10 Common Fiction Problems and How to Fix Them

Guest Post by Jack SmithWrite and Revise for Publication

When you write and revise your fiction, you deal with a host of problems.  With some novels, it’s hard to decide on the right point of view.  With others, it’s a struggle to work out the plot.  Sometimes it’s a matter of getting the language down just right.  Of course it’s one thing to spot a problem, another to fix it.  Consider the following ten rather typical problems most fiction writers face—and some possible fixes.

  1. A dull character

Perhaps in the abstract one can sympathize or empathize with your character’s ambitions, needs, desires, plight, etc., but when it comes down to the writing itself, the character is flat-out dull, vacuous—bearing nothing distinctly human.   If this is the case, you need to individualize your character by including:

  • something interesting about this character’s physical appearance
  • an interesting, suggestive name
  • some personality quirks or oddities
  • some contradictions or inner conflicts
  • some unique, defining traits

If you do these things, or some of them, your character will come alive on the page and won’t be merely a textbook case.

  1. Lack of character motivation

A story or novel might have sufficient conflict, but this conflict might lack clear anchoring (or context) in character.  What makes this conflict so important to this particular character?  Why does this character react the way he or she does?  To make sure conflict comes out of character, you need to consider the following:

  • The character’s particular personality and temperament
  • The character’s take on self and others
  • The character’s past (if something in the past drives the character in the present)
  • The character’s desires and ambitions
  • Motivations that follow from the above

Keep in mind too that ordinary conflicts can become important when they reveal deeper roots in your character.  You don’t have to go for life-death struggles.

  1. Flat dialogue

If the dialogue sounds pretty ho-hum to you, you can bet it will to readers.   You can improve flat dialogue by trying out the following:

  • Using fragments—at least when characters are responding to each other
  • Using clipped, staccato sentences
  • Using ellipsis for pauses
  • Using italics or capitalization—sparingly, judiciously, though
  • Having characters interrupt each other
  • Having characters abruptly change the subject
  • Having characters dodge questions
  • Including provocative ideas (accusations, threats, statements of remorse, etc.)
  • Avoiding too-obvious use of dialogue as expository information (certainly characters can function as expository devices, but be subtle; if you’re not, the dialogue will get over-explanatory, and boring, in a hurry)
  • Making sure character personality is revealed in speech and gesture
  1. A half-baked plot

The conflict might be there, but the character arc isn’t fully developed.  What needs to be added?  Here’s how to decide:

  • Sum up your plot in one sentence
  • Develop this one-sentence summary of plot into a paragraph
  • From this one paragraph summary, list key events and the causal relationship between each event in the story
  • For a novel, write succinct chapter summaries
  • Identify the missing links in the plot—what has to be included to complete the character arc?
  • Fill in where needed, being sure not to force things
  1. A loose structure

When the story seems scattered, with lack of clear focus, consider doing the following:

  • Decide on the overall character arc
  • Prune out extraneous material that takes the reader off course—some of this material might be telescoped
  • Watch out for flashbacks that run too long, especially in a short story
  • Look for ways to include foreshadowing at strategic places
  • Look for ways to include echoes (of earlier developments) at strategic places
  1. Authorial intrusion

When the third person—especially the omniscient narrator—“tells” too much and/or doesn’t leave the story in the hands of the characters, the story or novel will lack the feel of real life.   Avoid the following:

  • Manipulation of character action. Be sure the action is properly motivated by character.
  • Manipulation of plot. Be sure you don’t make everything come out a certain way.  Let your character reach his or level like water does.  Things may not end up quite like you imagined.  Be open to some surprises.
  • Authorial thought and speech. It’s okay to have in mind what a character is likely to think and say, but if it seems like these are your authorial thoughts, and not fitting to your character, again let loose the reins and see how the character changes.

Think of authorial intrusion as the puppeteer author standing outside the characters, pulling their strings, making them perform and telling about them instead of being inside the characters, revealing their innermost lives.

  1. A story or novel opening that lacks flair

The first paragraph of your story or novel needs to pull the reader in.  If it doesn’t, you might try a different approach.   Here are some things to try out:

  • Try all four fictional modes—exposition, description, narrative summary, and scene—and choose the opening which grabs your reader’s attention the most.
  • Try cutting the first few paragraphs, or even a page or more, and see if the work gets off to a more interesting start.
  • Start with conflict, suspense, something that provokes thought.
  1. A dull ending

A dull ending can result from at least two problems—no surprises and lack of flair.

  • No surprises: Leave some questions for your reader. Don’t introduce entirely new characters and conflicts, but leave some room for interpretation in terms of character, plot, and ideas, which you’ve been developing all along.
  • Lack of flair: Choose the narrative mode that gives the most punch to the writing. Study short story endings and novel endings.  Remember, this is the final impression you leave with your reader.  It needs to stir the reader’s emotions and thought.
  1. A clunky prose style

If the language of your story or novel sounds amateurish, it can be fixed.  To fix it, make sure the language itself has some surprises:

  • Work in some twists and turns—surprises at the sentence level.
  • Work in some interesting metaphors, similes, or analogies, avoiding clichés. Let your imagination run. Don’t force it, but be open to clever figurative comparisons.
  • Choose the word with the most punch. Don’t use a thesaurus, unless you check usage in a dictionary.
  1. Lack of editing

This comes down to typos, spelling errors, mechanics gone awry like faulty punctuation, sentence logic problems, and poor word choice.  Read your short story or novel over carefully.  Get someone else to read it over.  Check a handbook.

A Final word or two

The above just scratches the surface when it comes to dealing with the many problems one faces in writing good fiction.  And sometimes it’s really hard to spot exactly what the problem is.  If several readers are finding a common problem, then that tells you something.  And then it’s a matter of fixing things to your own satisfaction.  Don’t rely too much on others; it’s got to work for you.

Jack Smith is author of the novel Hog to Hog, which won the George Garrett FictionJack-SmithPrize (Texas Review Press. 2008), and is also the author of Write and Revise for Publication: A 6-Month Plan for Crafting an Exceptional Novel and Other Works of Fiction, published earlier this year by Writer’s Digest. His novel ICON  was published in June 2014 by Serving House Book

Icon by Jack SmithOver the years, Smith’s short stories have appeared in North American Review, Night Train, Texas Review, and Southern Review, to name a few. He has also written some 20 articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, as well as a dozen or so pieces for The Writer.He has published reviews in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, American Review, Mid-American Review, and the Iowa Review.

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12 thoughts on “10 Common Fiction Problems and How to Fix Them

  1. Excellent summary that does more than “scratch the surface”. Well done! I would only add: to improve the opening, you might need to cut out more than a few paragraphs, you might even consider cutting up to the first 3 chapters! I had to do that once – hard to do, you get so attached to your writing, but well worth the effort.

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Jack.

    Jack – Thanks for this advice. I think sometimes we get so busy telling our stories that we forget to step back and really see the effects of things like our word choice and the order of incidents.

  3. I do hate it when all or even some of the above mentioned problems are in the book I’m reading. I used to keep on reading it and hope the author would redeem himself somewhere before the story ends but now I just stop reading altogether when it gets boring. :P

    Thanks for sharing these list. I hope aspiring fiction authors would read this and learn from it.

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