Your Story Isn’t Working? Here Are 6 Problems to Troubleshoot

If you’re here because you feel your story isn’t working, you’re not alone. Most writers feel that way about most of the stories they write. The good news is you can probably salvage your current story by troubleshooting a few key areas. One way to learn how to accomplish this is to learn what didn’t work in certain stories.

Today, I’m offering myself up as a guinea pig. A few years ago, I wrote a post I called “Lessons From a Lost Novel,” in which I talked about a story that hadn’t worked out for me and what I was later able to realize were its stumbling blocks. Today, it’s time for Round 2. If you’re a regular reader, you know I recently moved on from a novel I struggled with for years before admitting it. just. didn’t. work. Today, I want to analyze some of the missteps I made early on in writing this story and what the advantage of time now tells me I could have done to avoid all its problems. Almost all these mistakes could happen in any type of novel. My hope is that, with the benefit of my experiences with this story, you may be able to catch some of these problems much earlier on in your own manuscripts.

Dreamlander (Amazon affiliate link)

First, a little background. The story I was working on was intended to transform my already published standalone portal fantasy Dreamlander into a trilogy. This story is about a man from our world who is the only person in his generation with the ability to “wake up” in his dreams—in a fantasy-esque world parallel to our own. Without spoiling the ending too much, I will say that I tied off the loose ends in a way that made a sequel difficult. But then one night, while daydreaming at a campfire, I came up with an idea that would allow my hero to return to his lost love in the land of dreams for another apocalyptic adventure.

Right away, however, I was already in deeper water than I would usually be when plotting a new story, since I had to somehow create a resonant full trilogy out of a story that not only was intended to be a standalone but that had really tied off its own loose ends. Still, I was excited to return to the characters, and I swam ahead. I plotted, outlined, and wrote the entirety of what would be the second book in the trilogy. I called it Dreambreaker. So far, pretty good. But then it came time to write Book 3 and finish off the trilogy. I dove in—only to realize I had written myself into an unsolvable tangle. Whoops.

Before long (due also in part to larger life circumstances), I had major writer’s block. After struggling along with the story for several years, I ended up taking a conscious sabbatical of nearly two more years before finally returning to take another look at my outline for Book 3. Happily, enough time had passed for me to see (and admit) to the six major reasons the story wasn’t working. Not so happily, this led to the subsequent realization that, in order to create a solid conclusion for my trilogy, I would have to completely rewrite the already completed second book. I decided that was more than I wanted to commit to at the time and put the book back on the shelf so I could pursue a new idea.

6 Tips to Look at When Your Story Isn’t Working

Today, I want to share with you the six big pitfalls I fell into when writing Dreambreaker and its sequel. None of them are surprising; all of them are obvious. But all of them are also surprisingly easy for even experienced writers to overlook. Whether or not you currently feel your story isn’t working, double-check you’ve ticked all of these important boxes in writing a cohesive story that works.

1. Know the Ending

The Problem: Specifics are important. It’s one thing to know your story’s general ending and another to know the specifics of how your characters will get there, how their motivations will influence their final actions, and how the theme will prove out.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

As an avid outliner, I always know how my stories will end before I start writing. But because this particular story was split into two books, I didn’t follow my own game plan as I usually would have. I did not outline Book 3 before writing Book 2. My outline for Book 2 worked out just fine. But by the time I sat down to outline Book 3, I realized what I had set up in Book 2 would not properly create the necessary payoff by the end of Book 3. I worked for months trying to get around this, but my attempts to explain my characters’ motivations and the mechanics of the magical finale became more and more convoluted as I tried to make sure plot, character, and theme all pulled together to create a cohesive whole.

The Fix: Had I outlined my series all the way to the end, I could have avoided this trouble altogether. I could have made sure Book 2 properly built into Book 3 before I spent so much time and effort writing it.

I realize timing on this one will vary from writer to writer. Some writers prefer to discover their ending in the writing. Personally, however, I have always liked to figure out my endings early on when outlining, for the very reason that I when I start writing the first draft, I can make sure everything builds sensibly toward that all-important Climax.

Regardless of whether you prefer outlining or discovery writing, as soon as you do know your ending, you will need to look back over the book-long build-up to that point and ensure it all makes sense. It’s far too easy to accidentally create a build-up and pay-off that are not two parts of a cohesive whole, but rather two separate entities altogether.

A Full Post I’ve Written About This: 

2. Keep the Plot Simple, So You Can Focus on Character Interactions

The Problem:deliberately decided I wanted to write a Very Complex Novel. As my father would put it, I got too big for my britches. I wanted to magnify everything from the first book, going wide and deep with the history, culture, politics, and geography of my fantasy world. I drew complicated family trees for my royal characters, created twisty conspiracy theories that trailed centuries into my backstory, and crafted the plot around a complicated magical mystery the characters would have to unravel.

It had its good bits to be sure, and I thoroughly enjoyed concocting it all. But I kept tripping over the troubling sense that my story was getting away from me. The word count was geysering (even for me), and I knew I was spending an inordinate amount of time explaining all these complexities.

When reading Matt Bird’s The Secrets of Story, I cringed at his pointed question:

Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?

For that matter, could I even reasonably describe my complicated plot in a simple concept? I tried and tried and tried, but the answer was always, “Uh, no.”

The Fix: Bird went on to encapsulate (in appropriately simple language) what I was reminded of the hard way:

…a good plot should be simple enough that both the characters and the audience understand it just by looking at it.


[Characters need] to talk about something other than the plot at least once per scene.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: the backstory and world lore in stories such as Lord of the RingsHarry Potter, and Game of Thrones may be elaborately and deliciously complex, but they never take away from the simplicity of the plot and therefore never (or rarely) get in the way of the development of the characters and their relationships. So if, like me, you are tempted by complexity, stop and ask yourself these two questions:

1. When you add a new element (such as a character’s family tree), is the plot reliant on it? (Sometimes that’s fine; other times, it’s a sign you’ve unnecessarily complicated your plot concept.)

2. If not, does the explanation of it distract from the plot itself unnecessarily?

Full Posts I’ve Written About This:

3. Know Your Antagonist’s Motivation

The Problem: One of the secrets to creating a tight plot is understanding your antagonist’s role. Antagonists have always been hard for me. I just… don’t care enough about them. I always struggle to integrate them into the plot and theme in a way that lifts them above mere plot devices. The trouble is I like epic, world-ending stakes, and the kind of antagonists who drive those stakes are usually unavailable for the more interesting relational-level scenes that humanize both them and the protagonist.

In this story, I created a shadowy group of “elites,” who were secretly pulling all the strings behind the scenes. Intrinsic to the problem that this is probably the single most difficult type of antagonist for me to personally understand, I struggled to come up with solid reasons why anyone would be motivated to create the kind of world-ending events I wanted for my story. After all, these dudes have to live in my story world too—so why would they want to blow it up?

Cue more over-complicated attempts at explanation and rationalization. My antagonists and their motivations just kept getting more and more far-fetched. Even I didn’t believe in them.

The Fix: When I went back to my story after my long break, I knew the only way to fix it would be to change the role of the antagonists. Not only did their current iteration make no sense, but their defeat in the Climax had no thematic resonance. So I completely ripped them out of the story and replaced them with a single character who wasn’t unbelievably all-powerful, who had much more primal and relatable motivations, and who was already a player in the first book—and therefore carried much more weight and resonance in the sequels.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

Unfortunately, this alone was enough to make me realize I would have to pretty much entirely rewrite the finished second book (something I wasn’t currently willing to do). This is because a solid antagonistic force will never just be tacked on to the overall plot. Even if that character isn’t present in most of the scenes, his or her influence must be integral to every structural beat of the story.

The easiest way to double-check your antagonist’s cohesion within the story is to examine his or her role in the Climax—and then work backwards to set that up. And if you find your current antagonist isn’t really all that crucial to the mechanics of your Climax, you may realize you’ve chosen and/or focused on the wrong antagonistic force.

Full Post I’ve Already Written About This:

4. Double-Check Your Story’s Thematic Resonance

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The Problem: Because my antagonistic force was too separate from my main characters’ personal journeys and because I had over-complicated the plot to the detriment of my characters’ relational development, my story’s thematic resonance inevitably suffered as well. The “shape” of a story is important. Plot structure and character arc play a role in this. But ultimately, “shape” comes down to thematic resonance. What overall image is emerging from all the individual puzzle pieces?

In my story—as in many problematic stories—the answer wasn’t clear. The more I worked on it, the more it just seemed like a rehash of every other fantasy story about brave heroes making difficult sacrifices. Don’t get me wrong: that is and will always be one of my favorite themes. But this time around, it just felt… fake. It didn’t feel as if the characters’ actions offered any deeper symbolic insight or import. My messy plot, my messy fantasy lore, and my messy magic system were all combining to create a cohesive effect—and that effect was, in a word, messy.

The Fix: Good complexity arises out of simplicity—out of going deep with a few cohesive elements. Bad complications arise out of a bunch of random pieces that never quite pull together. Particularly in a genre like fantasy that, however realistic it may seem, is deeply symbolic, it is important every piece makes sense as part of a larger whole. Thematic resonance is where this will prove out: your plot, your character arcs, your theme, and your overall symbolism will all create a larger whole.

For me, the good news in all this messiness was that in my attempts to create thematic resonance, I dug deep into archetypal studies and ended up with a new book on the subject (Writing Archetypal Character Arcs–coming very soon)! The not-so-good news was that, once again, I realized I would have to streamline my story’s elements to the point that I would have to rewrite the finished book altogether. This is yet another reason why it can be so valuable to know your story’s ending before you begin the first draft—so you can make sure every piece is pulling together toward the same end result.

Full Posts I’ve Already Written About This:

Bonus for Writers of Fantasy: Understand Your Magic System

The Problem: Fact #1: I write fantasy.

Fact #2: Most of the best-known fantasies these days incorporate elaborate magic systems.

Fact #3: I don’t really care about magic systems.

For me, magic systems generally fall into that same Plot Trope bucket as antagonists. Not saying this is a good thing, but it is me recognizing it’s difficult for me to write what I don’t care about. In most of my stories, this has never been much of a problem because the fantasy element has always been relatively simple and catalytic. In the original Dreamlander, the magic system is pretty much relegated to the protagonist’s ability to live in both the real world and the dream world; in Storming, the speculative element is limited to the “science” of a weather-controlling dirigible; and in Wayfarer, the only magic is the superpowers gained by two people from the same simple source.

But true to my commitment to a Very Complex Novel, I decided to go big or go home with the magic system in these new sequels. (Needless to say, I went home.) I created a comparatively big magic system that was really just a big mess. It made no “scientific” sense, even though I kept throwing explanations at it. And it lacked thematic resonance, in that it didn’t symbolize anything pertinent or cohesive.

The Fix: To fix my story’s magic system, I knew I would have to do three things:

1. Simplify the magic system, by stripping it down to a handful of very specific, simple, and sensible rules so everything the characters did with it did not require oodles of on-the-spot explanations from me.

2. Pay strict attention to the magic system’s thematic import. Not only did I want the magic system to seem like an extension of the overall theme and the characters’ growth within it, I also wanted every piece to be a part of its own thematic motif (in this case, I decided to re-center it around water motifs).

3. Identify what I needed the magic system to accomplish in the story’s Climax and build everything around that.

Since then, I’ve also read and appreciated C.R. Rowenson’s The Magic System Blueprint, which I would use if I ever attempt another complex magic system.

Bonus for Writers of Series: Make Sure Sequels Add to All Aspects of the Existing Story

The Problem: This whole adventure was my first foray into the world of sequels and series. The fact that I was trying to create a trilogy out of a first book that had already been published as a standalone only complicated the task further.

As I wrestled with my sequels, one thought I kept circling back to was how much I hated, as a reader, when an author wrote sequels that seemed to forget what was best about the original or even what was the point of the original. I did not want to do that to my own readers, who already had a relationship with my original book Dreamlander.

I finally had to admit the sequels I’d created did not properly honor the original. Just as with certain series that I had felt personally let down by as a reader, I knew the sequels I was creating were not so much adding to the vision of the original as subtly changing and retrofitting elements in attempt to overall cohesion. (I did figure out how to fix that, but, again, it would require starting from scratch with the sequels.)

The Fix: Sequels and series are all the rage these days, for so many reasons—including the fact that they generally sell better and also that authors often love revisiting and expanding upon their own creations. But many sequels not only fail to add to their predecessors, they end up taking away from them, either simply because of their comparatively poor quality or because they change the original story and characters readers loved so much.

The simplest solution here is just to ask: does this sequel really need to be written?

If the answer turns out to be yes, then ask: how can I make sure every new element within these sequels adds to the original?

Of course, many of the potential pitfalls of writing sequels and series can be eliminated simply by planning the entire thing upfront, knowing the ultimate ending, and making sure everything in every book builds toward that end.

Full Posts I’ve Already Written on This:


There’s knowing how to troubleshoot when a story isn’t working and there’s knowing. The frustrating part of my experience with these “lost novels” is that I consciously knew all six of these guidelines before I started writing them.

Writing a story, however, is never a simple experience. Even the most straightforward story requires the author to keep track of hundreds of different ideas and techniques all at the same time. It’s easy to forget, lose track of, or simply miscalculate the effect of any one decision you may be making about your story.

The more often we recognize these six important guidelines, the more likely we are to instinctively catch ourselves whenever we veer off-track when writing a story. And if we do get so far into the weeds that we must admit we wrote something unsalvageable, I can promise you the experience will make sure you never forget to check these points again.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever felt like your story isn’t working? What did you do to fix it? 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. I’ve been stuck on a book for over a year now as well, and I can recognize that some of these are definitely among the reasons why! Not sure I can fix them without more time away either, but it’s helpful to see it’s not just me and some ways to approach fixing these issues. 🙂

  2. Hi K, Thanks for this post. I’m with you. In many of my WIPs I often write, out of frustration, notes to self like “”I’m making this story too complex or too difficult” and set it aside. When I come back to it, sometimes months later, I write a scene or two then write at the bottom, “This is crap.”
    In my latest attempt I wrote a scene which should probably be last scene in the story but I’m only some 6K words into it. So I wrote myself into a corner, another plot hole, if you will. I haven’t fixed it yet. Maybe I’ll just turn the whole thing into a short story. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I always say a story’s gotta be as long (or short) as it’s gotta be. So maybe what you’ve written *is* mean to be a short story.

  3. I’ve been wrestling with the outline for my own fantasy series since 2014 (!) and ensuring all the elements feed back into each other properly and that it feels like a cohesive unit has definitely been the major reason that it’s still not ready almost ten years on. The reminder to keep things simple especially hits home—the idea for the whole thing started out as an idea for a conlang and I think the complexity of the worldbuilding spiraled from there, and my great struggle over the last year or so has been trying to rein things in and consolidate. (Also, like, I totally feel your point about magic systems. Every time I try to sit down and actually figure out the *rules* for mine, I think I’d rather scoop out my own eyes with a spoon.) Thanks for this article, it was insightful as always and gives me much to chew on for my own writing! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I find it is so important for each of us to determine what we actually enjoy writing. This isn’t to say we’ll never have to write or study things that don’t interest us, but if we’re basing a large part of a story on something that bores us to create, that’s always a bad sign, IMO.

  4. I admit, I am VERY happy to not be the only person out there who writes fantasy but cannot manage to make myself care deeply about elaborate magic systems. I prefer the fairy-tale type of unexplained magic, where the character make friends with the North Wind, or swashbuckles with the added advantage of a cloak of invisibility. I appreciate stories where there is little magic, and that little is all the more wondrous for the contrast. (I think the vlogger `Hello Future Me’ calls that a soft magic system.)

    • I’ll take some well written mysticism over a rigorously defined system any day of the week.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy reading a good hard magic system (as long as it doesn’t become too self-indulgent on the author’s part), but, yeah, I don’t enjoy creating them. I’d much rather deal with something simpler. Plus, like you, I really do enjoy the more mysterious abstract take on magical causality. Does all the magic in LOTR need to be explained? Definitely not. In fact, I think that would have taken away from the story.

  5. Grace Dvorachek says

    This reminds me so much of my experience several years ago writing a trilogy. Instead of outlining each book first, I wrote the entire first book, which provided many unnecessary complications in the second book. But I didn’t learn my lesson, as I also wrote the second book before outlining the third.

    Because of this, I ended up with a huge mess of characters I didn’t want. In the third book, I wanted one of the characters to turn bad, but I didn’t properly set this up in the first and second book, so I ended up creating an entirely new character just to betray the MC. This happened with many, many other characters until I had a huge supporting cast that was unnecessary and hard to keep track of.

    Should I ever rewrite that trilogy, I will definitely come back to these points!

  6. I had this issue for years, until I discovered last fall that the 2 book series needed to just be one. It solved all the problems! It only took a few months to cut out all the unnecessary plot points and get it down to one book. It was SO worth! The new book is far superior to the original first book. Now I’m facing the opposite issue. My current WIP was written as 1 book but I realized it was far too complicated and it needed to be 2 books to give all the important themes and plots points their due. So now I’m trying to figure out how to make sure the sequel does the first justice! This article is helpful for that and I just ordered Outlining your Novel Workbook too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, lengthy word counts can often be a sign that the story is overcomplicating itself. One of my goals for my current WIP is to keep it quite short comparatively.

  7. K,
    Perhaps the novel is salvageable as a standalone where you move it out of the Dreamlander universe into something else? Just a thought.
    Also, your post comes at an apt time as I am on Book 2 of a trilogy; I did plan the oriignal book as being part of this and book 2 follows on–that said, your advice on what books 2 and 3 should be doing are something I need to take on board.
    Please keep ’em coming. Each of your weekly posts inspires, cautions and advises on thorny issues of writing.
    Hence, thanks for these.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Peter! Glad you’re enjoying the posts. And, yes, I actually borrowed quite heavily *from* my current WIP’s idea when writing the Dreamlander sequels, so some of what I did in those sequels is coming full circle and helping me with what I’m now writing.

  8. I was taken by the statement “I know how it will end.” This is a problem, I believe, especially for writers of non-fiction or creative non-fiction (I hate labels). For instance, try writing fiction about WWII! How will _that_ end?
    There’s the problem of making sure not to insult or offend real people or their descendants. You might not want to change names but lawyer say you have to. They may have said or done something really scandalous that you will want to or have to ignore.
    The real ending will overshadow your story so you will have to work very hard to make sure your story’s ending gets equal or better time.
    I want my character to wake up from dreams too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, writing about real events can be extra tricky, even when you’re writing historical fiction.

    • I’m working on historical fiction right now, but set in Biblical times, so there’s little chance of offending any descendants. I know the facts of how my story ends, but the adventure is in how my main character, a real person about whom practically nothing is known (he is mentioned only three times in the Bible’s Book of John), interprets the historical events going on around him and in which he is involved. My story is more about his personal journey and personal growth through that period.

      With regard to writing non-fiction about real persons, if their actions are in the public record, an author is unlikely to run into legal problems. The facts are the facts, and if you’re working toward revealing the truth of something, offending the perpetrators or their friends and relations is really immaterial.

      That said, one must stick to the facts. There’s no law against developing opinions and analysis of the collected facts, and you can’t be sued for your opinions. Those who disagree are welcome to present a different angle if they choose. They may attack you (these days, they’ll try to “cancel” you or otherwise destroy you), but they can’t do anything to you legally unless you have engaged in libel or slander. And then they have to prove that you have done so.

  9. My most recent novel flopped for a variety of interconnected reasons. I had one plot concept and one worldbuilding concept I absolutely fell in love with and tried to build the whole story around those. The worldbuilding didn’t mesh well with what I wanted the characters to do, and I ended up breaking a lot of my world’s rules to facilitate the story.
    Broken Writing Rule #1: Kill your darlings. While these may not have needed full-on killing, they needed to be reined in and give space to the characters.
    Broken Writing Rule #2: Don’t overlook your plot holes. If I had kept my rules, I could have presented the characters with interesting conundrums that would have developed them and their relationships further. Instead, I broke the rules to move my precious plot.
    My focus on plot and worldbuilding led to… you guessed it… not enough time spent outlining characters. My main character was cardboard, and as I discovered the side characters, I found they were leading the story in a completely different direction than I wanted it to go. No, I said. You can’t do that. I dragged my protagonist’s motivation back where I wanted it and then found that that choice was completely inconsistent with her character.
    Broken Writing Rule #3: Let plot and character work organically together. If your main character would never make the decisions that would send the plot that direction, you’ve got the wrong character for that plot, or the wrong plot for that character.
    Broken Writing Rule That Isn’t Actually a Rule But That I Find Helpful: Know who your most interesting characters are, and spotlight them. For my protagonist, I had a farm girl turned scientist who’s just trying to keep her bosses happy, and for side characters I had a self-aware android struggling to be recognized as a person in spite of his programming and a revolutionary disillusioned with both the establishment and his own allies. Guess who had the most interesting character conflict? Not my protagonist! If I revisit this book, I would consider writing from one of these characters’ viewpoints.
    Finally, I didn’t think through the thematic resonance of my characters, and they ended up exploring a lot of questions that weren’t related to the main conflict.
    Broken Writing Rules #4 and #5: Plot and character working together equals theme, and side characters’ arcs should have some thematic relation to the protagonist’s. Because my plot and characters were not working together well, the thematic effect was scattered and irrelevant to the plot.
    The lesson for me on this one was “kill your darlings…” or at least, don’t become so obsessed with a few aspects of the story that that’s all I care about! It caused a chain reaction that sank the book and, in the end, destroyed the very story elements I loved so much.

  10. Mr. Fantastic says

    Thanks for the post, Katie! I wish I could have read it when I wrote my first novels…novels that I pantsted and never finished.

    Will you publish the finished Dreambreaker novel on your website for subscribers to read? Will you ever pick up the series again, and do the rewrite?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I haven’t decided anything for sure yet. But in light of the fact (as mentioned in a previous comment response) that I actually borrowed quite heavily *from* my current WIP’s ideas when writing the Dreamlander sequels and am therefore returning many of those elements back to this story, I think that may further rule out returning to the sequels and reworking them for publication. I will probably share the completed Dreamlander sequel for free at some point, but not until I finish this WIP, since I don’t want to spoil it with any similarities.

  11. I haven’t had a sequel problem, but I was stuck for decades with a collection of related scenes intended to become the Great American Novel. They were without cohesion, however, because I didn’t know the premise of the story and I didn’t know the ending. (I had maybe half the word-count of the final product.) When I finally came back to it (because what WAS there was good stuff), I spent a couple of weeks, about twenty minutes a day, stream-of-consciousness scribbling on scrap paper about it all.

    “What if Rory marries Josie? No, that won’t work because …” “OK, what’s Greg’s influence here – how strong? Why is he in this story?” “From whose POV do I need to address Problem X…?”

    And so forth. Then one day the ending appeared on the scrap paper, blinking innocently at me as if it had always been there. (Of course it had been – it just hadn’t yet emerged from my beady little brain.) Then I knew where I was going. I used that knowledge to introduce foreshadowing in earlier scenes, to introduce a musical element that threads through the whole story, strengthen character relationships, and so forth. As it happens, the epiphany (where the main character’s life turns around, although very subtly) comes smack-dab in the middle of the book.

    I self-published the novel 35 years after its inception, and it pleases me, whether or not it ever makes me famous. I know the characters are satisfied with my effort on their behalf – if I had failed them, they wouldn’t have cooperated with me.

    (The 35-year delay sandwiched the writing and publishing of my second Great American Novel, published first as it turned out. I’m now at work on my third Great American Novel, which is progressing more quickly than those first two.)

    Every story is a blank page (to coin a phrase!) when we start, but tips, pointers, and advice like those in this post sure do help us wend our way around the pitfalls. And when we do fall into those pits, these posts help us climb out.

    Another thing to consider is that nothing we write is wasted. We may have to remove sections that don’t advance the story, but save those parts for potential repurposing elsewhere; also, they build our writing chops. It is daunting to have to rework a large piece of work, but it’s worth it, if we believe deeply in what we’re driven to write.

    I think these analyses of what works, what doesn’t, and why are invaluable for serious authors. If we listen to those who proclaim that we can write a novel in 30 days, we won’t have much substance to show for it. Stuff like this takes critical thinking. We invest ourselves in these stories, no matter the genre.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Nothing we write is wasted.”

      I believe this very much. And what a great story! Thanks for sharing. It’s always inspiring to hear how things that seemed broken for so long end up working out after enough time has passed.

  12. I can relate to fuzzy magic systems. My magic users are theurgistic, which is to say their powers come from the gods, who are inspired by Greek mythology. This gave me an easy out, because I relied a lot on how magic is depicted in the Homeric stories, and ancient stories of Medea, Circe, and Medea and Jason. With bits of the Enuma Elish (Babylonian myth) and Book of the Dead (Egyptian) thrown in. If I had to write a “hard / Brandon Sanderson” type of magic system where readers could predict schools of magic and their spells, I would be absolutely stumped.

    And I have been stumped by similar plot problems in this post, and walk away from those stories until I resolve them. My characters’ actions have to make sense to me, their motivations must be plausible to me, so I can’t have a mustache twirling villain who is evil “just because.” Even if the villain is supernatural; I assume even a demon would be motivated by a goal that makes sense in some fashion.

    So if the antagonists don’t make sense, I can’t write the story. If the stakes aren’t clear I can’t write, and the protagonists must definitely have a reason to do what I want them to do. Sometimes I can’t salvage a story and it just ends up in a mental junkyard, to be mined for parts later.

    The third book of a trilogy has been giving me trouble, partly because of thematic resonance (issue #4), which I tied into the magic system and the characters’ arcs. I was grateful for the series on archetypes last year because I began to see a path forward and a light at the end of the tunnel.

    As frustrating as it is to be held up, I’m learning to recognize it as a mark of maturity for a storyteller to come to a hard stop to regroup. Creation is like being in a maze sometimes, where you sometimes have to backtrack if you want to go forward.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Creation is like being in a maze sometimes, where you sometimes have to backtrack if you want to go forward.”

      This is *such* an apt simile!

  13. I stayed with a fantasy book that didn’t work for about ten years. I pantsed it and knew little about story structure. I read books and articles on writing—all of the writing books in my little city library one summer—but they i guess i never fully understood them. The plot was convoluted, the antagonist kept changing, and my MC was weak. Of course, I wrote a sequel.

    Finally, I gave up on my idea of a trilogy and moved on. I changed genres and have been happier. I also discovered your website and books and finally am beginning to actually understand what I’m doing. Sometimes I think about retuning to fantasy, but then I remember all of the people like you who are doing a better job of it than I ever could. My niche suits me most of the time, and I’m proud of the books i publish.

    • What is the genre you’re working in now?

      My two published novels are contemporary fiction (one set in the 1980s, the other in the 1990s). My current WIP is a historical novel set in Jerusalem in Jesus’s time. (Having a blast doing the research for it – great fun!)

      I’ve never considered sequels or trilogies. Not yet, anyway. If The Muse shoves me in that direction, I will. (She’s really good at doing that – if I don’t pay attention, she pesters me endlessly until I do.)

      • Hi Sally!

        I’m writing gay romance. I also love research. My current series is set in the late 19th century, and the research has been a huge perk.

        Your books sound fun. ! I’ve written a trilogy set in the 80’s and am working on a possible trilogy now. (Each book has a tied up ending.) Definitely give a trilogy a try if the muse whispers it in your ear.

        • “Each book has a tied up ending.” That sounds like the problem Katie had! 🙂

          • No, it’s different. Each book is supposed to be it’s own little story. They’re mystery romances, so sort of like Sherlock Holmes books, but with a couple in love who solve crimes. In each book, they solve the crime and smooth out a rough patch in their relationship.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I do believe that being happy as a writer has a lot to do with writing the kind of stories we actually *enjoy* writing. Even if we enjoy reading a certain type of story, that doesn’t necessarily mean we will enjoy writing it.

  14. Ah Katie, how I respect your courage and integrity in these columns! Thank you for sharing these lessons purchased at such a high emotional price.
    I definitely fell into the “too complex” problem with my novel. I wish I could claim this had been my plan all along, but part of the way I got around this was to write out scenes in other POVs to show aspects of the world that weren’t in the core novel. I wound up revising them out, but they helped clarify many things in my mind. This also ate up something like 18 months in revising. I plan to enter my next novel giving myself permission to draft scenes from POVs that I will almost certainly drop out. Perhaps I could plan more deeply and avoid it, but drafting is fun.
    I had a couple of odd thoughts. I wondered if you didn’t fall into what I think of is the “trilogy trap”. Yes, if you’re going to write a trilogy, you need to plan that out, but there’s nothing wrong with only writing two books in a series (my current plan). You can always return to the world or the characters for a new story. You may wind up with three books. You may wind up with more. There’s nothing magical about a trilogy.
    Another thing I’d say is that it sounds like you prefer to work with soft magic systems, and that’s fine. It worked for JRRT. I’ve been a big proponent of hard magic systems in the past, but I’ve also read works where the magic had more of a mystical edge to it, and that can work really well.
    Finally, one of the most common mistakes I see new fantasy writers do is to bury themselves too deep in their world building and then feel like they have to show it all off. As a reader, I’ve geeked out on the world building of LoTR, GoT, HP, … But that would have never happened if that world building wasn’t woven into a strong world with interesting characters.
    I’ve rambled, telling you things you already know. May your words always be a gift to us all. They have been so far.
    Bless you,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually do tend to think there’s something a *little* magical about trilogies–rule of three and all that. Plus, they so beautifully mirror the Three-Act structure. I also think focusing on a trilogy can help long-winded (fantasy) authors rein in what is, in my mind, the unfortunate habit of stretching series out for more books than they really require.

  15. I love it that you’re interested enough in helping us to be better writers that you aren’t shy about taking us down the trails that led to nowhere. I’m sure we’ve all been there. Thanks so much for fleshing out what to do when we come to the big brick wall. Love your posts.

    CJ Sweet

  16. Victoria Leo says

    Thank you, thank you! I am writing a series of 7 books with a protagonist who has different dilemmas and antagonists in each book, but also building toward an underlying antagonist who launches a full on attack in Book 7. I finished Book 5 and the plot for 6 just wouldn’t gel. I realized that I need to do the last book before the penultimate, so I had a ‘landing zone.’ Just like you talked about here. Everyone who told me that I had to stick with 6 got put into the pile. Just finished 7, all the threads got resolved, feels really good and now 6 knows what it needs to be to set up for the 7 that’s already done. So thanks so much for this post. Confirmed my intuition about 7 and taught me a heap more!

    • Victoria Leo says

      Put into the ‘Ignore’ pile it should have been. Sorry.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      At this point, I have a HUGE amount of respect for authors who can make series work. As if making all the pieces in a single book work together isn’t complicated enough! Good for you.

  17. Christopher Ruttan says

    Is the story theme and concept the same thing or overlap. I have always found the idea of theme a bit of a confusing but concept seems more relatable. Your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Theme is often a catch-all term for many different aspects of story. I tend to define theme in relation to the story’s primary moral dilemma–the protagonist’s conflict between a thematic Lie and Truth. For example, a character may start out believing crime pays, only to eventually realize there is, in fact, a high cost. Everything in the story then–characters, settings, visuals, etc.–should be chosen to support this exploration. I have written a whole book about theme, which you can find here: Writing Your Story’s Theme.

  18. Yep, I’ve felt many times that a story wasn’t working, lol.

    The above is part of why I’m writing multiple books in a series before I publish the first. Though I think I know where the overall story of the series is going, sometimes the story doesn’t follow my outlines, heh heh. This way, I can alter the first book if I must to better set up something which happens in, say, book 4. And yet, what’s saving me is that I can (and have) expressed the overall concept for the entire series in one sentence, so it hangs together.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Absolutely. I’m so glad I didn’t let myself publish Book 2 before going on to Book 3. Then I’d really be in a pickle!

  19. I also happen to love my antagonists (not in the sense that I would like them if I encountered them in real life, but I love writing them).

  20. Odell O Ottmar says

    Thank you so much. I began a book with superior beings, angels, and more some time ago but quit it because it became so bogged down with “stuff”, but now I feel ready to live with it one more time. I like the story and now will attempt to make it real and sing. Your points are so helpful; I need to use them to the best of my ability. mikiel

  21. Jenny Chasteen says

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with these sequels that didn’t work. I really respect that you recognized what was going wrong with them and set them aside instead of just pushing through and releasing them anyway.

    I’m editing a short story that’s “not working” at the moment, I’ll think through your points and see if they help me get unstuck!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      No book is perfect–even one the author has done everything to make so. But, as a reader myself, I know how *personal* it feels when it seems like an author messed up a book that so obviously could have better. Apart from anything else, it felt hypocritical to proceed with a story that I knew was less than what it should be.

      Good luck with your short!

  22. One bit of advice that occurred to me while reading this is that a story can only sustain so many complicated bits. If you want to have an incredibly detailed plot, you need to simplify other aspects of the story to compensate. The same is true of characters, worldbuilding, and any other part of a story you could name. Writers and readers only have so much energy to give a story, so there has to be a balance. This means that if you are really set on your complicated intrigue, detailed magic system, or massive cast of characters, you have to simplify other features of your story to compensate.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. Two bits of advice that have always stuck with me are Blake Snyder’s “avoid double mumbo-jumbo” (i.e., a story can only support one thing that needs major explanation) and John Ford’s “a scene should only be about one thing.”

  23. A couple years ago, I was working on a story that got less and less enjoyable to work on as I went on, and I abandoned it. I don’t regret that decision one bit. That story was much too complicated, and in a genre I don’t particularly enjoy reading anyway.
    Now, I am having a blast with my current WIP, which, while it has its challenges, is SO much simpler, and I genuinely like following the plot and characters. That mega-complicated story, I never got even halfway through the first draft, and in my simpler WIP, I am around a quarter of the way through my second draft! I am so glad I put down that story for this current one. 😁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I always know I’m experiencing a warning when I feel bored when writing. Sometimes you just have to keep going to get through a rough patch or rediscover your inspiration. But sometimes, it’s a sign you shouldn’t be writing that particular thing at all.

  24. Wow…I hit basically all of these problems in the novel I just abandoned. The last few posts have been a huge encouragement to me. That novel was my baby for three years, but I finally had to admit it was hopelessly broken. I’ve gone through waves of guilt and utter relief, and the timing for this post could not have been more perfect. I am so glad I stopped writing it and have moved on to a story I love that has a solid foundation. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad the post have been encouraging! Realizing it’s time to move on from a story that has been big time commitment is super-hard. One thing I always remind myself is: Nothing is ever wasted. I may not have gotten what I wanted from this lost story, but I got lots of lessons and blessings I wasn’t expecting as well. This blog post for one. 😉

  25. It’s always a good idea to evaluate what’s not working and why before scrapping the project. I have trouble with antagonists, but it’s because I don’t want them to be bad or do awful things. I have to look at why they strayed into the dark and what redeeming qualities they may still have, and mostly what they’re teaching the protagonist. Great list!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, always such a good idea to examine how the antagonist is actually the protagonist’s teacher. It’s a good reminder for life as well.

  26. In cutting my manuscript down from 126,000 words to 106,000, I found myself with scenes and characters enough to form the nucleus of a sequel. Although I’m using some of the same characters and the same alternate universe, each novel will stand on its own.
    But currently, I’m working again on my cyberpunk novel, having finally figured out who committed the murder and why. 😀

  27. If I feel the story isn’t working I re-read the story as a reader, in a non editable format, then hopefully will figure out what the reader wants because I will be the reader. Usually each time you read it you figure out something that will make the story better. I hope you can salvage your sequels because they sound interesting – have you tried this method of reading them through without editing?

  28. Grace Clay says

    I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your integrity in not publishing a story you would not have wanted to be given as a reader. That takes a lot of courage. I also appreciate the fact that I can consider it cannon that Chris returns to Lael and reunites with Allara, and they had many more adventures together.

  29. Andrew Park says

    Thanks for another great episode. I’ve said it before, but I admire your forensic honesty in analyzing your own process.

    When I started writing my WIP five years ago (actually this is the sixth year), I had in mind something like Dresden Files meets Heart of Darkness. Well, the heart of darkness and elements of mystery are still hanging in there, but it is turning into something a lot more (gasp), literary and thematic.

    So, two drafts, a manuscript evaluation, and part of the third draft in, I’m still wrestling with four problems: 1) How to get the MS down from 156,000 words to something like 120-130,000; 2) how to ensure that the antagonists (yes, plural) get enough stage time with convincing-enough motivations; 3) Integrating the thematic elements (which concern what we remember and forget from history), and 4) Dealing with small-scale story choke points that require sentence-level interventions

    Of the three problems, it’s the fourth one that is causing me most challenges. For example, the protag’s first refusal of the call to adventure originates in a short conversation he has with another character, and the words they use have to be (or so it seems to me) exactly right to appear sufficiently convincing.

    So, on I plough with no immediate end in sight. Writing a novel has turned out more complicated and time consuming than writing my PhD thesis (!?). When I started writing it I was a baby fiction writer with no experience. Two drafts and many craft books later, I’m a different writer, and I’ve occasionally wondered whether I should ditch the WIP and start over on another project. But, here’s the thing, as an older dude (not yet fully retired but getting there), I also wonder how many book projects I have in me.

  30. I wanted to add my thanks. I’m currently working on plotting/structuring a fantasy series. I had written a short story that grew into a novella and then opened itself to a series. After outlining book 1, I wasn’t sure how deep to go into outlining books 2 and 3, and your advice here has been extremely helpful.
    I immediately started working on the climax of book 3–the climax of the series. All roads must lead there and everything must find its resonance in that moment. I think you saved me about 2 years of frustration and rewrites.

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