The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool You’ll Ever See That Fits On One Page

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by Larry Brooks on August 12, 2009

Quick note… I have two killer guest posts running today:  At www.bloggingtips.com… and http://the-new-author.blogspot.com.  Hope you’ll check ‘em out!

And now for the continuing run of yesterday’s milestone post:

A bold claim, that.  But I challenge you to read this stuff — which, when printed, really does fit onto one page — and then argue that you’ve seen a more empowering checklist of must-haves gathered in such a condensed space. 

There’s enough stuff here to fill up a bookshelf.  If you don’t know what these questions mean, then by all means go to that bookshelf and settle in.  If you do, then get busy, your bestseller awaits.

This is a listing of everything you need to know about your story before you can successfully finish it, stated in the form of a question.  There was a time when I would say this is everything you should know about your story before you write it, but that only applies to folks who want to write a first draft that’s basically, with a tweak or two, a polish away from being submittable. 

Crazy, I know, but it happens.  I’ve sold three first drafts using this approach.

For drafters — those allergic to story planning and who fight to the death for their defiance of outlining — this becomes a checklist of things you’re looking to discover (answer) in your series of inevitable drafts.  The more answers you can stuff into your next draft, the fewer subsequent draft you’ll need to write.

And if you leave only a few of these untouched  then no draft you write will ever be final.  Only abandoned.

Yeah, it’s that powerful. 

Print this baby  out and keep it in a safe place.  Frame it and put it next to your PC.  Whatever works.  Because when you fully understand what these questions mean to your story, and how to integrate the answers into it, you’re there. 

What is the conceptual hook/appeal of your story?

What is the theme(s) of your story?

How does your story open?  Is there an immediate hook?  And then…

  • what is the hero doing in their life before the first plot point?
  • what stakes are established prior to the first plot point?
  • what is your character’s backstory?
  • what inner demons show up here that will come to bear on the hero later in the story?
  • what is foreshadowed prior to the first plot point?

What is the first plot point in your story?

  • is it located properly within the story sequence?
  • how does it change the hero’s agenda going forward?
  • what is the nature of the hero’s new need/quest?
  • what is at stake relative to meeting that need?
  • what opposes the hero in meeting that need?
  • what does the antagonistic force have at stake?
  • why will the reader empathize with the hero at this point?
  • how does the hero respond to the antagonistic force?

What is the mid-point contextual shift/twist in your story?

  • how does it part the curtain of superior knowledge…
  • … for the hero?…  and/or, for the reader?
  • how does this shift the context of the story?
  • how does this pump up dramatic tension and pace?

How does your hero begin to successfully attack their need/quest?

  • how does the antagonistic force respond to this attack?
  • how do the hero’s inner demons come to bear on this attack?

What is the all-is-lost lull just before the second plot point?

What is the second plot point in your story?

  • how does this change or affect the hero’s proactive role?

How is your hero the primary catalyst for the successful resolution of the central problem or issue in this story?

  • how does it meet the hero’s need and fulfill the quest?
  • how does the hero demonstrate the conquering of inner demons?
  • how are the stakes of the story paid off?
  • what will be the reader’s emotional experience as the story concludes?

The frequent visitor to Storyfix.com will notice that these blocks of questions correspond to the four parts of story structure, as described in our recent 10-part series.

And how, upon closer examination, the list envelopes all of the four elemental components of the Six Core Competencies (concept, theme, character and structure), leaving the other two (scenes and writing voice) to your brilliant execution.

And if you aren’t a frequent visitor here, I submit to you that perhaps you should be.  If you can find one page of information this densely populated with relevant guidelines and empowering milestones, snatch it up.  But I’m betting you can’t, at least elsewhere. 

You’re here.  Welcome to the breakthrough in your writing journey you’ve been looking for.  Welcome to Storyfix.com

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

poch August 12, 2009 at 8:36 am

‘For drafters — those allergic to story planning and who fight to the death for their defiance of outlining — this becomes a checklist of things you’re looking to discover (answer) in your series of inevitable drafts.’

It’s funny that ‘drafting’ is literally the first part of planning.
Yet, it doesn’t apply to writing. Weird.

Bryce August 12, 2009 at 9:45 am

Thanks for doing this story structure series. I think I’m going to try and plan my next novel this way. I have a couple of questions about how you use this in your process of writing.

As you write your novels, do you start by by filling out your personal version of this worksheet, or do you make random notes and such until it looks like you’ll be able to fill out most of a worksheet, and then start in on answering the questions? Or do you make notes and then mentally make sure you’ve got answers to all the questions? I guess I’m just asking if you’re more of a “drafter” or a “planner”.

As an aside – when you tweet about the front page of storyfix, if you have space, you should put the full url http://storyfix.com, that way us lazy types can just click on it and go there rather than having to cut and paste.

Sharon August 13, 2009 at 9:04 am

Nominations are being accepted for the top ten writing blogs of the year over at Writing White Papers. This is one blog that definitely deserves to make the list. Add your nomination at:

http://www.writingwhitepapers.com/blog/index.php

And no, he isn’t paying me…

Merc August 13, 2009 at 9:12 am

Excellent list, thank you!

janice August 14, 2009 at 6:18 am

My daughter’s already added this to the file she created with your ebook in it! You have given me kudos I’d never have dreamed possible – she believes things when you say them!

Larry August 14, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Thanks for your comments. I should have labeled this “cut 10 years off your learning curve,” but I think you get the drift. Please share this with your writer friends, it’ll be a huge gift to them.

dirtywhitecandy August 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Brilliant list, Larry. Can I be a pest and add just one more element? Make sure the question posed at the beginning of the story is answered in some (preferably unpredictable) way by what happens at the end.

Cassandra Jade December 14, 2009 at 3:06 am

A great list and definitely worth remembering. I did like one of the questions asking about the hero’s inner demons and how they come back to bite him (her, it). Thanks for sharing this.

Marwa October 21, 2010 at 5:08 am

Thanks for the list. I just had a question about the first plot point. You ask: “is it located properly within the story sequence?” What do you mean by proper location?

Larry October 21, 2010 at 6:55 am

@Marwa — there’s a dirty little secret that professionals know and the rest of us strive to discover: the story changes dramatically at about the 20th percentile mark. There’s a ton of material on this site about the First Plot Point, but for now, in direct answer to your question… it’s a fatal mistake to have the game-changing story twist come either too early or too late. Look for “The Most Important Moment in Your Story” here on Storyfix. And it’s in my Story Structure ebook. It’s far too important and complex to completely cover here, but its there for you if you’ll dig for it.

Tony McFadden October 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Thank you so much for linking this post from your most recent one (tips for NaNoWriMo writers).

I have incorporated this checklist into the preparation of all my books now. A writer can’t be truly ready to write (in my opinion) until this list is complete.

My checklist goes through a number of drafts, alternating between this and a chapter outline. I plan with 36 chapters (9 per section) of roughly 3000 words each. The outline and this checklist complement each other and they are iteratively revised until the checklist is completed and ‘feels’ right.

I’m an engineer. This is essentially what we call a high level design. All of the essential elements of the high level design must be in place before the detailed design is contemplated.

And errors or flaws in the high level design will condemn the detailed design, and the final product, to the junk pile.

Katherine Adams October 22, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Well, you finally have me thinking seriously about NaNoWriMo. Seriously, as in I’m going to (finally) use your method and go for it. I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t hit the 50,000, but I’m going to try. In years past, I’d sign up, knowing I’d just throw words out and magically hit the end because of my incredible idea and talent. Hel-lo. That does NOT work. Your way does. Here’s to November and all the other months we write…

Tony McFadden October 23, 2010 at 6:00 am

@Katherine, go for it. The sense of accomplishment, when you look at what you’ve actually put to paper, is worth it.

When the words are draped over a respectable structure, it’s even better.

Good luck!

Ruth Donnelly October 23, 2010 at 7:39 am

This is incredibly helpful information. I’m so glad you linked to it from your “Help for NaNo Writers” post. I’ll definitely be back for more!

Marwa October 23, 2010 at 8:13 am

Thanks, Larry.

Elise Stephens November 1, 2010 at 11:10 am

I am going to print this. The more I’ve tried to write without planning a lot ahead, the more frustrated I’ve grown, as of late. This direction is a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

Carolyn Cordon November 19, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Wow, I’m in awe. This list may save my first draft from drowning, or from burning to death.

I’ll print it and worship it!Thank you.

Lynda January 12, 2011 at 5:50 pm

OMG! I love this … Thank you, Larry. And thank you, again! Critical info … You helped me find the missing part – the lull.

Irene Vernardis June 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Great list :)

I’m definitely printing it and bookmarking the page.

I use detailed biographies (free-styled written) for the characters, which should answer questions from the list above. Also, many of the questions above should be answered by the detailed outline. I’m mentioning these, because the questions above are great reference points to the auxiliary files for a book.

Thank you very much :)

Victor Powell October 4, 2011 at 10:49 am

Once again I wish I came across Larry five years ago when I first started out on my adventure to become a published author.

This checklist and eveything I’ve learned in the last two months have accelarated my learning and feeds my analytical mind that impowers my imagination.

Thanks Larry!

V.

Amaranth October 21, 2011 at 9:28 am

This is stuck to my writing space. It’s a beautiful, straightforward outline.

E November 3, 2011 at 10:09 am

Rarely comment on stuff I read online, but this is super helpful! I’m doing NaNo this year and I went into it with a super vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish. Now, three days in, I realize that I need a plan. This is really helping me to flesh out my story, figure out what I want it to say and be, and it’s so exciting. Thanks for all of the solid advice and for sharing it!

Caroline March 20, 2012 at 10:07 am

1.Pick a character or two, live as them in the world you create.
2. Don’t spend too much time plotting, better to have a good world, characters and choose some complex problem inherent to the world and/or characters. e.g. cranky professor wants to get close to volcano but isn’t allowed…

3. Write entry scene. Slip into lead character’s point of view and follow the event and their immediate resulting decisions. By now you should have some faint idea of what the lead character wants for the course of the book. If not, ask them.

4. Write the middle scene; the pivot moment where they nearly have it but don’t quite get the goal and resulting consequences. This should be the time when they are the closest to their goal and get it. Edit: Some put this near the end, but I find that leaves the fallout too brief and unsatisfying.

5.Write the end scene. This should be the character’s final action, thought word deed and should carry weight. I find it best to make it a symbolic thought to the future in the present. Some desire for what’s next but this must not be too fleshed out at all. Otherwise, it goes into an irritating cliff hanger. No I don’t think it is pleasant to end even a first book in a series on a cliff hanger.

6. Write the rest of the scenes in any order you want; according to character inspiration and writer’s block. What ever order. Your first, middle, and last scenes should be a check on how far you can really wander before it gets too sprawled. ideally first half should be build up in knowledge and experience of how to obtain or actually refute the goal in some cases. The second half should be about grappling with consequences of achieving or refuting your goal. You should also answer any secondary character qualms and sub-plot goals in this bit as well. That is why it can’t be too soon before the last scene.

7.Write the segues, also called sequels, between the scenes for proper transitions and keeping the book creatively logical.

8. Re- shuffle and re- order scenes and segues as necessary. It is fine to rewrite the beginning, middle and end scenes if you find the book going in a vastly different direction. keep at it until the end though so you don’t get bored of the book being mulled through as you write for too long.

9. To choose appropriate goal that motivates you through everything pick a character you really want to know and explore. For building a good plausible world check out Holly Lisle building a language and culture books, really detailed helpful stuff. It is easier to know a very few rough facts and build as necessary so you don’t info dump. Just keep it consistent.

10. Use graphs, charts and tables as much aas you can to quickly reference structure. If it helps, after writing a scene mark it with either 1/2 or 2/2 or b,m, and e. Write the scene in 3- 4 word phrase so you can quickly reshuffle based on those if necessary. helps for synopsis one sentence.

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