From Idea to Page in 4 Simple Steps

Nothing is more exciting than the promise of a story in your head, but in order to get it on the page you need to figure out exactly what you need to do to make it work. You need to realistically outline and throw out what bogs the readers down. You need to set up a game plan to hook your readers and keep them reading. Here are some simple steps to help you build the frame that you hang your story on.

STEP 1. ALWAYS BEGIN WITH YOUR PROTAGONIST. The readers need to discover who the hero is and why they should root for him. Introduce your protagonist, either directly or indirectly, within the first 300 words.

STEP 2. ESTABLISH TIME AND PLACE. Your readers should know exactly where they are. If they are wondering, they lose focus and may stop reading. They have to trust that you are in control of the story. Nobody likes to be left alone in the dark.

STEP 3. ANNOUNCE THE STAKES. Great prose will go a long way—about 2,500 words, more or less. After that, even the most literary readers want to know why they’re reading. Just a simple sentence can do the trick. At the end of the first section of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes of the letters that Jimmy Cross received from a girl back home named Martha. He mentions that they’re signed “Love, Martha,” but acknowledges that using the word “love” is a custom and not anything more. At the end of this section, O’Brien writes, “Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.”

Right there, the author lets us know what’s really on the mind—and at the heart of the story—of this young man who is so very far away from home.

STEP 4. ORGANIZE. Once you have your story structured around the beginning you’ve set in place, look at all the bits of writing you’ve done and all the notes you’ve taken and ask yourself one simple question: “Where the heck was I going with this?” If you don’t know, or if where you’re going now doesn’t match where you were going when you set out, focus on better defining those areas before you go any further.

This article appeared in the January 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest.Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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