Have you ever heard the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know”? It is very difficult to critique your own writing skill. My beta readers helped but the feedback they provided just touched the surface of what was wrong with my story. So I hired a professional content / development editor, one that looks at the overall story development. And let me tell you, Kristen Lamb’s feedback was phenomenal.
I knew my story wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t know why. I hoped it was good enough, but knew deep down that it wasn’t. When she discussed her findings with me, it was like a lightbulb came on and I was struck by lightning at the same time.
The lightning strike was because nothing pains the heart more than hearing the story you’ve poured your soul into still needs more work. The lightbulb was because she also provided feedback that encouraged me to move forward. My writing is great. My story is on the right track. And the story problems can be fixed. Here is what she said:
Your Primary Protagonist Has to Face a Hard Choice
You can’t just throw trouble at your character and always have him make easy choices to get out of trouble. You have to really push them to the edge in the final act. You have to force them to do something that goes against their nature. And you have to make the choice a sacrifice no matter which they choose. Think about how Luke in “Star Wars” is forced to kill his own father. His hard choice—sacrifice the galaxy to save his father or sacrifice his father to save the galaxy.
Your Primary Protagonist Has to Grow
Your character starts out one way at the beginning of the story and learns something so profound from his journey that he changes into someone else. I don’t mean literally, though it could be literal, like in “The Fly”. And I don’t mean their whole persona. I mean something about his or her character changes. Think about Sarah in “The Labyrinth”. She began with the romanticized view that she was a Cinderella-like person forced by a wicked stepmother to care for a spoiled sibling. Then she faced a real adventure and learned to appreciate her life and her brother.
Choose One Protagonist to Focus On
Although you can have multiple protagonists, only one will face the hard choice and truly transform and grow in the end. Consider “Star Wars” again. There are many great protagonists in the story. And they all have grown in their own way. Han Solo isn’t such a scoundrel after all. Neither is Lando. Leia and Han fall in love. But the primary protagonist is Luke. He’s the one who grew the most—from the whiny kid in the beginning to a Jedi master at the end. He’s also the only one who truly faced the heart of the Empire. And he’s the one who sacrificed the most when he made his choice.
You Have to Have One Strong Antagonist
When you just throw trouble after trouble at your character like I did, it’s more difficult for your character to face a hard choice at the end. And as you will see in the next heading, it’s more difficult for them to fight a final battle.
Your Primary Protagonist Has to Face the Primary Antagonist in the End
I wanted to add “and Win” because I like my heroes to win. But they don’t have to win in order to make a powerful story. The movie, “The Departed” comes to mind. Although Billy Costigan killed Colin Sullivan in the end, Billy was also killed. Anyway, without one primary protagonist and one primary antagonist, you can’t have the hard choice with the big battle at the end. You simply have a journey from one place to another with no ultimate purpose to keep your reader interested.
What This Means for “StarFire Dragons”
To keep this post from getting too long, I will post my musings on this next Saturday.
As writers, we can either let critiques bring us down and keep us from writing, or we can accept them as learning experiences and work on improving our skill. Because the feedback I received from Kristen Lamb was so spot on and made so much sense (and wasn’t at all contradictory like it was with the beta readers), I’ve chosen the later route. I strongly encourage you all to get your own stories reviewed by a content / development editor. They’re well worth the money. You can’t become a great writer if you don’t learn what you don’t know.