Kick starting your story

By Joe Moore

Have you noticed that everyone is writing a book? Whenever I disclose to someone that I’m an author, the response is pretty much the same: “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” Or “I’ve got a great idea for a novel.” Despite all the would-be authors out there, not every potential novelist actually gets to the writing stage. And even fewer produce a finished product. But for the ones who not only have an idea but are burning up with a desire to put pen to paper, I’ve put together a basic outlining technique that might help get things started—a simple list of questions to kick start a book. Answering them can give writers direction and focus, and help keep them going when the wheels sometimes come off the cart along the way. Here goes:

  • What distinguishes your protagonist from everyone else?
  • Does she have an essential strength or ability?
  • How could her strength cause her to get into trouble?
  • Most stories start with the protagonist about to do something? What is that “something” in your story, and what does it mean to her?
  • Is that “something” interrupted? By what?
  • Is there an external event or force that she must deal with throughout the length of the story?
  • How is it different from the original event?
  • How will the two events contrast and create tension?
  • Does she have a goal that she is trying to achieve during the course of the story?
  • Is it tied into the external event?
  • Why does she want or need to obtain the goal?
  • What obstacle does the external event place in her path?
  • What must she do to overcome the obstacle?
  • Does she have external AND internal obstacles and conflicts to overcome?
  • How will she grow by overcoming the obstacles?
  • What do you want to happen at the end of your story?
  • What actions or events must take place to make the ending occur the way you envision?

This outline technique has less to do with plot and more to do with character development. Building strong characters around a unique plot idea is the secret to a great book. Once you’ve answered the questions about your protagonist, use the same technique on your antagonist and other central characters. It works for everyone in the story.

These are general questions that could apply to any genre from an action-adventure thriller to a romance to a tale of horror. Answering them up front can help to get you started and keep you on track. Armed with just the basic knowledge supplied by the answers, you will never be at a loss for words because you will always know what your protagonist (and others) must do next.

Can you think of any other questions that should be asked before taking that great idea and turning it into a novel?

14 thoughts on “Kick starting your story

  1. Wow. Great post, Joe. I can see how this list could help flesh out a character.

    Here are more that came to mind:

    What is the one thing he/she would never do? (And of course you find a way to make them do it.)

    What would he/she die for?

    In terms of plot development, I think of where to start the story, point of no return, plot reversals, the black moment where all seems list, & how the story might end. My “big ticket” plot movements. I did a TKZ post on this, something I called the Author’s Bucket List on Plot (I think) where I break out the 3-Act screenplay structure & the big W. That hybrid method recently helped me write a detailed 30-pg proposal for a new series that my agent & publisher loved. I love it when a plan comes together.

    Thanks, Joe.

  2. I think your approach of focusing on the protag is a great way to start. The old cliche goes that a book begins with the question “What if…”

    What the “what if” has to happen first to a “who.” And if you haven’t gotten your who straight, nothing follows.

  3. A good device is for you the writer to sit down and interview your main characters using these questions. Actually write out the character’s answers. Suddenly, their personalities and voices will come out, along with what they think of you. It can get interesting and a bit tense.

  4. Hello, Joe!
    Excellent post. I have to say, if I answered all your questions about my character and the plot events, my book would be written.

    Would be writers, take note!! Hope all at TKZ are doing well. xox

  5. tGreat post, Joe!

    :Cyber-waves to Jordan and Kathleen:

    I LOVE this list, Joe: I’m doing NaNo a different way this year – with an outline – who knew?

    While the idea of Jordan’s 30 page synopsis still makes me shiver, I can answer all your questions about my characters, and I’m going to add them to my Craft Pearls.

    Thanks Joe –

    Awesome post!

  6. Great list, Joe. Here’s a question I ask very early: How do I want the reader to FEEL at the end? What emotion do I want to leave them with? I may not know exactly what the last scenes will be, but if I’m aiming for a certain “resonance” that helps me get my brain cooking. And it needs all the help in can get.

  7. Great post. Here’s another good question:

    What is his/her default method for solving a problem? Mental figure-it-out type, ask for help, direct confrontation, run away, etc.

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