Have you ever written a scene that you’re just not satisfied with, but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with it? Perhaps the pacing inches along at the speed of a crippled snail, or the theme feels as shallow as a puddle beside the ocean. Chances are, the issue isn’t choppy prose, bland dialogue, or bad grammar (though those are all substantial problems). Scene troubles usually originate inside the heart of the moment, underneath the skin and bones of what’s going on.
The first time I set out to write a novel, I ground to a stop on the twenty-ninth page. A year later, I decided to toy with a different premise. That time, I reached sixty-two pages before I hit a blank I couldn’t push past. In both of these attempts, I wrestled with the same problem: I had a vision for the beginning and the ending, but I couldn’t figure out how to connect them. In fact, my plot refused to stretch beyond a few chapters.
A few summers ago, I visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Every little detail—the buildings, layout, animatronics, costumes, food, and music—whispered authenticity. As I explored, I got swept up in the magic and thrill of discovery. If I hadn’t known better, I would have believed that Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade actually existed, even if only on another plane that my muggle eyes couldn’t see. I wanted my surroundings to be real, so I embraced the playacting, which made the whole experience even more enjoyable.
My son is a skilled storyteller. He has notebooks and online files bursting with magic and mystery. When he visits, I often sit like a child at his feet and beg him to read his latest chapter. He always indulges me, settling into his deep narrator voice. When he stops, I pry him for sneak peeks at what’s ahead because, like a soap opera, I long for the next part of the adventure.
Action scenes strap readers in for a thrilling ride—or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Every millisecond must be engaging and accurately portray what’s happening. If the action crawls, it loses its impact or, worse, readers’ interest. And if the action hits light speed, readers crave more details, similar to the dissatisfaction of eating a fun-size piece of chocolate instead of a whole candy bar.
Have you ever been writing a scene or chapter and something felt wrong? In the moment, you couldn’t name a specific detail that needed to be added, removed, or changed. That’s because singling out a problem as you’re pouring ideas onto the page is almost impossible. But even after you finished, you were still dissatisfied.
Meaningful stories leave you with memorable solutions to complex issues. A story shouldn’t stand behind a podium and spell out the lessons you’re supposed to learn from it. But it should tackle complicated questions and conclude after the characters have embraced (or, in some cases, rejected) the answers. That’s why resolution, the literary term for a story’s ending, contains the word solution.
All of us are experts at sad stories. We’ve read novels that schooled us in death scenes, betrayals, fractured relationships, and harrowing pasts. These examples taught us that tormenting the protagonist is easy: just thwart his deepest longings. Then we can type “the end” and congratulate ourselves for accurately reflecting our fallen world. But the real sad story is how untrained we are in the art of weaving meaning into tragedy.
A non-writer friend once told me that I seem to enjoy making my characters suffer. I disagree. Sure, portraying pain can be an exciting challenge, but I don’t relish putting my characters through trials. If their hearts are breaking, so is mine. Despite this, I realize that characters, like people, grow through adversity, and oftentimes they experience the greatest change when their circumstances can’t get any worse. In storytelling terminology, this hopeless moment is known as the low point, and it happens shortly before the climax.
“The first draft of a novel is supposed to be terrible.” We’ve all heard that charming advice, and it’s usually true. But why do many first drafts fail? Because writers lose steam halfway through. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve abandoned after hitting a rough patch somewhere between the midpoint and the final act. Only a handful of my novels have ever reached “the end,” and the most structurally sound one came from a short story.