Writing a novel and building a house are pretty similar when you think about it. For instance, most builders or homeowners spend a lot of time dreaming about their ideal houses, but there comes a time when they have to wake up to the reality of building by analyzing what they expect from a house, and whether the plans they’ve selected will meet their needs. Architects argue that it’s better to build from the inside out.
This is where a home plan checklist comes in handy. This list assembles the key considerations to keep in mind when deciding on a plan, including what are called external monologues, relating primarily to the outside of a house and its environment, and internal (interior) monologues. (The word monologue, in building, refers to a single facet of overall composition on the inside or outside of a house, such as flooring material or landscaping aspects.) Writers spend a lot of time dreaming about their ideal story. Eventually they have to face reality and analyze whether or not the story will work. Authors, too, usually build from the inside out—in other words, they know what they want at the heart of their stories and they build around that.
This is where a Story Plan Checklist becomes essential, because it targets the key considerations necessary when building a cohesive story that readers will find unforgettable. The checklist has basic external and internal monologues. Monologue, in writing, refers to a single facet of overall composition concerning the internal or external elements, such as conflict and motivation. Generally, these are composed individually in free-form summaries, but they need to develop and grow cohesively.
The Story Plan Checklist can ensure cohesion between character, setting and plot. This checklist connects all the dots between internal and external conflicts, and goals and motivations, thereby guaranteeing the cohesion all stories require. In its most simplified form, a Story Plan Checklist—which you can find an example of at writersdigest.com/article/first-draft-finish-novel—includes free-form summaries (or monologues) covering each of the following:
PART I: THE BASICS
• Working Title
• Working Genre(s)
• Working Point-of-View Specification
• High-Concept Blurb
• Story Sparks
• Estimated Length of Book/Number of Sparks
PART II: EXTERNAL MONOLOGUES
• Identifying the Main Character(s)
• Character Introductions
• Description (outside POV)
• Description (self POV)
• Occupational Skills
• Symbolic Element (character and/or plot-defining)
• Setting Descriptions
PART III: INTERNAL MONOLOGUES
• Character Conflicts (internal)
• Evolving Goals and Motivations
• Plot Conflicts (external)
I call this list a Story Plan Checklist not only because of its correlation with a home plan checklist, but because if you haven’t considered each of these areas, written something solid about them and checked them off, your story may not be fully fleshed out and cohesive enough. Sooner or later, the basic structure will begin to fall apart.
While you’re in the beginning stages of forming a story plan, sit down and figure out some of the working details (which may change throughout the process).
TITLE AND GENRE SPECIFICATION
First, come up with a preliminary title. All you need here is something to reference the project. While you don’t want to lock in your genre too early (stories evolve in unpredictable ways), get started with genre specification. For now, list all the genres this story could fit into.
Now, start thinking about what point of view you want to use for your book. It’s very important to start your Story Plan Checklist with this because the identities of your main characters will play a huge part in your characterization and, subsequently, each of the areas you’ll be summarizing on your checklist. Most stories spark with a character who may end up becoming your main character. Your best bet for deciding which character’s viewpoint to use: In any scene, stick to the view of the character with the most at stake—the one with the most to lose or gain.
The high-concept blurb is a tantalizing sentence—or a short paragraph with up to four sentences (one or two is ideal)—that sums up your entire story, as well as the conflicts, goals and motivations of the main character(s). It’s no easy task. Here’s a simplified explanation of what your sentence needs to contain:
A character (the who) wants a goal (the what) because he’s motivated (the why), but he faces conflict (the why not).
Or you can simply fill in the blanks—whichever works best for you:
(name of character) wants (goal to be achieved) because (motivation for acting), but she faces (conflict standing in the way).
At this point in the checklist, we’ve established the basics of the story and we’re ready for the beginning spark—so crucial to drawing a reader’s interest—followed by the initial external and internal monologues on the Story Plan Checklist. Here, you’ll begin the cohesive development of your story. Most authors start strong because the idea that initially fascinates them guides them through this first portion of the sequence naturally.
A story spark is something intriguing that ignites a story scenario and carries it along toward fruition. It’s that “aha!” moment when a writer thinks up something that completely captures his imagination, and he must see how it unfurls and concludes. I dare say there’s not a writer alive who hasn’t come up with one idea that blows the mind. However, most don’t realize that a story has to have more than one of these sparks to sustain it. A story spark must infuse and re-infuse the story, and a new one must be injected at certain points in order to support the length and complexity of the story.
Most novels up to 75,000 words have three story sparks: one for the beginning, one for the middle and one for the end. The beginning spark sets up the conflict. The middle spark (or possibly more than one middle spark) complicates the situation. Finally, the end spark resolves the conflict and situation. Short stories, flash fiction and novellas usually have only one or two sparks (beginning and ending). All of these sparks absolutely must be cohesive to ensure a solid story.
ESTIMATED LENGTH OF BOOK/NUMBER OF SPARKS
The more sparks you include, the longer and more complex your book will be. It’s hard to get around that, so plan accordingly. But don’t consider it the end of the world if your “little” idea evolves into something big and beautiful. With that in mind, a story of more than 75,000 words may have an excess of three basic sparks, especially in the middle, because a longer story needs complexity to sustain it. A middle story spark can appear anywhere after the beginning one—before the end—though it usually appears somewhere toward the halfway mark of the book.
To give you a basic idea of how many sparks you’ll need for a novel, you can figure that if you have an estimated 250 words per page:
• up to 75,000 words = 300 pages (3 sparks)
• 90,000 words = 360 pages (4 sparks)
• 100,000 words = 400 pages (4+ sparks)
You might also make a note about where you want to place the extra spark(s). In general, extra sparks should come in the beginning or middle of the book.
There’s a tendency for authors to include too much back story and action in the beginning, but you don’t want your story to be overdone from the get-go. Starting with focused action and back story is the best way to do it. Then, dribble more in when the story is capable of accepting it in the middle. The end won’t need more than one spark because you’re winding down at that point, rather than introducing new ideas.
In your quest to form a cohesive story plan, sit down and figure out the working details (which may—and should—evolve throughout the progression of the story).
IDENTIFYING THE MAIN CHARACTER(S)
If you have no idea who your main characters are, chances are this particular story needs a lot more brainstorming. Even if your story is more plot than character oriented, brainstorming on your characters until you can fully envision them—i.e., filling out character sketches and writing a Story Plan Checklist—will help immensely.
In this section of the checklist, simply list the names of the main characters. While a complex book will have more primary and secondary characters (in fact, that seems to be a trend I’m not sure I can get on board with, considering how difficult it is to keep up with 10-plus POV characters in a single book), most 75,000 to 90,000-word stories have, at least in terms of main characters, a hero, a heroine and/or a villain.
The introduction of a character in the Story Plan Checklist is a springboard into finding out more about him. It’s like meeting someone for the first time—you say your name and a few pertinent details about yourself. In the checklist, you list a name and the character’s role in the story. Each of your main characters will have particular skills that are shaped specifically for the plot, and that’s really what you’re introducing in this section of the checklist. Some of these could and should be carefully selected occupational skills, but most will go far deeper than that.
CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS FROM OUTSIDE VIEWPOINTS
If you’re using a third-person omniscient POV, chances are your main characters will be described by other characters. Although this kind of description can include physical appearances, it should always incorporate impressions made by your characters upon the ones around them. You can (but don’t have to, as the checklist is only for your own use) describe the main characters from each individual viewpoint in the book. Or your summary can simply encompass the most basic impressions without ascribing them to the person offering them.
CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS FROM SELF VIEWPOINT
Very few people describe themselves the same way others do. That makes it even more important for main characters to describe themselves, because the reader gets a strong sense of who your players are with both outside and inside descriptions. In essence, these are like mini first-person profiles. The characters talk about themselves, and sometimes give their impressions of others.
CHARACTER OCCUPATIONAL SKILLS
Especially in a work of fiction, what the characters do is pivotal to their personalities and motivations. Just about everything hinges on these interests, hobbies or jobs. What the character does for a living (or doesn’t do, if he doesn’t have a job), gives him the necessary skills to deal with the conflicts he’s facing in the story. To build the form of cohesion we’ve been talking about, the character’s skills should be directly related to either his internal or external conflicts. In the best-case scenario, his skills will connect to both in some way.
If you want to create a truly unique character—and what writer doesn’t?—the best way to do so is by providing his personality with enhancements and contrasts. Enhancements are the subtle, balanced or extreme elements that complement what the writer has already established as traits for that character. Enhancements are personality traits that make a character uniquely larger than life. A writer can’t create a truly average Joe because he would be boring to read. In the fictional world, an author may present a hero who seems ordinary at first glance, but something makes him stand apart. This something may not be revealed until later, when his quality is tested.
A contrast, which can also be subtle and quite nuanced, balanced or extreme, is an element that’s in opposition to what the writer has already established as traits for that character. A personality contrast is one of the best and most frequently used ways of making a character rise memorably to the spotlight. Few readers want to know a hero who advertises “Hero for Hire—Inquire Within” on a sign outside his office. The hero who’s optimistic to a fault, whiter than snow and perfect in every way is dull.
Flawed (but likeable!) characters are the ones readers root for, because a character without flaws or fears is a character without conflicts. Readers know that true courage is facing what you fear most, pursuing your goals and not giving up even when there’s little chance of success. Readers go crazy for a rough and raw, imperfect hero with more baggage (of the emotional kind) than a pampered socialite. An eternal pessimist, he wants nothing to do with the title, let alone the job; he’s only forced into it by an oft-buried sense of nobility, or because something or someone he cares about deeply is in danger.
One way to develop a main character is by introducing another main, secondary or minor character (love interest, family member, friend or villain) who either enhances or contrasts his personality. You’ll see the saving-herself-for-marriage woman paired with a slutty best friend. The street-smart guy with the 4.0 GPA buddy. The happily married accountant with 2.5 kids, living vicariously through his footloose, unfettered college buddy who’s been to every corner of the globe on one hair-raising adventure after another.
As a general rule, a character who’s an extremist in any regard (whether hard, obsessive, ruthless, etc.) will need someone or something to soften him. In a character who’s more balanced, an enhancement or contrast may be more subtle, but should be just as effective. Whatever you do, choose characteristics that’ll be necessary at some point in the book, that don’t hit the reader over the head and that advance each story element.
SYMBOLIC ELEMENT (CHARACTER AND/OR PLOT-DEFINING)
Another effective means of developing character is to give him a symbol that defines him, defines the situation he’s in, or both. These symbols are sometimes called by the music term leitmotif. In the writing world, we use them to associate characters, objects, events and emotions. Each appearance makes them more intense and meaningful.
Whether you make symbols subtle or well defined, they take on layers of meaning each time they’re mentioned, and they become an integral part of the story. As a general rule, every character should have only one associated symbol, but if you have a total of two in the book, one of them should be subtle, while the other should be well defined. The point is to enhance or contrast, not take over the story so the symbol becomes the focal point when you have no desire for it to be.
The symbol can be tangible, in the form of something that defines the character, setting and plot in some way—a piano, pet, flower, key, map or necklace—but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a trait or mannerism the character uses frequently that says something about him and/or develops the character, setting and plot. It can also be a hobby or vice, or a disability or disfigurement, such as a scar. This tangible or intangible symbol also must be cohesive and not thrown in for the fun of it. In one way or another, it has to enhance or contrast—and thereby develop—your story in deeper ways.
Build in symbols to make your plot, setting and characters a seamless trinity. The nice thing about incorporating cohesive symbols is that while it’s ideal to do this before you begin writing the book, it’s never too late to come up with this kind of enhancement.
Your setting is a basis for building your story—it enhances the characters, conflict and suspense, and provides a place for all three to flourish. If your setting doesn’t match the other elements, you’ll work harder at creating fitting characters and plots. Additionally, it will be hard to create the appropriate mood. In any case, you’ll have to find a skillful way to play against the contrast of setting.
The importance of creating a setting cohesive with character and plot can be illustrated by imagining different settings for classic novels. What if Moby Dick, instead of being set at sea, had been set in, say, a lighthouse? Moby Dick wouldn’t have been the novel that’s become so well known if the setting had been anywhere else but where the author put it.
Describe your setting in such a way that it not only becomes evident how the characters and plot fit there, but super-charges your whole story. What does the setting reveal about the character’s personality? What in the setting means the most to him? How will this setting create the stage for conflict and suspense? How can you make it so real that your reader will believe the place actually exists?
The purpose in writing setting descriptions is to allow the reader to “see” what the main character sees, as well as to give a sense of the characters. Very few characters will notice every detail of their surroundings. A character notices the things in his setting that are important to him at the moment. In other words, focus the description. Describe only what means the most to the character, what enhances the mood you’re attempting to create. If the description doesn’t advance some part of the character, setting or plot development, it’s probably unnecessary.
The crucial need for cohesive character, setting and plot becomes boldly evident in these next steps—which are truly the heart of your story. Life is conflict, and fiction even more so. Without conflict, you don’t have a story. For every spark your story has, you’ll check off one of each of the following items for all the major characters. This is optional for secondary and minor characters.
CHARACTER CONFLICTS (INTERNAL)
Internal character conflicts are emotional problems brought about by external conflicts that make a character reluctant to achieve a goal because of his own roadblocks. They keep him from learning a life lesson and making the choice to act.
In fiction, character conflicts are why plot conflicts can’t be resolved. Simply put, the character can’t reach his goal until he faces the conflict. (Sounds a bit like not getting dessert until the vegetables are eaten, and that’s pretty accurate.) The audience must be able to identify with the internal and external conflicts the character faces in order to be involved and to care about the outcome. Character growth throughout the story is key to a satisfactory resolution.
Keep in mind that clearly defined conflicts are ones that won’t hit your reader over the head or frustrate her. If you as the writer don’t quite understand the conflicts in your story, your instinct will be to compensate by bombarding the story with unfocused ideas. The reader won’t find it any easier to sort through them and identify the true conflict. Vaguely defined conflicts usually lead to the reader putting down a book for good.
Your first story spark will usually suggest what the character’s conflicts are, and they’re almost always based on someone or something threatening what the character cares about passionately. In some instances, a loved one is in jeopardy, or something the character wants, needs or desires above all is at risk of being lost. It’s your job to give the character incentives not to give up until everyone is safe and he has what he’s fighting for.
Internal conflicts are different than external ones, but they’re related causally—the best definition of conflict I’ve heard is “can’t have one without the other.” Internal and external conflicts depend on each other, and therefore they need to be cohesive. Internal conflicts are all about characters, and external conflicts are all about plot. But keep this in mind, lest confusion creep in: Both internal and external plots belong to the main character(s). After all, if both didn’t affect him in some profound way, they wouldn’t be conflicts, and therefore wouldn’t even be part of his story.
EVOLVING GOALS AND MOTIVATION
Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.
Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.
Goals and motivations are constantly evolving (not changing, necessarily, but growing in depth, intensity and scope) to fit character and plot conflicts. Your character’s goals and motivations will evolve every time you introduce a new story spark because he’s modifying his actions based on the course his conflicts are dictating.
Beginning goals and motivations don’t generally change as much as they become refined to the increasing intensity of the conflicts—though this must be clarified when looking at complex novels, especially mysteries that must include red herrings and foils to keep the reader guessing.
PLOT CONFLICTS (EXTERNAL)
External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However, a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.
Plot conflicts must be so urgent as to require immediate attention. The audience must be able to identify with both the internal and external conflicts the character faces in order to be involved enough to care about the outcome. Plot conflicts work hand-in-glove with character conflicts. You can’t have one without the other, and they become more intense and focused the longer the characters struggle. The stakes are raised, choices are limited and failure and loss are inevitable.
The first layer of a story is created when you plan for and lay the foundation. By using a checklist and analyzing the monologues, you’ll be prepared to craft an extremely strong initial layer—one capable of supporting everything you build on it afterward.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.