Today we’re tackling a topic directly. Head on. We’ll be discussing a problem I often see throughout literature, especially work from new writers or in the area of fanfiction (and both are probably bolstered by the fact that most television deliberately commits this act in order to pad out run-time).
Today, I want to talk about the meandering story: What it is, and how we can fix it. Because not only is it a problem that I see many young writers having a problem with, it’s also one that many of them don’t seem to know how to escape. The story meanders, and it wanders, and the writer, even if they see the hole they’re writing themselves into, doesn’t know how to get out of it. More often than not, it turns into a sort of “sand trap” for them, like a golfer, in which they swing and they swing, but the story just isn’t going anywhere.
And that won’t do.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into things, and take a look at how you can keep your story from getting bogged down in this same trap.
What is a Meandering Story?
All right, before we go any further, we need to clear something up by determining exactly what a meandering story is. It’s not a story that stars a lot of twist and turns, no. Rather, a meandering story is one that loses sight of its end goal.
Now, when I say this, I don’t mean that the characters lose sight of the end goal (or maybe don’t know what that goal is). No, that’s fine. Characters can lose sight of things all you want. That’s just part of the story.
Instead, what I’m talking about is a story where the plot has lost sight of the end of the story. It’s forgotten where it’s going, or is confused about its ultimate objective, but rather than stop and try and figure things out, it just keeps going, like an energizer bunny, despite the fact that it has no idea where it’s headed. It wanders from plot point to plot point, searching for some vague sense of purpose to drive itself forward. Or maybe it has an idea of where it wants to go (like “X needs to defeat Y”) but has no idea how to get to that point, and so bounces across every possible solution, one after another, until it finally clicks.
You see this sometimes in TV shows that have been stretched out longer than they should have been. Shows that had a 20-episode story but were scheduled for 26, so they make 6 episodes where everything just kind of “sits” or wanders in strange, non-genre directions for a while to pad things out. You can also find it in works by authors who write serial works, works that are published as they are written, when they lose track of where they want to go and you get a whole books/chapters that don’t seem to add anything to the narrative.
This is a meandering story, a story that has lost its way to the ending and is aimlessly drifting back and forth looking for the plot threads that will guide it to the end.
And, hopefully, as you’re thinking of this, you’re seeing what kind of problems this sort of scenario can present for the reader. The pacing? Gone. That careful balance of when things happen and what level they engage the reader on will flat-line as the story stretches itself out. The narrative arc? Wrecked. The constant rise and fall of tension comes to a halt when a story begins to meander, dropping into a long, long lull, and that throws the reader’s balance out the window, lessening the impact of any rise that comes thereafter.
Yeah. We don’t want this to happen.
How Do We Spot a Meandering Story?
Right, so a meandering story isn’t good. You could probably have gleaned that from the title, but now we’re on the same page as towhat it is. So now, then, the question is how are you going to spot it in your own work? Especially if you’re not sure what you should be looking for?
Well, the obvious answer would be to read your own work when it’s done and see if you can spot locations where the plot-line begins to wander. Or, as always, have Alpha readers go over your work and check for this kind of problem (among others).
But that’s only helpful if you’ve already written the thing. What if you’re sitting down and writing a story right now, and you’re worried it might be meandering? What are some warning signs you want to look for?
The easiest, and simplest, is to look at a chunk of your story, either as you write it, before you write it, or just after you’ve written it, and ask yourself this simple question: Is this taking the story closer to its ending? What is this chapter (segment, etc) accomplishing for the plot? Look at the events in the chapter and ask yourself what each of them contribute to your story, and then ask if that contribution is important to the overall work as a whole.
For example, say your plot is about three rag-tag revolutionaries trying to broadcast a message that will expose their corrupt government and bring about a change in things. Now, as you write a chapter, ask yourself what that chapter is doing to move the story towards the ending. What does it add to it? Does a chapter about the three characters having lunch fit in? Would it if the characters were sharing information about themselves and why they’re pushing back against the government? Perhaps. But if it was simply to have them having lunch, however, then that begins to sound like a chapter that’s meandering a bit.
The tricky part here is that this is an area where much gets very specific to each individual story. A lunchtime scene where two characters discuss their relationship in one story may be meandering … while in another it’s a subplot, a theme, or something else that ties directly into the book, and as good chapters do, moves everything towards the climax in some manner, be it plot, character, etc.
So, in looking for signs of a plot that may be meandering, either as you’re writing or as you’re editing your own work, ask yourself “What does this do to bring my story closer to the ending?” Because at no point should your story not be moving towards a conclusion. Look at your work, look at the details, situations, thematic elements, etc, and ask what they’re each doing to bring your story closer to that inevitable end.
Now, take note. This does not mean that every chapter needs some “physical” movement towards the end. Stories are made up of a lot of different things. Theme. Character arcs. Subplots. Overarching plots are made up of lots of little “steps,” if you will, on a ladder. The goal is to be sure that each segment you write moves the story upwards along at least one of these rungs, rather than not moving at all.
So, when looking for signs of meandering in your own work, ask what each scene or chapter contributes in moving things toward your ending. If a chapter or suite of chapters doesn’t seem to be contributing anything, then you may have a meandering story on your hands.
Fixing a Story That’s Meandering
Right, so now you’ve realized that you’ve got a story that’s meandering, and you want to fix it. How do you do that?
Well, this is where things diverge a bit. Because the answer is going to be different if you’ve completed this story already versus this is a story that you’re in the act of writing at the moment.
If you’ve already completed the story, you’re not going to like what I’m about to say. And you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Because you really only have two options. You can cut all that meandering material out … or you can rewrite things so that it’s no longer meandering but tying back into the core plot and moving things towards the end.
This is not easy. Likely, you’ll end up rewriting some of what you’d had in there, even if your solution is to simply cut it in its entirety. Because odds are there were nuggets of things that you liked and added to the story in the meandering, even if they didn’t help things move along, and you’re probably going to want to save some of those nuggets. Of course, that means figuring out how to keep them while cutting all the extraneous stuff … and that means picking through what you plan to cut and finding each and every thing you want to save along with any extraneous stuff it needs, and figuring out how to work those back into a new segment that doesn’twander off on its own.
Or maybe you want to keep the stuff that meanders, but make it work towards the ending. In that case, you’re going to need to rework a lot of it and the ending so that not only is the wandering stuff no longer wandering, but the ending works with what they added.
Either way, when it comes to adjusting a finished manuscript, you’re going to be doing a lot of work. Cut material will need something to stitch in the hole. Rewrites may end up being massive and time consuming as you hunt to make sure you haven’t left out by accident one tiny but significant detail or rework areas of the plot to make a wandering chapter fit back into the narrative.
Now, what if you’re catching yourself with a work that isn’t done yet, but you’ve just realized that the last X-number of chapters has become a meandering tangent that isn’t getting you any closer to your ultimate goal? How do you fix that?
Well, you could do the whole rework thing and change the goal … but that’s honestly only worth it if you feel that the direction you wandered in could be stronger than the original ending you had planned. If not, well …
Select all the meandering text, starting with the point where things went south for you (making sure to mark or mentally make note of the things you really liked about it). Now hit copy and open a new file. Paste it all into that file. Got that? Okay, now go back to the original draft, the one where you just selected everything, starting again with the point where it took a wrong turn.
Hit delete. Start writing again. Go a different direction, one that pulls you towards that ending of yours. Make sure you don’t forget any of the nuggets found in those now-gone segments that you want to touch on once more (this is why you save the amputated parts), so you can work them back into your new chapters.
Neither of these options is easy. I get that. In fact, both are a lot of work. Hence why it’s best to spot when your work begins to meander early, so that you can fix it before it becomes a heavy load. If you can keep your story from meandering, you can keep yourself from ever needing to spend all that time fixing it. But sometimes you’ll wind up needing to fix things anyway, and you’ll need to put that time in, because it’s better than the alternative.
Ultimately, when you write, your goal should be to make sure that everything you write doesn’t meander, or in other words, moves in some way towards the conclusion of your story. Be that taking care of a subplot, a character arc … whatever, it needs to hit a step, or move towards it, on the path to the ultimate ending of your story.
Remember both pacing and the up and down of rising and falling tension. A meandering story stretches out a low point and breaks the pacing. You always want to keep your plot on a straight line to the ending. The characters, they can wander, as long as the plot doesn’t.
Now, even with this in mind, you may still find cases where your plot has started to meander a bit. Fix it. Catch it early, if you can, because the longer you wait, the more work it will be. But even if it is a lot of work … you should go ahead and do the work, because you’ll get a much better story out of it.
So, keep an eye out for it. Don’t let your plot wander around looking for an ending. Have an ending, move towards it. If you’re floundering, step back and rework things.
Let everything move towards that ending. And then, when you get there, it’ll be all the more satisfying.