Storytelling

Six Common Storytelling Problems in New Manuscripts

Kingpin standing in front of several microphones.

The first problem is I don't know how to turn these on.

In my capacity as a content editor, I read a lot of manuscripts.* While storytelling problems are infinitely myriad and complex, I’ve noticed a handful that pop up over and over again. These issues sometimes even make it to publication, but they’re especially common in new manuscripts. That makes them important to watch out for when you’re writing that first draft.

1. Protagonists With No Agency

Cover art of Cold Magic, showing a young woman looking over her shoulder on a teal background. In Cold Magic, the protagonist is shepherded from one scene to another, rarely doing anything for herself.

The main character is, by definition, the most important character in the story. The story is about them, which is why they’re worth following. Sometimes, who the main character is can get a little fuzzy, but in most stories it is crystal clear. Since the main character is the most important, their choices and actions must affect the story; otherwise, why would we bother reading about them?

This sounds fairly straightforward, and yet a good percentage of the manuscripts I edit have protagonists with no agency. They sleep walk through the entire story, letting other characters do things for them or relying entirely on luck. It’s not pleasant. At best, it feels like someone else should be the main character. At worst, it feels like the entire story is pointless.

A lack of agency can stem from a number of different causes. One of the most common is taking the “fish out of water” trope too far. We all know it’s great fun to put characters in situations they aren’t prepared for, so it makes sense to put a battle-scarred warrior in a social-intrigue plot. But if the entire story hinges on properly navigating social situations, and the protagonist is totally clueless about it, authors end up needing to use some other character to keep things going.

It’s also especially common for protagonists to be robbed of agency by their romantic partners, especially if it’s a female protagonist and a male love interest. Thanks to our sexist baggage around romance, authors will often try to show how desirable the heart throb is by having him resolve all the heroine’s problems, inadvertently creating a situation where the heroine could be easily replaced by an inanimate object.

I’ve even seen a poorly executed Watsonian POV create a deficit of agency. In this case, the author failed to make it clear that the narrator wasn’t the main character. That scenario isn’t particularly common, but it does happen.

How to Avoid It

In most stories, the best solution is simply to give your hero the skills needed to solve problems. You can still make them a fish out of water by putting them in unusual situations, but they should be able to fall back on their established skills to get out of trouble. From the above example, our battle-scarred warrior can still be dazzled and unnerved by the extravagant food and elaborate fashion of the royal court, but they should be able to use their command experience to resolve conflicts. If you want to drive home how unprepared they are, they can resolve a conflict incorrectly. The hero doesn’t have to succeed in order to have agency; they just have to move the plot.

Another option is to give the skill-less protagonist a special power. If there’s something critical to the plot that only they can do, it helps their choices matter even if they’re 100% out of their depth. That’s how Tolkien kept Frodo relevant in a party of badass warriors; only he can carry the Ring, so he still has some say in what happens.

For an overbearing love interest, the best course is to remember that your main character is the one readers are here for. If the protagonist isn’t active, the love interest is more likely to be annoying than romantic. In unusual situations, like a failed Watsonian POV, I usually recommend sticking to more conventional narration styles. They’re the standard because they usually work better. Stories need a compelling reason to deviate from them.

2. Pointless Characters

A space station from the cover art of the Collapsing Empire. In The Collapsing Empire, we spend a lot of time with a merchant captain who contributes little to the plot.

In most cases, novels can support a much larger cast than short stories, films, or even TV shows can. In fact, many novels require large casts in order to function properly. Even so, characters still need to add something to the story. If they don’t serve a purpose, then they’re a waste of page space.

There are plenty of published stories with pointless characters, but the problem is multiplied in new manuscripts. We’ll spend entire chapters getting to know a new character and then never see them again. Alternatively, sometimes they stick around the entire book while doing very little. If we’re lucky, they’ll crack a sarcastic joke or two. Both versions get in the way of the story.

One common cause of pointless characters is the author’s well-meaning desire to depict a living world in all its complexities. The protagonist meets a pilot in a bar. That pilot is going to be an important character, so we learn about them. But then the author considers that the pilot’s squadron mates are also real people with names, loves, and dreams, so we’d better know all of them too. But then those other characters don’t appear again, so we’re left wondering why we got treated to their life stories.

The other major cause is author attachment. Sometimes the author just likes a character too much to get rid of them, even when they no longer fit in the story. This is super common for comic-relief characters because everyone loves a good joke, but it can happen with any archetype. Sometimes, the character is a favorite from previous installments who doesn’t fit anymore; sometimes, they’re a relic of earlier drafts. Either way, the amount of time we spend on them gets in the way of the characters who actually matter.

How to Avoid It

The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s okay to leave background characters in the background. The only reason we need to know their names, or anything else about them, is because it’s either important in this scene or this is a character who will stick around for a while.* Having an outline is really useful here. You can wait until you’ve planned out this character’s future appearances before telling us more about them. If you’re a discovery writer, you’ll need to revise how much we learn about the character based on how big a role they play later, but that kind of revision is standard to the discovery-writing process.

For characters you don’t want to let go of, there are two options: kill your darlings or center your darlings. The former is probably more familiar: bite the bullet and take the character out, hopefully saving them for a future story. If you don’t want to do that, you can always center your darling instead. This way, you revise the story so your beloved character is actually important, possibly even making them the protagonist. This takes more work, but it’s often worth the effort.

A final possibility is combining characters. If there’s a character you really like for their cool superpower even though they don’t do anything, you might be able to give that power to a more important character, thus salvaging what was most important to you.

3. Insignificant Stakes

A black man in Victorian clothes standing in front of an airship from Clementine. In Clementine, the hero tries to get his old ship back even though he has a better ship.

It’s fairly well understood that stories need conflict. Conflict is what drives the plot and gives us a reason to read. In order for the conflict to work, something important must be at stake. If there’s nothing at state, or the stakes don’t matter, then the conflict doesn’t matter, and you have a boring story. Worse, low stakes often make for unlikable heroes. Main characters routinely have to take actions that hinder or harm others, and it’s difficult to sympathize with those actions if they aren’t in the service of something important. A protagonist who punches their way to freedom will seem like a real jerk if the only thing they’re escaping is an awkward dinner.

Despite this, a lot of new authors give their stories unimportant stakes. They’ll craft epic conflicts over which of two nearly identical oligarchs gets to wear the biggest hat or whether their incredibly rich protagonist gets even more money. Sometimes the characters still profess to care about these lackluster stakes, which is bad enough. It’s even worse when the characters themselves don’t seem to care what happens. Why is anyone doing anything if they don’t care?

In most cases, this problem stems from the author’s assuming that their tastes will match those of their readers. Maybe the author really wants their billionaire protagonist to make even more money. After months working on a character, it’s easy to imagine that everyone will care about them in exactly the same way you do.

Another common source is authors who want their story to be light and fluffy, so they don’t want to put in anything too serious at stake. While this isn’t a bad instinct, it’s easy to take things too far. Even light and fluffy stories need stakes that matter in their own context. I’ve also seen authors who were trying to make a statement about how certain types of conflict* are usually pointless in real life. That can be a fine message, but the reader still has to enjoy the story enough to experience it.

How to Avoid It

It’s often difficult to predict exactly what readers will see as important, but a good baseline is to make sure that the stakes represent a major shift in the protagonist’s life or in the lives of the people they care about. If your story is about feudal lords in a medieval setting, you can focus on how gaining or losing the throne will affect their lives rather than the unchanging political landscape for commoners.

In general, preventing a loss will matter more to readers than acquiring a gain. Saving an existing friendship means more than acquiring a new friendship, for example. If your story is about acquiring something, then that acquisition should address an urgent need, like a hero who seeks the Staff of Healing in order to save their village.

If you’re going for a light story, the key is to craft stakes that still matter but aren’t a huge downer. This is a tricky endeavor and is one reason light stories are often harder to write than darker ones. A good standby is to focus on relationships rather than physical danger. If the stakes of a story are whether the protagonist will make friends with their idol, it’ll get the reader to care without entering grimdark territory. Just make sure the protagonist’s actions are appropriate to the stakes. They’ll lose sympathy fast if they stalk or kidnap their idol in the name of friendship.

4. Unrelated Plots

A ship passing under a bridge on the cover of Pacific Edge. In Pacific Edge, half the book is taken up by a side character’s backstory.

Even though plot is a basic building block of storytelling, it’s often poorly understood. A lot of popular writing advice either skips over plotting entirely or insists it’s something that will just flow naturally once authors get the other elements finished. In that context, it’s no surprise that so many authors have difficulty keeping their plots coherent. One of the most common problems is the unrelated plot.

Novels can often support more than one plot, but those plots must all be in service of the same goal, building toward a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. When a plot is off on its own, it’s a waste of space, padding out the novel’s word count for no gain. Worse, such side trips often frustrate the reader as it becomes clear they aren’t related to anything else in the story. Depending on the reader’s tolerance, they might quit the book before the real plot returns.

Unrelated plots tend to happen in one of two ways. The most common is for the characters to take a side adventure that affects the rest of the story very little, or not at all. The protagonist might pause flight training, spend several chapters learning to sword fight, and then never use a sword again. Or they might stop pursuing the villain across the stars in order to adventure on squid-planet for a while and then return to the chase as if nothing happened.

A less common but just as damaging version of the unrelated plot is for the entire story to be fragmented. The first few chapters might be about the protagonist learning the ways of the royal court, then they’re suddenly transported into an alien dimension where none of that matters, and now the story is about avoiding plant monsters. This sort of disjointed narrative makes the reader wonder why these two unrelated stories were published in the same novel.

How to Avoid It

The best way to tell if a subplot is unrelated to the main story is to take it out and see what happens. If you only have to make a few minor changes, then the plot wasn’t necessary in the first place. This can be best spotted in an outline, either written before you draft or, for you discovery writers, reverse engineered afterward. That way you can look only at the main events of the plot and not deal with all the text of a full draft.

Avoiding plots that feel like completely separate stories is a little trickier. One option is to simply split them up and publish them individually, but that might not fit your plans. In order to keep them together, foreshadowing is your best friend. We need to know about the evil plant monsters while the protagonist is learning courtly manners, and then we need to see how that high-society education transitions into photosynthetic adventure. Most importantly, we need to see how skills learned at court help the protagonist win the day. Otherwise, we could just start with the evil plants and save time.

5. Expository POVs

A ship flies in front the blue inside of a ring world. In Consider Phlebas, we get multiple and confusing cuts to a side character to remind us that a train is coming.

For any story told in the limited narration style, who gets their own point of view is an eternal question. Here at Mythcreants, we take the stance that most stories do better with only a single POV, as it keeps attention on the protagonist where it belongs. However, there are legitimate reasons to use multiple POVs, especially if you’re telling a tale of political intrigue or some other story where it’s vital for the reader to consider a problem from multiple angles.

Unfortunately, a lot of new authors add extra POVs to their story for an entirely different reason: exposition. We see events through another character’s eyes because that was a convenient way for the author to communicate vital information, no matter how badly it disrupts the narrative. Readers don’t like info dumps, and they especially don’t like info dumps that are delivered by breaking narrative flow.

One common manifestation is the flashback. There are legitimate uses of flashbacks, to be sure, but the most common use I see in manuscripts is as a channel for backstory. New authors have a tendency to create complex chains of events that happen before the story even starts, and then they want to communicate those events to the reader. Regardless of whether the reader actually needs to know this information or not, it’s still frustrating to be yanked away from the present so we can get a history lesson.

Authors also use expository POVs to establish some aspect of the story that won’t be important until much later. It would be jarring if a volcano god appeared out of nowhere at the climax of a low-magic fantasy story, so instead the author gives the divine volcanologist a POV. That way the reader knows about their high magma-ness beforehand. Problem solved, right? Not quite. The reader knows there’s a volcano god, but since it isn’t related to the story right now, it doesn’t seem important. That makes the volcanologist POV feel like a waste of time.

How to Avoid It

The first step in avoiding expository POVs is knowing what information the reader actually needs to know, especially from backstory. In most cases, the reader only needs to know the backstory elements that affect what’s happening in the present. We don’t need to know that the protagonist had a long-lost aunt, unless that aunt is secretly the villain and finding out about her reveals a critical weakness.

Once you’ve paired down the information, the best way to convey it is through the character’s actions. Rather than have someone sit down and explain what happened, in either flashback or dialogue form, it’s best if the characters discover new info on their own. They might find an old family tree that shows an aunt they never knew about or realize the unknown relative in their family photo looks a lot like the villain they clashed swords with. That way the backstory information feels like a reward, not a distraction.

If you need to establish some major aspect of the story ahead of time, the best way is to show how it affects things now. This may require some revision, but it’ll be worth the effort. Instead of telling us there’s a volcano god through a special POV, you might show how when the protagonist fights, the ground sometimes trembles beneath their feet, knocking enemies to the ground. It seems like random luck, but it happens often enough to make the hero suspicious. That way, you can have a big reveal that’s satisfying for the reader.

6. Unthreatening Antagonists

Kingpin from Daredevil in his purple suit. Daredevil’s Kingpin is pretty good at fighting, but he’s terrible at running his criminal empire, angering allies and looking weak to rivals.

In most stories, the villain is nearly as important as the hero. The villain gives life to the conflict; they are the ones who make us worry the hero might actually lose. That’s why villains are typically powerful and why they want something bad. If a villain isn’t threatening, then the conflict is meaningless.

Most new writers understand this on some level, and yet they fail to make their villains threatening. This results in a boring story, because it becomes increasingly clear that the protagonist can get what they want at any time. We like underdogs for a reason: it’s no fun to cheer for a character who already has every advantage.

When a villain isn’t threatening, it’s usually because they just aren’t powerful enough. Authors often create the villain as a rival to the hero but then give the hero so many power-ups that the villain has no chance. Or they might give the villain skills and abilities that aren’t useful, like loading them down with political acumen in a story where everything is decided by star-fighter duels. Sometimes the villain even has the capability to be threatening, but they make so many bad choices they seem like a joke.

Once in a while, I find another type of nonthreatening villain: the villain who is too reasonable. This villain has plenty of power, but their goals just aren’t that bad. This can get to the point that opposing them doesn’t seem worth the effort. Sure, the villain’s plan to buy out the local coffee shop and replace it with a franchise is a little unpleasant, but is it worth getting into a sword fight over? In this scenario, the hero seems like the unreasonable one for getting so up in arms over a small problem.

How to Avoid It

There’s no precise rule about how powerful your villain needs to be, but when the story starts, they should at least be able to defeat the hero in a direct confrontation. What form that confrontation takes depends entirely on your story. If you’re telling an epic war narrative, then it isn’t important that your villain can beat the hero in a fistfight. Instead, the villain’s army should be able to crush the good guys.

Once you’ve established that baseline of power, keep an eye on the hero’s capabilities. It’s fine for them to get stronger throughout the story, but in most cases they should never get so strong that they have a sure shot at victory. One way to give yourself more flexibility is for the villain to gain strength as well. If the evil horde adds an army of ogres to their ranks, it means you can recruit some valiant knights to the hero’s side without changing the balance of power.

As for avoiding villains who are too reasonable, this goes back to our section on stakes. If what the villain wants is something the hero can live with, then it’s not threatening enough. The villain’s goals need to be unacceptable, whether they’re trying to change things or uphold an unjust status quo. If you want a story where the hero and villain compromise at the end, that’s fine, but their deal has to arise from changes during the story. If they start off with compatible goals, the story will flounder.


If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve struggled with these problems more than once. If you aren’t able to solve them on your own, that’s nothing to be ashamed of; that’s what content editors like me are for. We’re more than happy to work on your manuscript until all the bugs are straightened out. But if you know about these problems ahead of time, you can be on the lookout for them as you outline and draft. This will save you time and money when you send your book off for editing.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. SunlessNick

    I’ve even seen a poorly executed Watsonian POV create a deficit of agency.

    Now you bring this up, I wonder if granting Watson a level of agency was one reason why Conan Doyle had a running thread of him telling the stories in a way Holmes didn’t prefer them told.

    A protagonist who punches their way to freedom will seem like a real jerk if the only thing they’re escaping is an awkward dinner.

    Although now I want to see an anthology of stories like this. The desperate escape from the restaurant. Recruiting a team of battle-hardened mercenaries to help carry your shopping. A complex smuggling operation mounted across the border because you’ve bought slightly more than your duty free limit. A deadly shootout between rival candyfloss kiosks.

    • Cay Reet

      Watson does have agency, he’s not just trailing Holmes and I think that was on purpose. However, it also kept the reader out of Holmes’ brain and made it easier to make the solution less obvious. There are a handful of stories which Holmes tells himself and they’re also entertaining. But, of course, Dupin, who came before Holmes, has his Watsonian chronicler, too.

      Aw, now I want that anthology as well. It could be called ‘Overkill.’

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Overkill: They brought a fruit cake, you brought a cruise missile.

        • Cay Reet

          I’d read that.

          • K.A.

            The anime Nichijou is exactly that: characters way overreacting to normal situations. It’s hilarious.

          • Quin

            Sounds like a great way to meet a villain protagonist: Introduce them as a hero, show them going to any lengths to achieve their (vaguely described) goals, then show the low stakes they were playing for.

    • Bryony

      I relate to the dinner party escape at any cost scene, and the “woke to social anxiety” part of the population probably would too. Let’s do this!

  2. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve deleted a comment for blatant sexism. Unfortunately we lost some of Cay Reet’s excellent replies as well, but that’s sometimes a price that must be payed. I’d have gotten to the comment sooner but unfortunately I was asleep.

    • Leon

      Apologies. I said something about less-than-awesome men blaming women for their problems. And I suspect my meaning was unclear.
      My meaning was; I also have no respect for men who blame women for their problems.

      I stand by my observation that there are some people in this world who would rather use negative social constructs to their advantage. These are the people who disgust me, individuals who I have seen being less-than-awesome, not any general classification of people.

  3. Sam Victors

    My first romance story is similar to Outlander; time-travel and romance, but modeled after the myth of Persephone.

    For the first part of the story, my Heroine is adjusting herself in 17th century Cromwellian England, as she stays with a gang and refugee camp of Highwaymen/women and Cavaliers/Royalists. She proves herself trustworthy to the Royalist Hideout, and comes to voluntarily help them rob money from Puritans and Roundheads to send the money to Charles II in Normandy. She would help them by either disguising herself as a maidservant, a new convert to their congregation (she visits some wild and irrational Protestant dissident churches), or distracting/stalling some Roundhead Soldiers with her charm and cunning and pretending to be a lost or troubled Puritan girl. The people she and the Gang usually steals from are mainly unpleasant or wildly fanatical Roundheads/Protestants who have it coming to them. And luckily for her, the Royalist Gang draw a line from robbing poor or unlucky Puritans/Roundheads, as they prefer to rob from wealthy Roundheads or fanatics.

    Her romance with the Hero starts out as friendship first, slowly turning into love as they work and talk together during their adventures.

  4. Leon

    The section on expository POVs was very helpful, specifically the point about noob authors getting carried away with over involved backstories. (Sucked to realise I may need to cut a quite awesome action scene – but I think the heroine gradually revealing more to her friends about nightmares related to her heroic deeds will make her a lot more relatable than witnessing said deeds.)

    What other articles do you have about refining/condensing excessive back story?

  5. Ennis

    I agree about the villain needing adequately heinous goals for certain kinds of fiction, but protagonists opposing certain things for completely petty reasons is the lifeblood of a lot of comedy. Your example about the coffee chain replacing the local coffee shop reminded me of the episode (possibly multiple episodes) of Black Books where a kind of no-name Borders sets up next to the second-hand shop of our protagonist, and he is /furious/. Part of that is because his much-abused assistant Manny quits to work there, but he’s also annoyed about things as petty as their comfortable chairs where you can drink coffee. Admittedly, Bernard is more of a Loveable Arsehole Protagonist than any kind of hero, but then that’s sort of what happens when you need to make drama out of people opposing perfectly reasonable developments.

    Also see: Lillian (the landlady) from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt opposing even the slightest neighbourhood improvements because of “gentrification”, and Ron Swanson against pretty much anything to do with the government.

  6. Gretchen Archer

    I write humorous cozy mysteries.
    I hang on your every word.

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