I’ve a little sister. A curious bug if ever, always asking me a multitude of questions during every phone call. Sometimes I know the answer. (What’s an amoeba? Oh a single cell organism found in wet environments.) Other times I’m left scratching my head and wanting to know the answer too. (Why does everyone respect sleeping time?)
If you are a writer, an aspiring author, you should be reading widely and often. It gives you ideas of what story elements work and what gets lost to the reader. That’s the common advice and it’s good advice to follow when you can.
However, when’s the last time you’ve questioned why you take the same route to work each day? How about why your neighbor insists on mowing their lawn at seven o’clock in the morning on Sundays? Do you control your pet or do they control you?
We tend to take for granted the wonders hidden within the everyday. We assume that it is the way that it is because it is. The possibility of alternative events and twisting fundamental rules can elude us.
The same thing can happen while you’re developing the story of your latest project. Here’s five questions you should ask about your story before sending your query letter.
1. Who are your characters outside of the Fated Quest™?
Your hero has retrieved the magical mcguffin and now they can defeat The Big Bag™.
Your lead detective focuses on cracking the case at any cost.
The love between your two lead characters is the one thing they’re worried about in their world.
While these scenarios are great for establishing character motivations that will drive the story forward, they lack one crucial thing that allows your readers to further invest in your story.
I fall victim to this trap too. I love writing the progression of events and world building is my guilty pleasure. Thus, my characters in my first draft feel more like a means to an end. You could swap the perspectives of any character in my first draft and it wouldn’t change the progression of the story.
However, adding depth to your characters increases more avenues of how to tell your story. Questioning their motives and even something as mundane as their hobbies can give your readers entry points to connect with your story. Here’s a few things you can do to get started:
- Interview your characters as if you’re a on a talk show
- Write drabbles on how your characters may react to your daily life
- Throw your characters into an unexpected situation and find out what they would do
Try to minimize driving the story as an author and let your characters guide the plot wherever you can. Some of the twists and moments of character reflection can make more of an impact than the hero triumphing over evil.
Some resources to get started on character development:
- The Character Questionnaire by Gotham Writers Workshop, https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/character-questionnaire
- Character Development 101: How to Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget by Reedsy, https://blog.reedsy.com/character-development/
2. Are your scenes moving the plot from beginning to end?
You may think Luke’s internal monologue about how his little brother is brat is a necessary scene that shows his reluctance to care for him. The reader would rather get back to Luke slashing away at dragons. One scene builds out Luke’s character while the other moves along the plot.
Which one do you choose to keep in the final draft?
Trick question. It depends on how you are structuring your scenes.
You don’t want your story to be all action or you’ll exhaust your readers. Too much meandering around the plot will have readers lose interest (unless they like reading about Victorian flower language for 30 pages). Keeping the appropriate pace can carry readers from one scene to the next one.
You should consider if your scenes follow a cause-and-effect formula. Using Luke’s lament about his little brother as an example, you can set the scene where he’s grumbling about his little brother who then overhears him. This leads him to go out and try to slay a dragon himself with tragic results. Because of this, Luke hates dragons and will slay every one of them until his last breath.
Dramatic, yes. Did it move the story? Also yes.
Maybe you have the cause-and-effect scene chain down for your plot. How can you up the ante? Here are a couple of considerations:
- Goal to Result. What goal is your character trying to achieve in this scene? Were the results favorable or disastrous?
- Conflict to Resolution. Are any of conflicts in your story resolved in this scene? What are the ramifications to those resolutions?
Ask yourself how you can restructure them to benefit your story’s arc before removing any scenes from your manuscript.
Resources to get started with scene writing:
- Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack Bickman, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/190209.Scene_Structure
- A Writer’s Cheatsheet to Plot and Structure by Matt Herron, https://thewritepractice.com/plot-structure/
- Fundamentals of Story Structure by Ray Alez, https://writingcooperative.com/fundamentals-of-story-structure-e199f131a891
3. How does the setting influence your storytelling?
We discussed character depth and scene structure. For many written works, these two elements can be strong enough to carry the story towards its last sentence. The setting for these stories acts as a backdrop with little influence on the story.
However, the beauty of storytelling is the subtleties you can fit into the overall narrative.
Setting (and to a greater extent, world building) can give you an opportunity to show the readers external obstacles that the characters have to overcome. The geological environment that may require your characters to show their ingenuity against nature. Power structures within a civilization can display how different groups interact with your characters.
It may take research to improve your setting to fit your story’s plot. Yet, it will add depth to your story and make it more distinct than another kingdom in a land far, far away.
Resources on using setting as a storytelling device:
- Beyond the backdrop: Mastering setting in fiction by Sarah Van Arsdale, https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/mastering-setting-in-fiction/
- 5 Writing Exercises for Vivid Settings in Fiction by MasterClass, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/writing-exercises-for-vivid-settings-in-fiction
4. What hooks your readers into the story?
Prologues are great. I love getting a brief history lesson about the world and seeing how it affects the main cast of characters.
My friends would rather get to the action of the story quickly. Then you can show them how the characters got to that action-packed scene in the following pages.
If your first page of your manuscript is an in-depth description of a character brushing their teeth, you’re not likely to keep readers interested long enough to get to the next page where the bathroom explodes.
Readers have a plethora of other stories to explore and have no other reason to read your story until you say that the excitement starts. Why not put that as your first sentence?
Every reader is different and the story structure of each genre is different. It is up to you to determine what type of hook works for your story.
Resources on writing strong first pages:
- “7 Clever Steps to Hook Your Reader into Your Narrative,” by Katherine O’Chee, https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/7-steps-hook-reader-narrative/
- “How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!” by Sara Shepard, https://insights.bookbub.com/start-novel-bang-hook-readers/
5. Why are you writing this story?
Stories are fun to write, but you and I may be a bit biased. However, both of us have our reasons to write.
- Are you planning to publish this story?
It takes great effort to get stories published-ready. Developmental editors can suggest drastic changes to the story’s sequence of events. Searching for a literary agent to help you sell your manuscript to publishers is exhausting. If you go the independent publishing route, all the time spent marketing, editing, cover designing, and distributing your book will fall on your shoulders.
In either route, you are your biggest advocate to make it happen.
You may only have yourself to motivate your progression. It has to be a story that you are willing to do what it takes to make it to market. If you don’t have that, it will make your journey difficult.
- Are you writing this story as a hobby?
It is fine to write simply for the joy and craft of writing. Not every writer strives to publish their work to the world. It can be a way to entertain our immediate social circle with stories. Stories can educate inquisitive little sisters on topics that don’t have a clear answer.
Or, quite simply, you want to improve your writing skills to help advance your career that is unrelated to fiction writing.
You should never take anything in your story for granted after you finish your first draft. There are many elements that could be improved and revised.
As you read over your manuscript, ask yourself these questions and try to be as objective about it as possible. Get your peers to read it and give their honest critiques. Have a writers’ group? Get them involved too.
Everyone has a story waiting to be told.
You just have to ask the right questions.