“My secret to writing is to never create at a keyboard,” says the distinguished author, Thomas Steinbeck, the son of John Steinbeck.

You have to know something about your book before you begin to write your story. I think this is true whether you like to plot your novel before you write or not. You don't need to know everything, but you do need to know something.

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, this is especially important. You don't want to spend your first days plotting or doing characterization exercises. Before November 1, make sure you have spent some time thinking about your story before you start writing.

Before You Start Writing

Photo by Erin Kohlenberg

Thomas Steinbeck writes:

For me it's about knowing the story… with such detail that I'm basically testifying in front of my audience You could ask me a year from now and I'd tell you the exact same thing because it's that solidified in my memory.”

You might not need to know your story in such exacting detail, but you should have a deep understanding of a few core pieces of your story. Here are three things you might want to know before you begin writing:

1. A Character

Stories are about characters, and before you begin, it's good to have a deep understanding of your main character. William Faulkner said:

It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

If you're character isn't trotting off on his own, you can ask him the following questions:

  • What do you value most in life?
  • What do you want?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What do you do?
  • What do you need?
As your character answers these questions, you'll begin to see possibilities to move your story forward.

2. Setting

If you have a deep understanding of your setting, it brings a quiet authority to your writing. You may not describe the setting much in the story, but you should still be able to visualize it in detail. Setting can be like a character, another component for the main character to interact with.

You may want to use a setting you know personally, such as your hometown, the park next to your house, or your favorite restaurant. If you're writing a thriller or historical fiction, do research on your setting to make sure it's accurate. If you're writing fantasy or science fiction, spend time exploring your setting in your imagination until you know every detail.

3. An Image or Event

Before I begin a story or a scene, I often visualize an image or an event that happens later in the story. Then, I just try to figure out an interesting way to get there. This technique strikes a nice balance between plotting and pantsing. You know where you're going, but there's still enough room to discover exciting things about your characters and plot before you get there.

What You Shouldn't Know Before You Start Writing

Writers often deliver moral lessons in their stories. For example, I just finished The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which was amazing, by the way), a novel about the importance of  participating in life. Les Miserables is about the power of redemption. The Life of Pi is about the importance of faith. Romeo and Juliet is about the power of love.

It's tempting to come up with a lesson that you want to teach before you begin writing. Don't do it.

Morals should serve the story, not the other way around. This may be hard for some of you; it was certainly hard for me, but if you want to tell fables or parables, find a different hobby. Storytellers are not pastors or philosophers. Storytellers are in the business of telling good stories, not instructing people in moral truth or the “correct” way to live.

If you try to tell a story to “prove” a moral lesson, the story will be lifeless. However, if you are true to your story, if you tell your story well, the story will reveal a moral lesson all on its own.

What about you? What do you need to know before you begin a story?


Spend some time developing a deep understanding of a character. Ask your character:

  • What do you value most in life?
  • What do you want?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What do you do?
  • What do you need?

Write your character's answers to these questions for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, share your practice in the comments section. And if you share, please be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

Have fun!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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