Tuesday, January 3, 2012

18 A Writer's Pre-Flight Checklist

In the spirit of the new year, how many of you are starting up new book projects? Or dusting off an old project with more determination than ever to make it breakout novel quality? Either way, it's a great time for all of us to take another peek at what's under the hood of all those beautiful words and look at the engine that is going to drive the reader from the first line to the last. No matter how well-written, the book idea has to be solid.

As I started to pick up my project again after the hiatus of the holiday, I decided to go back to a checklist I put together over the summer to get myself reconnected. Maybe the list can help you, too. Whether you're starting to plot from scratch or starting up a revision, it's a great time to check the soundness of the idea and the different story elements. Ready? Here are forty questions to ask yourself.

Forty Questions to Test Your Manuscript

  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?

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


  1. Oh My! This is possibly the most useful list I've ever stumbled upon! Thanks so much for posting it.

  2. That is a great checklist! I'm bookmarking this post so that I can refer to it again. Thank you! When I write, I ask myself why the character is doing whatever they are doing, to make sure it is the character acting, and not me.

  3. Martina, this is awesome! I'm printing it out and pinning it above my computer. I need to highlight especially those character questions. Love #2 and 3!

    Thanks so much.

  4. Wow - that's a great list! I'm struggling with my ending right now - this list should help. Thanks :)

  5. Dynamite! JUST what I needed right now. I just <3 you!!!

  6. I needed this reminder! Just almost at the point where I need to ask some hard/er questions about my WIP while revising it. Thanks--great timing!! :)

  7. Yes, a great list - now, let me check it off... #12 How can I elevate the concept? Mmmm. :)

  8. HItting that print button pronto. Amazing list. Thanks, Martina.

  9. This is such a strong and useful checklist. Oh heck, all your checklists and tools are excellent!

    Hope you guys all had an absolutely wonderful Christmas vacation and I'm rooting for big things for all of you in 2012!


  10. Awesome questions. Thank you for posting this.

  11. Thank you, Martina - I linked to this on my blog too. What a fantastic tool!

  12. Fantastic list! All writers should keep it posted beside their computers for handy reference while writing.

  13. Great list! I ask many of these questions in the Plot Outline Exercise in my book Advanced Plotting. I'll have to compare the lists to see if I need to add anything now. (You can download the list for free from my website -- upper left corner of this page: http://www.krisbock.com/blog.htm)

  14. Saving this for later! Thank you so much! :)

  15. I'm so printing this and posting it to my wall, so I can read it every day while drafting!

  16. This is a great list! Thank you for posting it. I plan on refering to it now while I revise my story.


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