Make sure your story matters.


A common problem in the third-draft stage is that the protagonist’s journey doesn’t always feel authentic, unique or of high importance. The solution is to look at it from two angles: your character’s relationship to the main story problem, and your own relationship to your protagonist.

Driving Action With Emotion

In many manuscripts the story’s central problem resolves too easily or simply doesn’t matter enough to the main character. How can that be when so much work has gone into it? The reason is that through the course of writing and revising, many authors think in terms of singular events and resolution rather than in terms of large-scale conflicts and ongoing consequences. They lurch from moment to moment rather than unfolding a grand scheme.

When you build a story from moment to moment, each event in the story doesn’t necessarily impact the final outcome, let alone influence the overall arc of your main character. Often, late-stage manuscripts are filled with scenes that start off strong but don’t go anywhere important. High-action openings to such scenes may grab our attention in the short term, but if you haven’t given your character an internal dilemma that is significant enough to rival the external conflicts on the page, the story is sure to falter.

The way to address this issue in your final draft, then, is to anchor each scene of the story fully in your character’s needs as well as in the overt problem itself. In other words, whatever is happening at any given moment in your manuscript, and whatever the changes your protagonist is going through, both must be deeply personal.

What makes it impossible for the hero to turn away, ignore what’s happening or return to a life he knew beforehand? What is he on the verge of? What happens if he fails? If he succeeds? Is solving the problem a matter of high principle, or a matter of low selfishness? Making sure these motivations are clear in everything your main character does goes a long way toward making your story personal.

At this stage, it’s equally crucial to keep the big picture in mind. Plenty of authors build scenes around moments of significance. Great. But are those moments important only individually, or do they help create a significant outcome for the rest of the story?

To put it differently, the urgency and importance of the plot don’t reside in external events. They’re inherent in what’s happening inside your character’s response to those external events. In order to effectively show the change that is occurring in your story, you need to establish excitement, doubt, dread or hope inside the character on the very first page—then go somewhere with it through the middle of the book. Excitement turns to regret, doubt turns to certainty, dread turns to despair, hope burns brighter. What does your protagonist understand about the situation that no one else does? Action and emotion work together to create the kind of story that truly matters.

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