1. Eliminating Urgency
In addition to compelling stakes, a good conflict needs urgency. If there’s no hurry to solve the problem, then all the tension in the story disappears. At best, the hero can relax and take time to consider all the options. At worst, it may not seem like the hero needs to do anything at all. Urgency sometimes comes in the form of a ticking clock, or it might come from the villain kicking down the door with a laser-sword in hand. Either way, if the plot loses urgency, the story will suffer.
For an example of this issue, let’s say the heroes are defending a castle under siege. They hear that the walls have been breached, so they rush to hold back the invaders. After a difficult fight to repel the first wave, they brace for the second, only to be told it isn’t coming. In fact, the rest of the enemy’s army is several weeks away. The heroes still have to reinforce the castle walls, but they have plenty of time to do so. Before, the army was threatening, but now it’s no big deal.
I most often see this when authors take good advice a step too far – specifically, the advice that scenes of intense conflict should be followed by quieter moments when both the characters and the audience can catch their breath. If the story is nothing but rising action, it’ll exhaust the audience and cause many to put it down.
But when that quiet moment turns into a long stretch, you have a problem. A break from the action should be about long enough for the character to do one thing. They might have a conversation, get a cup of coffee, or smooch their sweetheart. These scenes should feel like the character is regrouping for the next round, not going home because the fight’s been postponed. It should also be clear that this peaceful moment is temporary. If it looks like the hero now has infinite time to solve their problem, the urgency has definitely been damaged.
How you set up the moment of peace also matters a lot. If the heroes party while their castle’s walls are in serious need of repair, it’ll seem like they aren’t taking the enemy’s threat seriously. It’s much better if they’ve already done everything they can to prepare for the siege, and now they’re just trying to find a way to kill time so they don’t succumb to the fear of waiting. Finally, it really helps if the characters did something to earn their moment of peace, rather than having it bestowed on them from the heavens.
2. Premature Victory
The best conflicts are those that make us desperately want the hero to triumph. This is usually accomplished through the use of a threatening villain, but you can get the same effect by pitting the hero against nature or some other non-sapient force. Either way, resolving the conflict is the story’s natural climax. After that, any remaining material should be falling action, there to give the audience a sense of closure and gently wean them off of the characters they’ve grown so attached to.
But it doesn’t always work out that way. Let’s say you have a story about a tailor who wants to expand out of their living room and open a clothing shop where they’ll sell fashionable outfits at a price even working-class families can afford. They are opposed by the CEO of a local clothing cartel whose business model depends on gouging people for good-looking threads. The CEO blocks your hero’s attempt to open a new space, mocks their designs in the newspaper, and even sends goons to destroy the hero’s sewing equipment.
Clearly, this story is building toward a climax of the hero putting on an impromptu fashion show in town square, where so many people love the designs that the hero is flooded with money and orders, making it impossible for the villain to stop them. But instead, when the hero confronts the evil CEO near the story’s midpoint, the CEO gets so worked up that they have a heart attack and die. The rest of the story is now about the hero’s debilitating self-doubt.
This kind of premature victory completely derails the plot and wastes all the hard work you’ve done establishing it. The big moment is over, and now the characters have little to do except wait around for the story to end. Even if you start a new plot, the audience will have a hard time getting into it because their trust has been damaged. They invested themselves in the previous plot only to see it fall apart; why would this new one be any different?
Sometimes this mistake occurs as a result of poor planning. Storytellers craft a bunch of scenes that they can’t find time for before the climax, so they stick them in afterward and hope no one notices. But just as often, it comes from a misplaced desire to subvert audience expectations. “Hah, you thought this was a story about providing high-quality clothes to the masses, but actually it’s about how all success is fleeting and pointless. Don’t you feel enlightened?”
It is possible to use subversions to great effect, but they must be properly set up. If all your story does is not deliver on its promises, audiences will be rightfully annoyed. If you want a twist like this, you need to foreshadow it ahead of time, and the stakes need to be raised, not lowered. In our tailor-story example, a better twist would be for the hero to make a deal with the Clothes Mafia to defeat their CEO rival, then spend the rest of the story trying to get out from under the thumb of a fashion kingpin.
3. Unrelated Character Takeover
The concept of a main character is fairly well understood. They’re the one with the most at stake in the conflict, and the only one who can solve the big problem, either through skill or circumstances. In written stories, the main character is usually the one whose point of view we see the story through. In visual mediums, the main character gets the most screen time. No matter how you indicate the main character’s status, they’re the star, and they should be the one solving problems. Otherwise things get ugly fast.
Let’s say your story is about the prime minister of a country under invasion. The prime minister spends the entire story rallying soldiers, forging alliances, and fighting battles to rid their country of the enemy. It’s clear who the main character is here. The prime minister is uniquely situated to resolve the conflict, and their responsibility as head of the government means they’re extra motivated. Plus they’ve had all the screen time.
But then the prime minister gets sick right before the final battle, and some general we barely know takes over, winning the day and driving the invaders out. Maybe we get to see the prime minister again during the epilogue, but it doesn’t matter because they aren’t the main character anymore!
This type of switcheroo is incredibly frustrating. If the audience likes a main character well enough to follow them through most of the story, they want that character to be instrumental in resolving the conflict. If the main character isn’t that important, then why did the story waste so much time with them? The new character is typically seen as an unwelcome interloper, no matter how much effort the author puts into making them likable. This is even worse if the newcomer is more privileged than the character they’re replacing. We’ve all seen female characters pushed aside for male ones or black characters pushed aside for white ones, and it tends to strike a nerve.
The most common reason for this mistake is that the storyteller changed their mind about their characters while writing the story. Chances are they started out with one character they thought should be the hero, but later they fell in love with a different character. So they let their new favorite character save the day at the end. In this situation, it’s always better to go back and just make the character you like into the protagonist. It might take some extra work, but at least you won’t be setting up the story to fail.
4. Jarring POV Change
Crafting a good opening scene is one of the most challenging tasks a novelist faces.* In the opening scene, you have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it. You have to introduce the protagonist, the plot, and the world, while at the same time establishing why the reader should care about any of that. So once you’ve managed that difficult task, surely you wouldn’t want to waste all that effort, right?
Unfortunately, some authors do just that. Let’s say you start with a protagonist who needs to save their kidnapped parents. You show the main character struggling with fear and grief as they search through the remains of their village for supplies and then dodge a patrol of soldiers sent to sweep up any stragglers. Finally, they set out after their parents, and the chapter ends.
That scene introduces the stakes, show us something of the world, and helps us sympathize with the protagonist. But then you switch to a completely different character whose problem is getting a loan so they can afford to keep their house. They put on their best suit and rehearse their lines as they walk to the bank, determined to get that loan. What does this have to do with the previous chapter? Are they even set in the same world? No one knows!
This kind of jarring POV switch takes all the hard work you’ve done in your opening scene and tosses it out a window. Now you have to start from square one, getting your readers attached to a new character with a new problem and possibly a new world. Your job is even harder this time because the reader wants to know what’s happening to the first POV character, and anything that gets in their way is an irritating distraction.
Most of the time, authors who make this mistake are trying to tell a story that requires multiple points of view to fully appreciate. The two characters will eventually come together, but it’s just not clear when or how. In this scenario, the best course of action is to establish the second POV character before you switch to them. If the reader knows who this character is and how they relate to the first character, the transition won’t be jarring. Instead, you’re building on what you’ve already accomplished.
Occasionally, authors are a bit sneakier. They know the story should start with conflict, but they don’t really want it to. So, they stick a mostly unrelated scene that’s full of conflict at the beginning and then get on to the real story, which is slow and devoid of interesting problems. If that’s your game, I can only warn you against it. Readers will see through the trick, and they will not be pleased at having a cool plot dangled before them and then snatched away.
5. Sudden Character Death
The best characters have more than one liners and cool powers. They have arcs and special plot threads that pull us in, even if they aren’t the protagonist. We want to see their stuff resolved, and surely no author would be so cruel as to deny us that, right? Well…
Let’s say one of your characters is a space captain, and their true love signs up to command a ship in the enemy fleet. Oh boy, this got dramatic fast. Now you’ve set up a wonderful internal conflict to match the external one. Your character has to stop the enemy fleet, but they also have to face their true love’s defection and reconcile what it means to them. Gripping stuff.
Then you decide to kill that character a few chapters in, so none of that gets resolved. Instead, you switch the focus over to other characters, and the story keeps going as if it had never raised the specter of a tragic love story written in the stars.
This is what happens when a major character dies at the wrong time. It’s worse than simply not having them around anymore. All those unresolved plot threads itch at the back of our minds, the storytelling equivalent of feeling like you’ve left the oven on. We find it harder to invest in new plotlines because we can’t be sure they won’t be abandoned.
Beyond the irritation of unfulfilled promises, killing a character at the wrong time wastes a lot of effort on your part. You’ve worked hard to get the audience attached to the character and their part in the story, and now you have to do that again with a different character. It’s similar to the problems caused by a jarring POV change, but even worse because you can’t ever go back to the deceased hero.*
We expect this sort of thing from TV shows because actors aren’t always available to continue their roll, but storytellers kill their characters off on purpose too. As far as I can tell, this is motivated by a weird obsession many authors have with character death. They know they aren’t supposed to do it, which makes them really want to do it, and they can point to a few successful examples for justification.
What they miss is that successful character deaths must be set up so they resolve plot threads rather than leave them hanging. Consider what might be the most famous death in epic fantasy, Ned Stark. Ned’s main plotline is about trying to prevent a civil war in Westeros. When he dies, that plot is resolved. He’s failed, and it’s time for a civil war. Ned’s other plot threads are gracefully handed off to his wife and children, so we aren’t left feeling like he had unfinished business. If that’s the kind of character death you want, go for it; just be aware that it takes a lot more work than sending a stray blaster bolt the hero’s way.
6. Unclear Goals
A story with high stakes, a compelling problem, and good urgency is still missing one thing: character agency. Your characters need at least some idea of what they’re going to do. They’re the protagonists, after all, so it’s their job to keep the plot moving. If they can’t perform that function, the story quickly stalls.
This happens a lot in stories with really big conflicts. You might be crafting a tale of an alien invasion, and your characters are soldiers tasked with defeating it. That’s a compelling problem with urgency baked right in. However, you soon realize the characters have no idea how to accomplish their goal. It’s a planet-wide invasion, so how is one squad of soldiers going to deal with that?
So you have them wander around for a while, maybe encountering the occasional alien patrol but mostly just waiting, until eventually they discover a special computer virus they can use to take down all the aliens at once. Finally, the plot can move forward!
This kind of meandering plot is boring. Really boring. It sends a clear signal to the audience that they can skip this part because nothing important is happening. Instead of enjoying the conflict, the audience just has to wait for something to fall out of the sky and give the characters a clear goal. This always feels contrived, since it’s obvious the heroes aren’t going to solve the problem without author intervention.
In most cases, storytellers stumble into this mistake because they’ve made their villain too powerful, and it doesn’t make sense for the heroes to defeat them yet. One obvious way to fix this is to reduce the villain’s strength, or at least reduce how strong the heroes think the villain is. That way you can show the good guys trying to defeat the villain in different ways. Each time they fail, raise the villain’s threat level, until they finally resort to a desperate method that works.
If that option isn’t viable, you can have the characters focus on smaller, related problems first. In our aliens example, the heroes could realize they don’t know how to stop the invasion and instead spend their time getting civilians to safety. That way you still have character actions to drive the plot forward, and on the way they can discover how to beat the aliens without it seeming contrived.
Too many authors think that once they’ve set up a great throughline, the work is over. They get careless and let major mistakes damage their valuable narrative. On the bright side, once you know what to look out for, avoiding these mistakes becomes a lot easier. Armed with such knowledge, you’ll know just how to get your story started right – and then how to keep it on track.