Has a reader ever said this about your story?
This one hurts.
Well, a bunch of readers told me that about my first major work, a play I wrote back in 2004.
The first was a professor who I loved and respected.
“Nothing happens,” he told me, pushing the manuscript across the table as we enjoyed lunch.
I argued and fought with him, insisting: Yes, a lot happens!
But he didn’t see it, and neither did a lot of other passionate people who cared for me, but didn’t care for my play.
Has that ever happened to you?
If it has, then you can probably agree:
This one hurts.
When Nothing Happens
Like most reader feedback, “nothing happens” is code.
Readers may not talk like writers, but we still need to take their words and “decode” them into action points for writing and revision.
Have you ever taken your car to the shop, only to hear the mechanics jabber in a language you barely understand because you don’t speak “Car?”
It’s the same between writers, who create and tinker with stories, and readers, who “use” them by reading and enjoying them.
So when a reader uses code like “nothing happens,” you need to understand what it really means.
If a reader responds to your work with these haunting words, or some variation thereof (“I couldn’t tell what was happening,” or “I didn’t get it”), then you need to know what they really mean, which is this:
And that is a fatal mistake, because change is essential to a good story.
Readers Quit When Nothing Changes
Life is built around change.
It’s how we measure growth, loss, improvement, failure – practically everything.
And readers expect to be taken on a journey in which people, places, and situations change.
If you hear that “nothing happens,” that means your story either doesn’t show change, or it doesn’t show it clearly.
Your job is to make sure that the entire focus and framework of your story is on a major change in a character, a world, a conflict, or all the above.
Anything less will be a disappointment that will send readers packing.
When We Refuse to Change
When authors fail to focus on change, the whole story falls apart.
Perhaps we focus too heavily on a clever situation.
This was a common flaw in the stories I judged for The Write Practice’s Winter Writing Contest.
But a situation is not a story. It is just a situation – a scene frozen in time, locked in whatever status the writers thinks is most clever, romantic, tragic, and so on.
You know – the “two guys meet at a bus stop” story.
Nothing ever changes. It’s what I call a “situation with a secret,” and it’s usually an exposition dump.
But revealing exposition isn’t change, and it isn’t a story, either.
Perhaps we focus too heavily on a mysterious character.
Usually the character has a secret that will be revealed at story’s end and then shock the reader.
But the character doesn’t change – or the story doesn’t show him/her changing. This is boring and betrays the reader’s innate expectations. The character is, in his/her own way, another situation with a secret, a body merely transporting exposition from one scene to another.
The same goes for settings.
World-building is a lot of fun, but readers want to see transition and transformation, not glamor or decay. Perhaps the glamor/decay is the drawing point, but the story must reveal how everything has come to be, relative to the protagonist’s goal.
The truth is that we must plan our stories with a focus on the major change in a person, a world, or a conflict.
Otherwise, readers won’t stick around.
Story Secret #1: Focus on Change
If you are just starting a story, this is easy.
You can plan around a story’s central change with ease.
I like to call this plan an “Event Statement” – a summary of the major change that my story will show.
For my play The Last Lafaye, my Event Statement was: “When the last member of the great Lafaye family gets married, the family name will be dead.”
This summarized a huge change in the world of a powerful New Orleans family: The name, the foundation of its legacy, was going to vanish. This was a HUGE motivating factor in everything that happened in the story.
(Notice that I didn’t focus on the family’s greatness, but its weakness – weakness is infinitely more interesting than power.)
And while I can’t share the Event Statement for my novel, The Bean of Life (doing so would give away key plot points), it focuses on the protagonist’s dramatically changing world and character.
Not ironically, The Bean of Life is an adaptation of my failed play – you know, the one where “nothing happened?”
So in my revisions, I made damned sure that a lot happened.
In other words, I made sure that a lot changed.
Mid-story, of course, focusing on change can be much more difficult, and may require lengthy rewrites.
But at a basic level, you can begin this transformation by focusing on one major story element and redesigning it.
Don’t change everything.
Rather, show how a single story element (the protagonist, the setting, or the conflict) can be enough to change everything itself.
And keep reading the Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week with Reason #2!
What do you think? Have you ever been told that “nothing happened” in your story? Share your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: Alessandro Lucia, Creative Commons