1. Brainstorm a list of details.
I make a master list of details – the little nuisances and idiosyncrasies that absolutely make the book. They can be anything; nicknames, events, sayings, food I ate, how the sun felt, what street I lived on, the mangy dog on the street, or just about any items of verisimilitude I’ve observed and remember about my story world. Those are pure gold and a whole storyline or the destiny of a character can change based on a few treasured details you remember. I open and save a Word document dedicated to this list of details, and one for each of these next steps.
2. Separate the actions.
I separate out a list of the actions – things people are actually doing. Something needs to happen in your book, there needs to be movement and conflict and competition for limited resources, whether that’s money, power, survival, love, redemption, etc. Just like in life, nothing and no one stands still. As the author, your job is to essentially have 5 characters and 4 chairs and start playing some music as they circle around. Start and stop the music and document the chaos that ensues. By the way, 3 chairs for 5 characters is even better.
To make your story flow logically and smoothly, I like to set up a cause-and-effect chain. A happened so this character did B, which led to C and then D, etc. It will give cohesion to your plot.
3. Profile your characters.
I make a list of interesting, fun, picturesque, and very quirky human beings that are a part of my story. I document their values, their dreams, how they’ve been hurt, what they want, what’s holding them back from that, and take a lot of time with their flaws. I give them names and histories and mothers and fathers and funny sayings and nervous laughter and cracked teeth and mismatching shoelaces. Then, I scratch about half of them off the list because it’s only worth keeping essential characters. You’d rather have too few than too many but you can’t ever really have too few.
The rest of them could make appearances but keep it tight. Some of the best advice I’ve read is that your best and most interesting character should also be your hero, or main character.
One of the most important – and most forgotten – aspects of characterization is defining the character web. Put a lot of thought into how these characters live and breathe and act in relation to each other. That will bring out conflicts, problems, alliances, misunderstandings, love affairs, unlikely allies, and other relationships that add a level or richness and depth to your story.
4. Define each character's weakness and need.
All characters – but definitely main character and main opponent – should have well-defined needs and weaknesses. This is the genesis of all conflict and action that sets everything in motion throughout the story. They need something and also want something (sometimes they’re different,) and the whole story is the quest to achieve those goals, but something is holding them back – a moral or character weakness as well as external circumstances.
5. Plan the story timeline.
How will the story in the book proceed? Note that this isn’t a chronological list of how it all went down in real life. For instance, usually you don’t start a book at the very beginning and go step by step from there. Usually you start somewhere in the middle in the midst of a crazy and important scene, then catch the reader up with backstory, and then proceed until you come full circle and finally resolve (or not) the story. I write in critical junctures of the storyline like where it will jump off, where the reveals and surprises are lurking, where the battles and conflicts will occur, and finally the timing of epiphanies and moral decisions. Like everything, you’ll tinker with this. I use an Excel spreadsheet because it’s more conducive for moving things around and even mapping out simultaneous or overlapping storylines or events.
6. Map out a list of scenes.
Once you have your actions and story timeline mapped out, you can start filling in a list of the scenes. Remember that a good writer zooms in and zooms out – at times you’ll document the most intimate scenes between a few people in a very confined space and time, the reader hanging on their every guilty pause and bead of sweat on their brow. I think of these scenes so up close, personal, and isolated that it’s like writing about people stuck on an elevator. Other times, you’ll zoom out and assume a 10,000-foot high view to so you can see all the chess pieces on the board at once. These zoomed-out scenes are usually when summary or exposition occurs. They are necessary, but don’t have too many of them, and be careful about jumping too far ahead in time or you’ll lose the reader. By the way, most of the good stuff in your story will occur when your characters are stuck on the elevator.
7. Write the first line of the introduction and first chapter.
This is the fun part, crafting the knock out punch you’ll throw at the reader the moment they open your book and their eyes touch the page. But with that importance comes pressure - and far too many writers have written crappy first lines because they’re “trying too hard.” So I recommend have a separate Word document just with first lines for your introduction and your first chapter. Brainstorm, write different versions, try totally new alternatives, but never edit your work. If you do this throughout the whole writing process, you’ll know without a shadow of a doubt what your first lines should be when it comes time to put together a final manuscript. And I’m betting that a few of the opening lines you don’t use show up in the beginning of other chapters.
8. Who are the opponents?
This is where so many writers get it wrong and their stories become flat and unbelievable. In real life (non-fiction or well-written fiction) your opponents aren’t necessarily purely evil people, villains who sit around twirling their mustaches while plotting how to off nuns and baby seals. A good opponent is actually just like anyone else – just like the main character – with good qualities and lots of flaws and good reasons for doing things based on their past and often do bad things for good reasons. Make your opponents real and likeable by making them just as balanced and complete as human beings as your main characters. It’s just that they have different agendas – in fact, the only thing that makes them the main opponent in your book is that they’re in direct competition for the same goal as your hero! Or, they’re goal intersects and inhibits your hero. A good opponent could very well be the hero in someone else’s book.
9. Designate a narrator.
Who is telling the story? Will it be written in first person or third person? How omniscient or biased is the narrator? And are they the main character? (Usually.) How involved are they in story? What’s their relationship to the other characters?
10. Form a general premise.
How could you wrap up the theme of the story in a couple sentences?
When it comes to your story, crawl before you walk before you run. Writing 500 pages with grand, eloquent, and complex happenings will fall apart like a house of cards if you can’t identify the real foundation of the story. No – that’s too general – you need to carefully place your cornerstone, first. So I summarize my book in one sentence. I think about a couple in bed at night and the wife finish my book, closes it, takes off her reading glasses, put them both on her nightstand and turns off her reading lamp, turns to her husband and says, “That was a great book, it was about…” Whatever comes next is what you’re book is really about.
But once I have that one-sentence summary – that cornerstone – I can move on to a one-paragraph summary. And then a summary about one page long. After that, you’re just writing chapters.
12. Determine who knows what.
Of course you want a lot of things happening in your story, but that all doesn’t need to be new information. A fantastic way to enrich your plot is to map out what a particular character knows – or doesn’t know. Sometimes the most devious antagonists are just going off of incomplete or incorrect information – or protecting a secret. All of the action doesn’t have to be new occurrences; it can come in waves with revelations as past truths are put together like pieces of a puzzle. It’s fun as hell to see your characters absorb juicy new info and respond, accordingly.
13. Propose a moral argument.
What are you, the author, trying to say about the world with this story? If you don’t have a moral argument – a commentary on human existence that gives your work a greater meaning – then it’s not worth writing. But moral arguments don’t have to be (and shouldn‘t) be patronizing lessons wrapped up neatly with a bow. The author’s exploration of morality should be a conversation about two equal and opposing choices with no one clear, prescriptive answer. That’s preaching, not writing. As an extension of the author’s moral argument, the main character(s) will have to make difficult moral choices within the story.
Write a lot.
And forget Part I, completely.
As I’m starting a book, I find it impossible to just begin at the beginning and start writing it all out from A to Z, especially if my head is ringing with mechanical thoughts of structure. My writing comes out completely contrived and lacks any authenticity as I try too hard. (Basically, it sucks.)
Instead, I journal. I have a Word document and I commit about one half of my dedicated morning writing time to this journaling. I start writing and I don’t stop. There’s no agenda or rules or structure – I just write whatever comes to mind in stream-of-consciousness form. I consider that no one will ever see this writing and none of it will be used in the actually book. I’m not allowed to stop or edit or erase anything. I journal about anything I want – the bird outside my window if that’s what’s on my mind – but usually my thoughts start circling around the storyline, like sharks circling a lone stranded swimmer. At first, it’s all excruciating. My ego and conscious mind want to take over the writing process and make sure its good and clean and makes sense, blah blah blah. But after a week of journaling, it gets easier to let go and just unburden my subconscious about everything and anything that has to do with the storyline. I document scenes, memories, smells, sounds of laughter, whole frivolous conversations. It becomes a pleasant form of self-hypnosis. The sharks start moving in, bearing their teeth.
I journal about the characters, writing about their lives and who they are, while comforting myself that 99% of it probably won’t appear in the book so there’s no pressure or judgment. But just by doing all this, there will be richness and depth to your story, like the reader only sees the tip of an iceberg though they know there is something far more monumental below the surface. You’ll start liking and even loving some of what you write. The rest of it? Who cares? You just won’t use it. You’ll feel free, arriving to the point where some of the phrases and descriptions and dialogue will probably be used later on in the book. And then whole scenes. And before you know it, one day you’ll look up and realize you’ve started your book. You’re actually doing it.
Now, you can forget everything about Part I and just write a damn story. I guarantee you that you’ll refer back to all of the structure of Part I to make sure the story works and you’re on track. But I also guarantee your story and even your characters will change drastically through the process of writing. That’s good. That’s how it should be. That’s how you know your story is coming from your heart, not just your head. The sharks have moved in for the kill and there's no stopping them until the thing is done.