How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (1/2) – Beginnings and middles

On November 21, I gave a short story writing workshop with Lydia Peever to the Ottawa Independent Writers. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cover everything we wanted.

One of the things I wanted to discuss was how to translate feedback you might get from readers or editors into ways to identify problems with your story. In other words, what they really mean and what can you do about it.

This is the first part of a two-part post covering the beginning and middle of a story. I’ll post more about endings a little later.

“It started slow…”

What they are really saying: They don’t know what the character is after, or the character doesn’t do anything about getting that thing.

We are invested in stories through characters. And in stories, characters want something. The will-they-won’t-they of what they want propels the story:

  • Fall in love
  • Find treasure
  • Defeat the monster
  • Find the killer

That desire for something—and the drive to get it—is very human, and what readers identify with.

A character simply going about their day—without some desire for something—isn’t interesting. Nor is a character who wants something, but does nothing about it.

How to fix it: As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.” That initial will-they-won’t-they question, even for something minor, draws in the reader.

In longer works, what they initially want might not be the major driver of the story, but in short fiction try to introduce what the character is after as early as you can. This signals what kind of story follows: romance, horror, mystery. If you can’t introduce this main idea, then make the character want something minor from page one:

  • Go to bed
  • Take the dog for a walk
  • Answer a ringing phone

And once they do that, have that lead to some other want:

  • In bed ► Find what that strange sound in the house is
  • Walking the dog ► Who is that odd person standing on the corner
  • Answer the phone ► Who is the weird voice on the other end

The next step is to have the character taking action to get it. They might not succeed, but someone longing to go on a date with-so-and-so without doing something about it, or constantly running from the monster without figuring out how to defeat it, or wanting to go to a good school without doing the schoolwork, is just annoying.

 “It didn’t grab me”

What they are really saying: This might be the same as starting slow, but hopefully a slow story picks up steam. This comment is worse. It means you didn’t communicate what was on the line if the character failed, or they didn’t care if the character failed.

What’s on the line, or stakes, is what makes the will-they-won’t-they question so compelling. But we have to care about the characters and their success or failure.

How to fix it: Character development is its own beast, but a simple thing to do is ask yourself why we should care about your main character. What do we identify with? What do we admire? We all love underdog stories, so what deficit is your character starting from that they must overcome?

Also, extend the stakes beyond the character. In horror, not defeating the monster might mean the main character dies, but the stakes can be increased—and draw the reader in deeper—if it also means the monster will move on from the farmhouse and destroy the town. In romance, the cheerleader turning down the chess club president for a date is not just disappointing, but might discourage all the chess club geeks from believing they are worthy of love.

“Not sure when the story started”

What they are really saying: It wasn’t clear when we left the status quo and entered the unknown. Terms for this include crossing the threshold, call to adventure, the first disaster, the inciting incident, or entering Act Two. (If you know your story structure, you’ll know these are different things. But we’re talking short stories here, so sometimes they are jammed together.)

The first part of a story is set up: where are we, when are we, what’s going on in this world, and who is our protagonist? Often this is a static situation—the status quo. Every day for your character is essentially the same.

Then, there is some event that disrupts the status quo and sets in motion all other events that follow in the story. This disruption usually comes from something outside the main character—a friend comes in from out of town, aliens invade, someone moves in next door. How your main character handles that disruption is essentially your story.

How to fix it: In longer works, you can take your time to establish the status quo. There are plenty of novels where not a lot happens in the first few chapters… and then suddenly we’re caught up in a whirlwind of adventure!

In short fiction, you might begin with set up or begin at that change in the status quo and then layer in backstory. Either way, you have to show the reader that something is new or different for the characters. This has two steps: some change from an outside source and the character’s reaction.

Outside sources could be:

  • A roadside convenience store is suddenly flooded with motorists fleeing some disaster in the city
  • A sergeant assigns a police detective a new case
  • A production company offers a famous daredevil a new challenge

These may be normal events for your character, but it signals to the reader that here is something new in their world. How the character reacts also helps to establish that we are leaving behind the status quo and entering something new, especially if the character isn’t able to initially handle this new situation:

  • The convenience store’s manager, usually tough and decisive, is overwhelmed in the chaos
  • The detective, by-the-book and methodical, can’t make any progress on the case
  • The daredevil, now in his 40s, realizes he doesn’t think he’s capable of the job

All of these engage the reader and promise them what the story will be about.

“The middle drags”

What they are really saying: Things happen, but it’s not building toward anything.

In the classic Three Act Structure, Act Two should have lots of action, rising stakes, twist and turns. Often, it can be the hardest to write, especially for short stories. You might have a great beginning and fabulous end, but you find you’re just moving characters around in the middle in order to connect beginning and end. Or the middle might be great battle scenes, witty banter or an exciting chase, but in the end nothing changes—the stakes are the same, your character hasn’t learned anything, and they want the same thing as the beginning of the story. That is, you can take a lot out and not lose much.

How to fix it: Once your main character crosses the threshold and the real story starts, have them fail. They proactively try to get what they want, but they are outside their comfort zone—they would succeed in the status quo, but we have left that behind. This might put what they want further away, signal their location to the enemy, or embarrass them in front of their love interest. These changes increase tension in your story and draw the reader in. It forces the question “What happens now?”

You should also increase the stakes. Don’t leave them the same as the beginning of the story. Make things worse for what can happen if the character fails:

  • Your main character is an assassin with a contract. Unable to kill their target, they learn their target is actually a master assassin.
  • Your main character is trying to find the courage to ask out their crush. When your character is about to ask, the crush and their ex talk about taking a week-long trip together to try to reconcile.
  • There’s been a last-minute replacement on a strike team that is inexperienced and puts the mission at risk. Then the timetable for the mission is moved up to tomorrow.

Rather than giving up, your main character should push forward. While the “What happens now?” question is plot, how your main character reacts is character development. They learn new things and act in new ways to be successful. They don’t have to be someone completely new, but understand that how they were at the beginning of the story didn’t get them to success. So while your main character may be reactionary at first, eventually you can have them be more proactive and beginning to take control. They are proactive because they know what they want, are working to get it—two things we should have in the beginning—and now might have a chance of success.

Lastly, the reason the story seems to drag is it’s clear you the author are moving things around rather than circumstances forcing characters to react. And as characters react, they affect other characters, forcing them to react. Character-driven action is much more interesting than you the author dropping in things to move them around.


5 Responses to “How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (1/2) – Beginnings and middles”

  1. 1 Jordan December 8, 2017 at 2:57 pm

    This is good advice! I’ve gotten a bit of feedback from beta-readers and interpreting the advice is harder than writing the story, it seems! One guy, thankfully, was really specific on what he felt was wrong… others… not so much and it’s a bit like grabbing a slippery fish.

    I also think it’s a good checklist for proactively seeing potential problems while developing the story! As writers we’re often blind to what others will have problems with…

  2. 3 Michael Arthur April 2, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    The end of this one stood out to me:

    “the reason the story seems to drag is it’s clear you the author are moving things around rather than circumstances forcing characters to react.”

    It’s hard to make character decisions and interactions seem natural. When reading a story, I find that as soon as I start doubting the main character, the writer has lost me.

    I don’t have to agree with every decision but they should always make sense given the story so far. Easier said then done though.

    • 4 Matt Moore April 3, 2018 at 8:21 am

      Thanks for your comment, Michael!

      Building on this, it reminds me of this comment from On Spec Magazine:

      I wonder if, sometimes, authors feel beat down by life and we reflect that in our characters, who struggle against forces beyond their control. And that might translate into a lack of agency (which we all feel about our lives from time to time). But it makes bad writing. Our main characters must always have agency: they can solve the problem of the story (though might not know it at the time)—that’s why this is *their* story!

  1. 1 How to understand what reader feedback *really* means (2/2) | Matt Moore Trackback on December 13, 2017 at 8:55 am

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