It’s difficult to know what to plan for when starting a novel. Is it essential to have each and every character, scene, and key change in mind beforehand? How much, or how little, do you need? Are there any specific questions to ask before writing a book, or do you just need to know everything?
There’s good and bad news. The bad news is that whether you’re a planner or a “pantser,” you can’t possibly plan everything and get it all right on the first try. You’ll write scenes that don’t work, create characters that are out of place, and take the story places that it shouldn’t go.
You already have enough on your plate.
So to save yourself a ton of stress, take fifteen minutes to answer these three questions to ask when writing a book.
Because when you do, you’ll be building your story on a rock-solid foundation that will give you the freedom to take risks that won’t cost you a ton of time and energy in the long run.
3 Questions to Ask When Writing a Book
Ready for these fundamental questions? Here we go:
1. Whose story is it?
This first question may be the easiest, or at least the most obvious, to answer. Authors tend to dream up stories with a particular protagonist in mind.
The key is to keep this information in mind throughout the drafting process so the story doesn’t get off-track. As your protagonist meets friends, enemies, lovers, mentors, and more, it can be easy to want to jump into these other characters’ heads and start telling their story.
It’s entirely possible that your story will belong to an ensemble of people. One of my favorite authors has always been Michael Crichton, probably because Jurassic Park was adapted for the screen when I was nine years old. Like many adventures and thrillers, Jurassic Park is the story of a group of people. Each character is the protagonist of at least one section of the book.
Thankfully, this is never confusing because the author clearly establishes this point of view in the book’s opening scenes, dropping the reader into a number of scenes that each have its own protagonist. By the time the dinosaurs get loose and start eating people, the reader is ready to go on the adventure with anybody.
It’s also possible to establish the story as belonging to a pair, or a trio. This was a detail that surprised me about a recent thriller, Star of the North. While its back cover material identifies an American woman, Jenna, as the protagonist, the novel quickly establishes two other characters, North Koreans, as co-protagonists with her. Author D.B. John stays true to this trio of main characters up to the very end, bringing the characters together and intermingling their destinies with one another.
The main takeaway here is that from beginning to end, your story needs to know who the story belongs to. Does it belong to one person? A duo or trio? Or an ensemble? Whatever the answer is, stick to it through the whole story so your reader doesn’t get lost.
2. What physical object is the protagonist pursuing?
Whether your protagonist is a single mother or a team of scientists, you need to make it abundantly clear what is being pursued.
This is a step where many authors try to get clever and write a “deep” book. Instead of clearly identifying a physical goal (like money, a job, a love interest, freedom, escape, safety, etc), the author focuses more on emotions. The idea is that the physical goals, buried in the subtext, are there for the reader to magically discover.
While this kind of Anti-plot story can work in the hands of a master storyteller, it’s not the route most aspiring writers should choose.
Rather, build your story around the pursuit of a physical goal. If your reader reaches page ten and it isn’t crystal clear what everyone is after, then you’re going to have problems, and have them soon.
3. What internal need does the protagonist(s) have?
If you were put off when I said some authors try to get clever, never fear: This is where your story can strive for depth.
Every protagonist must have an internal need. However, he or she probably doesn’t know what it is. It plays against (though occasionally with) the pursuit of the physical object.
You can see this conflict occurring when a character has the chance to get what he wants (like when Aladdin can use his third wish to be a true prince), but can’t quite do it because he knows it goes against what he needs: to be good and kind. This scene is foreshadowed when Aladdin promises to free the genie, complicated when Aladdin threatens to renege on his promise, and fulfilled when he keeps his word and wishes for Genie’s freedom.
Out of all three of these questions, this is perhaps the least important to know with 100% certainty. However, you still need to have an idea of what keeps your protagonist up at night. Even if it’s a vague notion, use it. Find ways to complicate your characters’ journey, or else your story risks getting stale.
Plan for Success
I wish there was a list of questions, or to-do items, that could help you write a perfect first draft.
But stories are living, breathing things that refuse to be tamed very quickly.
Thankfully, answering these three questions will put you on a high-probability track toward success. When you nail the story’s protagonist, plot, and layered conflict, so many other elements will either fall into place or derive naturally from the healthy foundation you’ve built.
So what are you waiting for? Take time today to answer these three questions about your current or next story and start writing with a rock-solid story foundation!
What information do you make sure you know before you begin writing your first draft? Do you have any more essential questions to ask when writing a book? Let us know in the comments.
Think of your current work in progress or a story you’re planning. Take fifteen minutes to answer the three questions: whose story this will be, what he/she wants, and what internal need he/she might also be trying to satisfy. Feel free to dream up multiple possibilities for your protagonist’s goal and internal need in order to see what combinations are ripe with the most potential for conflict.
Don’t have a story idea? Get started with this prompt: no matter how hard she pushed, the door wasn’t opening.
When you’re done, share your answers in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!