There are tropes and storytelling choices that most authors know are bad ideas, like writing a prequel to explain mundane elements of your protagonist’s backstory. Where did they get those boots they’re wearing in the first chapter? Literally no one wants to know!
But some mistakes can lure in unsuspecting writers like the glowy bit of a deep sea fangly fish. Authors get dazzled by the hype and don’t realize the danger their stories are in. A lot of my clients are in just such a position when I first crack open their manuscripts, so I’d like to go over a few of the most common issues and how they can be fixed.
Spoiler Notice: The Atlas Six, The Batman, Sandman, Stranger Things 4, and Shadowshaper
1. Hiding the Stakes
The novel The Atlas Six* starts as six misfit mages are approached to work at a super-secret magical library. They have to leave their friends and family behind for a year or more, and they’ll likely be in danger from the library’s many enemies. Okay, that’s cool, but why are they doing this? What do they stand to lose if they don’t? What are the stakes?
For several chapters, there are none. We only have some omniscient narration to convince us that the library is super cool and rad, with the implication being that any mage would love to work there. Those are some very weak stakes, and the characters don’t even know that for sure; they can only take a secretive recruiter’s word for it.
As the story continues, we eventually get some actual stakes: the characters are actually trapped in the library and one of them has to die before they can leave. But this doesn’t help the early chapters, which have nothing important on the line.
Stories without compelling stakes are boring because there’s no reason for you to care what happens. It’s one thing if a story simply has no stakes, but it’s another thing entirely when the stakes exist and the author is concealing them. Sometimes this happens in the form of meta mysteries: the hero knows that these unusually dog-eared books are actually the first sign of a murderous cult, but the audience doesn’t. In other cases, the stakes just show up later: what do you know, these unusually dog-eared books turned out to be the first sign of a murderous cult! Either way, the story is sabotaged for no real gain.
Why Authors Do This
Most stories are about mysteries in one way or another. If it’s not a whodunit mystery, then it’s the mystery of whether a pair of brave hobbits can get the One Ring all the way to Mount Doom. So writers figure, why not add more mystery? It’s similar to a horror movie where the filmmaker has realized that darker scenes are scarier, so they make the scene so dark that you can’t see the scary stuff any more.
Authors also tend to assume that the initial novelty of their premise is enough to keep readers interested. Or they might think their characters are so compelling that readers will be instantly attached. And sometimes they’re right! For readers who’ve never seen a mysterious magic library before, or are really drawn to a collection of misfit mages, the lack of stakes might not be a deal breaker. But a lot of other people will put the book down, and there’s no reason it has to be that way.
What to Do Instead
The snarky option would be to say “don’t hide your stakes” and then recline on a tropical beach somewhere, but I’ll try to be a little more helpful. It’s fine to keep some of your story’s stakes mysterious; the trick is that you also need something compelling to start out with. Then, you can reveal the bigger stuff later, which creates the rising tension that stories need for proper pacing.
For example, let’s take one of Atlas Six’s misfit mages, a young man named Niko. After several chapters in his POV, we find out that he thinks the library can show him how to protect his best friend from a magical monster. Those are great stakes, and if we had known them from the beginning, Niko’s chapters would have been much more compelling.*
At the same time, the author could still have kept their secrets about whatever bigger problem Niko and co. will later discover at the library. What matters is that we have something to tide us over. This is one of the few situations where writers can have their cake and eat it too!
2. False Endings
The Batman’s throughline is a two-part investigation. The first part is Batman hunting down the Riddler, on account of the Riddler’s many murders. The second part is both Batman and the Riddler working to expose the most corrupt figures among Gotham’s elite. Batman wants to jail them, while the Riddler wants to murder them, hence all the murders.
This plot works really well, and the climax occurs when Batman drags the last corrupt elite out of his hiding place, which unintentionally gives the Riddler a chance to shoot the man dead. Batman then captures the Riddler, and they have a falling action sequence in which Batman gives a speech about how they’re not the same: Batman stands for justice; the Riddler only wants revenge. Movie over, right?
WRONG. Instead, it keeps going for quite some time, as the Riddler’s Twitch followers launch a bunch of attacks on the city. This has little to do with the Riddler’s established motivations, nor does it build on previous plot threads. Those have all been tied up already, so instead the movie opens a new one right when it should be transitioning into epilogue.
False endings like these occur when the story has already concluded its highest-tension arcs and then tries to build tension again. Sometimes, that means conjuring entirely new arcs out of thin air; other times, it means turning an existing minor arc up to eleven. Regardless, the results are always disappointing since there’s little chance for these new conflicts to have the same level of tension as what came before. False endings also reduce satisfaction, because they give the impression that what looked like the climax before didn’t actually matter.
Finally, false endings damage the audience’s trust. It looked like the story was over once, and that turned out to be a lie, so why should anyone trust it’s actually over a second time? Even when the credits play or the last page is turned, a nagging feeling remains that the story hasn’t really concluded.
Why Authors Do This
Everyone loves twists, and there are few bigger twists than the story not actually being over. Authors know that audiences like to be surprised, which can lead to discarding any other concerns in favor of the biggest surprise possible. There’s just something very appealing about the hero thinking they’ve won, but then realizing in horror that they very much haven’t.
Alternatively, sometimes a story just has too many arcs to resolve them all in the climax. Sure, the hero can defeat their nemesis and free the city from tyranny, then maybe have time to kiss their love interest, but what about overcoming their fear of horseback riding? And their rivalry with the God of Checkers? And their growth arc about not needing parental approval anymore? And…
This type of false ending typically crops up in longer works, since the more time we spend in a story, the more potential arcs open up. A door-stopper novel or season of television may simply produce too much content for everything to be resolved in a neat package. Forcing all of that into the story’s climax would be a disaster.
What to Do Instead
If your goal is to create a surprise twist, that’s doable, but it depends on making the characters think things are over. Rather than actually resolving the highest-tension conflicts, you craft a situation where it’s credible for the hero to think the conflict is resolved, but your audience knows it isn’t.
For example: Your highest-tension arc is defeating Warlord Evilpants. Your heroes attack Evilpants’s castle, overcome the soldiers, defuse the magical wards, and defeat the giant golem. But Warlord Evilpants isn’t there. Some of the heroes figure that he must have run off, so they celebrate their victory. Then you spring the twist: Evilpants is waiting outside the walls with an army of castle-eating beetles, and this was all a trap! Since you never actually resolved the highest-tension arc, the audience won’t be tricked into thinking the story is over.
If the issue is that you simply have too many arcs to resolve them all in the climax, the key is to resolve some of them before the climax rather than after. If there’s no room for romance, that’s fine; you can have your lovebirds finally kiss in the penultimate chapter, as few things are more romantic than knowing you’re about to defeat a great evil together.
3. The Slow Burn
Episodes one to five of The Sandman are hardly fast-paced, but they at least have a plot that steadily builds until it concludes with Dream getting all his magic items back. Then, episode six is largely filler, while episodes seven and eight are devoted to maybe kinda sorta eventually getting the vortex plot going. There’s some cool stuff in those episodes to be sure: Death is great, and the immortal Hob Gadling has a lot of novelty, but neither of them move the plot forward or contribute to Dream’s character arc. Granted, that’s partly because the show isn’t really sure what Dream’s character arc is, but the point stands.*
Meanwhile, the vortex arc’s first two episodes flow by like frozen molasses. Dream spends most of his screen time looking for a few errant retainers, something that has almost no impact on how the vortex conflict is actually resolved. The rest of those episodes are spent with the vortex herself, Rose Walker. It seems like she’d have to move that plot forward, but instead, she’s mostly looking for her brother, which is tangentially related at best. Through both episodes, you can tell there’s a plot somewhere and that the show will probably get to it eventually, but there’s a lot of time to kill first.
This pattern repeats itself in most published stories that are described as a “slow burn,”* and it’s something I hear from a lot of authors I work with. They don’t want to get to the plot too quickly because that would be rushing things, and this is a slow-burn story! Or maybe there isn’t a plot at all, and the “slow burn” refers to a relationship arc that will eventually conclude once the requisite number of words have elapsed.
The obvious problem is that if a story takes forever to get anywhere, it’s really boring! There’s little tension without movement, and novelty can only last for so long. Such stories depend almost entirely on attachment, and anyone who doesn’t have that attachment gets left behind.
Why Authors Do This
Partly, it’s a case of survivorship bias. If you finish a really long story, chances are pretty good that you enjoyed that story. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have put so much time and effort into it.* This effect can give authors the idea that a story’s length is what makes it good.
Additionally, if a story is good, then attachment builds over time, meaning greater satisfaction once the story finally concludes. The finale of DS9’s Dominion War means more because the heroes spent three seasons fighting for it, and the Adora/Catra kiss is cathartic because of all the emotional drama those characters endured up to that moment.
It’s understandable that authors want that kind of effect for themselves. I would desperately love to write a scene between two old friends who’ve been buddies since chapter one of a five-book series. I can feel the emotional bond just thinking about it! But getting a story to that point isn’t easy, so writers take shortcuts.* They add a bunch of filler to drag out the plot, or they describe two lovebirds going through their normal lives for a few hundred thousand words until it’s time for a kiss. These cheats can certainly make a story longer, but they can’t replicate what makes long stories good.
What to Do Instead
If you want a long-term arc that takes a while to resolve, you need to entertain your audience in the meantime with a series of shorter arcs. This most readily calls to mind a relationship arc supported by a series of external conflicts, but that’s just one version. The anime Fruits Basket uses a series of short-term relationship arcs between its many characters to keep viewers interested until it’s finally time to resolve the long-term relationship arcs of Tohru, Kyo, and Yuki. Amphibia uses a series of character growth arcs to support a slow-burn war plot.
A second option is to construct a plot that simply has a lot of content, so you can easily break it up into child arcs. This works best for plots with really high stakes, as it’s easier to see how achievements like that would take a while. Naomi Novik employs this tactic in the Temeraire series, which features an eight-book arc to defeat Napoleon. Napoleon’s a pretty big deal, so it’s not difficult for Novik to create new child arcs for each book. First the heroes have to stop Napoleon’s invasion of Britain, then they have to prevent him from making an alliance with China, then they have to temporarily join forces with Napoleon to prevent an outbreak of plague… you get the idea.
4. Villain Retcons
Season two of Stranger Things introduces the Mind Flayer, a shadowy smoke-spider that controls the Upside Down. It’s the big bad, with lesser creatures like the Demogorgon as its foot soldiers. So far, so good. Then the fourth season introduces Vecna, the Mind Flayer’s main lieutenant. This also works quite well, as Vecna’s complex plans make him more dangerous than the Demogorgon, but it still leaves plenty of room for the Mind Flayer to take over as the elder-god boss once season five is released.
But then, shortly after revealing that Vecna was originally a human from Eleven’s backstory, Stranger Things pulls a bizarre retcon: Vecna was behind everything the whole time! He’s the reason that critters from the Upside Down keep attacking, and he even created the Mind Flayer! Plus, Vecna is still alive despite being burned, chopped, and defenestrated, so he’ll be the big boss of season five.
What the heck? The big bad isn’t an unknowable alien being; it’s some guy with psychic powers. That’s a lot less intimidating, especially since the heroes beat him up so badly he had to slink away in defeat. And we’re really supposed to believe Vecna was behind everything from previous seasons? If that were true, why didn’t he send more than one Demogorgon through the first gate when he had the chance, since the whole Upside Down is apparently a hive mind now?
Switching villains like this almost always creates inconsistencies, and it’s a major letdown in terms of threat level. If the previous villain was constructed properly, then they’ve established why they’re dangerous over time. Even if the new big bad is technically more powerful, they’ll still feel less threatening because they’re new to the scene. The audience doesn’t know this newcomer, no matter how many evil powers are on display.
Perhaps worst of all, villain retcons prematurely end the previous villain’s arc. Stranger Things had a series-long arc devoted to defeating the Mind Flayer, and now that arc is just gone. We’ll never get any satisfaction in that story, short of another retcon in season five.
Why Authors Do This
A lot of reasons, starting with one we’ve seen before: trying to create a cool surprise. What could be more surprising than revealing that the villain you’ve been building up isn’t actually the villain at all? They’ll never suspect it. There’s also a certain “look how clever I am” aspect to it, since these retcons often involve a villain who’s supposedly been manipulating events from behind the scenes. Some authors just like the feeling of getting one over on their audience, unproductive as that may be.
Another common reason, at least from clients I’ve worked with, is that authors simply get bored of their existing villain. Authors get bored of their heroes too, but the cost of changing out the main character is obviously very high. With a villain, it often seems like they can be rotated at will, since they aren’t the one that readers are experiencing the story through.
Finally, some authors do this because they aren’t sure how to end the story with their current villain. That may very well be the case with Stranger Things. An unknowable elder god is very difficult for mundane humans to credibly defeat, but as we’ve already seen, Vecna can simply be stabbed to death.* I can sympathize, but that doesn’t make the retcon a good choice.
What to Do Instead
The most dependable way to switch villains is to introduce the new big bad while the old one is still around. Once the current villain is defeated, the new one can step into the void. This allows your new villain to build up some threat before they have to fill the big shoes, and it also means that the old villain’s storyline will get some closure, rather than being retconned out of existence.
Sometimes the new villain is physically present, the way DS9 introduced the female changeling* a few seasons before she took over from Dukat as the Federation’s main enemy. In other cases, you only need to introduce the idea of a new villain, the way She-Ra tells us about Horde Prime a few episodes before he shows up and replaces Hordak as the big bad.
If you specifically want an “I was secretly behind it all” reveal, that’s a lot harder. You’ll still need to conclude the original villain’s arc before bringing in the new one, and you need to foreshadow that there’s someone else behind the scenes. Finally, the reveal needs to be meaningful in some way. This often means that the secret villain is someone the audience already knows, but it could be something else like the introduction of a theoretically relevant faction. If your urban fantasy setting hasn’t had vampires until now, and your new big bad is the leader of a vampire invasion, that could do the trick. Just make sure to foreshadow it adequately.
5. Friends & Family NPCs
In the urban fantasy novel Shadowshaper, Sierra is struggling to learn magic and defeat an evil sorcerer. She’s joined on this quest by love interest Robbie, who has two major roles: First, he teaches Sierra about magic. Second, he fuels her resentment over not being taught magic before. She also has a best friend, Bennie, who doesn’t have any magic. Instead, Bennie provides emotional support and reminds Sierra what she’s fighting for.
So far, so good. But then, Sierra’s brother, Juan, joins the story. He has two major roles: First, he teaches Sierra about magic. Second, he fuels her resentment over not being taught magic before. Then her friends Tee, Izzy, and Jerome also join. They don’t have any magic, but they provide emotional support and remind Sierra what she’s fighting for.
You can see the issue here. Stories can end up with too many characters for all sorts of reasons, but new authors are especially drawn to adding characters to represent the protagonist’s social and familial circles. When these characters don’t have distinct roles in the plot, they blur together and get harder to remember while still taking up some of the audience’s precious attention span.
This is an especially common problem in urban fantasy stories, where the protagonist’s friends and family are often on the mundane side of the masquerade. This means they’re far less likely to have the skills necessary to meaningfully contribute, and the story needs to spend extra time bringing them into the magical world. Shadowshaper is a relatively mild example compared to some manuscripts I’ve worked on, where it seems like every cousin and in-law joins the party at some point.
Why Authors Do This
For some writers, it’s in pursuit of realism or a means of breaking the trend of protagonists being only-child orphans with no friends. They forget that there’s a reason heroes tend to be slim on friends and family: in real life, most humans have far more people in their lives than would ever work in a story. Parents, siblings, a romantic partner, work friends, college friends: it adds up fast. Heaven help you if the hero is part of a polycule!
Beyond realism, many authors specifically want to tell stories about community, which is super understandable. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the USA, we have a huge over-reliance on rugged individualism, when the most important work requires collective action. It’s no surprise that authors want to push back. Unfortunately, stories that go over capacity on characters don’t signal community so much as a faceless blur that follows the hero around.
What to Do Instead
The good news is that if you want to include the protagonist’s friends and family in the story, you can absolutely do that! You just need to be prepared, and the most important thing is to have a plot that’s big enough for multiple people to contribute. Shadowshaper’s plot is serviceable, but it’s also very simple: all Sierra has to do is track down the evil sorcerer and defeat him in a magic battle.* There isn’t much for the secondary characters to contribute except to help Sierra fight some zombies, and that battle feels pretty tacked on.
Instead, what the story needs is more robust steps. Perhaps the villain is seizing control of important supernatural locations in Sierra’s neighborhood, making the main conflict a protracted battle for territory instead of a single duel. That would give the story time to bring Sierra’s friends fully across the masquerade and then have them learn different types of magic to push back against the invaders. From there, they could develop different roles that would make them more distinct. Perhaps Tee is a skilled tactician from her time in the chess club, while Jerome’s first-aid training makes him the team medic.
Of course, it’s also important to make the characters stand out by giving them rounded motivations, developed personalities, and distinctive dialogue. But those considerations can only take a character so far without the foundation of a robust plot. If you want to write a story about community, make sure there’s room for the community to be involved!
Sometimes, the only response an editor can give to a new writer’s impractical idea is “don’t,” but that’s fortunately not the case for this list. While each entry is a common source of problems, there are ways to properly implement them if you know how.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?