The Writer's Worksheet

Details The Author Should Consider In Developing Stories

Here is a list of specific issues which authors should keep in mind when writing. This list should serve as the basis for any proper book review, so your thoughts on specific items or additional elements are welcome. When reviewers judge a novel, these would each be rated on a scale of 1 - 10, with 1 being 'hopeless' and 10 being 'brilliant'.

Story opening - Does your story have a strong, immediate opening which brings the reader into the situation right away? This can be a problem, a strong character, or some distinctive thing/feature/event which establishes the situation. Figure on getting this done in the first manuscript page (half a page of the finished book) or you stand a good chance of losing the reader.

The Big Picture - Stories should not take place in a vaccuum. There should be some outside world that gives the characters reason to do what they do. Do your characters all decide to fight and die to the last man? Why? How did they wind up in this mess? What alternatives do they have? Who are they protecting/serving? What good will it do? How do they feel about this cause? Even if you don't spell these out in tedious detail (to be avoided if at all possible) knowing these things will help you set the situation and mood, and will guide the story development. Specific tidbits can be added here and there to improve scenes or dialogue.

Point Of View - Each story has a natural focus, the POV character, and the reader experiences the story through that character's actions, sensations, and reactions. It is essential that the POV character be in a position to experience the events, be most affected by them, and most strongly react to them. Sometimes an author has to shift from one POV to another, but this must be done carefully. The best way to do this is to have each POV in a different chapter or scene. The POV character may know things the others don't, or not know something, or will have an attitude about something which is unique to telling the story. When the POV shifts constantly between characters, that is the 'omnipotent - or god-like - POV'. Sometimes doing this can't be helped, and if used right it can create dramatic tension, but avoid it if possible.

Clarity of situation - Each scene takes place in a specific location and circumstances, such as on a street corner at night in the rain. Scene location should make sense: don't shift from London to Istanbul to meet for lunch unless the story requires it. Introducing a scene should be brief, an incisive one or two sentence description is best, followed by adding more detail bit by bit as you go. Scene elements, such as the chill rain, also help set mood. Once a scene is established, going back to it later will require less background effort. Never leave your readers guessing where they are.

Scene mood - Scenes should have a mood which matches the subject matter. A mismatched subject and mood can ruin the scene, or give it unintended meanings that distort the story line. Setting, character tension, sensory clues (chill rain), even wording and punctuation affect the mood. (Use short minimalist sentences to creat a bleak atmosphere, etc.),

Clarity of writing - Is your writing well structured and flowing? Do you jump back and forth between various details? Are there unnecessary details or excess verbage? Remember that each paragraph should introduce a topic, explore its details, and draw conclusions. Each paragraph should relate some distinct element of the subject, such as how a situation starts, then how a character reacts to it, then how the situation changes. Paragraphs should be as long or as short as needed to explore the respective elements.

Superlatives and saidisms - Superlatives - eagerly, angrily, solemnly - can set mood and express emotional reaction, but should be used with care to avoid 'superlative writing'. The use of saidisms - argued, demanded, complained, whined - also have their place, but should be used with care. Saidisms are necessary to identify who is talking, but should be kept to a minimum. When in doubt, the classic 'said' and 'asked' are best. Avoid repeated use of superlatives and saidisms.

Infodumps - Infodumping - pausing the story to expound on something - should be avoided if at all possible since they disrupt the reader's flow. Sometimes you can't avoid infodumps, but when you must use them, keep them brief, space them out amid the action, break them up with dialogue (or use dialogue instead), and keep them short, emotional, and to the point.

Introducing characters - Characters need to be clearly defined right off, but avoid taking time out for tedious infodumps. A brief introduction outlining the character is best, with fill-in as the new character interacts with the story line. Adding character detail by their actions or dialogue is best.

Character personalities - Each character should have a distinct personality, and these personalities should have depth to avoid turning them into cardboard cutouts. Some essential qualities to strive for are specific likes and dislikes, mortal frailty, temprament, knowledge and experience, background within the story, and the ability to reevaluate themselves in order to grow as the story progresses.

Character voice - As with personalities, characters should have distinctive voices. This is more than just overlaying an accent, which should be done carefully to keep it from drowning the character. Each character's voice should match their personality: a country bumpkin won't use fancy language, while a geek might slip into technobabble from time to time. Voice can also express character traits such as forcefulness, weakness, weariness, vulgarity, etc. Major elements of voice include language skills, specific vernacular, assertiveness, temprament, and mood.

Character alliances/conflicts - Characters in conflict is what storytelling is all about. Do your characters argue? Form alliances against others? Double cross each other? Rethink their relationships in light of plot developments? And are these conflicts consistent? Do they make sense? Do enemies join forces reluctantly when they must? How well do they work together? How do character flaws affect relationships and the story line?

Character behavior - Characters will behave partly on their personality and partly on their situation, and irrational behavior can ruin a story line. If your character is trying to keep a secret, don't have him constantly dropping hints about it. Don't have the character taunting someone powerful unless you're looking to create trouble. Don't tease children by pretending to be electrocuted when trying to get them to climb over the inactive electric fence. Characters are trying to make it through the situation, and their actions and reactions should be in their best interest at all times.

Dialogue - Dialogue is a great way to advance a story, fill in plot details, and is essential to 'show-don't-tell'. You must be careful that the dialogue makes sense, that it isn't needlessly wordy, and that you don't fall victim to "As you know, Bob..." moments. The dialogue should match the characters - simpler wording for unintelligent or uneducated characters, more sophisticated for advanced characters.

Show-don't-tell - This can be tricky, as the difference between 'showing' and 'telling' can be a matter of a few words or choice of phrase. 'Showing' brings the reader emotionally into the scene, where 'telling' does not. Non-verbal input, such as the character's emotional state and reactions, narrative or dialogue, sights, sounds, physical sensations (chill rain) all give the reader an emotional hook to grab onto.

Plot advancement - The story must remain on topic as it progresses. Each sentence of each paragraph of each scene in each chapter must contribute to forwarding the story. Random threads or waste verbage should be avoided, as these dilute the story line. Each story has a natural length - don't cut essentials to squeeze into word count, or pad the story to fill space.

Timing and pace - In a broad sense, a story should introduce the action point (where the characters are forced to act) at 1/4 of the way through the story, the crisis point (where things look their bleakest) at 1/2 way, and the turning point (where the resolution begins) at 3/4 of the way. This can vary depending on circumstances. The story timing should be tied to the chapter structure. The story pace (how fast and furious it is) depends on the story concept, with crisis scenes being generally faster and more intense. Pace can vary to give the reader some respite, or to distinguish one crisis from another. When plotting a story, try to keep the pace aligned with the chapters, since each chapter is a different mini-story. Also be careful when using sub-arcs that their pace matches the main story and the other sub-arcs.

Story arcs and sub-arcs - A story arc is the progress of the story from beginning to middle to end. Sub-arcs are often used to follow a specific character or plot line. When using sub-arcs, make sure that the events of that story line support the main arc. Be sure to resolve the sub-arc story and avoid loose ends. Sub arcs are useful to evolve the main story, starting with one character or situation which dominates for a while, then fades away as another sub-arc rises to take its place.

Chapter structure - Chapters serve a number of purposes in story telling, notably isolating one POV/situation from another, noting the progress of time (each chapter being a day), or delineating a major plot event. Each chapter should be a complete mini-story in itself, with introduction, conflict, decision, action, resolution, and call to continue. This could take the form of picking up the hero where we left him dangling off a cliff, and leave him just as he falls into the raging river. There needs to be some event which is worked through, and it is especially important that the chapter end with an incentive for the reader to turn to the next page. This last can be the classic cliff-hanger, or a character wondering how the others are doing, etc.

Unexpected twists - Having the story take off in an unexpected direction can be useful to introduce a new character or story element, or to launch story sub-arcs, but this should be done carefully. Be especially alert for unintended plot twists, which often come friom trying to build word count with random verbage. When plot twists occur, the author should be careful to blend them into the overall story line. One useful plot twist is a brief bit of humor - a wisecrack just as the battle starts - to break the tension of a dramatic scene.

Loose ends - Be careful that plot twists don't create random loose ends. This is especially important when writing sub-arcs or multiple POVs, or when you have multiple major non-POV characters. All plot, arc, and character elements should have a resolution by the end of the story.

Use of technology - Does your story depend on technology - especially clever whiz-bang technology - to keep it alive? Can you rewrite your space opera as a western without it falling apart? Advanced tech - which can include magic, or the character who can always fix anything - is a fundimental tool of spec fi, but you must be careful not to let it become the story in itself. The best use of technology is when it is unobtrusively in the background, doing its job without hogging the glory.

The McGuffin - Stories tend to revolve around a specific item, person, or situation which creates the conflict to be resolved. The Maltese Falcon is an excellent example. An author should be careful not to let the McGuffin become the story - it is a means to creating conflict and plot flow.

The resolution - Does the story and its various subplots come to a solid conclusion? Are some elements left hanging? Are some questions or conflicts unresolved? Did events take place in the story, but their outcome was never revealed?

Related Topics:

The Writers' Worksheet
The Virtuous Villain
Info-Dumpster Diving
Character Matters
Slinging Slang
Getting It Write
Setting The Pace
Hitting The Atmosphere

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