Harnessing Your Passion to Strengthen Your Stories

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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  1. LazerRobot

    Really good advice! It seems like common sense to center your story around what you care about but honestly I’ve never really thought about it in that light. This gives me a lot to consider when crafting a story!

    • SunlessNick

      Much better than “Kill your darlings.”

  2. Rivers

    As a person who once had a huge obsession with a species of now extinct carnivorous marsupials, I feel very attacked in the best way by this post.

    • Yora

      Also, blackberry brambles are the most vicious and brutal of all plants. The tyrannosaurs of the plant kingdom.

      • SunlessNick

        I’ve heard that too. The primrose is pretty aggressive too.

        • Chris Winkle

          It looks like the water primrose is listed as a noxious weed in Washington State. Cool, I’m going to add that to my story.

          If we’re talking about the most antagonistic of plants, I have to say the giant hogweed has some pretty impressive credentials. If you get the sap on your skin and then it’s exposed to sunlight, it will burn through your skin. Plus it just looks huge and alien.

  3. Yora

    “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.”

    That’s always been a huge problem for me. I’ve never been able to figure out a plot that would serve my ideas. Coming up with a generic dark lord and magic item plot is easy, but it never seems to have anything to do with the things I want to write about.

    • Cay Reet

      I’d say the easiest way for your ideas to be central to the plot would be to look at the ideas and try to figure out what’s so great about them (something must be, at least for you). Once you know what makes them so great, you can build a story around how someone gets to know what’s so great or someone has to protect that great thing. Then you won’t have to invent a generic dark lord or a MacGuffin.

  4. A Perspiring Writer

    How, exactly, would I find out what in my stories I’m so passionate about in the first place? I have no idea where to start.

    • Cay Reet

      Read through the stories and see what is coming up over and over again, especially when the stories are not really about that. That’s usually what you’re most passionate about.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        I think, after lots of thinking (and pain, don’t forget pain), that I’ve finally discovered what I’m so passionate about (and most importantly, I can put it in words): intimate (but nonromantic and nonsexual) connections and encounters with nonhuman entities.

        Now all I have to do is figure out how to structure a story around that. Can’t be THAT hard, right?*

        *I say, desperately hoping my sarcasm is correct

        • A Perspiring Writer

          I also believe that I’ve found how to best use my particular writing quirks; namely, that I tend to focus on one single plotline at a time when writing (to the detriment of any others).

          So, I’ll probably focus on short stories, at least until I can figure out how to juggle more than one plot element at a time.

          • Cay Reet

            A lot of people underestimate short stories – it’s often harder to put a plot into a short story than into something longer. In addition to traditional short stories, you could also check out novellas – something between 20,000 and 60,000 words which is more structured like a novel, but gives you the chance to work with one or two or three plot lines instead of a lot of them.

            When I really got into writing again, I wrote a lot of novellas of around 20,000 to 30,000 words and it helped me learn to juggle more plot lines.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Yeah, I was thinking about novellas as well. It feels like they might be the perfect fit for me: short enough that I don’t really need to worry about more than one plot line/element, but long enough that the concept has room to breathe.

          • Cay Reet

            I’ve tried my hand at short stories and I find they need much tighter plotting and writing than a novella.

            For me, the novella is sort of ‘the best of both worlds’. It gives me space for the story, space to introduce the setting a little, space for the characters, yet it doesn’t require of me to do a lot of plotting and have several plot lines in it. It certainly helped me on the way to my first novel a few years ago – my novella grew and at some point, it was a novel and had more plots than I meant to have and it passed the 60,000 word mark.

            By now, I self-publish both novels and novella collections with three stories about the same character each. Both are nice to write and sometimes, I even prefer the novellas, because the ‘finished’ feeling comes with the end of each, not just with the end of the full book.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Where can I find the stories you’ve published? I’d like to check them out.

          • Cay Reet

            I’m on several stores, among them Amazon (I do Amazon myself and use Draft 2 Digital for the other platforms they offer, spreading out my stuff).

            End of November, I released the first book of a new series, “The Eye”, which draws on traditional 1930s pulp. Other stories are espionage, heists, and mysteries of sorts.

            Here’s a link to my author page.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, it depends on what genre you want to write. There are a lot of ways a person can encounter something that isn’t quite human. Make sure you put down stakes people will care about and there will definitely be an audience for it.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            I can think of at least 3 or 4 ideas (some of them I had already thought up) for stories that blend my passion with interesting conflict*.

            *mainly about Character X having to bond/befriend/connect** with Mythological Creature Y

            **it really bothers me that i couldn’t think of a word for ‘connect’ that starts with ‘b’

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Now all I have to do is tame my inner critic…

          • Cay Reet

            Tell yourself ‘this is the first draft, it will be horrible, because that’s its job.’ That’s what I do. I remind myself that this is not a finished product and that I will come back and work it over. First, get the story out, then make it better.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            The problem is that my inner critic is like ‘everything you’ve written here sucks’, and I start believing it* because I’m easily persuaded. I have no idea how to get past that.

            *I haven’t written more than 1500 words of a single story since earlier this year. What happens is that I tend to start out strong, but quickly peter out and lose interest.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            And knowing that it’s the first draft doesn’t really help for me, because when you firmly believe that your own writing sucks, then that’s really disheartening.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, that can be hard in the beginning. One problem might be that we never see the first drafts of any successful novels … then we could see that everyone is writing horrid first drafts.

            “Everyone has a lot of bad writing in them, so you need to let it out to get to the good stuff.”

        • A Perspiring Writer

          I just remembered, I HAVE looked at your books before but:

          -They didn’t really seem like my cup of tea, and
          -I prefer physical books to digital


          • Cay Reet

            Don’t worry … not everyone likes every type of book. Also, setting up self-published books for book-on-demand (where the book is printed as a paperback when ordered, the only way self-published books can be physical) is pretty difficult, so I haven’t done that so far.

            Other people might find the link here and be more interested.

            All is fine

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Since I wrote the above comment (my apology to Cay Reet), three things have happened:

            1) I have discovered that I quite enjoy reading web serials and fan-fics on my computer,

            2) I found out that Amazon Kindle is available for the computer, and

            3) I’m developing an interest in trying out books that may lie outside my usual comfort zone (epic fantasy).

            So I just might read your books in the coming months. I’ll be sure to leave reviews and feedback on them, should I decide to try them out.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, it’s nice if you want to expand your horizon – it’s never wrong to outside of your comfort zone every now and then.

            If you want something less anchored to the here and now, there are several series I write which dip a bit or a bit more into speculative fiction.

            “Theoretical Necromancy” has a steampunk setting in which magic exists (and the main character has the ability to raise the dead but doesn’t know why).

            The stand-alone novel “Alex Dorsey” deals with a woman from a long line of vampire hunters who is suddenly pushed into the leading position following the turning of the older of her brothers into a vampire.

            “John Stanton” doesn’t have supernatural elements (although it might look like it), but also has a steampunk setting to a degree.

            I would also add “The Lives and Times of Isadora Goode” to that list, but it’s not out yet – I’ll release it at the end of February 2021.

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