A cord unraveling, with a ruler for scale.

Paracord by David J. Fred used under CC BY-SA 2.5

In an ideal world, every story would function as a unified whole, with each aspect working together for maximum engagement. In the real world, many stories suffer from fragmentation: disparate elements pulling the story in opposing directions, leaving the audience bored rather than engaged. Fortunately, this can be fixed by consolidating. That’s when you take the fragmented elements of your story and make them work together whether they like it or not. Today, we look at some of the most common reasons stories fragment, then go over the best consolidation tactics for each situation.

1. False Start Conflict

Cover art for Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
In Black Sun, Naranpa’s plot is about bringing influence back to the priesthood, until the story suddenly changes gears and she’s trying to prevent an unrelated religious war.

Stories should always start with conflict, but sometimes they don’t start with the right conflict. In chapter one, the hero might purchase a dilapidated tavern, determined to make it a thriving business despite gold-hungry protection rackets and expensive bar fights. This sounds like a fun story about the difficulties of running the inn where adventurers get all their plot hooks.

But in chapter four, the hero suddenly sells their tavern and takes up traditional adventuring instead. The rest of the book is about hunting down a dragon that killed the hero’s family. It’s a fine action story, but you never quite forget the tale that could have been: a hero and their rickety tavern, always on the verge of losing their last copper piece but determined to keep the ale flowing.

When one plot arc is swapped for another without warning, it’ll jar the audience and reduce their satisfaction going forward. No matter how good the new plot is, there will always be an uneasy feeling that something was left undone, as the initial conflict was never resolved. Alternatively, it can leave audiences feeling like everything that happened before the switch was pointless, because it didn’t affect anything down the road.

Why This Happens

Writers often need to establish some context before the main conflict begins. Sometimes they need to get readers acquainted with the world so that a political plot has proper stakes. In other cases, the writer simply wants to show what their hero’s life is like before the inciting incident calls them to adventure. In many cases, this leads to a slow opening with no conflict at all, where the story doesn’t really start until a few chapters in.

When authors are a little more savvy, they try to avoid that slow opening by inserting an unrelated conflict. They see it as an appetizer to hold the audience over until the main course arrives. Usually, this conflict is over before too long, as the hero decides they didn’t really care about it after all. Occasionally, the appetizer conflict will go on for quite a while – the unlimited breadsticks of storytelling. That’s how you end up with novels where the first third or so is a space-opera war story, while the rest is a slow-burn gardening drama.

It’s also possible that the writer really wants to show off some aspect of the hero’s character that doesn’t fit anywhere else. Maybe the main story is about helping magic children study for their exams, but the author thinks it’s important for us to know how great the hero is at street racing. This motivation is less common, but I’ve still seen it.

How to Consolidate It

The good news is that the storyteller’s instincts here are good; they just need to be channeled in a more productive direction. If the main plot requires some setup, then a smaller conflict is exactly what’s needed to keep things interesting.

The key is that this starting conflict must be related to what comes next, and it must be resolved. For example, let’s say our main story is about hunting a dragon who killed the hero’s family. It’s not a good idea for the starting conflict to focus on the difficulty of running an inn, even if it ends with the inn and the hero’s family being burned down. That’s just too big a shift in tone and content.

Instead, if it’s important for us to know the hero’s family before they get roasted, the intro conflict might focus on a less epic type of monster hunting. Perhaps the family farm is menaced by fire lizards, a common pest that scorches crops in the field. The whole family pitches in, and together they save the harvest… until they find out the hard way that the fire lizards heralded the rising of something much more dangerous.

2. Scattered POVs

A planet with lines go golden light running across it, possibly explosions.
In Aftershocks, four heroes have separate stories, leaving each with 25% of a novel.

Stop me if you’ve seen this before.

  • Chapter 1: A hero fighting for the rights of her community. Sounds cool!
  • Chapter 2: A mechanic working on hover cars half a world away. Wait, what?
  • Chapter 3: An unnamed guard from the first chapter. Please stop.

If a book has multiple viewpoint characters who don’t have much to do with each other, then it suffers from scattered viewpoints. Each time a chapter ends, you have to stop reading one story and start on a different story. These shifts ruin the pacing, as anytime a story gets interesting, the book cuts away to something else. If there are a lot of POV characters, you might forget what was happening in each viewpoint by the time you get back to it.

Worse, scattered POVs mean that nothing gets the development it needs, be it character or plotline. Novels are long for a reason: it takes a while to introduce, build up, and then resolve a story. When the author keeps skipping around to different POV characters, each one receives only a fraction of the story’s total screen time, which is rarely enough.

Why This Happens

Authors love their characters, and choosing which one to focus on is hard. When the author can’t choose, they hand out viewpoint chapters like candy, and pretty soon the whole cast wants a piece of the action. It seems like the perfect solution until readers have to keep track of half a dozen unrelated heroes.

In the most extreme examples, the disparate POVs don’t ever unite, but it’s more common for some twist to bring them together near the end. Authors often mistakenly believe that this 11th-hour shift will make up for earlier fragmentation, as it will surely blow readers’ minds to learn that these unrelated viewpoints were related after all, right?

Many writers also face a conundrum where a side character hasn’t arrived in the story yet, so readers don’t care about them, but readers need to care about them for their introduction to work. From there, it’s easy to assume that the solution is to give the side character a few POV chapters of their own. That way, readers will already know who the character is, even if it took fragmenting the plot to get there.

How to Consolidate It

There are stories that benefit from multiple POVs, but they are few and far between. For that to happen, the different characters must be obviously involved in the same plot. Further, it must be a plot that benefits from more than one POV. Usually, this means a morally gray political conflict, as it can be important to empathize with more than one side in that type of story. In this scenario, the different POV characters are usually on opposing sides, and they still need to be interacting. That means no Daenerys-analogue off doing her own thing on another continent.

For any other story, the only solution is to be disciplined and pick a protagonist from the main cast. In most cases, you can keep the other characters in major roles; they’ll just be viewed through the protagonist’s eyes. If you need to establish a side character before they arrive in the plot, the best option is usually for your hero to hear word of the side character’s deeds. This can take the form of newspaper articles, messenger birds, or cryptic prophecies, depending on the story.

3. Fizzled Plotlines

Uriel from Supernatural.
In Supernatural, Uriel reveals that a faction of angels is loyal to Lucifer. This faction is never seen or heard from again.

If you introduce a plot in act one, it must be resolved in act three, at least if you want the story to be satisfying. At their most basic, stories introduce a problem, make the hero struggle with that problem, then show the clever way that problem is resolved. But if a problem is never resolved then… well, it’s a problem.

That’s what happens when a plot just fizzles out before completion. Perhaps a villain gleefully declares that they’ll be back to threaten the world once more, and then we never hear from them. Or maybe two characters are on the verge of kissing, but in the next chapter their relationship is completely platonic. This problem is particularly common in serial stories like TV shows and comic books, but it can happen anywhere. Regardless of the medium, the effect is the same: audiences are left irritated that a seemingly important plotline went nowhere.

Why This Happens

For TV and comic books, the main cause seems to be writers who don’t know how the overarching story will end when they write an individual installment. It might seem great to introduce a new enemy species in episode two of Space Opera: The Lasering, but if later plot developments take up too much time, those alien baddies might never appear again. Or there might be production constraints, as the makeup department announces that each alien prosthetic is worth its weight in gold.

In novels, fizzled plots are usually the result of either bad planning in the outline stage or a discovery writer who hasn’t sufficiently revised a draft’s rough edges. Few writers try to create fizzled plots on purpose, so it’s almost always an accident.

Once in a while, writers will think they’ve resolved a plot when they actually haven’t. Maybe they put in a line of dialogue about how the gloating villain from earlier is still in jail, figuring that would be enough. It’s also possible for writers not to recognize the plot they’ve created. This is particularly common for non-hetero romances. Straight writers don’t always mean to queer bait; sometimes they just don’t understand how it could be romantic for two muscly dudes to stare into each other’s eyes and talk about their feelings.

How to Consolidate It

This one is mostly a matter of rolling up your sleeves and cutting storylines that don’t go anywhere. If the issue is remembering all the different threads, there are a host of organizational tactics out there for you to try. However, you can make things easier on yourself by keeping the plot simple unless you have a good reason to complicate it. Don’t look at the story as finished when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.

If the troublesome plot originates in an installment that’s already published, then you’ll need to either incorporate it into the next story or replace whatever else you had planned entirely. That’s easier said than done, but it’s the price we pay for getting the audience’s hopes up. As for plots you didn’t mean to create, that’s where beta readers come in handy. Ask them where it feels like the story is going, and then check to see if their answers match what you have planned.

4. The World Tour

The ship from A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover art.
In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, our heroes visit a wide range of locations and do nothing in each of them.

All aboooooooard, the worldbuilding train is leaving the station, choo choo! Exploring strange new settings is one of spec fic’s main attractions, but some authors give us too much of a good thing. These stories feel less like exciting tales and more like tourist brochures, listing location after location with no plot or character development to be seen.

Sometimes the locations are genuinely interesting, and sometimes the author is just picking up an archer character from Archer Country, a knight from Knight Country, etc. Either way, the overemphasis on setting means the story never has time to develop, as what little plot exists gets sucked up in justifying why the characters move around so much.

Why This Happens

Put simply, authors love their worlds, and they want you to love their worlds too. Writers often assume that because they know something, the audience also needs to know it. That’s how stories end up going way too deep into backstory, and the same impulse leads to boring world tours.

Another common reason is that the story lacks conflict, and the author doesn’t want to add any, so they try to substitute novelty in the form of new locations. That sometimes works for a little while, depending on how enthralled individual audiences are with rustic space stations and sweeping mountain vistas, but it always wears off. Novelty is fleeting, and even the most interesting setting will eventually leave audiences asking “now what?”

How to Consolidate It

Fortunately, this is a situation where we can have our worldbuilding cake and eat it too. If you want a story that showcases the many locations of your world, all you need is a plot that benefits from those locations.

The most immediate option is a high-stakes, goal-oriented journey. Perhaps your heroes are chasing after a war criminal, and they must search for clues on each planet the villain stopped at. Or your protagonist might be on the run themself, pausing only long enough to get supplies for the next leg of their journey. If you want to stay in a certain location longer, just arrange for a road to be blocked or an engine to break down, something that requires action on the hero’s part to address.

Alternatively, you can craft a less urgent final goal for your heroes, then treat each location as a distinct mini adventure. This is the strategy employed by stories like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and it’s great for stories that want lighter conflicts.

5. The Disconnected Internal Arc

Twig the deer fox sleeping on a door mat.
In season two of Hilda, the protagonist takes a break from exciting adventures so she can learn not to neglect her magic dog.

It’s fantastic when a strong character arc lines up with an exciting external conflict. We get to see the hero grow as a person while also piloting a giant robot against evil space squids – what’s not to love? But when the internal and external conflicts don’t match up, all is rent with ruin. Or the story feels like it’s pulling in different directions, which is basically the same thing.

This can happen with any kind of internal conflict, be it romance, ethical growth, learning how to be a parent, etc. No matter the specific arc, the symptoms are always the same. Whole scenes go by with the urgent main plot put on hold so the hero can go on a date or practice their parenting skills. Audiences who enjoyed the external plot are bored during the internal scenes, and anyone who mainly enjoyed the internal conflict is bored whenever the main plot rears its head.

Why This Happens

Storytelling is too big to consider all at once, so we break it down into categories like plot and character. This leads some authors to think of those categories as completely separate. The story is doing either plot stuff or  character stuff, never both. These authors think they have to pause their cool space battles if they want to develop meaningful characters, and that they could never have anything as exciting as a swordfight during a character scene.

I’ve also encountered authors who aren’t actually interested in their external conflict; they just include one because they think it’s required. They cut away from the exciting action whenever possible, and when there’s no other choice, they try to get it over with as quickly as possible. It’s odd to read sections that the author clearly resents, but there you have it.

How to Consolidate It

In most situations, the solution is to craft external and internal conflicts that work together. You can come at this from either direction. If you start with an arc about the hero reconnecting with their estranged son, you can build a murder mystery where parent and child must put aside their differences in order to catch the killer. Or if you start with a historical fantasy plot of pirate ships clashing on the high seas, you can add on a love story between your hero and a rival captain.

No matter where you start, remember to use the story’s natural pacing. After an intense action sequence, the audience will be happy with a slower personal sequence, and that’s a golden opportunity for the internal arc to shine. So long as you keep to the sequence of excitement and recovery, you’ll have both conflicts going in no time.

A more extreme alternative is having no external conflict at all. This is doable, but it’s a lot harder. Audiences naturally gravitate toward high-stakes external conflicts, so if you want to hook them with a purely internal story, your characters will need to be in absolute top form. The anime Fruits Basket might be the only spec fic story I know of that does this successfully, so give it a watch and see what you can learn.

As with most challenges in storytelling, there’s no “one weird trick” to solve story fragmentation. Everything is about choice, about give and take. Fixing the damage caused by too many POV characters will most likely require removing some of those viewpoints, as it’s unlikely you can keep them all without hurting the story. But that’s just the nature of the craft. No story can do everything at once, and it’s better to succeed at one task than fail at five.

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