As a book coach, I see a lot of first drafts. And while every story is different, a number of common first draft mistakes that are . Most of these big-picture story issues have to do with missing elements—the elements that hook readers, keep them turning the page, and leave them feeling satisfied when they reach “the end.”
Many of these elements are also basic narrative conventions. Of course, everyone has the right to tell their story the way they see fit, and sometimes rules should be broken. But it’s important to understand (and try to apply) the basic conventions of a good story before deciding to deviate. For one thing, readers come to stories with a set of expectations based on narrative and genre conventions. For another, debut authors—especially in the increasingly competitive market of traditional publishing—have to show that they know what they’re doing.
If you want to write a compelling, meaningful story that hooks your reader, then you want to look for and fix these five common first draft mistakes in your novel.
1. No larger point or message
When I read a draft that is missing a larger point or message, I’m often left confused or dissatisfied because the story elements don’t add up to anything bigger. The character’s journey doesn’t have a larger purpose, or the plot takes a sudden turn that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t see a connection between what happens and why it matters. I don’t walk away having my worldview questioned or reaffirmed.
Whether readers realize it or not, they come to books to examine something about the world or the human condition (for more on the science of why we read, check out Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story). The point or message is the heart of the book—it’s the central argument the writer wants to make and the piece that resonates with readers.
It’s also the foundation that the rest of the story is built on because everything must drive toward making that point.
Not having a point or message is sometimes a symptom of the other story problems, and sometimes it’s the root. When it’s the root, the writer often has no driving force behind why the characters do what they do or why the plot goes where it does. When it’s a symptom, it’s often because the writer is simply seeing their story as a series of events without a greater meaning.
If you don’t have a message—something you want to say with your story—stop and consider this: Why must you write this novel? What universal truth is it proving?
It’s okay if your point sounds like a cliché. Clichés persist and resonate because there’s a kernel of truth in them.
Now consider if your protagonist’s arc and your story events connect to that point. If not, I recommend tweaking your plans before continuing to write or revise forward.
2. Too much focus on plot instead of story
We often use the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably, but there’s an important distinction between them. A plot without story is simply not as compelling because it reads like just a series of events; there should be more going on underneath those events.
Plot is what happens, and story is why that matters to the protagonist. Story encompasses the protagonist’s arc of change—what they learn from the plot events and why. It also touches on the emotions they experience and the point of their journey. A draft that is all plot without story feels shallow. I often find myself wondering “why?” which takes me right out of the novel.
This might be happening in your draft if you started with a plot and didn’t give as much thought to your point or protagonist’s journey. Try flipping the script before you go any further.
Ask yourself: what does your main character learn throughout the course of the story? And how will they hold themself back from getting their goal? How do they change throughout? How do the events of the story change them?
Map out your character’s internal journey, then weigh your plot against it to see if the events are challenging them and moving your protagonist forward in a meaningful way.
3. No clear character arc for the protagonist
As I hinted at in the previous point, we come to stories expecting to see a change happen in the protagonist. There are other types of character arcs, but the most common and conventional is a positive arc where a character starts off as one type of person and ends as a different type of person. They change by recognizing their internal flaw and making an effort to overcome that.
Why is this important? Because when we read, we put ourselves in someone else’s viewpoint with the interest in seeing how they overcome difficult odds (so we can experience difficulties without risking that same challenge ourselves). In that process, we want to see the protagonist change internally, not just externally.
When I read a draft where the protagonist doesn’t change or the arc of change isn’t clear, I feel cheated. This person went through all these trials, and they didn’t learn anything?! I don’t buy it.
If this piece is missing in your draft, start by asking yourself two questions: Who is my character at the start of the story? And who are they at the end?
Those two things should be fairly different if not opposite (e.g., my character starts as someone who doesn’t believe in love and ends not only believing in love but also experiencing it for herself).
Then plan how you can get your character to resist that change for as long as possible (until the climax) when they will finally learn the lesson of the story because everything else they’ve tried hasn’t worked, and decide to make that change.
4. Details or subplots don’t pay off
When I read, I’m like a bloodhound sniffing out clues, and the clues I’m looking for are hints about what’s going to happen next in the book. I jump on every seemingly significant detail and assume that it means something. Oh, she set her diary down on the coffee table? Yeah, that’s going to come into play later.
As writer Anton Chekhov said (in many various ways): “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”
Again, this is because of how our brains are wired: to look for meaning in everything. So when a writer calls out a specific thing early on in the story, we subconsciously believe that it will become important later, and we hold on to it.
As such, significant details and subplots should connect to the main character’s plight or the theme of the story. If a detail or subplot doesn’t ultimately go anywhere, at best, the reader is distracted by it, and at worst, the reader is confused.
What distinguishes general description from significant details? The latter are what you, the writer, take specific care to draw a reader’s attention to. So, you’ll probably have many descriptions of places, and characters, and actions throughout your book that won’t stand out to readers. But any time you emphasize an element—perhaps because it is unusual, memorable, abnormal, etc—that will stick in your readers’ minds as a significant detail.
Check your draft to see if you have called out or lingered on any details. Do these matter in the larger story?
If the character setting the diary on the coffee table doesn’t pay off, edit the description to make it less conspicuous (“I set the diary aside”) or take it out.
Also check for any side characters or subplots that suddenly disappear. Make sure you either connect these to the story’s resolution or give them their own resolution. If not, cut them.
5. No cause-and-effect trajectory from one scene to the next
When a draft doesn’t have a cause-and-effect trajectory, the story and characters can feel illogical. It often seems like they are acting without thinking or feeling, and the events are disconnected.
Because a novel is not just a series of events, it’s important to remember that each scene—each action your protagonist takes—should drive from one to the next. Ultimately, your characters are constantly acting and reacting.
If a character gets a surprising piece of news in one scene (unless you’re creating a non-linear timeline), then they should either do something to process that news in the next scene or they should act in some way that is informed by that news. Even in the case of a non-linear timeline, there’s still that underlying cause and effect, you’re just presenting the scenes to your reader out of order.
One of the best ways to test this for yourself is to summarize each of your scenes and try to insert the phrase “because of that” in-between them.
An example would be: In the first scene, my character gets a surprising piece of news that her father had died. Because of that, in scene two, she rushes home from college to be with her family. Because of that, she finds out that it isn’t true. Because of that…
If “because of that” doesn’t make sense between your scenes, then they are not being triggered by what comes before them.
While these points don’t encompass all there is to a good story, it’s hard to have a compelling novel without them. Whether you’re in the planning stages of your next project or you’re revising a completed draft, I’d recommend using this list of common first draft mistakes to guide you. And I know it can be daunting to tackle such big-picture issues, but remember that your story can only improve from here!
Tell us in the comments: Have you made any of these common first draft mistakes? How did you fix them?
Heather Campbell is a book coach who helps writers develop tools to overcome their perfectionism and mindset blocks so they can create lasting and effective writing habits to complete a novel. When she’s not immersed in fiction, she’s running in the fresh mountain air of Colorado or snuggling with her rescue dog, Chase. Find out more at www.thewriterremedy.com and follow her on Instagram!