How to Fix a Story That Lacks Substance

What does it mean when an editor or agent tells you your story lacks substance? While this might seem obvious, I know there are some of you out there who have scratched their heads when receiving this message. And I don’t blame you. Without specifics or solutions, this comment can do more harm than good.

So, let’s break it down a bit. Obviously, if the story lacks substance, something is missing, right? This could mean a variety of things. Maybe the storyline isn’t strong enough to sustain a whole novel. Maybe the characters aren’t sufficiently developed, so the reader can’t connect with them. Maybe the writing is episodic, which means there are plenty of scenes, but they aren’t linked together.

But, what can you do if your story lacks substance? Remove the emotion from the situation and look at your manuscript as though you’re judging someone else’s work. Translation: Temporarily forget this is your baby so you can drop the protective parent feeling. Be open to tossing anything and everything and rewriting huge chunks of the manuscript. I’m not saying you’ll have to do this, but you need to be open to the possibility.

Now, you’re ready to get down to business.

-Go back to the basics. Draw up a GMC (goals, motivations, conflicts—internal and external) chart for your major players. This might have changed from the original GMC chart you’d created when plotting, so if you already have a GMC chart, put it aside and create a new one based off the actual story.

-Are the GMCs obvious? Your story should’ve started near or at the inciting incident, which would launch your protagonist’s story GMCs. This will help the reader know what the story will be about: what the character wants, why he wants it, what’s keeping him from getting it, and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it. This will give the reader a hint to the protagonist’s inner journey as well as the external battles he’ll face. Check your first chapter. The reader should have at least a rough idea of the GMCs at this point, even if they have to be fleshed out in the next chapter or two.

-Is there conflict in EVERY scene? Conflict is what keeps readers engaged. It helps move the story forward and pushes the protagonist to make decisions. The conflict can be internal, external, or both.

-Does the conflict change? Granted, the protagonist might face the same STORY conflict throughout the manuscript, but his SCENE conflicts should change. This means that while he may be chasing a certain goal (one that he won’t achieve until the end of the book), there will be smaller challenges that will come up, a different one in every scene. If he keeps facing the same conflicts, these scenes will feel redundant and unnecessary. The exception is that he might face the same challenge but in a different way. However, I wouldn’t do this more than once per story. Come up with new conflicts instead.

-Does your protagonist have an arc? We need to see the protagonist slowly grow, allowing for some setbacks along the way, to the point where the reader will notice a difference in his character by the end of the story. No growth? No substance.

-Does your story move forward? While you could write the greatest, most interesting scenes, they might not belong in the story if they don’t help advance it, show conflict, or show the protagonist’s character arc. For example, if you’re writing a thriller, where a serial killer is after the heroine, and you have a scene where the heroine goes grocery shopping, but nothing happens, you need to cut it. We don’t need to see the day-to-day things people do. We shouldn’t see every detail of every minute of every day. That would slow the pace and bore the reader. So, if the shopping scene is just the heroine picking up some food for the weekend, we don’t need it. But, if as she’s shopping, the killer is stalking her and planning to grab her when she heads down aisle 7, we need to see this. Or, if she felt like someone was following her, so she rushed into the store and is merely pretending to shop as she assesses the situation, we need to see that. These scenes would contain conflict, possibly character growth, and they would move the story forward.

-Is your manuscript heavy with backstory? While you need some backstory, it shouldn’t take over the story, and it should be layered into scenes. You want to feed the reader information without stopping the forward motion of the story to do this (info dump). So, layer in a few backstory details through dialogue or thoughts and move on.

-Does your story contain too many flashbacks or dreams? With the exception of characters who have premonitions in their dreams, flashbacks and dreams are backstory. They stop the forward motion of the actual story. Too much of this and the reader starts to wonder which is the real story, and that means he’s been bumped from the journey and has been reminded he’s reading. Gasp!

While checking the above elements in your manuscript won’t guarantee your story still won’t lack substance, it will help improve a lot of the possible issues that could’ve earned the “lack of substance” comment in the first place.

What are other things a writer can to do when he receives the “lack of substance” comment?

Lynnette Labelle
2015 Daphne Finalist
2015 Molly Winner (Romantic Suspense)

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4 Responses to How to Fix a Story That Lacks Substance

  1. Graeme Ing says:

    Great article. It has a lot of substance, heh. These are fantastic tips for a final read through before sending a book to your editor. I’m sure we all fail at one or more of these now and then.

  2. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Thanks, Graeme. You’re right. Writers should use this list when reviewing their MS before submitting to an editor.

    Lynnette Labelle
    2015 Molly Winner (Romantic Suspense)
    2015 Daphne du Maurier Finalist

  3. Leo Dufresne says:

    Your article provides a very good template to apply to any manuscript for the purposes of determining if a story lies inside. I know I will include it in my checklist before I send my next manuscript off.
    Regarding an editor/agent who told me that my story lacked substance, I would hope that they provided a bit more of a clue as to what’s missing. By itself that word is far too vague. In fact, your article correctly points out many areas that it could be pointing to. I could perhaps understand such a response from an agent since they are often overcome by the volume of submissions and it’s not their role to coach the writer. As for an editor, if a writer colleague of mine got such a vague response from his/her editor, I would be inclined to tell them to consider a new editor. The writer and editor each have a role in the process of creating a good story with effective communication being the tool by which they work together to accomplish this task.
    Please be assured that none of this is pointed at you. I have seen the results of your editing on another’s manuscript and you are clearly quite good at your craft. Thank you for this well-written article that will be useful to me in the future.

  4. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Leo: I agree the term is vague, which is why I wrote this post. And you’re right, agents are busy and might not have the time to explain it to the writer. I would expect the same from editors at small publishing houses or digital-only houses who don’t require agents to submit the work. Freelance editors, as you said, should take the time to ensure their client understands what isn’t working and why. Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynnette Labelle
    2015 Molly Winner (Romantic Suspense)
    2015 Daphne du Maurier Finalist

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