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How to Solve Common Story Problems

Ian Irvine

Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.

Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.
Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.


As a storyteller, your job is to move your readers, emotionally. ‘Whether the character cries is not as important as whether the reader cries.’ Readers can experience three kinds of emotions when reading. You want to create all of them (Iglesias):

  • Voyeuristic. Curiosity about new worlds, jobs, places, situations & characters’ relationships. Worldbuilding is vital.
  • Vicarious. When we identify with a character, we become them. We live the story and their emotions through them.
  • Visceral. The feelings that readers most want to experience – wonder, fascination, curiosity, awe, intrigue (ie illicit or secret activity), anticipation, hope, fear, worry, doubt, shock, dismay, joy, sadness, triumph, admiration, contempt.

If your story isn’t working, it’s generally for one or more of the following reasons (solutions listed below):

  • It’s not clear what (or who) the story is actually about. Or it’s too complex or obscure. Assume your readers have ADD.
  • Readers haven’t bonded to your hero because he’s flat, dull, wimpy or unsympathetic.
  • Lack of conflict. Conflict forces hero to give all he’s got, revealing his true inner self, & readers identify strongly with him.
  • There’s not enough suspense to keep your readers turning the pages. Keep asking, How can it get worse? And when?
  • You’re telling, not showing. Telling is boring. It’s the author speaking, rather than the hero acting, thinking and feeling.
  • The story is too predictable. If your readers know what’s going to happen next, suspense is lost.
  • There are too many viewpoints, which dilutes interest in each character. Or shifting viewpoints, which is confusing.

To focus the story, know the story question (Will the hero achieve his goal?) and show clearly:

  • What your hero wants (goal), why he wants it (inner need & outer motivation) and what happens if he fails (high stakes).
  • Who or what is trying to stop him (strong antagonist). Weak antagonist = weak story. Make his goal and motives clear.
  • In each scene, readers should ask, What will happen now? To heighten: withhold info; foreshadow; pose unequal conflicts.
  • Any scene that doesn’t contribute to the plot or reveal character will be anti-climactic, and should be cut.
  • The ending must resolve the hero’s goal: either a win, hollow victory, compromise or loss. Show how much he’s changed.

To deepen flat characters, make their goals and motives clear, then ensure they react to every event. Make an emotional connection between the hero and your readers on the first page, then heighten it. Keep asking yourself how you would feel – in their shoes.

  • Show how your hero feels about everything that happens – frustrated, guilty, terrified, anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, delighted, resentful, triumphant, loving, etc – and how her emotions change from minute to minute.
  • Show her reactions to being challenged, disbelieved, threatened, bullied, misunderstood, thwarted. Reveal her suffering.
  • Show what she thinks about everyone she meets, and how she feels about what they say and do.
  • Show how key settings, creatures and objects affect her: eg, awe, delight, curiosity, anxiety, dread, terror, disgust.
  • Give your hero a big inner conflict – where she must choose between two competing, equally desirable (or undesirable) courses of action, each supported by its own inner voice. Then show the storm raging inside her: the self-doubt, fear, misgivings, guilt, remorse, indecision, etc. The classic is Sophie’s Choice.
  • Give your characters attitude; it makes them unforgettable: eg Mr Bean, Lizzy Bennett, Phryne Fisher, Gandalf, Sherlock.
  • Make your hero larger than life – he says and does things we’d love to do but dare not.
  • Make sure your character descriptions go beyond the physical, to reveal aspects of character.

To heighten conflict (two dogs, one bone), every interaction, between every character, should contain dramatic conflict, ie:

  • Conflict that either aids the hero’s goal, or blocks it. Without conflict, there is no drama.
  • Every threat to the hero or his goal requires a response from the hero. Often this response should make things worse.

To heighten suspense, promise your readers bad things to come. Suspense comes from doubt that the hero can achieve his goals.

  • The threat of ‘death’ should loom over every scene (Bell, Revision & Self-Editing). Either:
    • Actual death/assault/injury/loss of health etc;
    • Professional death (a threat to job, career, vocation or destiny); or
    • Psychological death (eg, abuse/bullying/mental illness/corruption/immorality/loss of one’s true love).
  • It’s best for the reader when it’s the worst for the hero. Make more and bigger promises about problems ahead – disasters that will devastate the hero and his allies, shatter his plans and bring him so low that he might never recover.
  • Tension comes from prolonging readers’ worry about an outcome. Don’t diffuse tension by resolving problems too quickly.

Don’t tell – show. Telling doesn’t create clear mental pictures, and soon becomes boring because the reader is just a passive observer. For brevity and pacing, many parts of the story should be told, but:

  • Intense emotions and conflicts must be shown otherwise they won’t resonate with the reader.
  • Showing involves the reader in the story. Showing is the hero revealing what’s happening at each moment, in his own words and actions, filtered through his feelings and attitudes.
  • If it doesn’t create a clear, vivid and, ideally, fresh mental picture, it’s not showing.
  • Show the pain, the terror, the stench of death, the blood under the fingernails.
  • Make sure you create your own unique story world, not a clichéd version of someone else’s world.

To break predictability, always look to surprise. Discard your first few plot ideas. Include something unexpected in every scene:

  • In descriptive passages, add a surprising or incongruous detail;
  • In action, have a character do something out of character, or unusual or outlandish;
  • In dialogue, have other characters use words as a weapon, or to mislead or put the hero off-balance.

Fixing viewpoints. Keep viewpoint characters to a minimum and don’t shift viewpoints within a scene.


Other Refs. Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction; Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact; Cron, Wired for Story.