Three Reasons Why Novels Fail

Sat Jun 11 2016

I read a lot of novels for a lot of people. Most of them are broken in one way or another. Note, this is not a dig on the writers. The whole point of sending the novel to someone like me first is so they can make sure it's not broken by the time they publish the book.

Nevertheless, most of them are broken. Read enough of them, however, and patterns emerge. Here are three of the most common reasons why these novels fail.

Premise is broken

This is when the basic idea of the story is fundamentally nonsensical. Something about it just doesn't add up.

For example, let's say the story's core premise is that an alien spacecraft lands in the middle of town, and it's up to a girl from the local sixth-grade class to figure out whether the aliens' intentions are honorable.

If you're like me, you'll read that premise and immediately have some questions. Why is it up to her? Why aren't the grownups in town doing anything about it? And even if they weren't, why would she feel like investigating was her responsibility? Wouldn't she try to get an adult to do it instead?

A great premise is one that immediately prompts the reader to start asking questions. Wondering things. A broken premise is one that prompts immediate questions, but the questions are ones that attack the validity of the premise.

How to fix it:

Fortunately, premise ideas are nearly always salvageable. There's almost always something the author can do to fix whatever was wrong.

For example, maybe the girl is the only one who can see the alien ship. If nobody else knows about it--or believes her when she tells them--then fine, it falls to her to investigate.

Of course, if she's the only one who can see it, then you'll eventually owe the reader an explanation as to why only she can see it. Fixing a flawed premise doesn't come for free. Nearly always, the fix costs you something in terms of what other information you owe the reader or what other elements you'll have to add to the story.

If that cost is too high, look for a different solution, such as moving the spaceship. Maybe the ship didn't land in the middle of town, but in the woods outside of town where she happened to have been the only one to see it.

Characters' actions are broken

I see a lot of novels that fail because characters do stuff that readers just can't believe. I wrote about this in some depth in an earlier article, so I won't belabor the point here.

In brief, readers need to understand a character's motivations for the actions they take, and we need to understand how those actions support the character's goals.

To carry on our example, let's say the girl is out walking her dog in the woods when she sees the ship land (we won't make it an invisible-except-to-her ship). A silvery ramp descends to the ground, so she decides to go right on in and check it out.

Wait. Goes right in? Why would she do that? Isn't that scary? Who in their right mind would do that? So far as we can see she has no real motivation for doing so, except perhaps curiosity, which would seem to be greatly outweighed by the OMG ALIENS I HOPE THEY DON'T BLAST ME WITH THEIR DEATH RAY thoughts that would be going through any normal person's head.

How to fix it:

Unless the action in question is truly egregious, you can probably salvage it simply by coming up with a plausible reason for the character to do that.

For example, what if she saw the ship land, but she wasn't the only one? What if some little kid was also out there and--being too little to know better--ran on in there. She could be motivated to go save the kid before anything bad happens to him.

Of course, putting yet another person randomly out in the woods at the exact time and place to see the ship land is going to feel too coincidental, so maybe don't do that.

Since she has her dog with her, what if the dog runs in there? We can easily imagine the dog growling protectively, the fur on its back raising up, as the ship lands. So maybe have that happen, and when the ramp comes down, the dog bolts. Yanks the leash right out of her hand, and tears on in there barking its head off, because that's what dogs do.

In that case, we can well imagine the girl giving chase, yelling for the dog to come back. Especially if the author has laid the groundwork ahead of time so readers understand how much she loves that dog.

Outcomes are broken

Finally, I see some stories which fail because outcomes don't match the situations leading up to them, or the obvious consequences of a situation or an action fail to happen.

Let's say our girl runs in and finds her dog being petted happily by a bunch of eight-foot tall purple aliens with tentacle arms. They greet her with their universal translator, and they're totally nice. They ask her to take them to her leader, so she walks a group of them into town to meet the mayor. On the way they smile and wave at the townsfolk, who smile and wave right back. The mayor's assistant says, "Oh, visitors. Go right on in."

No. Just, no.

The broken part is, I should note, not the aliens being totally nice. They're aliens! For all we know, they could very well be totally nice. That part's fine, if perhaps surprising.

The broken part, of course, is the townsfolk's utter failure to react like you and me and every reader on the planet knows real people would react to the sight of a girl and her dog leading a troop of eight-foot, purple, tentacle-armed aliens through town.

The author may have the best of intentions. Perhaps this just the opening to a story in which the aliens are trying to lure mankind into some kind of alliance which will ultimately only serve their ends, not ours, and it is this ruse which causes the aliens to act totally nice.

Fine, but the townsfolk don't know that. The townsfolk are going to freak right out. If the story takes place in the U.S., then you know somebody's going to be packing; that person's going to draw their gun and start shooting.

The failure to let natural, predictable outcomes follow from the initial situation will leave readers unable to support whatever comes next, because we know it shouldn't have gone down that way.

Unfortunately, this particular problem tends to sabotage your plot points, because the lack of consequences is what allows characters to do whatever comes next in the story; if the predictable outcomes or consequences had happened, the characters would have done different things or even been prevented from doing what you wanted them to do.

How to fix it:

The fix is obvious: let the consequences happen. You know how real people behave. You know what the predictable outcomes of various situations are. Don't let your zeal to advance the plot get in the way of what you know about how the world really works.

We won't be able to believe that mankind got suckered into a bad interstellar alliance if we didn't first see people freaking out in all the normal ways, and then see the aliens doing whatever they needed to do to overcome people's initial mistrust.

However, because broken outcomes affect plot points, fixing them is often much more work if it's possible at all.

In this example, that means adding a whole bunch more scenes and plot points just to get to the part where the aliens are inviting mankind into their nefarious alliance. It'll mean adding lots of new characters--scientists and politicians and clergy and philosophers all weighing in on the situations. It'll mean debates in the United Nations, and all kinds of stuff that's going to take a lot of pages.

And that's just to fix one broken outcome. Cases where outcomes are broken at many points in the story, may require an end-to-end reworking of the whole story.


I actually had some trouble picking just three reasons why novels fail. I don't want to make this into another month-long series like my how to reward children in your writing series, but I do think I will revisit this subject from time to time.

Until then, here's to successful noveling!