By Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy)
When your technical writing skills are at a professional level, but you're still not getting bites from agents, editors (or readers if you self-publish), it's time to look at the story itself.
One of the more frustrating aspects of being an author is the sheer unfairness of publishing. There’s a strange and unfathomable ratio between good writing and good storytelling that sends some manuscripts to the reject pile and others to the bestseller list.
And nobody knows what that ratio is—worse, it’s different for each person, and even each genre.
“Great writing” isn’t enough, and we’ve all read books that aren't well written but still sold millions of copies.
Now, I'm certainly NOT saying that good writing skill isn't something to worry about or work toward. Just that these “badly written best sellers” resonated with readers on such a deep level that they didn't care about the technical craft of the text. They didn't read them to marvel at the skills of the authors, they read them for the stories.
A beautifully written, technically perfect, yet boring story will not grab readers.
A generically written, technically average, yet amazing and gripping story will grab readers.
If your writing skill is clearly not the reason your manuscript is getting rejected (for example, you’re getting "while this is well-written it’s not for me" type letters or reviews) shift your focus to the story. Odds are high that's what's holding you back.
5 possible ways the story is hurting your novel
There’s little to no conflict.
Conflict is at the heart of every great story. A good protagonist needs an equally good antagonist to struggle against, be it a person, inner demon, society, or force of nature. The challenge that needs to be overcome should be worthy of the person trying to overcome it. If the struggle isn't worth fighting for (either literally or metaphorically) readers probably won't care.
Questions to ask:
- Is there a problem your protagonist has to resolve or their life comes to a screeching halt (again, literally or metaphorically)?
- Do challenges (conflicts) get harder to overcome as the story unfolds?
- Do the problems and conflicts of the overall novel tug the protagonist in different directions?
- Does the protagonist have to make tough choices or is the path always clear (and thus predictable)?
A strong conflict will draw readers into the story and make them want to know what happens next and how the protagonist will solve this problem. This problem is probably why they picked up the book in the first place.
There are no real stakes.
Without consequences for failure, it's hard to care about the conflict. For example, a character might have their heart set on getting a job developing computer games, and they might have huge competition for the position, but if nothing happens to them beyond the usual disappointment if they don’t get the job, readers won't care.
This is even more problematic if there’s a lack of conflict, and the protagonist gets everything they wanted without really trying. It’s no longer a story, but a lengthy description of how a character was rewarded for not doing much to get that reward.
Questions to ask:
- Are there consequences for both failure and success that fundamentally change the life of the protagonist?
- Do the stakes escalate as the protagonist struggles to overcome their challenges?
- Are these stakes personal to the protagonist or could they apply to anyone in the book?
Stakes make readers care about the outcome of the story. If there's no prize for winning or punishment for losing, what happens between page one and the end of the book doesn't really matter.
There’s a reactive protagonist.
When there’s a lack of conflict (nothing preventing the protagonist from getting what they want) and no stakes (no consequences for failure), you often wind up with a reactive protagonist, because they have no reason to act in the novel.
The protagonist should be the person driving the plot. They should make it happen through their choices and the results of those choices. If all they do is react to what's happening around them, they can feel pointless as a character. Since they never do anything for personal reasons, the story feels aimless at best, contrived at worst. You can take a reactive protagonist out of the story and nothing really changes, because they weren’t making the story happen anyway.
Quick note here: Reacting is different from reactive. All protagonists react to what happens to them, as those reactions drive the plot. But a reactive protagonist has no motivation or agency to act. They have no goal, and don’t actually care about what they’re doing. They often have no reason to act besides from “plot says do this now.”
Questions to ask:
- Does the protagonist make choices that affect how the story unfolds?
- Do these choices cause events or situations to happen that would not have happened had they not made that choice?
- Is the protagonist planning and acting on plans to achieve a desired result?
- Does the protagonist have goals or do they just deal with whatever problem is in front of them at the time?
The choices the protagonist makes and the actions they take are what create the plot for the novel. Without those choices, the protagonist is just along for the ride.
There’s little to no character motivation.
This is frequently found with a reactive protagonist, because the character has no actual reason to pursue the goal of the book. Their decisions are made solely because the author needs the scene to unfold that way.
The protagonist needs to make decisions for plausible reasons that make sense to that character and that problem. Their motivation for why they’re willing to do whatever the story requires them to do needs to be believable, or they’ll feel like actors in a stage spouting lines, not characters faced with a real problem they must solve.
For example, in Die Hard, would John McClane have risked his life to stop the bad guys if his wife hadn't been held hostage in the building? Probably not.
If your protagonist is risking their life for no plausible reason, readers will call you on it.
Questions to ask:
- Are there personal reasons for your protagonist to do what they need to do in the story?
- Do they have a personal stake in what happens?
- Do they care about the outcome or are they doing it because plot says so?
- Do their motivations hold up under questioning or do they fall apart after one or two questions about why they’re doing this?
Characters need good reasons to risk themselves for the plot or they can feel like cardboard cutouts just acting out a script. Give them solid reasons to act.
And the final kicker holding your manuscript back (and one that takes an honest, subjective eye to see):
It’s not very original.
Sometimes a writer has done everything right and the book still gets rejected, because the story is one agents, editors, and readers have seen dozens of times before. This is probably the hardest snag to fix since the novel is working—it's just not fresh enough to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
A “common story” novel feels predictable since readers have seen it before. It needs a fresh twist or different angle to capture a unique aspect of a familiar tale.
Questions to ask:
- What's unique about this story vs. others like it?
- Does the plot unfold in predictable ways that readers can see coming?
- How many books like it can you name?
- Is the fresh angle just a twist at the very end or is it woven through the entire book?
Being unique doesn't mean the entire book needs to be unique—it just means one (or more) aspects of the story should handle the tropes or elements in a different way so readers view the story from a new perspective.
Novels are all about stories, and sometimes in our pursuit of publication we forget how important those stories are. It's easy to get scope-locked on craft and let the story flounder. If you're feeling stuck, try taking a hard look at your story and see if you can make it stronger.
Are you working on your writing skills, your storytelling skills, or both right now? What do you feel your weak areas are? Your strengths? Please share your answers with us down in the comments!
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.