Tuesday, June 14, 2011

36 Forty Questions for a Stronger Manuscript

I'm plotting a new WIP, teetering in that sweet spot where what I'm embarking on is absolutely, positively, definitely going to be the best thing EVER. That usually lasts about thirty seconds. Because the next thing I have to do is sit myself down for the talk. You know: the TALK. Is this an idea? Do I really want to spend a year writing and rewriting, editing and polishing it? Is it going to have sales potential? What's in it for the reader? What makes it different enough from everything else that's out there?

Those are tough questions, but I already know my characters and my concept. I've got a one-line pitch, a two-sentence pitch, and a paragraph-long synopsis of the storyline. So my answers are pretty good this time. The idea doesn't want to die.

Which means I can go on to the next step.

I'm in awe of the pantsers out there. Me? I need a road map. Heck, I need to call Destination Assist. As much as I'm a pantser wanna-be, I still I need Turning Points, and Character Worksheets, and well, you get the picture. The more I write and edit and read and study craft, the more I'm convinced that a great novel is made before you sit down to do the writing or maybe even the outlining.

I started sifting through all the great advice I've read or heard, making notes to help in the planning stages. The next thing I knew I had a long series of questions to ask myself. This is what I'm kicking around now as I start to formalize my turning points and story beats.

A Writer's Pre-Flight Checklist.

  1. How can I make the protagonist likeable or at least relatable?
  2. Are both the protagonist and the antagonist extraordinary in some way?
  3. Do they both care passionately about something?
  4. Is what they care about at the heart of their opposition?
  5. Is the antagonist just as strong or even stronger than the protagonist and just as compelling or intriguing?
  6. Do all the main characters have genuine flaws and eccentricities?
  7. Is there opposition between what the protagonist wants, her external goal, and what she needs, her internal goal?
  8. Is the protag going to experience a change of fortune: from good fortune to bad, from bad fortune to good, from good to bad to good, from bad to good to bad?
  9. How can I use the setting and season to make the situation worse for the protag?
  10. How can I make the setting more interesting and challenging?
  11. Are the protag and antag struggling within a situation readers haven't seen before?
  12. How can I elevate the concept?
  13. What extra coolness factor can I add?
  14. What twist can I add to make this unusual?
  15. Are there logical connections between characters, plot, and theme(s)?
  16. Is the theme universal?
  17. Does the protag's struggle exploit a universal fear?
  18. Are there high stakes--terrible consequences--if the protag fails?
  19. Does she have to make an impossible choice or sacrifice that will make her pay personally before she can win against the antag?
  20. How can I provide a test at the beginning of the manuscript to show off the trait the protag needs to change before she can win?
  21. What makes her the way she is, and how can I show that to make her initial failure understandable and relatable?
  22. How can I make the stakes even higher at every turning point while keeping them relatable?
  23. Have I got enough of a coolness or fun factor in the mid section to sell the premise and carry the second act?
  24. How do I keep the protag in conflict between two emotions so she has to fight to resolve her feelings?
  25. How can I exploit the situation and main conflict to force the characters to make active choices?
  26. How can I limit each of the character’s choices to force them to choose between something bad and something worse, force them into bad decisions, or push them into doing what they least want to do?
  27. How can I make characters behave in the most unexpected way that fits within their motivation, personality type, and background?
  28. How do I introduce a new conflict before resolving an existing one?
  29. What danger can I keep threaten, what information can I promise, what expected emotional crisis, confrontation, loss, or decision can I foreshadow to keep the reader eager to read?
  30. How can I push an expected outcome into an unexpected direction?
  31. Before the climax, how do I make it clear why the antagonist is the way he is, and how do I make him sympathetic?
  32. How can I apply lessons the protag has learned and show her character growth in the climax in a way that will echo the test she failed at the beginning?
  33. How do I make it clear enough why she has changed enough to choose differently than she did in the initial test?
  34. Can I make every conflict in a subplot real and hard to overcome?
  35. How do I resolve all the subplots and weave them together more tightly?
  36. How do I show the arcs for each of the main characters?
  37. How do I most smoothly delivere all the missing information before the climax scene?
  38. How can I the climax the toughest challenge in the manuscript?
  39. How can I make the resolution truly satisfying?
  40. How do I make sure I've kept my covenant with the reader?
Lots to think about, right? My brain is already popping with plot and scene ideas, and I think (I hope) I'm on to something. As much as I'd love to pants it, I'm afraid I'm the kind of writer who has to feel like I'm funneling my 80,000 words in the right direction before I write instead of trying to squeeze them into shape in revision. Not that I won't have to do that, too.

What about you? What do you think about before and while you write? What tips have most helped you to elevate your concept or structure?

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. These are all such great questions. I am thinking of similar ones and the basic plot points--the inciting incident, the door of no return, the mid point turn, and the climax. I also think of some of the world building of my magic system & the limits of the magic since I usually write fantasy.

  2. These ARE great questions and thought provoking. I will use them.

  3. There is no way I could answer all of this before beginning a novel. But these are excellent questions to make sure you know the answer to at some point, whether that's while drafting, or during revision, depends on what kind of writer you are, I suppose.

  4. Awesome, even if bit overwhelming. I might not beable to answer all these beforehand and I'm a plotter but it's something to ask after the first draft for sure.

  5. Great! (Or possibly I just think it's great because I'm reasonably confident of the answers for my WIP.)

    The thing I kept saying though was 'But there's no antagonist'. My current undertaking really has two basically sympathetic protagonists struggling mostly with character flaws and circumstances and only occasionally each other. I now have to think about whether this matters.

  6. Totally. As I was reading these, my brain was firing like mad. Must start outlining....

  7. That's a lot of questions. It's a little overwhelming to me. I guess I'm more of an organized panster. I outline a little then write it. My stories change so much as I write them. Of course, I may change my tune after my next set of revisions, but I definitely would use these questions at some point, just not all of them beforehand.
    Good luck.

  8. Great list! Thank you. This is a post I'll return to over and over. And the questions certainly have merit after a draft too.

  9. Natalie, Matthew, Laura, Christine: I'm running through these after mentally considering the turning points: the Jump Start, the Call to Action, the First Threshold, the New Reality, the First Change, Burning the Bridge, Striding off Toward Doom, the Ordeal, the Dark Moment, Fighting with a Plan, the Ultimate Showdown, and the Hero's Return.

    Most of what I've done so far is mental, apart from my one paragraph pitch. I'm just starting to formally put the turning points and beats into the Scrivener corkboard, but I know roughly what needs to happen. These questions are giving me a chance to tweak that before I actually type it out and start shifting things around.

    I guess I could just go ahead and write after I finish mentally going through this, but I like having the road map. I'm sure things will change as I write, but this gives me a chance to really consider all the logic and make sure it hangs together. For the record, I hate the actual typing out of the answers I've come up mentally though :D I'm itching to get into the scenes.

    Theresa: Thanks! Good luck!

    Anna: That sounds intriguing. They are each other's antagonist! It's tricky to write though, because you have to make them equally sympathetic to the reader, and then gradually lead toward where the reader will get a pay off at the end. Do you know how you're going to resolve it? Are you doing alterning POVs?

    Sherrie, YAY! Let me know how the outlining goes!



  10. Nice questions! But... I didn't know about this talk thing. :D I mean, I always just go with it. Maybe this is why I come to impasses often. I'll make sure to check this list for my current project, as I am in the process of updating it, which is a lot like Medieval torture I must say (for the book not me!).

  11. I crave structure, but I've never had a checklist like this. I'll have to save this for reference. I'm just starting a new project, so I'll probably be needing it soon!

    Great post!

  12. Love these!!! I'm getting out my notepad...

  13. OMG Martina! This may be the single most helpful blogpost in the history of the universe. (I might be a TAD dramatic) But seriously, I think a huge portion of my problems happen when I don't think things through ahead of time. Shameful for a pantser I know. But there's a middle ground. For example several of the characters and subplots in TD (I like that he he he) came while I was writing, yet I was still able to stick to the general structure I'd had in mind. I didn't freak out, just let it go because I am a pantser by nature, and it worked. I think. I hope. LOL! Anyway, I'm totally using this list for my next WIP! Bookmarking now...

  14. What a great list! I definitely need a road map for drafting and these questions bring up some important points. Thanks!

  15. This is a wonderful list! I'm a pantser, but I like to outline a little ahead of my writing.
    These questions will come in handy for me when I'm finished with the first draft. Printing these out right now!

  16. This is an awesome post. I try to come up with this checklist and do the exact same things you do when starting a story. I was a pantser on my first book and it turned into a train-wreck, with too much going on, and me not getting to the point soon enough. (almost 100,000 words!) This time I feel so much better going into it. I'm organized. And this is a great post to remember, a great checklist that I need to go back to throughout my writing to keep me focused.

  17. This is amazing! Thank you for sharing this (not like I'm surprised or anything - you share lots of awesome stuff). Now I wish I had a new project so I can try this out.

  18. I still have a bunch of baby projects to use this on. Thanks for all the tips in here. :)

  19. Barbara, I hope they help, and yes, I think they will be a huge help to me in revising/editing, too. I wish I'd come up with them sooner, but I think that's why they call it a learning curve :). I probably wouldn't have known what to do with them when I started my first manuscript. In fact, I would probably have run away screaming ;D

    Lyn, I didn't have the TALK until my second manuscript, not that it would have deterred me from my first, but it would have prepared me and made me change a lot of things in earlier drafts. My second ms was so much easier to write because I had the talk first. That was also the ms that I wrote the pitch for before writing a single word. Just that one little exercise made everything else much clearer.

    Tere, Heather, Sarah and Melinda, Good luck with your projects - hope the questions prove to be helpful.

    Lisa, I still don't get how you manage to pants something as complex as TD. Perhaps the fact that I can't *envision it*, explains why I couldn't begin to *pull it* off :D Seriously, I'm in awe! And, oh, go ahead. Be dramatic! LOL!

    Kathryn, I'm with you. And train-wrecks are much harder to fix. I just wish I was one of those people who sits down, writes, and ends up with something brilliant. Oh, well. Grass is always greener, etc. etc. etc.

    Vicki, thanks! What are you working on now? Still the same project we saw in the workshop?

    Akoss, good luck!


  20. I am doing alternating POVs, and one of them is first person and the other third, just to dig my hole a little deeper.
    Fortunately for me this is a total reboot of an idea I first wrote up over a decade ago. So no worries about whether the payoff's going to come together, as I've been through this plotting process before!

  21. What a fantastic list--I'm saving it to refer to as I begin my new WIP. I know it will be a big help. Thanks!

  22. I'm definitely somewhere in the middle as far as my style. I'm not entirely a pantser or a planner. But I like this list of questions because it's good food for thought to consider at all stages of development.

  23. Martina, this is awesome. I'm a plotter also, and I need a road map for my story. Weaving in conflicting goals between the protag and antag is a lot of fun, and I usually have that lined up before I write. I'm bookmarking this page for future reference. Thanks!

  24. Awesome questions. I've just printed them off to use during my revision (for my planning my next book). Hopefully I can already answer them all. :D

  25. Excellent checklist!! Whenever I start planning my next book, I know what I'll be poring over!

    And that's so great you have the pitch and short synopsis all figured out; it really helps hone the story before you even start writing. :o) I've found that helps ME!

  26. Wow! Great list! I'm a planner, too. Almost every time, I go back to my library of writing books and refresh my memory on structure and craft before embarking on a new project.

  27. Anna, that sounds fascinating and really risky. I keep wondering whether the choice of 1st person for one will automatically dictate reader expectation of victory for that character. Intriguing. Good luck with it! :D

    Kenda, hope they help with the new WIP. Let me know!

    Julie, figuring out the opposing goals is one of my favorite parts too. Do you use the goal/conflict box?

    Tricia, I agree. And I expect I'll be coming back to the list at all the different stages of this ms, because you can always raise the stakes, the coolness factor, make things stronger. And there is never any point where something is "good enough" if it could be better!

    Stina, I can't believe that as someone who has studied both SAVE THE CAT and EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE there's much of *anything* in here that you haven't already answered. Two great books -- and I loved your Ttangled post this week :D.

    Carol, doing the pitch and logline ahead of time was a revelation. I've started doing that the second I have an idea and sticking them in right in my Outlook memos so they're synced on my phone, laptop, and Playbook. I've got all sorts of awesome pitches (I hope :D) but the one ms I did the pitch for after the fact still eludes me.

    Ara, at some point, we need to compare favorites. I suspect you have an incredible library! :D

  28. What a terrific list, thank you so much! I will be printing it and putting it in my notebook. I am definitely a pantser, but we need love (and good questions) too! :)

  29. Holy cow, what an amazing list! Deffo bookmarking this one! Thank you so very much! <3

  30. I need to have a DETAILED outline before I sit down to write. That said, I'm always surprised to find how much adjusting the outline needs during the writing process. My characters start doing things I hadn't anticipated or I find myself inspired to add or remove a scene here and there. I'm not certain if we all can be outliners, but I think even the most rigid outliners of us have a bit of pantsing tucked away somewhere inside us.

  31. These are some great questions! I'm going to ask myself these as I go into revisions and then again when I start another WIP. Thanks for sharing them! I'm definitely bookmarking this. :)

  32. What an awesome resource! I'm a sucker for lists, and I LURVE the pre-planning stage, so this is like getting vanilla ice cream out of the freezer and realizing that you're NOT out of chocolate syrup like you thought you were! Thanks for this!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  33. Hm i've never planned and don't know if i ever will.

    Don't people find that structuring so rigorously overrides creative flow? That natural movement in a piece, whether it words, or even a drawing?

    I find most American literature and art in general to be too structured... what do others think?

  34. Ooh! Thanks for the checklist. Very helpful! *runs off to pore over list and see how it applies to current novel*

  35. My head is totally popping! What a great question list and THANK YOU for sharing. :)

  36. Love this! I'm going to take a print-out and stick it on the wall above my desk. I think this is great for revisions too - during early drafts, I tend to delude myself that everything that was in my head is now on paper when it's often not the case. This list would come handy to tell me objectively what I still need to add. Thank you.


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