I recently talked to a writer who claimed that she simply started with a blank page and an idea for a character and began writing to see where the story would take her. She seemed amazed that I put so much work—premise statement, outline, character profiles—in before I ever write the first sentence. I’m not saying one way is better than another, but I do think there are some basic questions that need answering before a writer plows into chapter one. Below is what I consider bare minimum to flush out a story idea.
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What is his clear and tangible external goal? You must be specific about this so that the reader will know whether or not the protagonist accomplishes his goal.
3. What does the protagonist stand to lose if he doesn’t accomplish his goal and is it primal enough for the audience to care about the outcome? Here are some primal goals:
a. Safety – shelter, sustenance, financial security and even life or death
b. Reproduction – finding a mate, becoming pregnant or making someone pregnant (or adopting), protecting the children that you already have
c. Identity – finding out who you are or how you became the way that you are, confirming your sanity or lack thereof
4. What internal flaw or problem would make it particularly difficult for the protagonist to accomplish his external goal?
5. What would a person be like who has the worst possible version of that internal flaw? This is your antagonist.
6. What is the worst thing that the antagonist could do to stop the protagonist from accomplishing his goal? Can it involve exposing the protagonist’s internal problem or a secret the protagonist has kept hidden? Whatever this “worst thing” is, it will be the second plot point at the end of act two.
7. What skill does the protagonist have that can help him accomplish his goal?
8. What job and environment would both take advantage of that skill and also help the protagonist to avoid confronting his internal problem? This is the setup that should go in the first 10% of the story.
9. What two things could happen to the protagonist to jolt him out of this comfortable environment and force him to begin pursuing his external goal? These are the catalysts at 10% and 17%.
10. What event could occur that would force the protagonist to step outside of his comfort zone and begin to pursue his external goal? This is plot point one at the 25% point of your story.
11. What event would raise the stakes enough to force the protagonist to commit 100% to accomplishing his external goal? This is the mid-point.
12. Should the protagonist overcome his internal problem or not? Should the protagonist accomplish his external goal or not? What external forces are working against him to keep him from accomplishing his goal? This will be the resolution of your story.