cover of Brandon Sanderson's Elantris

Brandon Sanderson loves magic systems, so in his book Elantris, the protagonist has to figure out how magic works to make it return to his kingdom.

When we review a manuscript for content editing, we can usually tell what the writer is passionate about. Unfortunately, many manuscripts have a mismatch between what the writer loves and what the story needs. That creates serious problems in a creative work.

We don’t tell writers to fix this by fighting their passion; on the contrary, that’s a last resort for when the manuscript is simply too far off track. Instead, we encourage writers to pay close attention to how they feel and adjust their stories accordingly – the sooner, the better. Let’s go over how passion affects stories and how you can modify your plans to take your own excitement into account.

The Difference Passion Makes

In elementary school, I had a friend who was obsessed with orcas. We had art class together, and I was naturally good at it. Every class I would make the best drawing, painting, or sculpture at the table, leaving my friends seething in resentment. Then one day, we each had to draw an orca. Needless to say, my orca-obsessed friend blew my drawing out of the water.

No doubt my friend spent many hours learning how to draw orcas, and that’s the point. When it came to orcas, she was driven to get better, and I was just coasting on my talent.

Passion is an amazing performance booster, and yet in our performance-focused culture, it’s rarely mentioned. A person who’s passionate works harder, learns more, improves faster, and quickly becomes discerning. An enthusiast keeps an eye on details that someone else could never bring themself to care about. In contrast, those who aren’t passionate about their work will do what’s required, but no more than that.

Passion does have an occasional downside. It can inspire us to go a little too far – becoming perfectionists and investing many hours in something that isn’t important. That’s certainly something to watch out for, but it isn’t a liability when the work matters.

You can probably imagine how this translates to writing fiction. The primary sign of passionate writing is going on about something in great detail. A writer will spend more thought and more words on something they’re interested in. By comparison, when the writer finds something uninteresting, the narration becomes brief and vague.

The Symptoms of Misdirected Passion

Many storytellers come up with a cool idea they’re passionate about, but they know that idea isn’t enough to drive a story. To give their story a plot, they graft on an external conflict between their protagonist and some evildoers. What they really want is a container for their cool idea, but tragically, that idea usually feels like a distraction from the throughline they created with their external conflict.

For instance, have you ever read a story where…

  • the writer wouldn’t stop their three-page tirade about the theoretical workings of the ship’s faster-than-light drive?
  • a side character reveals during the climax that they are not a mere ranger after all, but the long-lost heir to the throne come to save the day?
  • the characters keep taking a break from solving the mystery or saving the day so they can have long heartfelt conversations?

Pointless exposition dumps, show-stealing side characters, and scenes that don’t fit into the plot are all signs of passion that are outside of the story’s throughline. Since it’s largely the story itself that makes fiction entertaining, when we write in excess about something that isn’t central to the story, it bores readers. That is, unless those readers happen to share the same niche passion as we do.

All of these problems can be avoided. You just have to know the secret: the story’s big conflict can be about anything. You don’t have to stuff in a death match between hero and villain. You can write a mystery about the inner workings of a light-speed drive or a drama between superheroes in love. I like plants, so I’m writing a story where the protagonist battles a blackberry bramble. The possibilities are endless.

How Passion Can Work for the Story

Aligning your story with your personal interests will make both you and your readers happier. I call this approach centering your darlings. It’s the process of taking the things you care about and making your story about them.

To do this, you’ll need to understand what’s driving you to write the story you’re writing. Maybe it’s your cool magic system, a race of carnivorous marsupials, or the deep relationship between the main character and their familiar. Perhaps you’re interested in themes of forgiveness or in building a creepy surreal atmosphere. Any aspect of your story could be your darling.

Ask yourself:

  • What protagonist would help me explore the things I care about? Maybe your protagonist is a carnivorous marsupial, or maybe they are a biologist who has to learn about carnivorous marsupials during the story. The former gives you an insider look into their way of life, whereas the latter will make it easier to explain how they work to your readers.
  • How can the details of my darling make the difference between success or failure for the protagonist? Perhaps your protagonist has to decide whether to try to fly their spaceship through a dangerous area of space, and whether that’s okay depends on how the faster-than-light engine works. Or if you’re interested in forgiveness, maybe your protagonist has to decide whether to forgive someone and accept their help. The more the plot hinges on your darling, the better.
  • How can I tie other aspects of the story back to my darling? If they’re unrelated, can I cut them? Your story can be anything you want, but it probably can’t be everything you want. The elements of your story should be as interconnected as you can make them. If you’re re-centering your story, some things probably won’t fit anymore. If you have a second darling pulling your story in another direction, consider separating them into two different stories.

Once your story is about whether your diplomat protagonist earns the trust and help of the carnivorous marsupials, or whether your engineer protagonist can design a faster-than-light engine to escape the event horizon, or whether your protagonist familiar leaves their witch to her fate, your passion will work for you instead of against you.

How Low Interest Affects Important Elements

Almost as important as identifying areas of passion is discovering where passion is missing. When we’re editing, we often find aspects of the story that could be engaging but have been left unexplored by the writer. Because of this, these elements are usually doing more harm than good.

The more complex the story is, the more the narrative gets bogged down trying to explain it all and keep everything working together. Everything you add to the story increases its total complexity, but some things are more complex than others. For instance, setting the story in a dream world adds a lot of burden to the narrative. You’re now required to explain how every part of reality works. Can dream denizens conjure whatever they want? How do people get hurt? Does the dreamer ever wake up? What happens then?

If the idea of a dream world fascinates you, the complexity is worth it. A dream world would have high novelty for readers once you bring it to life. But otherwise, you probably won’t put in enough effort to make it pay off. The dream world will seem too much like the real world, taking away the novelty the setting could offer. You’ll also put less thought into how this dream world works, so your explanations won’t be as good. At that point, all you’ve done is make it harder to tell your story, because now you can’t kill a character the normal way.

You don’t have to be passionate about every part of your story. But anything you feel “meh” about should have two characteristics: simple and easy. Simple means it requires very little explanation, either because readers have seen it 100 times before or because it’s intuitive. Easy is a little tougher to judge, but it usually means no experimental or widely original stuff. Employ an old formula that works but doesn’t have much flair. For instance, instead of writing a hate-to-love romance, start the lovebirds as friends and have them slowly fall for each other.

It’s also worth asking whether you really need the story elements you don’t care about or whether you only added them because you felt like they were expected. You don’t need romance or fight scenes in your story. You do need some level of tension – but it can be light.

Learning storytelling isn’t just about memorizing all the rules for how stories work. It’s also about paying attention to yourself. Your feelings can tell you not only what you should write about but also whether what you’ve written is hitting home.

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