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“What’s Wrong With My Story?” Part 1

by Marlo Garner

You just can’t quite put your finger on it. Something’s not right about your picture book text.

You’ve written and rewritten, revised and tweaked. You have fabulous, well-rounded characters, the language sings, and the hilarious gags only underline the importance and depth of your theme. You had some POV issues, but you’ve fixed those now. It might be something about the pacing, but the story seems to move along all right. It must be something about the beginning… or perhaps it’s about the end…

This is very common in the picture book manuscripts of less experienced writers, but I’ve seen it many times in unpublished manuscripts by published authors, too: a fundamental weakness in narrative and character arc, an essential flaw of logic that affects pacing and much else. And you can apply what I’m about to say to most stories for older readers, too.

If you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong, it’s quite likely you simply have a problem with your skeleton. Your story’s skeleton is its basic narrative/character arc. It is the structure upon which all else sits.

Let’s stretch this analogy to its limit: characters are vital organs, their details and the setting are muscles, and the events within the story are like the tendons to push and pull them. The language and style are the skin, dialogue is like clothing. Correct grammar and spelling are fine jewelry. (The manuscript’s formatting is a waft of intoxicating perfume. If it stinks, an editor/agent will want to run away. If it’s perfect, we may want to get closer.)

But it doesn’t matter how fancy the clothes, or how exquisite the jewelry—if the skeleton isn’t strong and symmetrical, the story just won’t stand up straight.

Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What promise do I make to the reader in the beginning?
  • Does the ending deliver upon that promise?
  • Does the beginning set up the conditions for what I deliver in the end?
  • Do I steadily escalate the problem I set up at the beginning all the way to the climax?
  • Does the resolution come immediately after the climax?

Strong story skeletons have symmetry. The beginning and end are in balance, the bookends to the middle. One asks a question, and the other answers that question honestly. Other things may well come to light in the quest for the answer, but the beginning tells us what must be answered. The end must comply. But the middle is far from symmetrical; it is a steadily steepening—and often bumpy—slope toward the climax.

See Part 2: Common narrative mistakes


Marlo Garner is an editor, writing teacher, published children’s author, and working illustrator.


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