Starting a new project is always exciting. After I applied to a writers grant with my current WIP this February, I decided to start another novel, or rather resurrect an idea I’d developed a year earlier. I already had character sketches and a beat sheet complete, so I rushed right in to writing a scene-by-scene outline only to discover by Act II that I didn’t actually have a story.
How the hell did that happen?
Well, I skipped some pre-writing steps, things that I knew I should do, but I just got so excited about the characters I’d created and the world I’d built that I wanted to start writing asap!
Since I had a beat sheet and character sketches and world-building notes, basically everything that most people advise writers to do as part of the pre-writing stage, what exactly was I missing? Well, in short, I needed to flush out the story premise more. So I read some blogs and books aiming to help writers achieve a “Killer Concept” or “Steal-Worthy Premise”, but found them to be impractically vague. Instead, I took stock of what makes a great story, and came up with my own list of things to do before I begin writing…
#1 Write a LOGLINE. Broken down to its components, a logline is: FLAWED PROTAGONIST + DESIRE + PROBLEM + GOAL. For example, the logline for ZOOTOPIA: “A too-small bunny (FP) wants to be a cop (D), but no one believes she can do the job and they put her on meter maid duty (P), so she sets out to prove she’s capable of real police work by solving an unsolved case (G).” If you can’t fill in those blanks, you don’t yet have a story. Now, I am a screenwriter so of course I wrote a logline before I began writing (it’d be sacrilege if I didn’t!), but in retrospect it was too vague: I had a protagonist, but didn’t know her flaw; I gave her a desire, but exactly who and what were standing in her way (the problem) was a bit unclear, and that resulted in an unfocused goal. Bottom line, this short sentence needs to be specific to be helpful. For more detailed tips on writing loglines, click here.
#2 Clarify the STORY QUESTION. In other words, what does the reader want to find out from reading your book? Hint: this question revolves around whether the hero will succeed or fail at their goal. The burning desire to learn the answer is what “hooks” a reader into your story. For example, in the movie ZOOTOPIA the story question is, “Will Officer Hopps solve the case and prove she belongs on the police force?” This story question is the spine of the narrative; every scene must make the reader wonder how this question will be answered. For more on hooking your reader with a question, read this.
#3 Make a POINT. Every powerful story has a message, so what lesson or warning are you trying to communicate to the reader through your story? This does not mean your novel needs to be preachy; in fact, the point of most stories is very subtle, but if it’s not there, readers will come to the end and shrug, “So what?” To have a point, a human value (such as freedom, love or justice) must be at stake. For more information, read this post on Theme.
#4 Know the END CHOICE. Note the word “choice.” Most writers have a general idea of how they want their story to end — the prince and princess live happily-ever-after, the detective catches the criminal, the widow deals with her grief and moves on — but they don’t know what choice the protagonist has to make to get to that ending. Or worse, they don’t have the protagonist choose between anything! It’s absolutely imperative that the hero has to choose between two opposing things that they want (read this post to find out why), and readers must know these things will collide at the end of the story, and not knowing what the hero will choose creates suspense! I dislike stories that don’t have this end choice because they are predictable and boring. Because this is a big pet peeve of mine, I have already blogged about it in this post: How To Write Unpredictable Stories.
Of course, there is so much more that goes into developing a story than just these four things (like character sketches, the hero’s arc, and worldbuilding), but in my opinion nailing down the above story elements before you start writing can save valuable time and help avoid dead-end-story frustration. At least for me, it does. 🙂
What about you guys? Do you have a pre-writing checklist? Or do you just dive right in to the prose?