When you’re the writer of a manuscript, everything about the story makes sense to you. And why wouldn’t it? You’re the one who has spent hours writing your way through countless drafts.
The trouble with being the person who’s worked on the story so intensely means it can be hard for you to notice when there’s a problem.
You’re too close to the words and there will be things you can’t see until someone else points it out. That’s when being in touch with awesome beta readers comes in handy, and knowing about some common issues that could unintentionally surface in your story.
Unintentional Story Issues, And How To Fix Them
Your Mystery Has Become Confusing
Your story doesn’t have to be a mystery to have a mysterious element to it. An event hinted at but not revealed right away can find a place in any genre. But if your mysterious hints aren’t backed up with a clear-cut answer or are too vague, you risk the reader being more confused than intrigued.
How To Fix It: Make sure you balance the hints with solid info. That doesn’t mean giving the answer straight off the bat, especially if it’s part of a later payoff, but making sure you’re not too murky with the clues. You don’t want your reader feeling like they’ve missed something or are reading about an event they’re only getting half the story of.
It’s a very fine line, but one you want to get right. A good way to tell if you’ve missed the mark is with beta feedback. If others are telling you they don’t get something, it’s time to make sure your mysterious hints are creating intrigue and not confusion.
You’re Character Motives Have Gone Missing
When you’ve been writing your characters for years, it’s safe to say you know them better than anyone.
You’ve been through multiple drafts together, plot lines that didn’t pan out, and rewrites that may have changed their history, backstory, name, and gender. Sometimes, this evolving relationship can lead to motives getting mixed up, switched, or left out completely.
As the writer, you remember why your characters are doing what they’re doing because you were with them for all drafts. But if you’ve forgotten that you cut a paragraph mentioning a motive three drafts ago, anyone who reads your latest is not going to know what’s pushing your character.
If you come across a beta comment where there’s confusion about a character’s motivation, and you can’t understand why because you’re sure it’s in the draft, take another look. It’s possible you removed something important, or things just aren’t coming across the way you intended.
How To Fix It: Comb your draft, character by character, and make sure every motivation is clear. It may be as simple as adding a line of dialogue. It may be as complicated as going five drafts back and resurrecting a scene you cut. It might require a totally new scene that has to be slotted into your story. Do whatever it takes to ensure that your character motivations are present and accounted for.
The Settings Are Too Subtle
This is another one of those issues that crop up when you’ve fully immersed yourself in a fictional world that you know so well.
The settings are so familiar to you or have been explained in depth at the start of the story, that you forget to keep the setting alive in the reader’s mind. This isn’t about describing a room in detail every time the character walks into it, but about reminding the reader where they are. They don’t know the world like you do and will need something to ground them.
How To Fix It: Study the setting in each scene and make sure you’ve included enough info for readers to know where the characters are in that very moment. It can be a paragraph of description or a simple reminder that the couch in the living room of your MC’s house is lumpy as they sit on it to watch TV. In any case, make sure every scene has something that provides a description about where it’s set, even if you feel like you’ve described it before.
Your Info Is Overwhelming
This is not the same as info-dumping. You aren’t spending ten paragraphs cramming in backstory when a character is first introduced (which is actually a writing no-no). This is about overwhelming the reader with so much info that they get lost.
How To Fix It: Space out your info. Introduce your world’s magic system as things crop up in the story, not with five pages as soon as the MC first discovers it. You might want to explain your world-building genius then and there, but too much information all at once can be overwhelming.
Another thing is to make sure any info you do drop is easy to follow. The last thing you want is a reader misunderstanding or wondering why you’ve included something because you haven’t made it clear why that info is there. If you’re unsure, ask your betas to explain what they thought happened. That should make it obvious if you’ve pulled it off or if it needs more work.
If you find these story issues, or others, have appeared after having your work read, don’t be disheartened.
It might be a shock to realize you’ve unintentionally created a problem, but once you know what it is, it should be an easy fix. One that will ensure your MS comes across how you intended, and in a way that makes the most of your story.
— K.M. Allan