Ever feel you might be writing the wrong story?
Let’s say you have a great premise and the characters are fully realized in your own mind. You rush to get something down on the page, either in the form of a detailed outline or a rough first draft. Everything goes pretty well for the first bit, but at some point you start to second-guess yourself.
The plot just doesn’t seem to be meshing as well with your characters as you thought it would. You’re having trouble translating your initial vision onto the page. You begin doubt you have the skills to make the story everything you wanted it to be.
Does all of this mean you chose to write the wrong story? Should you cut your losses and move on to the next idea?
While this may be the case some of the time (for example, you’re attempting to write a story that necessitates knowledge you can’t acquire through research), in many cases…
…it’s less about writing the right story, and more about writing the story right.
There’s No Such Thing as a Small Story
You know how, in the acting world, they say there are no such things as small parts, only small actors? That means even the smallest of roles can be memorable, and played with depth and enthusiasm, given a talented actor.
My theory is that the same truth holds for writers and their stories. There is no such thing as a small story, only small writers (that is, writers who think small in terms of the story—those who cannot do it full justice).
Think about it. Wonderfully powerful stories have been written about relatively everyday or mundane concepts. For example, John Cheever’s The Swimmer is about a man who tries to get home from a friend’s house by swimming through all the pools in the county. Hardly anything happens in the story, but it features a lot of symbolism and has a surprise ending which makes it a classic.
But, told in the wrong manner, that classic could have been a complete flop.
Is Your Story Too Big for You?
I started writing a short story a few months ago, one which came to me like a lightning bolt. I knew where I wanted to go with it, and did a basic outline. But once I had written a skeleton draft, something just felt wrong. The plot was unfolding in two contrasting locations, and for that reason it felt as if I were trying to tell two stories instead of one. The more I second-guessed myself, the more my characters began to slip out of focus. I felt I was in over my head. Perhaps this wasn’t the right story for me, or for these characters.
But, for some reason, I just couldn’t abandon it. It meant something to me on a personal level. It was a big story, not in terms of plot, but in terms of depth. It would require plenty of blood, sweat and tears to make it the best it could be.
That’s when I realized that it wasn’t a matter of me having the wrong story; it was a matter of me not telling the story in the best way possible. The dual settings could work so long as I found a way to better connect them to each another and to the plot. The characters could become what I had initially envisioned with some more fleshing out. I could find the best narrative point of view by testing a few parts in first and third person. And, some parts which I had already written—but weren’t really working—needed to be discarded.
The story didn’t need to be abandoned. It just needed to be told in a different manner. It was my job to discover what that meant.
Writing the Story Right
In A Brief History of the Short Story, Part 37, The Guardian claims Alice Munro once remarked that she eschews definite conclusions in her stories because:
“I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening, or happening over and over again. I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.”
To me, that’s the definition of writing the story right. Where the story and characters actually live on in the readers mind, in some sort of alternate universe, long after the pages are closed.
How can we make sure we’re writing our stories in the best way possible?
- Persevere. Some stories will simply fall out of your fingers, and other times you won’t be so lucky. Think of it this way: if a story comes too easy, there’s a good chance you could have written it better. It might be good, but is it the best it can be? When you’re tempted to say ‘it’s finished,’ leave it alone for another week and come back to it again.
- Understand what your characters want. Character motivations are powerful. What’s the main thing your character wants? What are her goals and dreams? As readers, we need to not only be told what your characters need—we must be made to believe it and feel it ourselves, to some degree. We have to want to see those characters achieve their goals.
- Experiment. When you just don’t know what the problem is, you may need a little experimentation to help your story along. You can always copy it into another document in order to try on different points of view or writing styles, or add/axe characters or subplots. Sometimes just rearranging existing parts of your story can make a big difference.
- Break the rules, if necessary. There really aren’t any rules with writing. There are tried-tested-true guidelines, but no absolutely never-ever-break-’em rules. Sometimes, telling your story right means you go against the grain. Just make sure you understand why you’re going against the grain.
- Write with your heart, but edit with your head. Writing just with your heart can result in a sloppy mess. Writing just with your head means you overthink things and don’t give yourself over to your creativity. It’s been said that first drafts are for telling the story to yourself. Write with your heart first so you have the freedom to be creative, but edit with your head to polish your story.
We may not finish every story we toy with, but I think we seldom begin writing stories so wrong for us that they cannot be completed. Any story can be memorable and well-written, given the right artist to craft it.
Can you share an example of a time when you successfully overhauled a story you would normally have abandoned? Do you have any further advice for writers struggling to tell their stories in the best way possible?
Join the discussion
Ashley Prince says
Oh, my gosh, Suzannah. This is exactly what I am feeling for both of my WIPs. I started both via NaNoWriMo and didn’t win either year. But I still kept going. I have very basic outlines for both, basic character outlines, the plot mostly figured out, but nothing is happening! I don’t know what to do.
This post is tremendously helpful and will save it in my folder to refer back to.
Thank you for such a wonderful blog.
Thank you for your words, Ashley! I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling with your works-in-progress, but I hope this article will give you the inspiration and tools you need to at least dive back into one of them. Best of luck!
Rose Byrd says
Suzannah, every time I am asked to relate about a story writing rework, I always remember when I wrote a story for my writing exercise in a totally critical (4 years college scholarship at stake!),multi-part set of application forms for the National Council of Teachers of English annual awards to high school seniors. I wrote a fictionalized account of a life-changing experience I had had as a participant in a statewide piano competition. The technique I used in editing and sculpting that story was to actually go back to the same auditorium and walk down that long, long aisle, reading my story aloud. By the time I got to the stage, I could not scribble fast enough to “shape up” that story, leaning on the front of the stage! Well, I won the top award nationally that year and I won the scholarship. My sponsoring teacher told me she had never played a lick on a piano in her life, but her fingertips tingled when she read my final copy!
Wow, what a fascinating story, Rose! Thank you so much for sharing. Going back to the auditorium for inspiration was a great idea.
I find that if I try writing without outlining first I’ll tend to try to keep things really simple because I’m afraid to be too ambitious. I’m thinking, I won’t be able to write that convincingly/I don’t know enough about that/It won’t work and I’ll be disappointed and give up etc. But then the end result is really flat and boring. But if I outline first then I can just go mad with ambition because there’s no immediate need to write anything well and I end up with much better ideas, some of which actually do work out when I try to write them up!
My advice: go for broke!
Thank you for reminding us of the benefits of outlining, Emily! I’m a firm believer that outlining is a good idea, although sometimes I’ll play around with writing a few paragraphs of something before I outline, just to help me get a feel for what I’m after.
Jack A. says
What’s a “lightening bolt”?
One of the perils of writing a very long article and proofreading late at night 🙂
I guess we don’t need great ideas for stories, we just need time to turn what we keep inside into literature.
Great post and wonderful blog. I just find it, but I’m gonna keep reading for a while.
That’s a great way to put it! Not every story idea needs to be high concept. Thanks 🙂
Cindy Huff says
I put my finished novel aside after rewriting the first few chapters over again and again. Having them critiqued by the best I went at it again. I found all the thoughts you mention going through my head during that time. I have since figured out what it lacks and thanks to your encouraging words I’m going to start the rewrite process over again.
Good luck with your rewrite, Cindy! I hope you can bring that piece in line with your vision 🙂
Randi Simon-Serey says
Your articles are always helpful, but you said one thing in particular was especially meaningful: ”Write with your heart, but edit with your head.”
I’m writing a novel about a woman who decides to volunteer at her local dog shelter to get her mind off her troubles, thinking it would be fun. She is shocked to learn about the thousands of animals killed just for being homeless, about shelter euthanization techniques such as gassing and heartsticking, about puppy mills, and the underworld of dog fighting and bait dogs. The topic is very real, but has a high risk of becoming maudlin if I mishandle it. I even quit writing because I didn’t know how to reveal without sensationalizing. Thanks to you, I have a better idea in which direction to proceed.
I know what you mean about handling a hot topic in your fiction, and the risk of it sounding preachy or overly emotional. Hopefully some mindful editing will remove any of those questionable elements from your story. Good luck!
Josh Sarz says
When I was in high school I had loads of ideas for stories. I used to start writing them in separate notebooks. Some of them only got to a page or two long because I realized I had better stories to write. Heh
We all did that in high school, Josh. Actually, I think we all STILL do that, but it’s a bad habit 🙂 I use Scrivener now to keep track of all my short stories and story beginnings, so each one is in its own, easily-accessible file, and I can return to them whenever I like. Although I definitely won’t complete all of the ideas I’ve started, I do feel more confident these days that I COULD finish them all if I wished to!
Sarah Callender says
Oh, this is one for my “Faves to Save” file. Thank you! These are all such great reminders of the small but important truths of writing the right stories. I think it’s tempting to believe that the story tells itself, that we have no control over it. While a few elements of the story might tell itself, we are the story shapers.
Thank you for this!
Hi Sarah! Good to see you stop by, and thank you so much for bookmarking this article. Hope all is going well with your novel!
Sarah Callender says
Thanks, Suzannah! I hope YOU are well.
My agent let me know, in mid-December, that she had decided to leave agenting. It was a terrible, out-o-f-the-blue surprise. I’ve spent the last two months doing Agent Search 2.0 and managed to land a great one. I am thrilled and in very good hands.
I hope the babies are great! 🙂
Oh no! That would be so difficult, Sarah. But, I’m so glad to hear you’ve found a new agent, and I hope that sometime you’ll stop by to tell us a bit about your experience. Take care (oh, and babies doing great at 35 weeks along) 🙂
Ileandra Young says
I have a short horror story that I just had to put down. I was working on it for weeks but it just felt wrong; it was only supposed to be 6k!
Though reading this really makes me want to try it again. Maybe it really was just my approach ro the piece rather than a fundamental problem with the tale itself, which is what I told myself at the time.
I’ll have to have another look at it… See how I feel.
Sounds like you might need to try the experimentation suggestion, Ileandra. Play around with different story elements and see if making some small changes will change the way the story plays out (point of view, changing order of scenes, etc.). Hope it works out for you!
Michelle McCartney says
I love the idea of trying to figure out what my character (s) wants. For me that removes my inhibitions as the controling influence, for after all I can always blame the ‘character’ for leading me where I might not dare to go myself. It ‘s fun too !
Hi Michelle! Characters do tend to have minds of their own, sometimes! If they really don’t want to do what you want them to do, there’s probably a good reason for it 🙂
I agree with you. Sometimes, the best way out of a writer’s block int eh middle of the writing process is to try a different attack on the characters and maybe the plot itself.
Thanks, Adrien. Glad you enjoyed this piece!
Kevin Basil says
I’ve never had a story that I felt like abandoning because I’ve always strongly believed in my ideas. I did have an issue, however, when I was writing my first novel, The Unlimited, where the story started to stray from my outline and my plan. At first I was concerned because I had carefully planned out the story and certain things needed to happen in sequence in terms of information that was given to the readers. This didn’t set me back for long though. I quickly decided that the story will take me where it wants to go so I simply followed it. In the end it took me somewhere even greater than I had imagined! The bottom line is, things change in writing a story. Nothing is absolute. Embrace the creative flow!
You’re right, Kevin. Our stories often lead us away from our original ideas, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
I’ve read this post over and over again. Now I believe it’s one the most important posts you’ve ever written, Suzannah. At this time I work through the second draft of my novel and I still think it’s far away from a better draft than the first one. But the words I’ve found here are very helpful to master this second draft. In my opinion your words are more helpful than to know how to create exciting characters or a fine plot.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Rene. I’m glad you found this helpful!
Your suggestion about breaking the rules when necessary made me laugh. One of the big ones is to always take your readers to the scene of the action, so that they can hear, see, smell, taste, etc. what’s going on as it happens. The rules says it’s boring to hear a story second hand, but that is exactly how my Daniel story wants to be told, for the most part.
Since I am a natural story-teller, so is “Liz”, and it is much more fun to listen to her tell her new family how she shnookered her way into a embalming job, when she hasn’t embalmed for twenty years, than if I took the reader through the interview, and then let her summarize what happened to the family, which is, of course, the way it’s “suppose” to be written.
Yes, sometimes telling is better than showing. There are guidelines, but it’s okay to break them if you have a good reason!
This is a great article! Has me thinking about all the stories that I’ve started over the years that stalled at some point and I gave up on them, believing either the story wasn’t good or that I had no idea about how to write. Guess maybe I shouldn’t have tossed them;) Got a couple at the moment that seem to be dead in the water but perhaps that is not the case at all. Perhaps they need to be told a different way … I’ll give these babies another look:)
A LOT of great advice in this article. “When you’re tempted to say ‘it’s finished, leave it alone for another week and come back to it again.” I do this every time, at least for a few days and I always end up tweaking things or even revising to a whole new draft. As far as abandoning an idea, I could never do that completely. I started a picture book once that grew to be way too big and it lost its direction. For years it just sat there, hardly touched. Then one day I read it and finished it the same day…7 years after the start! But it turned out great.