Story doesn’t start in the right place
When you first sit down to write – and especially with a longer work – it’s often a feeling-out process. You might have planned out your story, but you’re still finding your way in and meeting your characters, locations, and the circumstances. Sometimes, that shows, and what you offer the reader is a travelogue, instead of narrative that’s moving the story forward. Guess what? That’s all choppable!
Be brutally honest when you look at your opening. It might be beautifully written, but is it serving the story?
It’s underwritten, or there are sections that are underwritten
Too many people love the juicy bits in the story, but they don’t do justice to the journey. They hurry through it. So things that might be interesting end up underdeveloped.
For example, consider this: your protagonist is going to tell their partner they’ve been cheating. You’d want to jump right into that scene, right? Into the screaming and shouting and things being thrown around? So you hurry through your protagonist coming home. But isn’t there something interesting in that build-up? Wouldn’t the protagonist consider what the relationship has meant to them? Wouldn’t there be a cool scene where they’re just sitting in the car, parked in the drive, summoning the nerve to make this admission? Wouldn’t this be compelling to see?
Think about the scenes you’re skimming through – although you mightn’t realise you’re skimming, you might be able to identify that’s what’s happening because you’re feeling bored by your story, and/or eager to get to another section. Think about what you’re writing. Some times, you will need to skim; and, other times, you’ll have a scene inherent with overwhelming potential. Stay in the moment. And make sure you give it every bit of attention it deserves.
We love to make sure that the reader is getting it. There’s a storm. Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. Wind howls. The protagonist is cold. Shivering. His fingers are icy. The wind tears through his clothes. Rain pounds his face. The thunder startles him. Lightning almost blinds him. The rain stings. The wind howls. The storm ravages the house. And on we go.
We get it. The protagonist is in a storm. Smashing the reader this way doesn’t emphasise the storm, but dilutes it because details are no longer unique. They become common. Repetitive. Readers start switching off.
Alternatively, your details might be unique, but the prose itself is fat. You’ll find that instead of needing fifty words, you could say the same thing in just twenty. It’s that precision that will stay with the reader, and move the story, rather than bogging both down in a quagmire.
Digressive / Exposition / Important things happen off the page
These can all be lumped together because they can become intertwined.
One of the best ways to identify exposition is to ask if the events being recounted are happening in the current setting, or occurring in introspection, e.g. the protagonist lays in bed, recounting their wedding day. Obviously, we’ve moved away from the current setting and now the protagonist is thinking about something.
A little exposition is going to be unavoidable. You’ll need it to provide backstory (or depth) to characters or the circumstances. But how long is it? Is it taking the reader away from the unfolding story? By the time you get back to the story, will the reader remember where they’d jumped off? Are you telling the reader about something important rather than showing it? Or are you referencing important events that happened off the page which would be much better to see unfold as they happen?
Think about how you’re communicating information to the reader.
Lack of chronology / lack of foreshadowing
Usually, the best structure is a straight line. Just tell the story chronologically. Don’t write the first five chapters chronologically, set the sixth chapter thirty years earlier (because it’s convenient and the readers really need to know something from back then), and then the next thirty-eight chapters chronologically. That one detour is going to mystify the reader.
As readers work their way through your book, your narrative programs them into what they should expect. Is the story alternating between characters (e.g. any Game of Thrones book)? Is it alternating between timelines and perspectives (e.g. Barracuda)? You need a methodology – no matter how convoluted the structure – that the reader will trust, and which makes sense (at least internally in terms of the narrative). Otherwise, it just comes across as random.
Equally important is foreshadowing, which also falls into the realms of chronology. Let’s say your protagonist is kidnapped in Chapter 5. In Chapter 10, they escape, because we learn – only then – that while they were being kidnapped, they secreted a kitchen knife in their jacket. Most readers will just think, Huh? It’s convenient. And when convenience becomes a solution, you lose all tension, because readers will know you can just whisk out a solution whenever you need it.
Alternatively, you can foreshadow events but misdirect the reader, so when they do realise what’s happening, it puts everything in a new context. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is a masterpiece of misdirection, so that when the twist comes, you realise everything has predisposed you to the wrong conclusion, yet all the evidence was there to see the truth for yourself. Similarly with Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Clubs. There’s plenty of great examples out there.
You don’t need to think about these things as you write (although knowing about them might challenge expression you’ve held true for however long). Just write. Get that draft out. But once it’s out and you’re starting to revise, think about how you can improve your narrative.