your reader will identify with them.  Pay special attention to dialogue, ensuring it’s clearer and more direct than the way we speak normally, but still flows in a believable manner.
    3. Appropriate Pacing: Pace your story so points are neither belaboured or rushed.  Get to the inciting incident as soon as possible and make sure there’s a pleasing combination of action and repose throughout the text.
    4. Logical Word Choice: Choose your words carefully and economically.  Be strict about extra frills, using them only when highly appropriate.  Employ more efficient and effective language.
    5. Sensible Creativity: Avoid cliches–they’re the lazy way out of having to think.  If you use similes and metaphors, they must be original, make sense, and add to the story (rather than detract from it).

    Stick to these guidelines, and you’ll never have to catch another whiff of your own writing-stench again.



    About the author

      Suzannah Windsor Freeman

      You can read more by Suzannah on her blog Write It Sideways

    • Kathleen,

      You’re right — plotting before hand is very controversial amongst writers. Like you, many others feel plotting is the wrong way to go about attacking a new story, opting instead to let their subconscious make connections where it will.

      I’ve tried this myself, and it does often bring up some really amazing things that, admittedly, I would never have thought of on my own! But I found in the long run that my connections, as wonderful as they were, wouldn’t bring me to the best and most logical conclusion that my story required.

      What I was trying to get at in this post was that if you finish writing a story and look back at it, what is your impression? What is someone else’s impression? If you look at your story once it’s written and discover it’s plot lacks power, then you might have benefited from planning.

      If it works better for you to forget planning and try to draw it all together at the end, then that’s what you should do. There are a lot of great writers who work like that.


    • Kathleen says:

      Interesting post. I agree with all the “reasons it stinks” and all the fixes, but I have issues saying the fixes “must” be done in a first draft.

      This, especially, gave me pause: “Great plots don’t just happen along the way–they should be planned before you ever start writing”

      All of my plots happen along the way. I have never sat down and planned out a plot. Once I have a first draft down, that’s when I go back and shape it.

      Basically, what I’m trying to say is that your suggestions sound great for “plotters” who can think that way while writing, and as something to pay attention to in revision. I completely agree that all those things need to be done in a good book.

      However, to say it has to be done for a first draft… It’s a little condescending to those of us who just cannot let the internal editor/critic in while laying down a draft. I think the guidelines are excellent- just not necessarily for everyone’s *first* draft.

      *Please note, I’m not trying to say I think you’re being patronizing or anything like that on purpose, I just know a lot of people – excellent writers – who cannot write a first draft the way you described and felt I should comment that there are others who don’t plot like that initially & still do just fine.

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    • Terry,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, there are many literary masterpieces which have very little in the way of plot, and yet the mastery lies in the storytelling itself and character development. Another example might be James Joyce’s, ‘The Dubliners,’ which I love.

      However, I think these kind of books are best understood through study. Those of us who studied Literature appreciate them because we spent time learning about their historical and social contexts, their themes, the beauty of their language, etc. Anyone who hasn’t had the same training may not have the necessary skills to understand them in the same way.

      I’m certainly not advocating anyone go out and write something that’s purely plot-based. I don’t read those kind of books myself.


    • So I guess writing the next Mrs. Dalloway is out of the question?

      The problem with plot-based novels is you can say so much without saying a single thing.

    • @ Lauren

      Interesting that you’re writing a screenplay. Never tried it myself. Sounds daunting!

      @ Justine

      You’re quite welcome! Yes, too many words get in the way. I think in high school you learn to make your writing bigger (as in, more words), because you’re always trying to impress your teacher. Then, when you get out into the real world, you spend the rest of your life trying to make your writing smaller, more succinct. A constant battle.


    • Justine says:

      Hi Suzannah!

      Thank you for your helpful writing tips! I always have get a sick feeling in my stomach when I’m writing. Neurotic? Yes? I tend to think, I’ve used too many words, the syntax is too muddled, I’ve over planned, I’ve underplanned… etc. It’s very helpful to have posts like this, that give solid advice about how to stay focused. It’s staying away from cliches I find the most difficult; how does one avoid creative mediocrity and stagnancy at the same time as exploiting a language where everything has already been said? 😉

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks for this nice outline! It has given direction to my stray toughts and it’ll no doubt help me with my blogging, songwriting, and my screenplay. Rock on!

    • Suzannah says:


      I’m glad you found this post useful! I also think it’s great you’ve discovered why you’re not happy with your story at only 3 pages in. What a relief you weren’t 100 pages into it, right?


      Thanks for your thoughts. Those language and grammar posts do tend to be helpful to all types of writing. A couple of health writers who commented above said they were able to draw useful info from this post, even though it’s about storytelling. It’s amazing how much overlap there can be.

      @Barbara Ling

      You’re so right. Sometimes you plan to go in one direction, and suddenly you find yourself heading in another. That’s always a welcome surprise. I still feel it’s better to plan where you’re going at first, but with the intention of allowing yourself to stray when inspiration offers a better option. Thanks!

    • Planning…it can make all the difference indeed.

      But sometimes, inspiration will strike and if you give yourself permission to hop on for the ride, the end result will far outshine your earlier ideas.

    • Ric says:

      Hi Suzannah,

      I appreciate that your thoughts bridge to all types of writing. I work in a Canadian Government Office, and write formal responses daily to government personnel and the public. Your article, “How Are YOU Butchering The English Language?” (July 13) on writeitsideways.com
      was especially useful. Love your sense of humour, too. Keep writing! I’ll keep reading.

    • MattC says:

      your post came just in time. I just started writing my own mystery novel with what I believe is a great premise. After only three pages I am already not happy. Your post here showed me why I’m not happy and how to get happy.

      So I’ll say a huge thank you, hit submit, and make a fresh (non-poopy) start.


    • @Jim Bessey

      I think you’re right about writers from all different levels of experience. At what point do you stop and say, “Okay, now I’m accomplished. Now I don’t have to think about these things anymore.” Hopefully never! Excellent writing may begin to flow more naturally as you gain experience, but you always need to be aware of those little things that can ruin it in a heartbeat.

      @Kat Eden

      Wit and sarcasm can draw in a reader quickly, but I agree too much can be counterproductive. It should highlight the main content, not obscure it. As you say, ‘quality writing takes time and effort.’ Absolutely. I know it does in my case!

    • Kat Eden says:

      I don’t write stories as such, but I think a lot of this advice can be applied just as readily to blog writing. Particularly the loathsome language, but – to an extent – even the questions of adequate/believable character development. Rather than developing a person though, bloggers are developing a concept. Is it believable? Are readers going to find it relevant? Is the post trying too hard?

      I know one of my weaknesses is to rely on too much wit or sarcasm; particularly if I’m tired or haven’t fully researched my topic before I begin. I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to think out my post before writing it not after, but if I’m not careful I can blather on for 2 paragraphs with supposedly funny anecdotes and similes. I’ve seen other bloggers make similar mistakes with too much humor, but also with too much of a serious slant, or too much factual information at the expense of a real flow.

      The long and short of it is that – for most of us at least – quality writing takes time and effort. Rarely is the first draft a true winner in anyone else’s mind but our own!

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Great writing advice, Suzannah, delivered memorably. Loved the alliteration.

      So often we begin a story with one great idea, and forget to drag along all the important facets of engrossing story-telling. Your humorous and methodical approach to overhauling a flat-lining tale is a solid guide for writers of all levels of experience.

      Thank you! ~Jim

    • @Larry,

      That’s so funny! I’m always quite paranoid about something like this happening, which is why I have a strict practice of not reading other people’s posts while I’m writing my own. I’m always afraid of being influenced by what other people have written. But, as it seems, great minds must think alike!

      I have been to Storyfix though, and think it’s great. I think we both have a no nonsense approach to writing.

      @JS DIxon

      Thank you so much for your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

    • JS Dixon says:

      A very strong voice, your sense of humor shines brilliantly and supplements the already useful content.

    • Larry says:

      As I wait in the WTD cue for my next guest post to appear here, I opened this one this morning and for a quick moment actually thought it was mine. Which means, I totally relate to Suzannah’s message, it’s spot-on and well delivered. (Maybe it’s because I did a post on my site, on June 5th, entitled “Why Nobody Will Publish Your Novel” with very similar content… Suzannah, my lawyer will be calling… just kidding here…)

      It’s an interesting side point… if we can write something that resonates that quickly and powerfully is a great thing to shoot for in a title, and then in the material that follows.

    • Thanks Melanie,

      You’re right — there are so many ways to be creative with your articles, even if they tend toward the technical. You’re still affected by language choices and pacing.

      If you’re writing about real people and their health choices, you still need to consider characterization. Will we understand their motivations? Are you giving your readers a multidimensional view of them? How will you get readers to identify with their problems?

    • Hi Suzannah,
      Thanks so much for writing this.

      Although I’m a health writer, I can definitely learn from this post – sometimes I get a little too bogged down with the technical aspects, and forget to inject life into my articles! 🙂

    • Annabel,

      So glad you found this post useful. If you’re working on a fiction manuscript at the moment, have you checked out my series Extreme Manuscript Makeover at writeitsideways.com? You might find some helpful strategies for those finishing touches. All the best with your manuscript!

    • Putting the finishing touches to my fiction manuscript right now so thanks for the tips. Lucky it’s a lovely breezy day today here in Queensland, Australia. Perfect for a bit of story airing:)

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