So, Your Draft Doesn’t Make Sense
It’s the note every writer – new to professional – dreads: your draft doesn’t make sense. Eeek!
When your draft doesn’t make sense, it can be very overwhelming. When we get the note our stories are hard to follow, it’s easy to sink into hopelessness and despair. Some of us may even take it as proof we’re ‘terrible writers’ too and spiral even more.
Perhaps you’re confused, too? Maybe you don’t understand why your script editor, beta reader or peer reviewer finds your story so hard to follow. You may feel as if the story is clear in your mind, so how come the draft doesn’t make sense?? Wherever confusion lives, panic is usually not far behind.
But here’s the thing: ALL writers will write drafts that don’t make sense at some point. Newer writers frequently do this the most, so practice is key … but in real terms, ANY writer – including pros – may fall foul of this pitfall at some point.
If your draft does not make sense, here’s what you do FIRST:
- 1) Breathe. If you were trying something new, that’s great! Just because it didn’t go exactly the way you wanted it, does NOT mean it’s automatically a big mistake.
- 2) Accept it. Sure, B2W is first to say there are bad script readers, editors and feedback-givers out there. But most people reading a novel or screenplay in order to give feedback WANT to be able to follow. The likelihood of them saying ‘this doesn’t make sense’ or ‘I couldn’t follow XYZ’ just for the sake of it is not high.
- 3) Understand. What if I told you there’s ONLY 3 REASONS your draft doesn’t make sense? That’s right! It may seem hard to believe, but B2W has read sooooooo many nonsensical drafts (and I’ve written them myself, too!) that I’ve managed to boil it down to just three.
When you understand how these three reasons contribute to your draft not making sense — HEY PRESTO! You’re far less likely to write a draft that doesn’t make sense. Really!!! But first up, you need to understand the #1 problem you’re grappling with.
The #1 Problem of Drafts That Don’t Make Sense
The biggest issue drafts have is with exposition. This word refers to the background information needed to understand the story. This may refer to the story’s …
- mood or tone
- location, period or setting
- characters’ backstory
- storyworld in general
In other words, you NEED exposition. Contrary to popular belief, exposition is NOT a bad thing either!
You literally cannot do without it. The two issues B2W sees most often with exposition are:
1) Info dumps
In other words, the writer splurges key information in one go, rather than meting it out across the narrative when needed. I’d wager about 70-80% of writers do this. It’s so common as to be normal.
This is especially true of writers attempting to write something for the first time. It also happens when more experienced writers try a new genre or style outside their usual comfort zone (especially more involved storyworlds or styles, such as fantasy, mystery or science fiction).
As a result, these writers end up drowning the reader in background information. Far from illuminating the story, it over-complicates it. As a result, the reader does not what to focus on because too much is literally going on.
This usually happens to a writer who has either info dumped in the past, or is more experienced. They realise they need to mete the exposition out, but the pendulum swings too far the other way!
These writers end up ‘under-writing’ and not giving us ENOUGH background information to understand the story. Again, far from illuminating the story, the reader gets overwhelmed … but instead of getting distracted by info dumps, the reader starts searching for answers to the numerous questions they have about what’s possible in this storyworld.
As you can see …
Whether a writer has too much or too little exposition, they take the reader to the same place: distractionville!
The reader ends up with way too many questions. Whether that’s because there’s too much OR too little background information, it doesn’t really matter because we have the same problem.
Put simply, whenever a story doesn’t make sense it is because the writer:
1) Has forgotten it’s about ‘a good story, well told’
Whenever I tell a writer I found their story hard to follow, a writer will start talking about subtext or what they want to say … in other words, the meaning BEHIND the story.
Look, thematics are important. You won’t find me arguing against them because that would make no sense. Anyone who’s ever read any of my stories knows I put a lot of effort into thematics.
I’ve also written plenty on this blog about thematics, taught them in my workshops, plus I’ve written the Diverse Characters book too.
… Thematics are about making meaning, NOT the machinations of the story itself. When I say a story is hard to follow, that doesn’t automatically mean I ‘don’t get’ what a writer is trying to say. (Though if the story is all over the place, I may not get that either).
When B2W says a story is ‘hard to follow’, it means one or multiples of these three non-negotiable craft elements is ‘misfiring’ for some reason:
- Concept (aka idea, premise, controlling idea, seed of the story etc). If the concept at foundation level is faulty, woolly or problematic for any reason, your story falls like a house of cards. This is why I spend so much time advising writers to put as much work into their concept as possible.
- Characterisation (most notably role function and/or motivation). If we don’t understand WHO a character is, WHAT they’re doing in the story and WHY, that character might as well not exist. As I’ve repeated endlessly on this blog: this is because we don’t read or watch stories ‘about characters’. We read/watch stories ‘about characters who DO SOMETHING for SOME REASON.’
- Structure (aka plotting). It’s very fashionable to say ‘plots can be fixed’ and that it’s ‘all about character’. But as I’ve already said in the previous section, characters and plotting are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. So if a story is hard to follow, it’s often because what B2W calls The Story Chain is adversely affected as there is no ’cause and effect’. That’s why we need to stop kidding ourselves about plotting and realise how important it is.
Literally no one reads or watches a story for thematics alone, including you. YES REALLY.
We may come away from a book, TV show or movie doubly happy if the theme aligns with our own thoughts or values, but ultimately we want that ‘good story, well told’ FIRST. You absolutely cannot tell a ‘good’ story without that ‘Holy Trinity’ of writing craft – concept, characters and structure.
2) Doesn’t know enough about genre or type of story they’re writing in
The beauty of genre is that it provides a framework for your target audience’s expectations.
We know the basics intuitively:
- If you’re writing a comedy? Your target audience or reader wants to laugh.
- If you’re writing a thriller? They want to be excited.
- Horror? Scared.
- Mystery? Intrigue.
And so it goes. Yet consistently, writers seem to believe they can write various genres through the power of intuition alone.
NEWSFLASH: you can’t do this!
You need to understand genres have various markers they absolutely must hit … or they are not that genre. Obvious, yes – but writers always, always, always underestimate this.
… Especially as I’ve written the Thriller Screenplays book, and write thriller novels myself. I love this genre, plus I’ve researched it for donkey’s now.
What tends to happen is I read a writer’s thriller screenplay or novel for a writer … yet it won’t hit a single one of those genre markers that MAKES a story a thriller.
This in turn adversely impacts not only their writing of the story, but my understanding of it. Eeek!
When I ask the writer why they think they’ve written a thriller, the answer will invariably be:
- ‘It’s an exciting story’
- ‘It’s really tense’
- ‘What do you mean?’
When I relate various Thriller genre markers to them, such as The Deadline, ‘race against time’, The Big Reveal, ‘flight to fight’ and so on, their eyes mist over.
They haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about!!!
Yet if these writers had done even basic research into the thriller genre, they’d have discovered there are certain things writers MUST DO so their story is exciting and tense like they want.
This is true of the different mediums and subgenres, too. Whether you’re writing a spy thriller novel or a post-apocalyptic low budget screenplay, there will be different markers you need to hit. This is because different audiences and readers will want different things from those types of story. Again, obvious – yet consistently underestimated.
3) Doesn’t know the ‘rules’ of their own storyworld
This is not the case. Even very realistic stories still operate within a ‘storyworld’.
As an example: Netflix’s Top Boy is a gritty thriller about drugs, poverty and racism in London. A comparable series might be Sky’s Gangs of London. There’s significant crossover between the two, but ultimately their storyworlds are different.
Top Boy vs. Gangs of London
In Top Boy, young people are disenfranchised by a system they’re born into and cannot escape from. With few genuine opportunities, many answer the call of ‘The Road’ (selling drugs).
In this series, poverty is the real villain, handed down the generations both as a trap and as punishment by The Powers That Be. It also doesn’t matter how far up the ladder these characters climb: they will always fall back down. It could be argued here the message is, ‘the system will chew you up and spit you out’.
In Gangs of London, it’s subtly but significantly different. Here, drugs are just as rife, but they have been used as stepping stones by characters with much more financial or social capital than those in Top Boy.
Here, a number of the families have catapulted themselves from nothing. They have utilised their ill-gotten gains to gain respect and opportunities, presenting ‘respectable’ faces to society whilst maiming, torturing and killing to protect their interests behind the scenes. Essentially, the message here is ‘s/he who dares – and debases themselves the most – wins’.
These two series deal with some of the same problems, situations and dilemmas, but ultimately are different. Storyworld is the space in which the story operates: nothing more, nothing less.
It may also refer to what’s POSSIBLE in that storyworld
Lots of writers mistakenly believe that keeping everything ‘open’ is the way to go … it’s not, because it only ends up leaving readers and feedback-givers confused.
This is why it’s very important to draw perimeters of what’s POSSIBLE in your storyworld. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy story, then chances are you want to create a magic system for your sorcerers and mages.
If you leave such a system ‘open’, then the magic system can do anything, which feels like a cheat. No one likes this.
In contrast, if magic can only do certain things in certain ways, it is not only not a cheat, the story feels much more compelling. MORE: Brandon Sanderson’s 3 Laws For Creating Magic Systems In Your Fantasy Story
Solutions To Help Your Story Make Sense …
i) Get real. Stop floating away with high-falutin’ thoughts about subtext, theme and all that other intangible stuff. That’s great to explore AFTER you’ve solidified the concept, characters and structure. Never forget it’s a ‘good story, well told’ that readers and audiences want FIRST.
ii) Don’t rely solely on your intuition, research those genre markers! Next time you want to write a specific genre or type of story, make sure you road-test your concept. Do your research into what has gone before, what people have liked about those existing stories and any possible changes you might need to make to keep things fresh.
iii) Work out what your storyworld is … and what’s possible there. Being aware of the space in which your story operates can only help you. For more on storyworld, CLICK HERE.
The B2W Logline Surgery
Want my help with your concept or logline at grassroots level? As both a script editor AND a novelist, I am uniquely placed to help you with the foundation of your story, or anything else you feel you need help with.
The B2W Logline Surgery is for writers like you who want to …
- … make sure their logline is ‘pitch ready’ and doesn’t commit any major logline crimes like describing ‘around’ the story, is too vague, uses clichéd language or sounds like a different genre
- …. OR who want to road-test their concept (aka idea, premise, seed of the story etc) with me before they start writing their draft, so they can ensure it’s not half-baked, dated, or has other issues
You will get a personal recorded Zoom with me about your logline/concept that you can revisit as many times as you like, plus access to B2W resources that will help consolidate what you learn. (By the way, I know some writers like to create deadlines for themselves, so if you want to buy now and use your session later within 6 months, that’s fine too).
CLICK HERE to sign up now. Can’t wait to chat about your projects!