When we generate story ideas, we see them in our minds as perfect gems of literature. When we translate that image into words in a manuscript, even the best fall short of our imagination. Here are three reasons stories can fall flat to readers.
Characters act and speak in a vacuum
Sometimes we’re so energized by a story we just start writing. This happens most often with short stories but a novel can start this way too. This often leads to characters speaking to each other in sections of dialogue where the reader has no sense of where the characters are, what their body-language is communicating, or even when the scene takes place. Be sure to infuse all the senses in a scene, even if that scene consists mostly of dialogue. Make sure the dialogue advances plot, character, or the world, or better, at least two if not all three. Remember: who, what, where, when, and why.
Simple actions can say a lot, and help reduce the number of he/she/they said tags. Something like: “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” she asked, could be turned into: Salia tossed Edric her whetstone. “Did you hone the edge of that blade for Rugar?” That implies things about both characters. Does Salia not trust Edric to get things done? Does he fail to keep his promises? Is he always unprepared, and she the opposite? In the story’s context, these details reinforce character.
There’s an info-dump
To get the story on the page we feel the need to include all the information we, the authors, know. How else will the reader understand? Often less is more. Readers need to fill in blanks using their own imagination. It’s why they read. Use details to hint and reveal just enough to keep them reading. Provide the reader with just what they need to know right-at-that-moment in the story. Details are like spice. Sprinkle them in but don’t overdo it.
Characters Lack Unique Voices
When a character walks into a story, the reader wants to identify with them or at least see them as unique from all other characters. Any speaking character, even non-POV characters, need a unique voice or presence. This can be challenging, especially when there are many POV characters already and lots of extras as is common in epic fantasy and space opera. There’s often a temptation to provide introductory back-story, but that risks creating many small info-dumps and slows the story’s pacing.
Like details, small character tags can quickly establish a character. Something like: Avrex wore his long black hair in a flowing braid clasped at the end with his family’s signet. This can signal status, and a certain vanity just by tagging the braid and how he wears it. Other characters may have braids, but do they advertise their family with them?
There are many reasons stories feel flat. It could be the central idea just isn’t as compelling as we thought. But reviewing these three elements can help bring a story to life.
What techniques have you used to liven a story?