Eight Questions to ask Your Story
When I begin penning a story, the working title is usually just a handle, something to carry it by for the time being, and which will be changed when I rewrite it anyway. While the title might not actually exist, the story does, in the form of an idea, a prompt.
So, before I sit down to write anything, I answer a short list of questions about the overall story arc of my intended tale.
I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on. This list is crucial to my preparations for being productive during NaNoWriMo. As I had each idea, I wrote it down and answered eight questions about that story. I save that document in a separate file folder for each story.
I have a master folder in my writing folder that is titled: NaNoWriMo2018. Within that folder are my small files, one for each story I plan to write.
For a novel, you only need two files: your work-in-progress document, and a document to keep all the back story and information in.
But I am a NaNo Rebel, in that I write short stories instead of a novel during NaNoWriMo. I began with fifteen file folders in that file. Nine are now complete, and I will probably only get four more of them written at 4,000 to 10,000 words per story. But, I may get them all done.
I title each story folder with a working-title, such as Doors. This is not the final title but gives me something to work with until I do know what to call it.
The file contains two documents. The first document is blank except for one line, which is the prompt, the premise of the story.
That file is labeled Doorsdraft1. That stands for Doors first draft. This document will be the manuscript for that story. Any subsequent revisions will be labeled title_draft2, etc.
At 12:01 a.m. on November 1st, I began writing that story. It topped out at about 4,000 words. The next day I opened another file, which was a different idea for a story centering on the concept of doors. I will submit one of them to NIWA’s 2019 anthology but don’t know which yet.
I mentioned there were two documents in each file. The other document is the basic premise of the story arc, answered in eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines telling me what to write.
The answers to these questions make writing the actual story go faster because I know what happened, what their goal is, why their goal is difficult to achieve, and (crucially) how the story ends.
Once you have answered questions one and two, you know who you are writing about and which character has the most compelling story.
At that point, you must decide what will be your inciting incident. An event happens that throws them into the action. Now, what is their goal/objective?
At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.
Question number six is an important thought to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?
Many final objectives don’t revolve around morality, but all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.
The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they and why are they the villain of the piece?
Answering question eight is crucial if I want to complete my short story during November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.
This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. For a short story, an ending is usually only 500 words or so. I simply head that section (in bolded front) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.
Once I have finished my short story, I save that file, close it, and move on to the next. I have to keep that story factory working, because during the rest of the year, whatever novel I am writing takes priority in the writing queue.
But I always have time to revise something that is already written, especially if I have come to a stopping place in my novel.
Every evening, I copy and paste each day’s work into my NaNo Master Manuscript, which is also in my NaNoWriMo2018 file. This gives me the satisfaction of seeing my total word count growing day by day. I upload that manuscript every night to the www.nanowrimo.org website so that my work is validated, and my writing buddies can see I am meeting my daily word count goals.
November is the only time I can dedicate to exploring the many topics and wild ideas that come to me throughout the year. On December 1st, I will go back to my usual routine, editing for clients in the morning and working on my current novel after editing is done.
When I need a break and something new to work on, I will pull out my short story file, and begin revisions. The work I have planned for selected anthologies will be revised first, as they will have deadlines early in 2019.
This keeps me working and ensures I am productive even when my novel is stranded in the desert of “Now What?”.
Pre-planning means I have a good system established for version control for my revisions, as each story has its own file and I don’t have to waste time dealing with that on the front end. As I say, this is my system, and it works for me. I use this system for all my work.
Develop your system, lay the groundwork for your novel. Create the master file, and in that file, include any sub-files of research and backstory that pertain to your novel. Do it now, even if you are already deep into your work. You won’t have to stop and look things up so often. All you will have to do is write and save your work.
Credits and Attributions:
Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Portions of this article were first published on October 22, 2018, on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as “NaNoWriMo2018 pre-planning,” © 2018 Connie J. Jasperson and have been reprinted by permission.