By Marlo Garner
The most common narrative mistakes I see include:
- Stories that start in one place with one problem, then continue and/or end in a completely different place with quite a different problem solved. A story about a quest for a friend suddenly becomes a story about dealing with a bully.
- The protagonist changes halfway through. A story starts with a mother cat worried for her kittens, and segues into the story of a young cat who just needs a good friend.
- The parts of the narrative are not in the right places or of the right duration:
- The manuscript has a lengthy, introduction-style beginning, rather than just diving straight into the story.
- The climax comes too early, making the resolution far too long and often off-track or even well into a second story.
- The problem doesn’t escalate enough; the tension remains the same or even decreases over time.
- The correct problem is solved, but not by the protagonist.
Your story’s beginning should convey who your protagonist is, their desire, and why they want it. If the problem isn’t introduced by about two thirds of the way—or less—down the first page of your properly formatted manuscript, it’s probably running late.
Once you know how your story begins, you’ll have strong cues to how the story must end. Think symmetry, and remember the promise you made to your reader. The protagonist must—through their own action—either achieve their desire or have grown beyond it. How that achievement and growth comes about is the all the rest of your story—the middle, ever escalating toward the inevitable climax.
And be thoughtful when defining your protagonist’s real desire. The protagonist’s true desire is usually not something material or concrete, though it may manifest itself that way. The protagonist’s desire for the material is a projection of a much deeper desire or emotional need.
This emotional need is the “why” of the desire—why the protagonist really wants whatever they want. It’s the emotional need that must be satisfied in the end, whether or not the material desire is acquired. This is where character growth truly lies. And a strong, symmetrical story skeleton requires growth and change.