When I used to write for competitions, I would make lists of ways that judges might look at my work in order to grade it. For example, some judges might look for an ending that brought them to tears, while another might be more interested in an intellectual feast. A couple of you asked what my list might look like.
So here is a checklist of things that I might consider in creating a story.
First, a word of warning. When I was very young, perhaps four, I remember seeing a little robot in a store, with flashing lights and wheels that made it move. To me it seemed magical, nearly alive. My parents bought it for me for at Christmas, and a few weeks later it malfunctioned, so I took a hammer to it and pulled out the pieces to see what made it work—a battery, a tiny motor, some small colored lights, cheap paint and stickers.
But when we go through a checklist like this, we’re looking at the parts and not the whole. When you’re composing your story and editing it, you must be constantly aware of the whole story, keeping it in mind, even as you examine it in detail, making sure that one part doesn’t overbalance another.
My goal with my settings is to transport the reader into my world—not just through the senses, but also emotionally and intellectually. I want to make them feel, keep them thinking. This can often be done by using settings that fascinate the reader, that call to them.
- Do I have unique settings that the reader will find intriguing? In short, is there something that makes my setting different from anything the reader has seen before?
- If my setting is in our world, is it “sexy” or mundane? (People are drawn to sexy settings. Even if we place a story in a McDonald’s, we need to bring it to life, make it enjoyable.)
- Do I have any scenes that might be more interesting if the setting were moved elsewhere? (For example, let’s say that I want to show that a king is warlike. Do I open with him speaking to his counselors at a feast, or on the battlefield?)
- Do I suffer by having repetitive settings? For example, if I set two scenes in the same living room, would one of them be more interesting if I moved it elsewhere?
- Do my descriptions of settings have enough detail to transport the reader?
- Did I bring my setting to life using all of the senses—sight, sound, taste, touch, smell?
- Do my character’s feelings about the setting get across?
- Do I want to show a setting in the past, present, and suggest a future? (For example, I might talk about a college’s historical growth and importance, etc.)
- Can a setting be strengthened by describing what it is not?
- Does my setting resonate with others within its genre?
- Do my settings have duality—a sometimes ambiguous nature? (For example, my character might love the church where she was married, have fond memories of it, and yet feel a sense of betrayal because her marriage eventually turned ugly. So the setting becomes bittersweet.)
- Do my settings create potential conflicts in and of themselves? (If I have a prairie with tall grass and wildfires are a threat, should I have a wildfire in the tale?)
- Do my characters and my societies grow out of my setting? (If I’ve got a historical setting, do my characters have occupations and attitudes consistent with the milieu? Beyond that, with every society there is almost always a counter-movement. Do I deal with those?)
- Is my setting, my world, in danger? Do I want it to be?
- Does my world have a life of its own? (For example, if I create a fantasy village, does it have a history, a character of its own? Do I need to create a cast for the village—a mayor, teacher, etc.?)
- Is my setting logically consistent? (For example, let’s say that I have a merchant town. Where would a merchant town most likely be? On a trade route or port—quite possibly at the junction of the two. So I need to consider how fully I’ve developed the world.)
- Is my setting fully realized?
(Let’s say I have a forest. What kinds of trees and plants would be in that forest? What kind of animals? What’s the history of that forest? When did it last have rain or snow? What’s unique about that forest? Etc.)
- Does my setting intrude into every scene, so that my reader is always grounded?
(If I were to set my story in a field, for example, and I have men preparing for battle, I might want to have a lord look up and notice that buzzards are flapping up out of the oaks in the distance, already gathering for the feast. I might want to mention the sun warming my protagonist’s armor, the flies buzzing about his horse’s ears, and so on—all while he is holding an important conversation.
- Are there any settings that have symbolic import, whose meanings need to be brought to the forefront?
I want my characters to feel like real people, fully developed. Many stories suffer because the characters are bland or cliché or are just underdeveloped. We want to move beyond stereotypes, create characters that our readers will feel for. At the same time, we don’t want to get stuck in the weeds. We don’t want so much detail that the character feels overburdened and the writing gets sluggish.
So here are some of the checkpoints I might use for characters.
- Do I have all of the characters that I need to tell the story, or is someone missing? (For example, would the story be stronger if I had a guide, a sidekick, a love interest, a contagonist, hecklers, etc.?)
- Do I have any characters that can be deleted to good effect?
- Do I have characters who can perhaps be combined with others? For example, let’s say I have two cops on the beat. Would it work just as well with only one cop?
- Do my characters have real personalities, depth?
- Do my characters come off as stock characters, or as real people?
- Do I know my characters’ history, attitudes, and dress?
- Does each character have his or her interesting way of seeing the world?
- Does each character have his or her own voice, his own way of expressing himself?
- Are my characters different enough from each other so that they’re easily distinguished? Do their differences generate conflict? Remember that even good friends can have different personalities.
- Have I properly created my characters’ bodies—described such things as hands, feet, faces, hair, ears, and so on?
- Do each of my characters have their own idiosyncrasies?
- Do I need to “tag” any characters so that readers will remember them easily—for example, by giving a character a limp, or red hair, or having one who hums a great deal?
- How do my characters relate to the societies from which they sprang? In short, are they consistent with their own culture in some ways? And in what ways do they oppose their culture?
- What does each of my characters want?
- What does each one fear?
- What things might my character be trying to hide?
- What is each character’s history? (Where were they born? Schooled, etc.?)
- What is my characters’ stance on religion, politics, etc.?
- How do my characters relate to one another? How do they perceive one another? Are their perceptions accurate, or jaded?
- Does each character have a growth arc? If they don’t, should they?
- How honest are my characters—with themselves and with others? Should my readers trust them?
- What would my characters like to change about themselves? Do they try to change?
- Do my characters have their own family histories, their own social problems, their own medical histories, their own attitudes? Do we need a flashback anywhere to establish such things?
One of the surest ways to engage our audience is through our conflicts. When a conflict is unresolved, and when the audience is waiting breathlessly for its outcome, the reader’s interest will become keen. They’ll look forward to the resolution unconsciously, and may even be thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good!” That state of arousal is called “suspense,” and it’s perhaps the most potent element of a tale.
- What is the major conflict in my story?
- Do I have proper try/fail cycles for it?
- Is the major conflict resolved?
- Is it universal enough so that the readers will find it interesting? (Note that a conflict becomes far more interesting to a reader if it is something that he must deal with in his own life.)
- Have I brought it to life through the incidents that I relate? In other words, are there ways to deepen or broaden the main conflict?
- Do I have secondary conflicts? Most stories require more than one conflict. For example, a protagonist will often have an internal conflict as well as an external conflict. He may also have a love interest. He might have conflicts with nature, with God, and with his companions. So as an author, I must create a host of conflicts and decide how each one grows and is resolved.
- How do my characters grow and change in order to overcome the conflicts?
- Do my characters perhaps decide to adapt to a conflict, struggle to live with it rather than beat it?
- How ingenious are my character’s attempts to solve their problems? Ingenuity often adds interest.
- How driven are my characters to resolve their conflicts? Characters who will go to extremes are needed.
- Do I have any namby-pamby attempts that I should delete? For example, if I have a protagonist whose main problem is that she doesn’t have the nerve to talk to her boss about a problem at work, should I strike that entire try/fail cycle? (The answer is, almost always you should strike out the scenes and replace it with something better.)
- Is my hero equal to or greater than his task at the start of a tale? If so, then my hero needs to be weakened so that we have a better balance.
- Does my protagonist ever get betrayed?
- Does my protagonist have an identity conflict? At the heart of every great story is a character who sees himself as being one thing—charming, heroic, wise—while others around him perceive him as being something else—socially wanting, inept, fool.
- Do I have enough conflicts to keep the story interesting?
- Should some of the minor conflicts be deleted, or resolved? (Remember that not all conflicts need to have try/fail cycles.)
Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale. A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging. Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader. But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer. Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments. Shakespeare made every story an argument, and the “theme” was the central question to his tale.
Some people will suggest that dealing with themes is “didactic.” Don’t be fooled. Those same writers will put themes in their own works, and usually they’re taking stands that oppose yours. For example, if you argue that morality is innate and central to what a human is, they’ll argue that it’s situational and we’re all just animals. They don’t oppose the idea of stories having themes; they may just be opposed to your views. So make sure that your arguments are rigorous and persuasive.
- Can I identify themes that I consciously handled?
- Are there themes that came out inadvertently?
- How universal are my themes? How important are they to the average reader?
- Are there themes that need to be dealt with but aren’t? For example, if I have a policeman who is going to take a life, does he need to consider how he will feel about that?
- Are there questions posed or problems manifested that bog the story down and need to be pulled?
- Do my characters ever consciously consider or talk about the main themes? Should they?
- Do my characters need to grapple with important questions? If not, perhaps they should.
- Do my characters change at all due to the influence of new ideas or beliefs?
- If my theme is going to “grow,” become more important as the story progresses, do I need to add or modify scenes in order to accommodate that growth? In other words, do I need to let the theme help shape the tale?
- As your character grapples with a theme, does he find himself led down false roads? For example, let’s go back to our cop. Let’s say that he shoots a boy at night, and feels guilty when he discovers that the boy wasn’t really armed. What the cop thought was a gun turns out to have been a cell phone. Would other characters try to influence him? Perhaps a senior officer might take him out to get a drink—because alcohol has been his salvation for 20 years. Another officer might suggest that the kid was trying to commit suicide by cop, and that our protagonist “did the kid a favor,” and so on.
- Does my character ever have to synthesize a thematic concept—come to grips with it intellectually and emotionally, so that it alters the character’s behavior?
There are five elements that will come into nearly every scene in your story—setting, character, conflict, theme, and treatment. Your “treatment” is the way that you handle your story. The number of items that come into play in your treatment is so long, I can’t get into all of them. We could get down to the real nitty-gritty of putting a sentence together.
You’ll want to create your own list of items to look for in your treatment. If you notice for example that you’re creating a lot of long, compound sentences in a row, you might make it a goal to vary your sentence length. If you find that you’re using weak verbs, you may want to go through your tale and search for instances of “was” and “were.” If you find yourself using the word “then,” you might want to go through in your edits and make sure that incidents in your tale are related in sequential order, so that you don’t need the word “then.” If you find yourself stacking modifiers in front of nouns and verbs, you might want to watch for that in your editing. If you tend to over-describe things, you might want to watch your descriptions.
In short, whatever your own personal weaknesses are in writing, you’ll want to create a list so that you can think about them when you write.
But here are a few elements to consider in your treatment.
- Is your tone appropriate to the tale? For example, let’s say that you want to invest a bit of humor into your story. You start it with a joke. Do you maintain the tone throughout the rest of the tale, perhaps layering the humor in, scene after scene?
- Do each of your characters speak with their own unique voices? You’ll need to do a dialog check for each character before you’re done.
- Do you as a narrator establish a voice for the piece, one that you maintain throughout?
- Is every description succinct and evocative?
- Do your descriptions echo the emotional tone of the point-of-view (POV) character?
- Do you get deep enough into your protagonist’s POV so that the reader can track their thoughts and emotions? If not, is there a good reason why you neglected to do so?
- Is there music in your language? Do you want there to be? Ernest Hemingway once said that “All great novels are really just poetry.” With that in mind, listen to the sounds of your words. Consider changing them as needed to fit the meter and emphasis that you need.
- Do you use enough hooks to keep your reader interested?
- Could you strengthen the piece by using foreshadowing?
- Do you use powerful metaphors or similes to add beauty and resonance to your work? (If not, you’re in trouble. Your competition will.)
Sometimes when you’re looking at a story, you need to think about it in “chunks.” Here are a few things that I think about when creating a tale.
- Is the basic idea of your story original and powerful? (In a contest, entering a story with a mundane concept probably won’t get you far. For example, if you enter a story about a young man fighting space pirates, it probably won’t do well—unless you come up with some new technology or angle that sets it above all other space-pirate tales.)
- Do you establish your characters swiftly? We should probably know whom the story is about within a scene or two, and we should probably be introduced in a way that tells us something important about the characters.
- We also need to establish the setting in every single scene.
- Do you get to the inciting incident quickly and cleanly?
- Are there any storytelling tools that I could use to make this tale better. (For a discussion of storytelling tools, see my book Million Dollar Outlines)
- Does my story escalate through the following scenes, with conflicts that broaden and deepen?
- Does my story resolve well? Do I have a climax that really is exciting? Is the outcome different from what the audience expects?
- Do I tackle all of the resolutions in a way that leaves the reader satisfied?
Writing a story can be an exhausting exercise—intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. When you’re in the throes of it, it may seem daunting. But you’re never really done until the outcome feels magical, and if you take care of all the little things that you should, the outcome will indeed seem wondrous.