Weak stories are a common encounter in beginning fiction, even when the quest is strong and the stakes are high.
Example of weak story: The protagonist endangers his life to save his best friend’s life, who’s been kidnapped by a gang of organised crime.
By any standards, this quest would make a strong story. The stakes are high enough.
What can make this story weak?
- Low or no obstacles
- A weak protagonist
- An unconvincing villain
No or low obstacles
The way the protagonist solves the quest is dream-like. Everything is his path turns out to be far from a nightmare. The ocean is crystal clear, not too cold and rather fresh and pleasant when he parachutes himself in the middle of the Atlantic on a December night and only a quiet little splash breaks its tranquillity. Afterwards, the skip in which the protagonist hides is the only one to go through customs without being checked as a dog/a bird/a blonde with big breasts distracts the customs officer while the skip goes through.
Memo: when there is a plan in the quest, nothing can possibly go according to it. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong for the protagonist and the circumstances are never favourable, they are always obstacles.
A weak protagonist
What makes a protagonist appear weak is his/her inability to rise to our expectations. A common instance is an anti-hero who happens to have a belt in every single type of martial arts when he’s assaulted, a degree in psychology when he’s kidnapped and a course in baking when he has the sexy character over for dinner.
A weak protagonist is also a protagonist who makes use of favourable circumstances instead of overcoming obstacles. The circumstances mentioned above about the parachuting in the ocean and the skip don’t do the protagonist justice.
Memo: a protagonist gains respect by overcoming adversity and the stronger the adversity, the stronger our awe will be.
An unconvincing villain
In the same way, a plot is weakened by a villain that doesn’t match the strength of the protagonist. The villain is the ultimate obstacle in the protagonist’s quest, so having him or her pose mild or insignificant obstacles in the protagonist’s journey will damage the villain, the protagonist and the story.
Memo: a stronger villain will make the protagonist seem stronger and will also strengthen your story.
For more on improving plot and story, see ‘How can a plot go wrong?’ in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.
Image credit: Con Air © Touchestone Pictures (1997).