Your Book is Probably Broken. Let’s Fix It.

Amelia Beamer
April 17, 2024

As a developmental editor, I often find authors are making the same simple mistakes that get in the way of telling the story. This guide outlines five of those common mistakes, and offers straightforward strategies to help you make sure your story is in good shape to get the reader engagement you crave.

One: Make Something Happen

Try to have something happen in every chapter. Your character should have some sort of irritating problem or important goal that they make some decision or progress on. Their choices can and should make things worse sometimes, but ideally every chapter ends with the character’s problems being slightly different than they were at the start of the chapter.

Often chapters exist in a draft in order for the writer to explore some aspect of the character or the world. Writers often need to wander around and poke at things, and work out the character’s backstory. Somehow writers love these scenes where maybe nothing important happens but we learn something about the character or the world that will be useful to know later. The natural, irresistible instinct is to include those scenes for the reader, because it seems like the reader should need this information that the writer worked hard to create. Resist this temptation to explain! We’re not looking for a guided tour of the world. We want a story.

Your job in self editing is to make sure that general information chapters are retrofitted to actually show the character doing something necessary. Instead of dramatizing an average day at work, maybe show your character getting into trouble at work, losing his job, or discovering something about his work that upsets him.

Two: Break Your Character’s Reality

Let’s say your character starts out the story with a pretty decent life. The story will take that from her. I’ve heard that every character starts out believing something about themselves or their reality that turns out not to be true. You as the writer should know exactly what lie your character believes at the start of the story, and how they have to face the lie and come to terms with a new sense of reality by the end.

Another way of saying this is, how are you going to break your character’s heart over the course of events? They’re going to have to let go of something that matters to them. 

My favorite example for this is Luke Skywalker having to choose between using the computer and the Force in order to try to destroy the Death Star. What we forget (because we’re all on Team “Use The Force”) is that Luke is having to let go of the security of the computer which is all he’s ever known until recently. He has to abandon the entire worldview he’s had about what’s real, and he has to trust these weirdos and their talk about the Force. Worse, he has to trust his own capacity to use this invisible, unpredictable Force. Imagine him having to face everyone he loves if he got this choice wrong.

Now we’ve isolated what it looks like to break a character’s reality. This should show up in your story’s climax. Our hero has to make a terrible and necessary choice, and the reader should know what important thing she loses in that choice.

Three: Say What You Meant

This seems obvious. You’ve put words on the page and you’ve thought carefully about who your character is, what’s happening in the story, what’ll happen next, and why the whole package is worth your reader’s time.

But something happens in translation. The story in your head is never the story on the page, and the story that the reader gets out of the tiny black squiggles on the page is another thing entirely. So our job here in self editing is to see where we either forgot to mention important information, or where we’re trying to be too clever. This comes up constantly in my editing work, when an author has carefully hidden important information in the subtext.

Please don’t make us work too hard to figure out what your story is about! We’re coming to you for entertainment and to feel connected to your characters. Hide your character’s secrets at your own risk, particularly if you are relying on withholding important information from the reader that your character already knows. Writers can somehow feel compelled to withhold some crucial bit of information, because they want to do a clever reveal later. It’s a cheap trick!

A good writer will feed the reader enough information so that we feel like we get a good sense of the secrets. We see the problems the character is experiencing, even if the full explanation of where the problems come from and what to do about them has to unfold over time. Instead of trying to look clever as a writer, maybe think about how to make your readers feel smart. Think of it almost like a fan dance. You can show us all of the pieces of the plot and how it’s happening to your characters, and trust that we’re bright enough to see the whole. We’ll see the character work it out for herself, anyway.

You can go about checking your work in various ways. Reading your work aloud is a good way to get a different part of your brain on the case and make sure you told the reader what we needed to know. If you had to explain the story quickly to a ten year old, what would you tell her? Is that information on the page? 

Four: Please Let Us See Your Protagonist

Readers are showing up hoping to fall in love with your characters. For us to be thoroughly charmed by them, we need to see them. They need to be willing to be seen. The embarrassing details of their lives, the thoughts they wouldn’t want anyone to know they have, we need that stuff on the page.

That means at a minimum, you as the author probably need to know how your character feels, say, about her mother, about her career, about the current political establishment, about what language she might want to learn and why, what aspects of her personality she has trouble with, and all of that sort of information. This might seem like I’m contradicting what I said above about spending time explaining the character’s backstory, but I’m not telling you to explain any of this to the reader. Just let us see it in context, like if she goes on a speed dating experience, and everybody wants to talk about what they value in a partner, she should be able to say a few socially acceptable things. The reader should also have a sense of what she doesn’t say and why she can’t say it.

I tend to treat characters as if they are living people, because if the writer has done sufficient work to flesh out a character’s background, preferences, and abilities, they can start to feel like a real person. The goal is not for the character to be the kind of person that you want to hang out with, or the kind of person that you would marry, or hire, or want in your family. We tend to want decent and good people in our lives, but we want to read about messy people. Characters should be pretty significantly flawed, and the plot will force them to confront some of those flaws. We fall in love with them because we get to see them struggle.

Five: The Protagonist Is the Decider

Please don’t let your story happen to your main characters. I see this as a draft issue, where our hero is often wandering sweetly around, letting others tell him what to do, and letting others make most of the choices that move the plot along. The character doesn’t really know all the secrets yet, so he sort of has to drift and act on instinct until the story can get around to showing him what he doesn’t know. 

That’s just a draft issue. Decisions are exhausting, and authors have to make tons of them, so it’s not surprising that the characters can reflect some decision-making fatigue.

The trick here is to focus on what your character needs from moment to moment, even if it’s just that he needs a glass of water, as Kurt Vonnegut told us. Your protagonist’s needs, decisions, mistakes, and problems are what moves the story forward. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but if you’re doing all of the above things, you should be well on your way. 

About the Author

Amelia Beamer has spent over 20 years thinking about and working on stories. If you hit a place where you feel like you’ve done everything you can, and you need a set of professional hands to help hold your story, please reach out.

Learn more & contact Amelia Beamer

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