7 Ways Writers Sabotage Their Stories

7 Ways

There are seven ways writers – even bestselling authors – sabotage their stories. Thank goodness this post will help you identify and eliminate them from your own stories. 

Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. We start with passion, scribbling fiercely in the heat of a new story. Then suddenly, without warning, the story stalls, the narrative falls flat and we are left wringing our hands in confusion. What happened? 

Most likely one of the following seven things.

7 Ways Writers Sabotage Their Stories

1. Rush the Premise – Many writers come up with a brilliant idea or concept for a story and then rush right into the writing phase. This is often a recipe for disaster because the concept is vague, missing bestseller elements or too small so it doesn’t produce enough writing content for a full novel.

Key Takeaway: Craft a compelling premise

I wrote a post about “20 Ways to Rock Your Premise”. Read it here. 

Also, I created this handy bonus to make it super easy to remember and apply:

Download free 20 Ways To Rock Your Premise Checklist and Template Cheat Sheet

2. Story Drift – A story becomes unfocused as the writer chases subplots instead of remaining narrowly focused on the central conflict and central character of the story. The result is usually a hodgepodge of events with little connection and little chance of holding the reader’s interest.

Key Takeaway: Stick to the main storyline.

3. Failing to Differentiate Characters –   Every character sounds the same so there is a obvious lack of variety and freshness to the characters. The readers don’t get to see the story theme played out from different perspectives and through the reactions of different personalities. Characters are the hosts of fiction, so make them fantastic, amazing, intriguing hosts!

Key Takeaway: Make every character look, sound and act differently than the rest.

4. Slow Start – Many writers, even bestselling author’s, commonly plunk backstory or a long meandering opening where they introduce characters and settings without much tension, conflict or intrigue. This is the easiest way to get me to stop reading your story. And I imagine lots of readers are the same. There is simply no room for boring introductions. There doesn’t have to be a car explosion in the first paragraph but there should at least be a sense that something is off or wrong or about to happen.

Key Takeaway: Jump right into the literary mix of things.

5. Tension MIA (Missing In Action) – Some stories lack tension all the way through to the very end. Things are happening and characters are doing stuff but there’s no conflict. Everything goes swimmingly all the time. There are car rides and kitchen dinners and long conversations that go nowhere. One of the secrets to bestseller writing is to find a variety of ways to add tension to every page of your story.

 Key Takeaway:  Insert tension on every single page of your story.

6. Logic D.O.A (Dead On Arrival) – Other stories start out great and are full of attention grabbing interest and conflict, but they don’t make any sense. At some point, the logic breaks down and there’s no cause-and-effect chain of events that add up to a compelling narrative. Readers are left scratching their heads wondering why characters are acting so strangely or why they don’t see an obvious solution to the problem. When logic breaks down, so does reader clarity and interest in the story.

Key Takeaway: Make sure there’s a obvious and logical cause-and-effect relationship between every action and event in your story.

7. Less Than Great Expectations- There are two possible problems here. On one hand, the story might not fulfill the expectations of the reader. The reader was expecting a romance but the story is really a thinly veiled horror story. Or the reader thought there would be lots of action but there’s just lots of contemplation. That’s one version of this sabotage. Here’s another: Writers also sabotage their stories by always fulfilling expectations 100% of the time. Everything happens exactly the way the reader expected it to happen with no twists, turns or surprises. Both extremes are instant death to your story and there’s little hope of creating a raving fan for your writing.

Key Takeaway: Avoid the extremes of expectation. Fulfill promises but in surprising and fresh ways.

How To Sabotage the Saboteurs

The best way to beat these story saboteurs is to fight fire with fire. Sabotage the saboteurs. Bake the elements of compelling fiction right into your premise. In other words, massage the premise into a short, snappy sentence or two full of conflict, trouble and tension. Then hold unwaveringly to that premise. 

Bestseller Premise Template 

Character + crises + consequence + stakes + goal + conflict = bestseller premise 

Let’s see how this works with my Past Lives novel:

Character [Eric Shooter] + crises [discovers he is a reincarnated serial killer] + consequence [neverending cycle of reincarnation] + stakes [murder of hundreds of innocents] + goal [Eric wants to stop the bloody cycle] + conflict [another serial killer who desperately wants him to remain a killer]

Ok, now you have the premise and a commitment to stick to it. You have built the frame of your story on a solid foundation of bestseller elements. 

That addresses the first five of the seven but what about numbers six and seven? 

The No Fail Method Of Logical Surprises

Number six is all about logic. Does your story makes sense? Does one action and scene logically lead to the next? If not, readers will often end up confused and frustrated.

Number seven is all about expectations. Does the story meet readers expectations? Does everything happen exactly as expected? 

The key to both of these story problems is something called Logical Surprises. You might want to write that down because it will likely transform your stories from now on. Logical Surprises happen when an action or event in a story makes sense based on everything that preceded it, yet still surprises the reader.

How is that possible? It starts with asking yourself two questions as you write. 1) What’s the next most logical action or event? 2) What could happen that is the opposite of (or different than) what the reader is most expecting? 

By asking yourself these two questions, you will ensure that your story makes sense on a logical level, while at the same time keeping readers in glorious suspense. Each action should connect to a reasonable response or a consequence in the story. The key is making that response or reaction the opposite – or at least different – than what the reader is expecting.

Case Study: Past Lives Novel

Here’s a concrete example of what I mean. In my novel, Past Lives, my main character – Eric Shooter –  is accused of murdering a pregnant woman in a parking lot. He’s interrogated at police headquarters, which is a logical consequence. However, when the interrogation results in less then concrete evidence, the lead detective sends Eric to a hypnotherapist to recover hidden or lost memories. This is also logical, but less ordinary, so it might come as a surprise to many readers. Next, the hypnotherapy does indeed uncover lost memories of the murder, but it also uncovers much more – that my main character is a reincarnated serial killer who will continue the cycle of death, rebirth and serial killing until he is stopped. There we have a very unordinary occurrence that also fits into the logic of the story.

So here it is again in summary: Create a compelling premise using the template and then ask yourself two questions as you write. 1) What is the next logical action or event? 2) What could happen that is the opposite or different than what the reader expects?

Now you try it! Post your premise in the comments. I can’t wait to read them. 

Get your free copy of the 20 Ways To Rock Your Premise Checklist 


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in screenwriting, writer, Writing
8 comments on “7 Ways Writers Sabotage Their Stories
  1. cavilleta says:

    I have no idea if I got it right so here it goes.
    Desmond is condemned by his past crimes, taking his credibility away for the upcoming war. He wants to prove himself despite being constantly denied redemption only to discover truths that makes him question his whole life.

    • Thanks for sharing! I see lots of promise here. Sounds like an intriguing story.

      If I may, let’s plug it into the template:
      Desmond [character] + condemned for past crimes [crises] + loses credibility for the war [consequence] + wants to prove himself [goal] + constantly denied [conflict]

      You have all the elements in place. I believe you can enhance your premise by specifying the consequence, goal and conflict. You may want to consider asking these types of questions: Why does it matter (to Desmond, his family, his city, the world) that his credibility is tarnished? Why does he want to prove himself? What happens if he doesn’t? This is what’s at stake in the story. Also, Who or what is denying him? An active force embodied in an antagonist is usually best.

      Hope this helps! Thanks again for sharing.


  2. Erika Garza says:

    There it was; the opportunity she thought. The opportunity to tell him about her daughter. Yet, all she did was talk about her life in the small town, the congeniality off the town’s folks, and yes, she mentioned Peter. She noticed Al looking at her from the corner of his right eye. “I’m kind of hungry, she said fast as if to avoid any other questions.”

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