Now that I’ve got a few books under my belt, I have a pre-set checklist of questions that helps me take my shitty first draft to a somewhat respectable second draft. Then, after patting myself on the back one moment and crying in despair the next, I use the same set of questions to take the somewhat respectable second draft to a polished, publishable piece of work.
In the spirit of writerly love, I’ve decided to share my 7-question checklist with you here. Whether you’re in the middle of your first draft, at the end of your final draft, or haven’t even started your work yet, I’m pretty sure these questions can help you. At the very least, they’ll force you to spend more time thinking about your work and you may stumble across a gem of an idea or two.
So… Here’s the checklist! 7 questions you can answer to improve your fiction writing:
1 – Is there conflict (of some kind) on the first page?
Conflict is the fire that makes great stories burn bright.
Conflict drives the reader forward.
Without conflict, you have no story.
And yet so many authors begin their novels without any conflict at all. Instead they begin with lengthy description. They describe the environment, the weather, a person’s appearance, and tons of other stuff that isn’t conflict.
Sure, there’s leeway for this sort of thing in your book but why stick it on the first page? That’s the page that has to HOOK your reader. And there’s no better hook than conflict.
Conflict is “someone wants something but something else is stopping them from getting it”.
Does your first page have a problem or an obstacle?
Scrap that. Does your first LINE have a problem or an obstacle?
Let’s check out a few first lines that show conflict at work.
There’s Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
Where’s the conflict in this line?
The conflict is contained in one little verb: staggered.
Immediately we know something is wrong with this character. Staggering is typically a sign that something is wrong with someone. And, if we read the next sentences, we’re again treated to more verbs that increases the sense of conflict and builds up tension in the form of creating a sense of urgency:
He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
Lunged. Grabbing. Heaved. Tore. Collapsed.
Here’s another example of conflict in the very first sentence of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, ‘Killing Floor’:
I was arrested in Eno’s diner.
Perfect. Want to read on? Of course we do. Arrests = conflict. And everyone loves conflict. It’s the stuff of great drama.
Here’s another example taken from the opening line of Joe Hill’s ‘The Fireman’:
Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.
Doesn’t that just make you disgustingly, morbidly fascinated to find out what happens next?
I could continue to spit out first line and first page examples that handle conflict well but the best thing for you to do is to examine the first pages of your own personal favourite books.
Try to figure out why you liked the first page of your favourite book so much.
What hooked you about the first page?
I guarantee there is conflict in there. It might be small but it’s there.
2 – Do you sympathise with your villain?
If your gut reaction to that question was, “Of course not! He/she/it is the baddie!” you may want to look at your villain more closely.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that most writers need to take the amount of time they spent on creating their villain and double it. Heck, let’s say TRIPLE it.
- It’s HARD to write a good villain because we default to writing a “big bad wolf” archetype.
- We typically spend more time concocting fantastic heroes and heroines that outshine the villain.
- The believability and effectiveness of your story is correlated with the believability of your villain.
You can have a villain doing some super scary shit but if he’s doing it “just ‘cos… you know… he’s the villain”, then it’s not gonna be that scary. At best it will be a somewhat amusing caricature.
But if the villain’s motivation is rock-solid, seeps through the pages, and is believable, suddenly things get a whole lot more scary and a whole lot more believable.
Watch a couple of seasons of 24. The show is kitsch and massively over-the-top but it works because the villains aren’t bad just for the sake of it. They don’t exist just because Jack Bauer needs an obstacle. They aren’t deploying weapons of mass destruction on home soil because that makes cool TV.
No. Listen to how the villains on 24 describe themselves.
- Patriots… Not traitors. Not terrorists.
- Loving fathers and husbands… Not abusers. Not monsters.
- Visionaries who believe the end justifies the means… Not genocidal whack-jobs.
Maybe the villain is committing his crimes out of love.
Maybe the villain is committing his crimes out of a sense of revenge.
It doesn’t matter what the reason is as long as there is a reason, it’s believable, and YOU sympathise with it.
The audience doesn’t have to sympathise with the villain but the writer needs to in order to do an effective job at rendering them in believable brushstrokes.
Aaron Sorkin talked about this in his MasterClass. He really had to sympathise with Jack Nicholson’s character when writing A Few Good Men. And, watching the courtroom scene, you really can tell, don’t you think?
Need to study more villains? Take a look at these guys:
- Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs
- Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds
- Hans Gruber from Die Hard
- Annie Wilkes from Misery
Forget about whether they are mentally stable or not. Study their motivation. Each of them has it in heaps and it dictates every action they take with beautiful believability.
3 – Is it clear what your characters want and need and why?
Let’s be honest. Hamlet was boring and pathetic until he stopped whining about wanting to kill himself and set his sights on exposing his uncle as his father’s murderer. He went from being wandering and aimless to having a clear goal and a clear motivation for that goal.
The reason why so many art-house or “high literature” novels fail commercially is because their characters lack any kind of needs or desires.
And without needs and desires, you can’t really have any conflict, can you? Because conflict is built out of obstacles getting in the way of needs and desires.
Seriously, how funny would Planes, Trains & Automobiles be if Steve Martin’s character was blasé about getting home to his wife and kids? “Meh, it’s only Thanksgiving. So what if I’m a little late?” Yeah… Great movie that would have turned out to be.
Make your characters want something
Make them need something too.
Need is different from want. Your characters probably don’t know what they need. They just know what they want.
Taking the Planes, Trains & Automobiles example again, Steve Martin’s character WANTS to get home for Thanksgiving. But he NEEDS to chill the hell out. John Candy’s character is actually more emotionally astute and even though he WANTS a buddy to travel along with, he knows he NEEDS love.
The first step in making sure your characters’ ambitions are crystallised is to do a mental inventory of your characters. Go down the list and ask yourself, “What does this person want? What does this person need?”
If you can’t answer those questions, you need to work harder on refining your characters.
If you can answer those questions, go back through your work and see if your characters’ reactions are aligned with their wants and needs. You might discover that your characters do a lot of stuff that is decidedly out of character when you keep their motivations in mind.
4 – What are the stakes?
Sword Art Online was pretty good for the first half of season one.
Then things fizzled out.
The stakes dropped. Massively.
The show starts out with a bunch of gamers trapped within a virtual gamer via a helmet than reads their brain patterns. They discover they cannot log out of the game and the maniacal game developer says that if they try to disconnect, they will die. And if they die in the game, they die in real life.
Pretty intense, right?
And it was intense but the moment they actually got the bad guy and managed to remove themselves from the game, the stakes dropped. All of a sudden there was a “new game” and the heroine became trapped, leaving the man dude to save her (while simultaneously fending off the incestuous advances of his cousin).
But what is more tense? Trying to save thousands of trapped gamers from dying? Or trying to save one girl in the same old damsel-in-distress scenario? Exactly.
Going back to the 24 example again, that show is perfect for studying stakes.
The problem with 24 is the season usually starts with a huge BANG. And then every subsequent episode is always trying to top it with more twists and turns and cliffhangers. But that is damn hard to do for 24 episodes. So, by the end, the highest stakes have usually come and gone by episode 20 and the show either fizzles out or introduces some absurd plot twist.
Don’t get me wrong. 24 is one of my favourite shows and, to me, it’s perfect television. But we’re talking about stakes here and that show is great for analysing the effects of high and low stakes.
The 3-act structure gets a lot of hate but I personally love it when it comes to structuring stakes:
Act 1 – Stakes start off high.
Act 2 – Stakes get higher.
Act 3 – Stakes get even higher!
Take any show, movie, or book that has you on the edge of your seat from start to finish and I guarantee the stakes started out high and just got higher and higher until the very end.
One thing you’ve got to remember is that stakes are intricately tied to whether or not the reader or audience cares about the characters.
Your stakes don’t always need to be all out nuclear war. In fact, those stakes would suck if you hated everyone about to be affected by the bomb.
A great book I recently read is Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella.
The stakes at the beginning? The main character’s mother is going to throw her son’s computer out of the window.
Big whoop, right?
These are great high stakes and we actually give a shit because we love the characters, they feel real, and we understand their motivations.
5 – How many potential endings did you draft?
James Patterson revealed a great technique for writing endings in his MasterClass.
He drafts like 50 endings. Maybe more. He literally writes down every conceivable ending he can think of. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous. He puts them on cards and spreads them out in front of him.
He then chooses the end that’s the most unexpected yet still believable.
You know Hemingway did a similar thing? He rewrote the ending to A Farewell To Arms 47 times.
How many potential endings did you draft?
If it’s less than 50, the ending you decided upon is probably quite obvious. The reader can probably see it coming and you may have rushed it just to finish it.
Even if you’ve ended your book, you might find it helpful to draft more alternative endings. You don’t have to actually use any of them but if you don’t draft them you’ll never know if there was something better just waiting to be discovered.
I know it’s tiring finishing a book.
When you write “THE END”, you just want it to all be over.
You’ve gotta deal with editing, marketing, and all the rest of that tedious crap. But you need to summon a bit more energy and really make your ending shine.
Readers will forgive a lot of writerly sins throughout your book if your ending makes them say, “Holy crap! Wow!”
The ending is the payoff. It’s the last impression of your book and will be the impetus behind whether a reader picks up another one of your works or not. It’s also the reward for getting through the story. So make it good!
6 – Is your book a stereotype?
List 10 stereotypes you hate the most about your genre.
Even if you love your genre, there’s gotta be a boatload of stuff that bothers you.
What stuff KEEPS coming up?
What stuff is obvious, tired, and cliché?
Once you’ve got a list of 10, examine your book for those stereotypes. I’ll bet you a steak dinner that at least one of them has resurfaced somewhere without you knowing. Or maybe you do know about it but you were just feeling pooped out when you wrote that scene. It doesn’t matter. The stereotypes need to go.
Here are some examples of stereotypes in the urban/paranormal romance fantasy genre as an example:
- Girl thinks she’s insanely plain (maybe even ugly) yet she’s surrounded by hot vampire/werewolves/insert-your-favourite-creature vying for her affection.
- Love triangles (and Ross and Rachel situations taken to the extreme).
- Undead being who has lived in the night for centuries suddenly falls for sixteen-year-old schoolgirl and loves hanging out in nightclubs.
- Badass heroines who have zero flaws. They just kick butt and take names all day. Yawn.
- Rough sex/mating that blurs the lines of legal consent.
- Angst. Pure, unbridled, endless, insufferable teenage angst.
- Flashbacks that last forever.
- Being the chosen one.
- High-school politics that makes Mean Girls look like a Victorian tea party.
- Predictably ditzy side-kicks/best friends who provide comic relief.
Obviously, you don’t have to completely blitz stereotypes. As long as you are aware of their existence, understand why you are deploying them, and make an attempt at creating a more original version of a tired trope.
7 – Why should we give a shit about your book?
Beyond the story itself, why should we care about your book?
Obviously, not every simple fast-paced story needs to be riddled with examinations of political ideologies or careful ruminations on the meaning of existence…
But you should at least ask yourself this question and attempt to answer it.
Try and be specific.
So instead of just “it’s fun”, you should say “it’s fun because…”
How does your work treat enduring themes?
What makes it compelling?
How does it differ from similar books in your market?
These are questions that, more than anything, are going to help when it comes time to sell your book. Answering these questions will also give you a fresh perspective on the book itself. You’ll instantly be able to see which parts live up to your inspiration for the book and which parts need a little extra boost.
What were your answers to these questions?
I like to ask a few more questions when I finish a draft but these are the main ones. These are the ones that personally get me thinking and make a difference in my next draft. I hope they help you too. And if you have any further questions to add to this list, please let me know!