Why Readers Left Your Story: It Didn’t Start in the Right Place

Zoe’s book, Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days, is a fresh and innovative refocusing of your novel or novella. Through a few simple—and fun—steps, Zoe helps writers take their not-ready-for-publication and/or rejected manuscripts to a spit-polish finish. Writing is hard work, yes, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. —Eva Marie Everson, best-selling and multiple award-winning author, conference director, president of Word Weavers International, Inc.

 See the end of this post for more information.

Stories have three places they begin: too early, too late, or just right. Starting in the right place is about deciding what’s the actual current story. Readers want to start in the action of what I’ll call the real story.

Too Early

The reason readers leave is the writer makes them plow through too much set-up drudgery. The reader is bored.

The writer starts somewhere in a character’s backstory so the reader will understand why the character is like she is. Then, to get to the real story, the writer wearies the reader with hours, days, or years of mundane events unrelated to the real story.

Too Late

The reason readers leave is the writer plunks the reader into a period after the most crucial real-story event has happened. The reader is confused, especially when the writer holds back information about the crucial event thinking this adds suspense.

The writer starts where the character is reacting strangely to situations. Not knowing anything about the crucial event, the reader may think the character is unlikeable—whiny or unreasonable.

The writer has placed the crucial event into the backstory. Instead of experiencing the event with the character, the reader now:

  • has to read what a character thinks or dialogs about the event to be brought up to speed, or
  • becomes confused about what’s going on, and
  • has little buy-in to how the event affected the character and his goals.

Just Right

The reason the reader stays is the writer draws the reader into a journey with one event that challenges the character’s goals, causes him to make hard decisions, and forces him to take significant actions.

Look for the event, no matter how big or small, that upsets the character’s normal world. This event is called the inciting incident. The place to start the story is just before the inciting incident occurs—long enough to show what the character’s ordinary world is like. Then, bam, the event happens and triggers a change in the character and sends her on a journey.

An Example

Backstory: Austin’s dad left when he was seven. Today, he backs away from relationships when women talk about marriage and having children. He fears being a father like his dad.

Ordinary world: He’s a detective. He and his team chill at a pizza parlor after putting away a crooked art dealer. The guys tease Austin about taking two weeks off to hike in the Colorado Rockies to get away from his latest girlfriend.

Inciting incident: Tired from the case, the men leave. Austin visits the restroom then heads to his SUV. As he opens the car door, a woman, Missy, jabs a gun into his ribs and takes possession of his Glock. She directs him to get inside, then she and her seven-year-old son Silas climb into the backseat. Holding her gun to his head, she tells him to drive out of Boulder going east. He tries to talk her out of kidnapping him. No go. He’s no longer the cop but the victim.

Journey: The real story unfolds. The three travel to Florida. The thugs Missy had been involved with are in hot pursuit. Austin learns Silas witnessed the thugs murdering Missy’s boyfriend. In the past, Austin arrested Missy and told her she should get her life straight. She’s taking him up on his advice. On the trip, Austin’s backstory is fed in a little at a time, showing why he acts indifferent to Silas at first. Then, against what he wants, he becomes attached to Silas. And the story goes on. (Only in some stories does the character leave on a literal journey.)

Starting too early: He’s in a relationship with Tracy. She starts talking about marriage. He share’s stories about what his life was like without a father. Night after night she nags and he backs away. Finally, he leaves her. He and his team work on the crooked art dealer’s case. They catch the guy. They go to a pizza parlor. (Reader engaged in the real story?)

Starting too late: The story opens with Austin, Missy, and Silas having lunch at a restaurant in Dodge City, Kansas. They don’t converse. Austin’s thoughts center around how he’s smarter than Missy, who thinks she’s in control. Her sob story about thugs after Silas has prevented him from hiking two weeks in the Rockies. But he’s a cop and will handle her. He wishes he’d never met Missy in the past. They leave the restaurant and continue driving toward Florida. (Reader thinks he’s on a job? Finds Austin whiny? Thinks missy is an old girlfriend?)

Where does your story start? What’s the inciting incident that sets your character on a journey?

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I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.

—Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

If you want to increase your chance of hearing yes instead of sorry or not a fit for our list at this time, this book is for you. If you want to develop stronger story plots with characters that are hard to put down, this book is for you. Through McCarthy’s checklists and helpful exercises and corresponding examples, you will learn how to raise the tension, hone your voice, and polish your manuscript. I need this book for my clients and the many conferees I meet at writer’s conferences around the country. Thank you, Zoe. A huge, #thumbsup, for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.  

—Diana L. Flegal, literary agent, and freelance editor

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript is a self-editing encyclopedia! Each chapter sets up the targeted technique, examples show what to look for in your manuscript, then proven actions are provided to take your writing to the next level. Whether you are a seasoned writer or a newbie, you need this book! 

—Sally Shupe, freelance editor, aspiring author

Need to rework your book? Zoe M. McCarthy’s step-by-step reference guide leads you through the process, helping you fight feeling overwhelmed and wrangle your manuscript into publishable shape in 30 days. Tailor Your Manuscript delivers a clear and comprehensive action plan.

—Elizabeth Spann Craig, Twitteriffic owner, bestselling cozy mystery author of the “Myrtle Clover Mysteries,” the “Southern Quilting Mysteries,” and the “Memphis Barbeque Mysteries,” http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/  

Zoe has developed a guiding resource for beginning writers. Her method is designed for brainstorming, shaping, and revising the early draft of a manuscript. General and specific tips are offered for applying rules of writing to enhance one’s story for a workable second draft. By exploring the plot line of Love Comes Softly, writers may examine their own work for stronger plot and characterization. Valuable tools are offered that enable the writer to develop a workable draft in only 30 days!

—Yvonne Lehman, award-winning, best-selling author of 48 novels

Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days is chock-full of practical techniques. Numerous examples clarify problem areas and provide workable solutions. The action steps and blah busters McCarthy suggests will help you improve every sentence, every paragraph of your novel. If you follow her advice and implement her strategies, a publisher will be much more likely to issue you a contract.

—Denise K. Loock, freelance editor, lightningeditingservices.com

A concise, detailed, step by step resource for all writers. 

— Jamie West, editor coordinator, Pelican Book Group

Zoe’s writing blog has always intrigued me. As a high school English teacher, I can attest that her tips on good grammar and her hints for excellent sentence and paragraph structure are spot on. But as an author, I also appreciate her ever-present advice that excellent skills are not enough: you must tell a good story, too. This book clearly shows how to do it all.

—Tanya Hanson, “Writing the Trails to Tenderness,” author of Christmas Lights, Outlaw Heart, Hearts Crossing Ranch anthology, and coming in 2019, Tainted Lady, Heart of Hope, and Angel Heart. www.tanyahanson.com

McCarthy crafted an amazing self-help book that will strengthen any writer, whether new or seasoned, with guidance and self-evaluation tools.

–Erin Unger, author of Practicing Murder, releasing in 2019

What Do You Want to Say and Where Are You Going?



My guest today is Linda Rondeau. To learn more about Linda and her book, Hosea’s Heart, be sure to read her bio and book blurb after her post.


Linda: Trying to weed out all those typos, punctuation errors, and formatting foibles can drive a person nuts. Rest easy. Copy editing will come much later.

Perhaps the two most important aspects to work on during your early revisions is defining your message and knowing your key plot events to keep your story clear and purposeful.   

Remember your message

Often, a story falters because the author forgets why he/she has written the work in the first place. Sometimes the author is carried away by the brilliance of their own writing and fails to realize that said beautiful passage has nothing to do with the story’s main idea. In order to stay focused, an author needs to have a clear understanding of their manuscript’s purpose. Ask yourself, “What do I want my reader to take away after spending time in my book?”

Perhaps your intent is to entertain. That is perfectly acceptable. Everyone needs diversion or a good laugh. Perhaps your purpose is to bring a thought or ideation regarding a social issue. At the turn of the century, The Jungle, brought attention to the inhumanity of the meat-packing industry. Uncle Tom’s Cabin inflamed the growing abolitionist movement. My book, Hosea’s Heart, will hopefully bring sympathy toward those who are caught in addiction’s grip.

Knowing the why you are writing this book will help you develop your manuscript in a way that keeps a reader engaged.

Know where your story is going

A second reason a manuscript wanders is because the author has failed to develop a cohesive plot that is consistent with his/her purpose.  There are many books that offer guidance on plot development. Whether using a skeleton format, a three-act or five-act format, or a train concept of plotting, I have found that these five key plot points keep my story moving forward at a good pace.  

  1. Initiating Event: where we are introduced to the character(s). (Katniss gets ready for her day and sings to her sister, establishing their all-important relationship.)
  2. Inciting Event: something happens to propel your character out of his/her normal world and begins his/her internal or external conflict. (Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister.)
  3. Crisis Event: the critical event that cements the character’s further decisions and actions. There is no going back and your character can only move forward. (Rose gets out of the last lifeboat and rejoins Jack in the doomed Titanic.)
  4. Climactic Event: the event that causes your character’s final battle with internal or external conflict. (Prince Charming slays the dragon. Luke uses the force to destroy the Death Star.)
  5. Denouement (or Resolution): tying up all the loose ends in a satisfying conclusion. (Luke and Hans are awarded medals by Princess Leia.)

Once you’ve established your message and your plot, other elements (dialogue, characterization, setting, and point of view) will be developed to support your message and be consistent with your story development.

Consider your story’s purpose, message, and plot points.  Click to tweet.

Questions? Comment below.

“Heartwarming stories that keep you reading from the first to last page,” say critics regarding award winning author, LINDA WOOD RONDEAU’s novels. A veteran social worker, Linda now resides in Hagerstown, Maryland. Hosea’s Heart is her eighth novel and fifth with Elk Lake Publishing. Readers may visit her website at www.lindarondeau.com. Contact the author on Facebook, Twitter, PinterestGoogle Plus, and Goodreads.  


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How much should a wronged husband forgive?

Aubrey Beaumont has spent the last fifteen years in search of his runaway, drug-addicted wife. Now a respected Silver Spring pastor and chaplain, ready to give up and move on, his life takes unexpected turns when she suddenly contacts him. Terminally ill and having found faith, she begs Aubrey’s forgiveness. How can he overlook her past prostitution and liaison with one of Washington’s most vicious drug lords?”

Grateful for a chance at reconciliation, Joanna Beaumont prays that her seemingly wasted life might serve some purpose in her final days. Perhaps her testimony against her former lover’s cartel will bring her the peace she craves.  

Joanna and Aubrey’s paths will crisscross the Capital District’s underworld where they discover how God weaves threads of failure into tapestries of hope. 

“This gripping story will pull at your heartstrings. Linda Wood Rondeau weaves a poignant tale of tragedy, triumph, forgiveness and love in a moving novel full of suspense, romance and redemption.”

View a trailer on Linda’s website.

A Coincidence in a Story Can Be a Good Tactic

image by maquake

I’ve blogged on coincidences, and Steven James’s article, “What a Coincidence” (Writer’s Digest November/December 2017) hits on similar ideas. But James discusses a fresh angle.

James says that at the beginning of a story, we can capitalize on using a coincidence, because at the onset of a story readers are open to coincidences. He adds that the coincidence can be the catalyst—the inciting incident—that sends the character on his journey.

That’s exactly what happens in the opening paragraph of my work-in-progress. But I’ll still heed James’s warning that the farther the coincidence gets from the beginning it becomes more unbelievable. It’ll take work to make a reader buy a coincidence mid-story. And a coincidence at the end rarely works.

So let’s test this with an example.

1. Coincidence in the beginning

image by MabelAmber

Down and out, Dillion sits on a park bench with the hotdog he bought from a vendor. He drops the mustard packet. When he leans over to retrieve it, he spots two tightly rolled cylinders under the bench that look like their formed from crisp greenbacks. He picks them up and unrolls one of the powdery cylinders. The apparent coke-sniffing device is formed from three one-hundred dollar bills. The other cylinder is the same.

This financial boon allows Dillon to reclaim his guitar from the pawn shop and pay the entry fee for a music competition that sends him on his musical career. The story is off and running.

2. Coincidence in the middle

If the above happens in the story’s middle, the reader might think Dillion finding the money too easy to get back his guitar and enter the contest. Readers have gotten to know Dillon and want to see how he solves his money problems.

image by ArtisticOperations

It could be more believable if Dillion considers selling drugs and is meeting his first-time contact at the park bench. The contact is checking out Dillion when a cop cruiser creeps by. The contact digs into his pockets and throws the two money cylinders under the bench and flees. Dillion saunters away from the bench. When the cops stop and question him, he tells them the man had approached him about buying drugs while he was minding his own business. They search Dillion, and finding nothing, leave. He goes back for the cylinders and heads for the pawn shop.

3. Coincidence at the end.

Readers like to see some kind of growth in a main character, or at least a realization. In this case, the story ends with Dillion finding the money cylinders under the bench, and now he has a chance to enter the music world.

Readers will be unsatisfied, even if the second scenario of outsmarting cops is employed. During the whole book, readers have watched Dillion’s downfall, and those two coincidental solutions show the reader that Dillion is lucky and little more. Readers don’t see him overcome anything. The ending based on a lucky coincidence doesn’t give readers any reason to believe Dillion will make it in the music world.

How coincidences can make or ruin a story. Click to tweet.

How do you feel about coincidences cropping up in a novel?

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Amanda Larrowe’s lack of trust sabotages her relationships. The English teacher and award-winning author of middle-grade adventure books for boys has shut off communication with friends and family to meet her January 2 book deadline. Now, in the deepest snow accumulation Richmond, Virginia has experienced in years, Camden Lancaster moves in across the street. After ten years, her heart still smarts from the humiliating aftermath of their perfect high school Valentine’s Day date. He may have transformed into a handsome, amiable man, but his likeability doesn’t instill trust in Amanda’s heart. When Cam doesn’t recognize her on their first two encounters, she thinks it’s safe to be his fair-weather neighbor. Boy is she wrong