It’s probably the worst criticism I’ve ever received.
“Nothing happens,” my play-writing professor said, pushing my manuscript across the table to me. “There’s no story.”
It gets better, I insisted. In Act 2, everything makes sense!
He shook his head. “Your audience won’t stay that long.”
And yet, just last week, I gave that very critique to a student.
Nothing happens. There’s no story. Sorry, kiddo.
It’s a gut-turning thing to hear: your story isn’t actually a story. The happening you’ve attempted to create is simply not happening.
But it’s essential feedback. In spite of our best imagery and prose, a non-functioning story is fatal. When nothing happens, no one sticks around to learn more. There isn’t any disbelief to suspend. No journey to take.
Is it possible to sniff out this story-killing problem before we show it to others? Can we catch ourselves in the act of writing something where nothing happens before our companions are kind or cruel enough to tell us?
We sure can. Here’s how:
1. Nix the Nostalgia.
As I read my student’s story, I noticed an abundance of past tense actions: I remember when… You used to be…. Your father was….
And so on.
Many early drafts start out as expository snow-globes. They aren’t complete stories or worlds, but small globes filled with the exposition we need to get out of our heads.
Upon creating this little nuggets of pre-story, we tend to feel good about them. They feel like a story.
But they aren’t. They’re nothing more back-story wrapped in imagery.
The past of our characters and their world is important, but only if it contributes to forward-moving action that is taking place now. (<— Click to Tweet that.) Many story-tellers get to the end only to realize that the real crisis happened long ago or has yet to happen.
It needs to take place now, in the moment of your story. Not in memory when things used to be.
2. Give ’em Goals.
A character without a goal is dead-weight.
Height, weight, hair-color, quirks, favorite music, a limp, bad habits, a history of drinking, opinions about the government – none of these are goals. They are simply attributes – details that we add to make the goals memorable, interesting, or distinct.
A goal is the engine of the story. It is the reason the audience comes along. It’s the one truly relateable element of your story, the thing that will draw people to it.
If a character isn’t packing some kind of goal or desire – and the desire doesn’t affect the pursuit of the protagonist – then that character belongs on the chopping block. It doesn’t matter if the character is hilarious or villainous – if he isn’t in pursuit of something, get rid of him.
3. Trim the Trees
Some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve done involves scene description – particularly that of J.R.R. Tolkein.
But Tolkein was lucky. Few books with that much description become a hit, because scene description is not story. It’s simply atmosphere and set-up. So if scenery is your thing, stick to poetry or painting.
Frankly, excessive scene description is a comfortable way for us to be writers without being story-tellers. Assembling fine threads of the English language does not a story-teller make. In fact, it is often negatively intoxicating – it convinces us that we are something we are not.
Stories in which nothing happens are usually written by writers who love the sound of their own prose. They write pages of description, give it a name, and call it a story.
Yet nothing is happening.
Look for an overabundance of narration; if the setting takes more than 5 sentences to lay out, it’s taking too long – at least for an early draft. Try beginning the scene with single words of description:
Room. Brown. Carpet. Ashtray.
Give me those four words any day – there are stories aplenty in that room!
4. Raise the Risk
When nothing happens, it’s usually because nothing is at stake.
Stakes are at the heart of any good tale because life is all about them. We make most choices because of what could be lost. We buy safe vehicles and drink diet soda because of the stakes.
But when your characters are too safe or too disinterested, the reader will begin to shrug.
Yet setting your story in a violent, war-torn world won’t do. The characters must have more to lose than simply their homes or lives – the dignity of the human spirit must be at risk. The threat of loss must be paralyzingly severe.
Otherwise the reader won’t be frozen in place, gripping your book with white, frantic knuckles.
Regularly ask what will happen if the characters fail:
Will anything change? Will the world of the protagonist really be in jeopardy?
Without bold, authentic answers to these questions, a story may merely be a build up to the reader saying, “So what?”
5. Silence the Sermon
Most story-tellers hold passionate opinions about the state of the world and all of its injustice. Not surprisingly, stories are a prime medium for exposing and ending cruelty and wrong-doing in the world.
Yet the best stories contain little, if any, preaching.
The best characters tend to struggle against their oppressors and suffer for their beliefs – yet they say little about it. They act. They pursue. And they suffer. (<—– Tweet that.)
But they don’t give sermons.
Characters who talk too much about their beliefs tend to be mouthpieces for their opinionated authors – not active, engaging figures with whom the reader empathizes. If a character – even the villain – is regularly lecturing, grand-standing, or orating, odds are the character is the reason nothing is happening in your story.
Now, Make it Happen…
To get your story “happenin'”, you will need two things:
- A Story Treatment
If you want to examine these deep and challenging issues in your story, you will need objectivity. Objectivity is tough. We are close to our stories. We love them and often relate to them like our own children.
So you need space. Take a week off from the project, or even a month. Pick up a different story for a while, then come back.
Without proper space and time, we are inevitably too biased about our own work to tear it apart properly. The core issues that cause a story-less story are touchy. We get defensive about them quickly.
So get away from it. Let your work marinate. Then come back, ready to work your Story Treatment.
A (healthy) Story Treatment is a written summary of your story. At its core, the Treatment should include the basics: the protagonist(s), his/her goals, other key characters, setting, conflict and event.
By writing these details down, you can keep yourself on course as your create. Like a compass in a storm, your Story Treatment will align your writing so it goes in the direction it needs to.
Or you can use a tool, like Healthy Story, that will walk you through the process and make sure the “happening”, or change in your story, is solidly placed.
Healthy Story: How to Create a Story That Practically Writes Itself briefly teaches about teach core element of story and then provides exercises and planning material to get it all down on paper. It’s free to subscribers of The Story Doctor, so click here or on the cover image to opt-in for occasional updates and free offers.
No writer wants to slave over a project, offer it to the world, and hear the words I heard:
In a world where so much happens to so many, we need to spread truth and spirit to the world through our stories. Don’t let your words fade or disappear. Embrace the fundamentals of story-telling.
Make it happen.
How can you make things happen in your writing right now? Leave a thought in the COMMENTS below!