Wednesday, June 05, 2024

6 “Fatal Flaws” That Will Kill a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Fatal flaws can sink a story, but don’t lose hope if you find one in your novel.

First drafts are all about getting an idea from your head onto the page, but sometimes that idea doesn’t come out quite right. Maybe you took the wrong approach, or maybe you tried to do too much to the story, or maybe you overlooked a critical aspect that would make it all come together.

Whatever the reason, your first draft is…not good.

It doesn’t work, there’s something wrong, and you have no clue how to fix it. It’s possible you haven’t even finished it yet, because all your instincts are telling you “Stop writing until you figure this out!”

What’s worse, is that these flawed drafts are often well written and quite good on a scene-by- scene basis, because the writing isn’t the problem. The problem is rooted in the story itself, or how you decided to approach that story.

A fatally flawed novel is one of the tougher manuscripts to revise, because fixing it usually requires an overhaul of the entire novel.

And that sucks, because there’s a decent chance you’ll have to gut the thing and rewrite massive sections of it. You might have to cut major characters, or change the setting. You might even have to reconsider the whole premise.

But take heart—as hard as they are to fix, fatally flawed manuscripts often are fixable.

It just takes careful analysis to determine what that flaw is, then take steps to repair it and get the story back on track.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Revive a Manuscript That Doesn't Work)

Let’s look at 6 common fatal flaws and ways to fix them.

1. You Have the Wrong Protagonist

Sometimes you think the story is going to be about one person, but as it unfolds, another character is clearly the one driving the plot. You had the premise right, you only missed the mark on who was the right character to explore that premise with.

Common feedback symptoms for this flaw include:
  • “I want to know more about X.”
  • “X is way more interesting than Y.”
  • “X seems to be the one doing everything, and Y just goes along for the ride.”

If you’re seeing those types of comments, look at your protagonist and story and ask:

Is the protagonist the wrong person for this story? If so, consider how the story would change if you switched to another, more interesting character. Would it be stronger if you promoted a secondary character to protagonist?

Is the protagonist not enough to tell this tale?
It’s possible the story needs more than one main character to drive it, and the protagonist is only doing half the necessary work. Adding a second (or more) point of view character might do the trick.

Does the protagonist need reworking? Maybe you have the right character, but they need a total makeover so their personality or situation better serves the story. Check their character arc or backstory and adjust as needed to make the character who the story needs them to be.

Often, changing the protagonist doesn’t require as much rewriting as you fear. The scenes are right, but the character navigating them is wrong.

(Here’s more with What to Do if You Think You Have the Wrong Protagonist)

2. You Have the Wrong Story

An idea might excite you, but the farther into it you get, the less it appeals to you. You might even discover what you thought you were writing isn’t at all what’s on the page. Perhaps you got lost in the weeds and wrote in different directions looking for a way out, and until you do, you can’t finish that manuscript.

Common feedback symptoms include:
  • “What about the X plot? Are we ever going to find out how that worked out?”
  • “What happened to So-and-So?”
  • “This subplot is much more interesting than the main plot.”
  • “I skimmed through there, but it really took off here.”
  • “Why are they doing this when that is way cooler?”

If you think you’re writing the wrong story, ask:

What story do you want to tell? It’s possible you lost sight of what your protagonist’s goal was and you’re now writing a premise novel—a novel that only explores an idea, and there’s a character with a problem driving it.

It’s also possible that once you delved deeper into the story it wasn’t as interesting as you first thought. It’s disheartening to throw away all that work, but look at it as writing that needed to be done to find the true story in your idea.

Is a subplot more interesting to you? Maybe a subplot has taken over and is far more compelling than the main plot. You might consider switching them and making the subplot the core conflict instead.

Are your beta readers more interested in a subplot than the main plot? Maybe your readers are ignoring the core conflict, but are dying to know more about a throwaway subplot you tossed in there on a whim.

There’s no shame in setting aside an idea that didn’t pan out. Sometimes you need to write it to discover it doesn’t work.

(Here’s more with Don't Let Your Plot Hijack Your Story)

3. You Have the Wrong Point of View

Shifting perspectives can change the entire feel of a novel, turning what was once distant and told into close and personal. Genre also plays a big role here, as some genres are heavily filled with one particular type of POV style, such as first person and young adult novels, and third-person thriller novels.

Common feedback symptoms include:
  • “This would be better in first/third.”
  • “If you did first/third you’d be able to explore X better.”
  • “Have you thought about doing this in first/third?”
  • “Why are we seeing this character’s perspective?”

Look at your point-of-view style and ask:

Is the scale off? An epic tale that spans continents and worlds may be too large to be told from a first-person point of view without access to the larger elements of the story, same as a third person point of view might feel too detached for a personal journey.

Are there too many point-of-view characters? Even when you have the right point-of-view style, if too many characters are involved, the story can feel clunky and hard to follow. Maybe explore how the story would change if you deleted or combined a few POV characters and storylines.

A point of view problem is one of the easier flaws to fix, since you can write a new chapter or two in a different point-of-view style and compare. If you like what you see, the rest of the novel should go smoothly. If you’re still unhappy, you can try another style, or reexamine the flaw—maybe point of view isn’t the real issue and it’s a character or protagonist flaw.

Sometimes it takes several tries to find the right way to tell a story, and the right people to tell that story.

(Here’s more with First vs. Third Person: Choosing the Right Point of View for Your Novel)

4. You Don’t Have Any Conflict

Conflict drives a novel, and without it, the story can seem like it’s not going anywhere or nothing is going on. A lack of conflict can take many forms, but most often it’s because A) there’s no goal so there’s nothing to conflict with, B) there’s nothing preventing the protagonist from acting, or C) every obstacle is easily overcome.

Common feedback symptoms include:
  • “Everything’s too easy for the protagonist.”
  • “There’s nothing in the protagonist’s way.”
  • “Stuff just falls in her lap.”
  • “There’s nothing going on.”
  • “What’s this about?”

Look at your novel and ask:

Is this a goal issue? The goal should be external and something the protagonist can physically do. Internal goals are vital for character arcs and making choices harder to make, but they don’t drive a plot. Often, all it takes to get the story moving again is identifying the goals.

Is this an antagonist issue? A protagonist (and a conflict) is only as strong as the antagonist. If no one or nothing is actively trying to keep your protagonist from the goal, this could be the problem. Take a closer look at the antagonist and how they or it is affecting the protagonist.

Is this an easy-obstacle issue? If every problem encountered is solved with no effort or skill, then there’s nothing in the way even though it may look like it. Conflict = struggle + hard choices. Try looking at how you can make those obstacles harder to overcome and matter more on a personal level.

Is this a character arc issue? The lack of available hard choices could be because there’s no character arc to create the inner conflict needed to cause those tough choices in the first place. If you have no character arc and don’t need one (not all novels do), then perhaps it’s an internal conflict issue instead. There’s nothing causing your protagonist to emotionally struggle to achieve their goals.

Often, the conflict is weak because the actions are for plot reasons only, not because the characters want to do what they’re doing. Nobody’s trying to stop anyone because nobody cares—it’s a play, not their life.

(Here’s more with Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

5. You Don’t Have Any Stakes

Not caring is almost always a personal stakes issue. If there’s no risk for the protagonist, why should readers care about their problem? The fun is in the fear that doom is just around the corner, and terrible consequences will befall those who fail.

Common feedback symptoms include:
  • “Does it matter if she does this?”
  • “What will go wrong if he fails here?”
  • “Why are they going through all this? Can’t they just leave?”

Look at your major turning points and ask:

Are there personal and life-changing consequences for failure? If the protagonist can walk away and nothing bad happens to them, that’s the problem. Think about how you can add a consequence or a reason they must act.

Is the only thing at stake “the protagonist dies” or “the world ends?” If death or bodily harm is the only reason and the only consequence, find or create a few more reasons to make failing personal and compelling. Stakes needs to escalate to keep readers engaged, so start low and keep raising them higher.

A consequence can feel enormous, but readers still don’t care, while a small little risk can yank at their heartstrings. Typically, the more personal they are, the higher the stakes feel.

(Here’s more with Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus)

6. Your Characters Lack Credibility

Sometimes characters act in ways that make no sense. Everyone knows the killer is waiting in the dark, but the character goes into the basement to check the weird noise anyway. Or a character has a skill set that stretches credibility, or breaks a law of physics with no explanation. Whatever goes wrong, readers say, “Nope, not buying it.”

Common feedback symptoms include:
  • “Why would they do this?”
  • “Why didn’t they do X instead?”
  • “This seems like a lot of work when they could have easily done X.”
  • “Doesn’t this go against what they said before?”

Look at where your characters might be stretching credibility and ask:

Is this a motivation issue? Characters need solid reasons to act, and when they act against their own best interests, readers cry foul. Stay true to the character, and if you can’t, then craft a plausible reason for their actions.

Is this a realism issue? The suspension of disbelief is vital to fiction, but there’s a fine line between a little reality finagling and outright impossibility. If your story isn’t plausible, put in the effort to make what you want to have happen feel credible.

Is this an over-thinking issue? If every problem requires a Rube Goldbergesque plan to resolve it when a simple act will fix it, there’s a good chance the plot is getting convoluted. Characters will choose the path of least resistance, so if you don’t want them to take that path, make sure readers understand why they can’t.

In most cases, fixing a credibility issue is a matter of showing why (or how) such an act is necessary, or why something is the way it is. If you have no other reason than, “Because it has to be for the plot to work,” there’s the problem.

(Here’s more with Nope, Not Buying It: How Do We Maintain Believability in Our Writing?)

Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal, and you can salvage a half-finished manuscript you still love—even if you don’t particularly like it at the moment.

I’m not gonna lie—it’ll take work, but if you love the story and want to see this novel on a shelf one day, the work is worth it.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take some time and analyze your “Why isn't this working?” novel for these fatal flaws. When you find one, brainstorm ways to fix that flaw. Don’t forget to think beyond what you know about the story. It’s easy to say, “That won’t work” because it doesn’t fit what you already wrote, but often, that’s exactly why it’s the right solution to the problem.

What about you? Do you have a half-finished novel with a fatal flaw? Have you ever given up on a novel? Do you have one that might be helped with these fixes?

*Originally published October 2016. Last updated June 2024

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

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With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
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  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. A fatal flaw for me is not liking my ideas for more than a day and thinking all my ideas are bad. It's hard to complete a first draft. It's frustrating and I don't know how to stay interested enough in a story.

    1. That's not uncommon, sadly, so you're not alone. For me, I always dig into the conflict and the plot to see if it's a story that can carry a whole novel. A lot of times all we have is a cool premise, and once we start trying to write it, we realize there's just not enough story there.

      But if you have a character with a problem, and you can see all the ways that character might try to solve that problem, and the trouble they might get into to, then you're a big step closer to a workable novel.

      Your ideas probably aren't bad. They might be unformed still, or you're missing that spark to make them really great, but most ideas can become great novels. It's just a matter of figuring out what makes them special. Sometimes that's as simple as having great characters, or a fascinating world.