If you’re not familiar with me, I’m Jami Gold, and in addition to my fiction, writing blog, worksheets, and workshops, I also occasionally squeeze in freelance developmental editing. That means I can identify big-picture issues in stories, including:
- low stakes,
- poor motivations,
- missing goals,
- weak conflict,
- lack of tension,
- slow pacing,
- unrelatable characters, etc.
Countless articles debate which of these story elements are the most important to focus on in revisions. However, during a developmental edit, I often see stories that have problems in all of these areas.
If Our Story Has All the Big Picture Problems, That’s Bad, Right?
If we receive a long revision letter—especially one that mentions issues with several of the story elements above—we might panic, thinking our story is too broken and we should give up. (Of course, we shouldn’t!) But even after we get to a place where we’re ready to dig in, more uncertainty hits: when several big problems have surfaced, where do we even start revising?
The truth is that problems in one of those areas can carry over to the others. Thus, improving one area can improve all those other ones too!
Big-picture revisions are often circular, meaning it’s hard to say which story element is the most important to fix and will create the “biggest impact.” When one is weak, they usually are all affected, and the same applies in reverse.
But if we understand how they’re related, we might have an easier time of figuring out how to fix all the problematic areas in one revision pass.
Drilling Down into One Example: Missing Goals
We know that every scene should be a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end with an arc where something changes—and where the character has a goal. Obviously, without a goal, a scene can feel pointless, but there are a couple of other problems that missing goals can cause:
- Scenes without a purpose slow down the pacing. In non-experimental fiction, scenes should exist for a reason, and a character’s goal helps give them one. Goals also provide a narrative drive over the whole story, keeping the pace going. Without goals, there’s no drive—no sense of the story moving forward—so any sense of progress happens only in hindsight.
- Without the character having a goal (or at least a longing), there’s nothing for readers to root for. In turn, this makes the character less relatable. We expect people to want something, to strive for something. If they don’t care, why should we?
- If the character doesn’t want for anything, why are they doing what they’re doing? Why are they acting this way or saying that thing? Goals give context to a character’s motivations and decisions. Without goals, all their actions and behaviors are happening in a vacuum, and we don’t have any sense of their motivations—what’s driving them.
- If the protagonist doesn’t want anything, there can’t be any chance of failure. Without the possibility of failure, there are no consequences or stakes from the conflicts. So the conflicts feel weaker—nothing can go wrong!—which undercuts the tension. A lack of tension also contributes to a sense of a slow pace.
So goals create stakes (which then add tension to conflicts), add context to a character’s motivations, give readers a way to relate to and root for the character, and contribute to a sense of forward movement—all of which play into a story’s pacing.
In other words, during revisions, if we ensure our characters have goals and/or make their goals stronger—and then make sure those goals are reflected in their longings, motivations, fears of consequences (stakes), and conflicts—we’re automatically improving every one of those elements of our story!
We can create that same sort of interconnected loop even if we start with a different element. Low stakes weaken motivations and make goals seem less important, so making sure consequences exist if our characters fail to meet those goals will help both elements. Unclear motivations can muddy readers’ understanding of the stakes and hurt character relatability, so clarifying what’s driving a character (especially how it relates to their goals and fears of consequences) will help readers connect with them. Etc., etc.
Yes, it can be intimidating to get feedback that states we have several big problems to address, but our story might not be in as dire shape as we fear.
Next time you face a big revision, challenge yourself to follow the circle that connects multiple elements. By seeing how different scene elements are related, we’ll be able to tackle several problems at once, and know to not give up on a “too broken” story.
When you revise, do you notice how fixing one story element can end up improving several areas of the story? Let us know in the comments.
After muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.