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How to Fix Big Story Problems

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Is there anything more frustrating than knowing there’s a problem with our story, but not being sure how to fix it?

We wish for an easy button in these moments, but sadly, none exist. Occasionally though, we get lucky and discover a versatile story element or technique so useful it can help us navigate past MANY story problems!

So, storytellers…ready to meet your new best friend?

The All-Powerful Emotion Amplifier

Emotion amplifiers are unique states or conditions that act as a challenge, conflict, and emotional destabilizer all rolled into one. They generate internal strain and emotional volatility which can lead to a loss of control, sending your character on a crash course with missteps and mistakes!

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Sounds bad, right? Well, it is…for the character. But for your story, it’s great!

Let’s look at a specific amplifier: scrutiny.

Scrutiny: being observed or critically examined.

Now, imagine yourself for a moment, will you?

You’re merrily typing away on your computer, drafting your latest story. Your brain is full of ideas! The words are flowing! And then your mother-in-law appears and begins reading over your shoulder.


You’re hosting the family barbeque and your sister-in-law arrives, sits at a picnic table, and proceeds to scowl at everything in view. She examines your cutlery as if it has never seen a dishwasher, smells the potato salad before adding it to her plate, and makes a show of picking off the burned bits of her chicken.

Can you hear the lambs screaming, Clarisse?

Face it, scrutiny is not fun. Whether it’s you, me, or a character, it gets in our heads, makes us hyperaware of our flaws, and whatever task we’re working on instantly becomes harder.

Even if an observer is expected–say at a competition–a person will have to have a strong mental focus not to be thrown off their game. So, you can imagine how our character, grappling with the weight of story problems, responsibilities, and emotional struggles, might react if we added scrutiny to the mix. You can just see how it would become that one burden too much, and in their frustration, they’d lash out or do something else that would take their situation from bad to worse.

Pain, exhaustion, hunger, competition, danger, attraction…amplifiers come in all shapes and sizes, and can help with story problems when used strategically.  

Common Story Problems


An amplifier is an added challenge to navigate that, when intense enough, will cause our characters to lose control. When they do, they act on emotion, not thought, and this has repercussions: poor decisions that lead to mistakes, choices that carry unforeseen consequences, and new complications they didn’t think about in the heat of the moment. In other words, conflict!


When there’s not enough on the line, readers tune out. One of the best ways to raise the stakes is to make things more personal. Imagine your character poorly navigating an amplifier like danger, competition, or intoxication and making a mistake that hurts someone or puts an important goal at risk. When a character screws up and feels responsible, fixing the situation to undo the harm they did becomes a personal mission. Readers will tune in because 1) they can’t help but empathize over making a costly mistake and 2) they feel tension knowing the character can’t afford to fail or lose control again.


Readers are drawn to characters with agency, those who steer their fate and take charge, not ones who let others solve their problems. Emotion amplifiers can help passive characters step up because they inflict urgency, motivating the character to find relief from the strain it causes.

A starving character must find food (Hunger), a character lost in the woods must find their way to safety (Physical Disorientation), and a character suffering from Sleep Deprivation must secure rest before their body gives in.


Tension, that stretchy feeling that comes when a person is unsure what will happen next, is something we want to build into every page. Because amplifiers cause characters to be emotionally unstable, readers feel tension as they read on to see if the character can handle the strain because if they can’t, it will cost them.


In many situations, characters will hide what they feel because they don’t want to be judged, feel vulnerable, or be viewed as weak. Unfortunately, this makes it harder for readers to get close enough to know what’s going on behind their stony exterior, and feel empathy for what the character is experiencing.

This is why amplifiers are great to deploy. Like a boiling kettle, adding a nice dollop of pain, pressure, exhaustion, or even arousal, and suddenly those repressed feelings bubble up and spill out, putting the very emotions they’re hiding on display!


How well (or poorly) a character responds to problems and stressors can say a lot about them, and reveal how much growth is required for them to achieve their goal. Emotion amplifiers are many things, including tests. If the character handles an amplifier poorly, they face the fallout and deal with the consequences. But it also teaches them what not to do next time, so if you later hit them with the same (or similar) amplifier again and they handle it better, it is a neon sign to readers that the character is evolving.


Perfect characters are a turn-off because they don’t feel realistic. Readers are drawn to characters who are true to life, meaning they’ll lose their cool, have bad judgment, and screw things up at times. You can show all this through the poor handling of an emotion amplifier! Characters who don’t handle stress and pressure will feel more authentic, because readers have had their own struggles in that department and know what it’s like. Seeing characters in the same situation is relatable, and makes it easier to cheer them on as they work through the complications in the aftermath.


In every scene, readers should know the character’s goal and why they are pursuing it. If you need to redirect and show a clear scene goal, amplifiers can help. Whatever it is–pain, stress, pressure, dehydration–it’s causing a form of strain, meaning your character’s goal will be to manage it or free themselves from it.


Like low-conflict situations, we also don’t want characters to be happy for too long. From time to time, your character will come out on top, ending a scene in a win. An emotion amplifier like an injury, illness, or exhaustion is a great way to give them a new situational problem to focus on.


Stories where everyone gets along and supports one another can elicit yawns from readers. People rub against one another, and it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes this needs to happen for important realizations to take place for a character to examine boundaries, and expectations, or achieve personal growth.

An amplifier can bring forth friction because if a character mishandles the strain of it, they may lash out, question loyalty or motivations, shut people out, or do other things that will cause misunderstandings. Any damage they do to the relationship will need to be undone, giving the character a chance to see things from the perspective of the one they hurt, and to practice accountability, both of which can strengthen the relationship long-term.


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Some stories can become predictable if certain plot elements, character types, and other genre expectations strain a writer’s ability to be creative. Emotion Amplifiers come in all sizes and shapes, meaning choosing the right one can easily transform a premise, conflict scenario, or relationship dynamics, elevating it into something fresh. For example, wouldn’t it be great to see a pro-athlete character struggling with sensory overload when he hits it big, a love interest trying to manage her compulsions, or a pregnant police detective hunting down serial killers?


If an agent, editor, or beta reader has even mentioned that they struggled to connect with your character, chances are two things have happened. One, the character’s emotions are not accessible enough to the reader, meaning they are too well hidden or repressed, or two, there isn’t enough common ground between the reader and your character for empathy to form.

Emotion Amplifiers help with both, bringing emotions to the surface through volatility and by representing a common ground experience readers can bond with characters over.

All readers know what it is like to feel internal strain and, if they give in to it, make mistakes they’ll regret. They empathize with characters having to do the hard work of fixing what they’ve broken. Should the character successfully stay in control of their emotional responses despite the strain an amplifier causes, readers rejoice with the character for mastering the moment and rising above their stress and struggle. Win-win!

If you’ve not yet dove into the wonderful world of emotion amplifiers, I hope you’ll change that. Start by reading this introductory post, checking out this list of amplifiers, and then seeing if The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Stress and Volatility is the life preserver your story needs.  

The post How to Fix Big Story Problems appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS®.

The Bookshelf Muse is a hub for writers, educators and anyone with a love for the written word. Featuring Thesaurus Collections that encourage stronger descriptive skills, this award-winning blog will help writers hone their craft and take their writing to the next level.


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