Is your story boring? Would you know or acknowledge it if it was? No one wants to admit that their story is slow, lackluster, or zzzzz. But hey, that’s what critique partners and editors are for. If recent feedback makes you suspect that your story may need livening up, Gilbert Bassey has some ideas on how to do that.
I still vividly recall working on my first story. The anxiety I felt when I thought of sending it out into the world made me instantly start to sweat. But I did send my script to a movie producer and director, and when I got her feedback, my worst fears were realized: “I can’t get past page 50. It is slow, nothing is happening.”
I wanted to cry. I thanked her and asked for some time to fix it. She granted it to me and I went back to work. Two months later, I sent the script back to her and was thrilled when she called to ask how much I wanted for it.
With the many novels, screenplays, and short stories I’ve written, I’ve had to face different versions of the same complaint: “This story is boring.” Every time, I have had to go back and tinker with my piece until the response became positive. This experience has taught me that boring stories tend to have the same problems. To be sure, I didn’t find them all by myself. I had help from many books on storytelling, with my favorite by a long margin being Robert McKee’s Story. We turn to him for the first factor.
Factor 1 : Weak Conflict
“A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” — Robert McKee
This is the most influential and common factor. It makes sense because when you really think about it, at its core, story is conflict, and strong conflict can only be delivered by strong forces of antagonism. The solution is simply to intensify the conflict.
There are 5 layers of story conflict you can use to your advantage.
- Internal (character vs. himself)
- Personal (character vs. family and friends)
- Social (character vs. social world — institutions, governments, culture)
- Environmental (character vs. nature)
- Metaphysical (character vs. supernatural)
If the conflict between character and family doesn’t seem compelling enough, shift the focus to the social world or the supernatural. A popular story strategy is to blend more than two layers. For example, Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) fires on all five cylinders. No wonder it grabs the attention as it does.
An important thing to note is that it is not always about intensifying the conflict vertically (across layers) but also horizontally (within layers). In some instances, the right solution will be to intensify conflict that already exists within a single layer by scaling up the size of actions and consequences between the opponents. In this, do not be scared to go to extremes.
For ideas on the various kinds of conflict you might infuse into your story, see Becca and Angela’s Conflict Thesaurus.
Factor 2 : Diluted Intensity
The main culprit here is shoddy plotting; the story is boring because there are too many scenes that do not move the story forward. Instead, they bog it down with their pointlessness. Audiences and readers expect scenes that are arranged with as strict an adherence to the principle of cause and effect as possible. Every scene should follow the previous one and move the story forward.
To fix this problem, you only need to edit out the weak scenes. On On Writing, Stephen King wrote that he has a habit of cutting 10% of his initial draft. In some cases, depending on how much material you have, you may have to cut way more than that.
Factor 3: Uninteresting Characters
It stands to reason that if stories are about characters, then an uninteresting character will create a boring story. What makes a character interesting? A combination of many things, but there are a few non-negotiables. I call them the GNFC components of character.
Goal: What does the character want? It’s very difficult to care about a character who has no desire. Why does he want it? Do we care that he wants it?
Need: What does the character need but isn’t aware of? Is he blind to something? This is usually that thing which he will have to attain or sacrifice to get to the goal.
Flaw: What bad habits does the character have? What’s the bad thing about him? Where is the devil in him? Remember that all characters, like all people, should have a mix of strengths and weaknesses to round them out.
Change: In what way does the character change in relation to the theme or as a result of story events? Is the change positive or negative?
Interesting is rarely about quirkiness, weirdness, or eccentricity. Rather, it’s about empathy. If we can relate to a character, we will be more invested in the character.
One last thing, which is just as important as the others: action. Many times, when the character is uninteresting, it’s because she is not doing anything. Things are happening to her instead of her taking steps and making choices that will determine her path. To fix that, make the character act. Give her a desire and set her off to realize it.
Factor 4: Uninteresting Events
“What is natural and essential to any thing is, in a manner, expected; and what is expected makes less impression, and appears of less moment, than what is unusual and extraordinary.” — David Hume
People consume an incredible amount of stories in their lifetime. This means that both writers and readers are familiar with the same story concepts. To hold interest, you have to subvert expectations every now and then. This relates heavily to familiarity with genre and knowing what the reader will be expecting at any point in time. Breaking genre conventions is a good way to go if you want to twist things in original and interesting ways. If what you’ve done has been done before, why do it again if not in a new way?
With knowledge of these four factors, it should be far easier to add fire to a boring story. Most times, the key is in focusing your attention on the emotions you want the reader to feel at every moment. If you study life, you realize that it goes up, down, up, down, down, up, down, and so on. A story that stays on one level for too long will inevitably start to feel flat. But if you follow life’s advice when planning your story events and character’s emotions, you’ll be fine. (And for more help troubleshooting an uninteresting story, check out my free checklist.)
When did you last fix a boring story? What did you do to get it right? Share your story and tips in the comments so the writing community can also learn from you.
Gilbert Bassey is a writer and filmmaker who is dedicated to telling great stories and helping other writers do the same. You can follow his writings on medium and subscribe to his storycraft newsletter to get a free copy of the Ultimate Guide To Compelling Antagonism.