Give your manuscript a running start

By Joe Moore

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. To continue my Writing 101 series, 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?
  • How do you want the reader to feel at the end?
  • 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?

18 thoughts on “Give your manuscript a running start

  1. Perhaps, after what do you want to happen at the end of your story…

    What do the events in the story say about the world/people/relationships?

    Does what happens at the end reinforce your theme(s)?

    The important words in those two questions are “events” and “happens” so that the novice writer will avoid preaching or ramming the theme(s) down the reader’s throat. You want the events and what happens throughout the story to SHOW the themes, rather than writing a sermon, right?

  2. As always, a helpful post. I would like to reassure non-plotters/pantsers/plansters that you don’t have to answer ALL these questions before starting to write. Deb Dixon’s GMC (Goal Motivaation & Conflict) system can give you a good start, and you can fill in more as you go.
    In a nutshell: A character Wants [goal] Because [motivation] BUT [conflict]. This works for scenes as well as the overall book.

      • And sorry about the typo. I will add that for my current project, I was trying too hard to answer too many questions before I started. Once I gave myself the freedom to start with one question, I was able to work without feeling like I’d never get the book off the ground.

  3. I like these questions (and Sheryl’s additions). I’m struggling with laying out a particular novel I really want to write and I think taking a different approach like this just might give me some insights to break the stalemate.


  4. Nailing your concept, premise, and milestones before you answer these questions is important, too. Thought I’d throw that out there for new writers. Good tips on character development, Joe.

  5. Hi, Joe. Nice to meet you. I’ve started writing a novel–will you look it over, give it a polish, rewriting if necessary, and send it to a publisher for me? When I get it published, I’ll give you ten per cent of the profits.

    THAT’S the response I often, usually, without a doubt, get when I tell someone, for whatever reason, that I write novels. I envy you. If someone would just tell me that he or she has a great idea for a novel, I would be happy. I could deal with that is various, friendly ways.

    As it is, I have lost potential friendships and interest-friends because I will not act as their ghostwriter, editor, AND agent. I’m not certain why, but people become really upset when I won’t. I try to frame my responses in polite and friendly terms.

    But, for example, I’ve got a medical transportation driver upset with me because I wouldn’t help him–translate that, ghostwrite–with his novel about his African nation. I tried to direct him to books and websites and give advice. I even recommended The Kill Zone. Not good enough. I tried to tell him I don’t know anything about Africa. I didn’t even know where his native country is located, and I tried to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to enrich a story without knowledge of the country or the people. I wouldn’t have the time to do the research, I said. No good. I’m an American who cares nothing about helping the world understand that four armies have tried to take over his little native country, or about the hapless plight and slaughter that the people of his little town have suffered.

    I appreciate your teaching and advice today. I’m certain I’ll need it to write my selfish, Ameri-centric novels and novellas.


  6. Hi Joe and thank you! I am about 30,000 words in to my WIP and have lost focus – this checklist has helped immensely!

  7. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…5/2/16 – Where Worlds Collide

Comments are closed.