Things to Avoid in your Writing #5: Stagnation

Stagnation.  It’s a terrible thing.  We’ve all seen it before.  The perfect example is standing water.

What happens to it again?

It gets filthy, the lack of movement leads to the development of algae and other forms of muck.  The stillness of the water allows for mosquitoes and other types of insects and vermin to make their home there and breed.

Worst of all, because of all this it’s no longer potable.  It can’t be ingested, it will kill you slowly from the inside out.  The very thing that should breathe life back into your body will corrode the pipes it calls home and leave you in a quivering mass on the ground.

Stagnant water is terrible.

You know what else is terrible?

A stagnant story.

Stagnant are to the mind as stagnant water is to your body, and it can happen in two main ways:

1. Your Characters

Stagnant characters are bad.  Don’t let it happen.

They will tear your labor of love down slowly, one word at a time until there’s nothing but a sham of a story in front of you.

Never let your character’s stagnate.

I know, it’s hard to do.  As you’re planning everything out, and getting everyone woven into the story, there’s always that one character that manages to fall by the wayside.

We don’t do it on purpose, but somehow we all do this at one point.

Don’t fret though, there’s a very good way to tell if a character’s stagnated.

Ask yourself one question:  “Who is this person?”

If you can only come up with answers like:  the bad guy, a jerk, the funny guy, the best friend, etc., then this person has stagnated.

Now this is when you go back to the drawing board and start to expand on this character.  If you’re not sure how to do that then check out my posts on character development.


Something’s been overlooked, and now you have to find out what so you can fix it.

I’ve found that as you’re the planning the character they’ve stagnated for one common reason.

You didn’t humanize them enough!

You see humans are dynamic, and messy and all around crazy to one extent or another.

If you haven’t made your characters enough like real people, then they’re going to seem flat and one-dimensional.

Unfortunately, a common problem we can run into at this stage is you find the perfect answer for your character, but it throws off the flow of your story a bit.

In this case, you have to roll with it.  If you’ve done your job well then you shouldn’t have tossed the story off track too much so it won’t be too rough to blend it all back together.

This is one of the few circumstances I’ll condone changing something about the overall story for a detail and it’s for one specific reason.

In making your characters better, you will inevitably make your story better!

Roll with these changes because once you get it all put together to the best of your abilities you’ll be able to sit back and realize that it was a job well done and that the changes were necessary.

2. The Stakes Haven’t Been Raised

Now this is very common for me.  As I’m writing a story, I often times forget that the tension has to be ratcheted up as the novel/screenplay continues.

I get so into the initial conflict, that I often times overlook the idea of making it grow.

Thanks to my editor Ritch Bentley and sheer will power, I’ve since broken myself of this habit.

Now I can hear you thinking, “What if I’m writing a love story?”

Something that you wouldn’t immediately register with ratcheting up tension as quickly as a thriller or action story of some kind, right?


The answer to this is easy.

Just make sure that, as the story progresses, your characters have more and more to lose!

Is it an action story?  Then you could write that if the hero doesn’t pull off his amazing deeds then the planet will snap in half.  Thriller?  Someone’s going to find out the spy’s identity.  Horror?   The terrible beast is coming ever closer, with every second that passes.  Romance?  Maybe an ex-lover of one of your main character’s shows up to throw a monkey wrench into the relationship somehow.

The possibilities are endless, you just have to find the right one to use as per your story.

Now, another thing I feel people overlook is the ability to mix and match in this case.  You don’t necessarily have to stick within genre either, but you do need to include at least one element native to the genre.

For example:

In your action story, if your hero doesn’t pull off his incredibly selfless act the planet will snap in half.   (Inherent)  Unbeknownst to him, as he’s shown his incredibly heroic and stalwart spirit, the target of their unrequited love starts to show a little interest.  Will the hero still want to be so self sacrificing?  (External)  Will the love interest be revealed as the villain?  (Inherent/External)

Do you see how I just looped back around there?

Once you understand the theme of the story you’re starting to write, you can more easily decide how you’re going to play with things to amp up the tension.

Ideally, you want to do it well in both conditions I’ve mentioned above.

So what do you think?  Were there any times where you had to change a character?  Did you have to amp up the tension of the story?  Or both?

Whatever you think, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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