Have you considered doing an article along the lines of “X Changes that Would Have Made a Good Story Even Better.” Or have you done one that I’ve not seen in my trawls through the site?
I know there’s Five Ways to Make a Great Story Even Better, but I’m thinking of an article doing specific examples. Like, for me, I think Sense8 is an amazing show, but it would have been better had Will been black. (Not just to reduce the white content of a worldwide cast below 50%, but to contrast the life of a black man in America with a black man in Kenya).
This is a topic we haven’t addressed before, but it’s an important one. It’s relatively easy to improve a bad story, but in a good story, most elements are strongly interconnected. It’s difficult to change one without affecting others. Improving a good story requires care, so let’s look at a few well-known examples to learn how it’s done.
Spoilers: Atrocity Archives, The Expanse, Mistborn, Fire Logic, and The Sharing Knife.
1. Reduce the Office Drama, Atrocity Archives
The Atrocity Archives, book one of the Laundry Files, is a story of cosmic horror and British spies. Protagonist Bob Howard is a reluctant field agent for the Laundry, the UK’s anti-occult spy agency. He must deal not only with unspeakable horrors from beyond time and space but also with the banal bureaucracy of British civil service.
The book has strong characterization, an intriguing mystery, and a robust magic system. The eldritch horrors are both alien and frightening. It’s only in the portrayal of office politics that the book stumbles. You see, at the start of the book, Howard is in hot water with two of his bosses. This provides the early conflict until the main plot gets going. Then at the end, the bosses show up again, only to be told they’re no longer to give Howard any grief.
Normally, this would be an acceptable arc. Start with a character’s mundane problem, then show how it’s no longer a big deal after the character goes through the horrors of the main plot. The problem lies in Atrocity Archive’s execution. First, the two bosses in question are named Harriet and Bridget. They are the only two women in authority we see at the Laundry.* They are described as scheming and manipulative. This plays heavily into stereotypes and makes it seem like the entirety of the Laundry’s female work force is out to ruin Howard’s life.
Next, Harriet and Bridget seem to have a personal vendetta against Howard. They hate him so much that they want to make his life miserable after he’s just been out literally saving humanity from a universe-devouring god.* This is a powerful vendetta, and we never find out what’s behind it. This makes Harriet and Bridget seem like evil cartoon caricatures and clashes badly with the book’s otherwise grounded characters.
Finally, Howard doesn’t actually solve this problem for himself at the end. He just appeals to his new boss, who is some kind of magical badass. The new boss makes Harriet and Bridget back off by threatening to kill them. Over some office politics. This scene does nothing to further Howard’s development and feels like a drastic over-escalation. It also smells strongly of sexism, with the only female managers in an organization complaining about a male employee and having their complaints dismissed by a male executive.
How to Fix It
First, we’ll need to add more women to the Laundry, pull back on the stereotyping language, and flip the gender of either Harriet or Bridget for good measure. This step takes care of the sexism.
Next, make the issue something that doesn’t require explanation. Instead of a personal vendetta, Howard’s problem at work should be something like overhauling the department’s servers. His boss won’t give him enough money, and Howard is really stressing over it. After all, if he gets let go from the Laundry, the retirement options aren’t pretty.
Finally, Howard should resolve the problem on his own. When he gets back from his interdimensional trip to a world where Nazis summoned an elder god, he realizes this server overhaul doesn’t actually matter. He tells his boss to fund the project properly or it won’t get done. Seeing the new steel in Howard’s gaze, the boss relents, which demonstrates how much Howard has grown.
2. Cut the Overpowered Luggage, Discworld
Discworld is my favorite series of all time, and Terry Pratchett needs no introduction. His books delightfully subvert classic genre tropes to create a fascinating world. His portrayal of dwarves and trolls parallels real-life struggles for justice and equality. His characters feel like real people on the page.
One of the most interesting characters in all of Discworld is Rincewind. A failed wizard, Rincewind is primarily motivated by a sense of self-preservation. He doesn’t want glory or riches; in fact he actively avoids them because they always come with trouble. His highest skill is running. He’s nearly unique among fantasy protagonists, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him when he’s inevitably swept up in some dangerous plot or another.
The only thing holding Rincewind back is the Luggage, a sapient suitcase with bizarrely powerful abilities. The Luggage can follow Rincewind anywhere, is all but invincible, and consumes all enemies within its gaping maw.* Its purpose in life seems to be keeping Rincewind safe from danger.
When first introduced, the Luggage is little more than a comedic novelty, but as the series goes on, it becomes a serious problem. It’s so overpowered that it destroys any drama built around Rincewind’s physical safety. Since Rincewind spends most of his time running from danger, you can see how this would negatively impact the story.
Pratchett must have realized this, because eventually Rincewind starts running from the Luggage itself, even though he has no reason to do so. This clashes with his core value of preserving his own safety. But it’s the only way the story will work.
The Luggage’s overpowered nature doesn’t even make sense. Throughout the books, it withstands physical and magical assaults that would easily kill any other character. The source of its power is unclear at best, as other enchanted suitcases in the series are shown to be much less capable. The best explanation ever offered is that a powerful wizard created it by accident, which is hardly satisfying.
How to Fix It
Unfortunately, the Luggage just needs to go. After the first Discworld book, the Luggage does nothing other than make stories less interesting. It’s occasionally funny, but lots of things in the Discworld books are funny, so it won’t be hard to find a substitute for the jokes.
Without the Luggage, Rincewind can have his story about running away from one dangerous situation after another, and he won’t have to explain why he doesn’t want an all-powerful magical bodyguard.
3. Make Miller Likable, The Expanse
The Expanse is a fantastic TV show* with just the right mix of hard science and epic space battles. The politics of a divided Solar system are fascinating to watch and all too relevant to our current situation in real life. The characters are compelling, too. The exception is Josephus Miller, a noir detective who doesn’t realize he’s in a space opera story.
Miller’s first big problem is the way he condescends to women. He treats Octavia,* a fellow detective, like he’s her creepy ex-boyfriend.* He acts like he should have a say in where she goes and what she does. He talks down to her, even after she’s just killed two hardened criminals to save him from the airlock. When she wants to go with him on a mission that might determine the fate of the Solar system, he says she can’t because it’s too dangerous, even though from what we’ve seen, she’s more competent than he is.
Another woman Miller degrades is Julie Mao. He’s never actually met Julie – she’s a missing person case he’s working on – but he constantly talks about her like she’s a misguided child in need of saving. This is despite evidence that she’s a grade-A badass.
Beyond his sexism, Miller is just a jerk. He doesn’t care when his partner is nearly killed, he alienates potential allies without reason, and he loves to mock others.
Aggravating Miller’s abrasive behavior, we have no idea what’s driving him. In the book, Miller has an internal POV that explains why he does what he does. It isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing. Normally, TV shows use dialogue in place of internal POVs to establish motivation, but because Miller can’t talk to anyone for any reason other than being a jerk, a whole season goes by without sufficiently explaining his motivation.
Miller gets a lot of screen time, so this is a big problem.
How to Fix It
Fortunately, Miller’s issues can be fixed with only a few alterations. First, make Octavia his current partner instead of his ex-partner. Then make him respect her. From there, give the two of them a naive newbie to babysit, someone so new they need two detectives to show them the ropes. This will let Miller keep his important “I understand how the world works and you don’t” dialogue without saying it to Octavia.
Since Miller respects Octavia, he won’t treat her like a possession. She can serve as a sounding board for Miller, allowing him to explain his motivation. That will take the place of his internal monologue from the books. Through Miller’s talks with Octavia, we can learn that Miller is trying to find Julie because he admires her, he thinks she’s genuinely a good person, and he wants to do some good by helping her. We’ll learn that Miller has deep self-loathing, which is why he’s so cynical.
When Miller goes on his important mission, Octavia can go with him. If it’s critical that she doesn’t, he can tell her no because she has a future as a detective and that she can actually influence things for the better by staying behind. That way it won’t sound like he wants her to keep her fragile female self out of potential danger.
4. Don’t Excuse an Abuser, Mistborn
If you like post-apocalyptic fantasy with an intricate magic system, then Mistborn is for you. In this story, an all-powerful god-emperor rules over a land stricken by the fantasy equivalent of nuclear winter, where peasants struggle to survive even as the aristocracy throws lavish parties.
Our heroes are a ragtag resistance in a desperate fight for freedom. Protagonist Vin has an excellent arc that takes her from back-alley criminal to savior of all as she discovers her hidden magical talents. Alongside that external conflict, Vin has a compelling internal arc as well. She fears getting close to anyone, because of the way her brother physically and emotionally abused her, telling her she couldn’t trust people and that they would always leave her in the end.
Vin’s recollections of her brother read like a textbook case of abuse by isolation. To prevent victims from leaving, abusers cut their victims off from anyone who might offer support. They hammer on the victim’s self-esteem to make the victim feel like no one but the abuser could ever care about them.
This all works great until near the end, when it’s revealed that Vin’s brother was actually doing what he did in order to protect Vin. The book is very clear on this point. He had to keep the god-emperor’s minions from finding her, and obviously the best way to do that was to abuse her until she was afraid to trust anyone but him. The book even makes him into a martyr by revealing that he died under torture while refusing to give up her whereabouts.
The idea that all this abuse was somehow for Vin’s own good is absurd. There are any number of more practical ways her brother could have kept her safe. Claiming to have the victim’s best interest at heart is a common abuse tactic, and the book embraces it for no reason. Even if Vin’s brother thought he was helping Vin, it should have been clear that what he did was inexcusable. Instead we have a reveal that glorifies an abuser in what’s otherwise an excellent climax and conclusion.
How to Fix It
It’s likely that the author added this reveal so that Vin’s internal arc would have a more dramatic conclusion. If that’s necessary, there’s a better way to accomplish it. Near the end, the big reveal should have been that Vin’s brother is still alive and that he expects Vin to come help him with some dangerous or immoral* task. When Vin tells him off, it’s a clear signal that she’s broken his control over her. That brings her arc to a dramatic conclusion without pretending abuse is okay.
If it is essential for Vin’s brother to get some redemption, it should only happen after he recognizes how horrible his actions were. Then he can do something to show he’s actually changed for the better, perhaps even dying in the attempt.
5. Clarify The Magic System, Fire Logic
If Mistborn wasn’t dark enough for you, now we have Fire Logic,* a story about a land under occupation. The story is unflinchingly grim, a tale of people fighting a desperate insurgency and the toll it takes on their souls. When first occupied, the land of Shaftal is known for its scholars and universities. After more than a decade of fighting, it is populated mostly by scarred veterans who can only think of how to hurt the invaders.
This story scores many points on the social justice front, as it takes an unflinching look at the evils of structural oppression. It’s also got fantastic gender representation, including a lesbian romance between the two leads. Their story is beautiful and avoids the harmful tropes that often accompany homosexual relationships in fiction.
Fire Logic’s main problem is its magic. While it does a great job showing how a little magic can create a big advantage, the way magic works is poorly explained. The magic is elemental in nature, with sorcerers called “fire bloods,” “earth bloods,” and so on. That’s simple enough, but the magic itself is called “fire logic,” “earth logic,” etc, and that’s where it gets confusing.
You see, the book is never clear if “logic” in this case refers to an actual magical power or just a way of thinking. For example, in one chapter, a sick earth blood takes off all her clothes and buries herself in dirt, hoping that being closer to the earth will heal her. When other character’s find her, they talk knowingly of “earth logic.” It’s never stated if doing this actually healed her or if she just thought it would.
Even stranger, most of the powers aren’t element themed. Earth bloods can forge magnificent weapons, which is reasonably in-theme, but they can also heal. Fire bloods can see the future. Air bloods can detect lies. Water bloods control the weather. This feel like a random grab bag of powers, and it bears little relationship to the four classic elements. This leaves you wondering why the people in this setting named their magic that way.
This confusion is greatest in the first half of the book, because the characters clearly know what the different types of magic are, but that information isn’t given to the reader. They’ll say things like, “Of course that person is rude, she’s an air blood,” and you’re left scratching your head over what that means. Only towards the end of the book is it explained that because air bloods always know when someone isn’t being completely truthful, they have no time for social niceties.
How to Fix It
The most obvious step is to explain up front how the setting’s magic works. This wouldn’t have been difficult. The book already has several early chapters devoted to building up the setting. Explanations of the magic would fit in naturally, especially since the POV character is a fire blood.
With that done, it would also help to make the powers more related to their elements, or else come up with a different naming scheme. Fire bloods might have to stare into a roaring flame to see the future, and air bloods might need to breathe on a target to read their lies. I’ve got nothing for water bloods, though. Controlling the weather is just too powerful compared to what the other elements do; it should probably be changed. Fortunately, it’s not important to the plot of the book.
6. Make the Romance Less Paternal, The Sharing Knife
The Sharing Knife is another post-apocalyptic fantasy story, but with a completely different feel than Mistborn. This story takes place in an idyllic world centuries after the fall of a great magitech civilization. The characters are rich and complex. The cultures are well thought out, and the conflict between those cultures is compelling. The creeping supernatural evil is both frightening and intriguing in its eccentricities. It even has positive portrayal of disabilities, with a main character using a prosthetic hand throughout the book.
The only problem is that the story focuses on a really bad romance between protagonists Fawn and Dag. Many people are turned off by the age difference. Fawn is 18 and Dag is over 50.* But that’s not the core problem. The real issue is that Dag is constantly needing to protect Fawn, to take care of her because she is naive and child-like. Right before they have super hot sexy sex-time.
From the very beginning, Fawn’s most prominent trait is how little she understands about the world. She doesn’t even understand her own culture’s slang, which is cause for many a joke at her expense. Meanwhile, Dag is a badass warrior with years of experience under his belt, not to mention his people’s magical abilities. In fact, Dag’s powers are exceptional even among his tribe of magical warriors.
Fawn constantly needs saving and education about the rough world. She’s not a completely passive character, but whenever she accomplishes something, it’s a surprise that she could do it despite her lack of ability. This extreme power imbalance between her and Dag makes their relationship feel lopsided and gross.
How to Fix It
This problem can be resolved one of two ways. The more drastic option is to remove the romance from Fawn and Dag’s relationship. Instead, they can be student and mentor. That way Dag’s much greater degree of experience won’t endanger Fawn’s agency. This would require a lot of reworking to the plot, since the book as written focuses largely on the conflict over Dag and Fawn’s romance. It would also require scaling back Dag’s role, as any good mentor must eventually take a back seat to his pupil.
The easier option is to bring the love birds closer together in ability. It’s fine for Fawn to not know much about the supernatural evil, that increases the story’s tension. But she should be able to stand up for herself and have some useful skills Dag doesn’t possess. Bringing them closer together in age isn’t strictly necessary, but it would certainly help.
With the power dynamics between Fawn and Dag addressed, the story can get on with the conflict that’s actually interesting: people from both their cultures objecting to the relationship. The rest of the book would hardly need to change.
No story is so good that it can’t be improved. While authors will always reach a point where it’s time to stop fiddling and send a story off for publication, we readers should always be on the lookout for ways the story could have been improved. Not only is this a good exercise for those who wish to be writers themselves, but a more critical readership means authors will have to produce a higher grade of stories.
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