Are You Skimming Your Story’s Potential?

It’s not enough to write a story that just covers its bases. By that I mean a story that essentially works—it’s properly structured, the prose is professional, and it possesses all the working pieces (plot, character, etc.). You can check all the boxes on your story checklist and still end up with a story that skims its potential.

For example, let’s say you’re writing an action thriller about an agent who is betrayed and goes rogue. Standard genre fare. Tough-as-nails hero. Check. Lots of action scenes. Check. Loved one in danger. Check. Smarmy politicians and duplicitous former friends. Check.

What’s missing? Well, aside from the fact that you’re hitting absolutely all of the genre clichés, you don’t yet have a story.

To which you may say, “What? Of course, I have a story. It’s all right here.”

To which I say, “Not really.”

All you’ve got at this point is the framework for a story. If you were to leave it at just that, you would be barely skimming the surface of your story’s potential.

How do you go about digging deeper and finding the mother lode of your story’s potential?

First thing, you hunt around for some original ways to hit your genre’s standard tropes.

Second, you look at your characters, particularly your protagonist. Winding up characters and letting them run through the motions of your plot isn’t enough. Dig deep and find what makes these people tick. It’s your characters’ personal reactions to events (not the impressive way in which they handles those events) that are important.

And this certainly doesn’t apply to just action stories. Whatever your genre, you must dig deep, not just for originality, but for emotion. You can do everything else right, but if you don’t put a check in that box, none of the rest will matter.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever read or watched a story that you felt was skimming its potential? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. sadly yes. Especially by first-time, younger writer/authors. There’s often a lot that’s good – great writing, snark, action, mystery, cliffhanger chapter endings – but what’s missing is a reason for me to care about the mc. It’s all well and good for them to succeed/fail/fight/flee/win but if I don’t love them then meh.

  2. I’m pretty much right there with you. I’ll forgive a book any host of flaws so long as it makes me love the characters.

  3. Oh, yeah.. I’ve run into quite a few stories that could have devled deeper into the protagonist..

    I’m always scared of doing this myself.. but so far, readers have told me that they love my characters.. 😉

  4. Readers know! The problem with this pitfall isn’t so much that authors do it intentionally – or that we think readers will be fine with our just skimming our characters’ surface. The problem is more along the lines of the fact that we *think* we are showing them our characters’ innards, when really it’s our own hyper-sensitive perceptions of our characters filling in the blanks when we read and re-read our own stories.

  5. I sure hope I’m “digging deep” into my characters! I’ve got most of the standard boxes checked for my genre (fantasy), but you’re so right about that elusive “other box” that needs to be checked.

    To answer your question, I just recently watched a movie that I felt did not dig deep enough into the protagonist. “Snow White and the Huntsman” – great fantasy flick with drama, battles, good story, etc. But I felt like Snow White herself was a very two-dimensional character. The Huntsman and the evil queen, in my opinion, had that extra spark that really captured my attention. To me, it seemed like Snow White was there just to fuel the plot and didn’t really respond to things like she could have.

  6. I saw that movie too, Grace, and felt very similar. Snow White seemed more of a plot device than an individual, and of course she has men falling at her feet just because that’s what female leads are for. To be honest, I notice this seems to happen to a significant degree in films these days – villains are interesting and nuanced, main characters are brick walls. TV has a lot more time and scope to really dig into a character and their background. Even frantic action shows like 24 centred around a complex and interesting character, and part of its charm was in seeing how far Jack Bauer could be pushed.

    That’s something I like to do with my characters. I make them, then I break them. Establishing them as being a certain kind of person who acts a certain way is interesting, but I feel you really only get to know a character when you demonstrate just what it takes to make them act out of character, so to speak.

  7. @Grace: Totally agree. I was excited to hear (the possibly incorrect rumor) that the next movie would focus on the Huntsman to the exclusion of Snow White – and not just ‘cuz that would mean no Kristen Stewart. :p

    @The Mike: In general, I really don’t like TV as a medium. I like stories that *end*. But the one thing TV definitely brings to the table is the time and space to develop characters.

  8. Lovely post. 🙂 I completely agree. I have read way too many books that fell flat because they were just missing that spark that turns it from paper to story. I can only hope I’ve connected with my main character in a way that’ll let me capture that elusive emotional aspect. 🙂

  9. To some extent, that spark is going to be subjective. What connects with one reader won’t necessarily connect with all readers. The important thing is to communicate whatever it is about our characters that connects with us.

  10. I’ve read too many stories that didn’t dig deep enough. But since I can spot it in someone else’s work, will I be able to fix it in my own? Well… we’ll see.

  11. It’s the first step, at any rate. But seeing our own problems is always more difficult. We tend to be myopic.

  12. @ K.M.Weiland – I’d be all about a Huntsman movie. 🙂 Hot guy with a cool accent, and no two-dimensional female lead to get in the way? That’d be a story worth watching. 😉

  13. I notice this a lot. Just recently a friend told me if the MC died he wouldn’t even notice. The sad thing is, we were both thinking it. A massive overhaul is in order.

  14. I’ve read and watched many stories that disappointed me with their thinness, even when I liked particular elements from them.

    Most recently, I edited a manuscript under contract with a publisher, and couldn’t get the author to do her work in deepening the characters and making me care whether or not the bad guys killed the heroine. (I didn’t like her much, anyway.) After three rounds of push-pull in the editing process, I let the book go. It just won’t show up on my resume of edited works.

  15. @Grace: Sounds good to me!

    @Poetry: That’s never a pleasant thing to hear. But I congratulate you on having a friend gutsy enough to give you the cold, hard truth. Now you can move forward in a positive direction.

    @Keanan: That’s got to be frustrating! It’s always a shame when an author won’t make the effort to allow his book to fulfill its potential.

  16. I tend to have this problem. Backstory, I think, helps me with digging deep, because it sort of contextualizes the moment to where I can see the basis of the char.’s actions. It’s a challenge. And I’ve always got to push the envelope of deepness. <[deep statement]

  17. Backstory is vital. Nothing brings my characters to life more me more than an understanding of their backstories – particularly their “ghosts” or demons. Once I know that, I can see where they’re broken and how the nowstory will have to help them overcome and heal.

  18. This is so very true and I loved all the comments…i.e. ‘If the MC died, would you even notice’ Ha!!! Love it!

    My problem is I delve, then have to cut, because the scene (the whole manuscript) becomes ponderous. But it’s getting there. It takes time, I find.

    I think getting a full-bodied character is like making a really good soup. You can’t just throw some bullion cubes in and hope it turns into chicken soup (or whatever). Onions, celery, carrots, garlic, parsley, lots of good herbs/spices as well as the meat and bones. Let it simmer and the excess liquid evaporate, and pretty soon, that broth will be so rich and flavorful that NOBODY can turn it down (unless they don’t like soup).

  19. And as with any good soup, there has to be plenty of tasting, considering, and judicious flavoring. Good metaphor!

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