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Even the simplest of stories aren't simple.

Most of them feature dozens of

characters, settings, POVs, themes, conflictsand on and on. A good story is
made up of more working parts than most of us can wrap our little brains around
in any one moment. Sometimes all these many working parts of the story can
get away from us. By the time we reach the end of the story, we've forgotten
half the pieces we used in the beginning. The result? Randomness! It's hardly
surprising that one of the most common writing mistakes I see is what I like to
call "story sprawl."
"Random" and "sprawling" don't sound so bad upfront. But give these insidious
little devils half a chance, and they'll unravel your story's cohesion in the blink of
a scene. A good story is a tight story. Every componentevery scene, every
character, every setting, every POV, every paper-lovin' wordneeds to exist for a
reason. And not just any reason. They need to fill a vacuum that can be filled by
no other story component. If your story already possesses a component that
could fill this particular vacuum, then why create a new component? Keep it
How Random Components Will Unravel Your Story's Cohesion
The problem with randomness in a story is that it's seductive. None of the
random elements you might add to your story are inherently bad or wrong. In
fact, they might be downright brilliant!
So why not add that funny old miser character in Chapter 34?
Why not have your character visit the fascinating world of Delhi on his way home
for his father's funeral?
Why not stick in a glimpse of the POV of the clairvoyant beggar boy on the
Why not, indeed. They all sound like fascinating elements to explore. But think
of it this way:
If you're John Williams composing the score to Jaws, why not stick in a little
Irish jig you dreamed up one night?
Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 35: Random Story
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If you're carving out Mt. Rushmore, why not stick Mickey Mouse's face up there
while you're at it?
If you're animating the movie Cars, why not stick in a hilarious trucker to drive
one of the vehicles?
It's kinda like a game of "Which of These Things Don't Belong?" Just as a
symphony or a painting has to be a complete and cohesive whole, same goes for
the novel. All the pieces have to fit, with none left over.
But this gets trickier. Obviously, Mickey Mouse on Mt. Rushmore would be a
horrible idea. But what's that got to do with your character stopping in Delhi en
route from London to Sydney? London, Delhi, and Sydney are all real-world
places that logically fit within your story. There's nothing about Delhi that makes
it jump out as an obvious mismatch.
But if your character never revisits Delhiif your character's time in Delhi doesn't
advance the plot in a way that's specific to Delhiif whatever happens in Delhi
could have happened just as easily in London or Sydneythen you know it needs
to be examined as potentially extraneous. It's not adding anything to the story,
and, as a result, it doesn't tie back in to the overall plot. It's a loose thread in
your otherwise seamless tapestry. It's an extra detail your readers have to hold
in mind, because they have faith it will matter in the long run. Even if they don't
consciously recognize the loose end, it will still contribute to an overall sense of
fragmentation. Add enough of these random components, and your story will
turn into a sprawling mess.
How to Write a Sprawlingly Random Story
Out of all the common writing mistakes we've discussed so far in this series,
this is probably the most difficult to demonstrate, since it's a story-wide
problem. So consider the following abbreviated outline, obviously written by an
author who let his story elements run wild:
1. L's POV: Even though his father is dying at home in Sydney, Australia,
Lawrence takes a job in London.
2. L's POV: In London, Lawrence immediately clashes with his shortsighted boss
who doesn't like Lawrence's ideas.
3. L's POV: Depressed, Lawrence takes a walk, meets Isabella, and falls in love.
4. B's POV: Billy, a clairvoyant beggar boy, watches Lawrence and Isabella
walking their dogs and realizes Lawrence's father has died. He thinks this is sad.
5. L's POV: Receives word his father has died.
6. L's POV: Wants Isabella to come home with him; she doesn't want to; they
fight; she breaks up with him.
7. L's POV: Flies home. Plane stops overnight in Delhi.
8. L's POV: While in Delhi, Lawrence wanders the city and, as the sun sets,
decides his father wouldn't have been mad at him for leaving when he did.
9. L's POV: Back home, at the funeral, Lawrence has to endure his miserly
uncle's long tirade about how much money his aunt spends.
10. L's POV: Lawrence makes up with his family, calls Isabella, makes up with
We'll assume for the moment that this is an insanely brilliant story. Readers
love Lawrence. They totally relate to him. Great book. Good job. But what
immediately sticks out at you? Billy the beggar, the city of Delhi, and the miserly
uncle and his long and thematically unrelated tirade (however funny) aren't
contributing enough value to make up for fragmenting our otherwise amazing
How to Write a Tight, Cohesive Story
This one's relatively easy: just cut Billy, Delhi, and the miserly uncle. If you
wove them in tight enough that they leave holes in your narrative (and if you
did, good for youyour instincts were trying to steer you to a tight story), then
you have a couple of options:
1. Fill in the Holes
Chances are you can cut Billy and the uncle without leaving too big a hole. All
that's left for you to do is smooth out the surrounding narrative to eliminate all
references to them and transfer any pertinent thoughts to Lawrence's own
2. Replace the Random Elements With Pertinent Ones
Sometimes, however, the holes are gaping. That scene in Delhi ran on for
chapters, and since it featured Lawrence's all-important epiphany about his dad,
it can hardly be called unimportant. So the epiphany stays, but Delhi goes.
Replace the random setting with a setting you've already used. Maybe Lawrence
has that epiphany in the well-used London setting, before he ever boards the
plane. Or maybe he has the epiphany once he returns home to the Sydney
setting that frames the whole story.
3. Reuse the Random Elements Until They Become Pertinent
Let's say you really love the beggar boy and his POV. He turned out to be one of
the best parts of the book. No problem. All that's needed to transform him from
random to relevant is a larger story role. Introduce him and his POV as early as
possible (maybe Lawrence meets him when he gets off the plane in Heathrow)
and use him consistently throughout the story. If he repeatedly impacts the
story, then he'll never run the risk of being random.
Does This Mean You Have to Reuse All Your Story Elements?
At this point, it might seem I'm saying any major element that is used only once
is a random loose end.
This will often be the case, but certainly not always. You'll rarely be amiss if
you're able to find a way to reuse prominent elements. If nothing else, doing so
helps you avoid extraneous characters and settings by prompting you to combine
roles and settings, which in turn will deepen those elements. Likewise, bringing
a story full circle with a framing device (e.g., Katniss both starting out and
ending up in District 12) will almost always add a cohesive, finished feel to your
But for every story that reuses elements, we can also find examples of stories
that don't and yet still manage to avoid random sprawling. Star Wars: A New
Hope is a great example. The only major setting that is reused in this story is
the Death Star. The main characters go from the deserts of Tatooine, to the Jawa
crawler, to the Larses' farm, to Mos Eisley, to the Death Star, to the rebel base
on Yavin IV, back to the exterior of the Death Star, then very briefly back to
Yavin for the closing scene.
Seems pretty random. So how's it work?
First of all, for all that the narrative jumps from setting to setting (and, as a
result, from supporting characters to supporting characters), it never includes an
extraneous setting. All the settings are important and necessary to the story.
Second, every setting is appropriately foreshadowed. Before we arrive in Mos
Eisley, Obi-Wan prepares us by telling us about this "hive of scum and villainy."
Yavin IV is never directly addressed, but the hunt for the "rebel base" is the
foundation of the entire plot. The minor characters who show up in each of these
settings are either recurring (Vader and Tarkin) or minor enough to avoid leading
viewers to attribute undue importance to them.
Good stories are tight storieseven if they're huge epics with dozens of settings
and a cast of hundreds. Examine every element in your story for anything that
About the Author: K.M. Weiland is
the internationally published author of
the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your
Novel and Structuring Your Novel, as
well as the western A Man Called
Outlaw, the medieval epic Behold the
Dawn, and the epic fantasy
Dreamlander. When shes not making
things up, shes busy mentoring other
authors. She makes her home in
western Nebraska.
jars, anything that leads readers to false expectations, or anything that is
extraneous in light of other elements in your story. The result will be a cohesive
narrative that will present readers with a stunningly efficient and beautiful
overall picture.