Mar 17 2010
Here are twenty sets of questions to help you check your writing.
1. Is the story easy to read through? Will readers understand what is happening as they read through it for the first time?
2. At the end of each chapter, does the audience want to keep reading? For example, perhaps you make an exciting revelation, leave a character in danger, leave a character on the verge of doing or learning something interesting, etc.
3. Do the characters have high-stakes, urgent goals? If not, check the pacing. When little is at stake, the plot tends to drag.
4. Does each paragraph develop a character or advance the plot? If not, rewrite or shorten or remove as necessary. One common offender here is unnecessary dialogue, such as niceties.
5. Does the plot challenge the protagonists? Is there doubt they will succeed? If the plot is too easy, you could make the antagonists tougher, make side-characters less supportive of the protagonists, make the protagonists less powerful, etc.
6. Do the characters’ decisions have consequences? If the character makes a mistake and nothing comes of it, it could probably be removed from the story. (Why might nothing come of a mistake? Perhaps a character that could hold the offender accountable lets it go too easily).
7. Do the characters’ failures have consequences? For example, if the villain beats the heroes, don’t just let them go. Each failure should raise further obstacles.
8. Are any of the conversations purely cooperative/friendly? If so, making the conversation more adversarial may make the story more interesting. If a police officer interviews a hotel manager and gets nothing but helpful responses, it’s probably not too interesting. Make the protagonist work for his information! Maybe the manager wants to help, but he also has to worry about protecting his customers’ privacy. Overcoming obstacles is usually more exciting and gripping than walking through unopposed. Also, it gives your protagonist chances to impress readers.
9. Do the characters have fitting motivations for their actions? If there is a discrepancy between how a character acts in this chapter and how he has previously been shown to act, is there an in-story explanation?
10. Does an otherwise friendly character withhold important information from the point-of-view character? (I’m looking at you, Cryptic Mentors). If so, is there a good in-story reason?
11. Does the point-of-view (POV) character ever withhold relevant information from the readers? If so, why?
12. Do we learn something new and interesting about an important character? This isn’t necessary every chapter, but in general you should keep developing your most important characters.
13. Does each character contribute to each scene he’s in? If not, could you give him more a distinct role or cut him out?
14. In dialogue, do the characters have distinct voices? Ideally, the characters sound sufficiently different that readers could generally tell who’s saying what even if you removed the dialogue tags. If playing around with the voices is too hard, you could vary the character’s personalities or roles.
15. Does your dialogue use nonverbals? Some examples include body language, scenery, props, environment/weather, narration, bystanders, the passage of time, etc. Just because characters are talking doesn’t mean that the lines of the characters are the only bullets in your clip.
16. Does the chapter, as much as possible, show and imply rather than tell? For example, instead of saying that John is the most popular guy in school, you could show him mobbed by friends and ladies at lunch or show people begging for him to sign their yearbooks or whatever. (Showing is usually more dramatic and unique).
17. Is the plot coherent? Does it build on what has been happening for the last few chapters? For example, if there are several POVs, is there ample overlap between each POV’s story?
18. Info-dumping: does your story overuse dialogue and/or exposition to drown readers in exposition? This can usually be solved by showing more and telling less, and focusing on which background details are most important to understanding what is happening.
19. Does the plot get bogged down in backstory? As with background information, I would recommend only giving us as much backstory as we need to understand what is happening in the here-and-now of the story. If what is happening now is less important than what happened then, you’re telling the wrong story.
20. Please proofread!