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Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Storycrafting Checklist

by Susan May Warren

Do you have all the pieces of a brilliant novel? Before we dive into our storycrafting checklist, let’s talk about the debate between character driven and plot driven novels.

Character Driven versus Plot Driven Novel

Think of the last story you read, the last great movie you watched. Even your favorite television series. Were you more interested in the plot or the person? I would bet that the element that drew you into the story were the characters.

Let’s think about this. Plot is interesting, but not unless it is about someone we care about.
A fantastic example is the Hunger Games. The plot construction and premise is fantastic–a dystopian world where one District makes the other Districts pay for their rebellion (and earn their food allotment) but making two champions from each district fight for their survival. Interesting and tragic, but not compelling until a champion rises. And not just one champion, but two–one who loves the other, and both who choose to defy the system and inadvertently start a revolution toward freedom.

The Hunger Games are interesting, but it’s the compelling fight for survival of our champions that makes this book (and series) riveting.

Another great example of this is the Firefly series, a sci-fi series about a renegade smuggler who is just trying to survive in this post-apocalyptic world. As the series progresses, we care about Mal and his crew as they struggle to stay alive and save the life of a girl who is on the run. When they encounter peril, we dive in and care because we want Mal and his crew to live.

The key to this series, however, is that we understand Mal, the captain’s past, and what drives him, the wounds he carries, his greatest fears and his great loyalty to his crew. We also know that this group of people has survived a war together. Without this insight, we’d simply think, “Here’s another space adventure.” This is the point of a great television series–the people we care about.

So, there is really no such thing as a plot-only driven book. All books are about characters. Your plot just serves to push your character forward. You can have some powerful, intriguing external stakes, but a brilliant story is always about the people that are involved in those things.

Overview of Story

A great story, summed us, is about a character that we care about who wants something for good reason. This character is driven by some sort of dark event in their past that has molded them into the person they are when they walk onto the page.

This character also has a fear about something which they’re trying to stay away from while they’re going about their normal life.

Then, something happens. This something (called the Trigger, or the Inciting Incident) creates a compelling dilemma that they must solve. Either to put right what went wrong, or to pursue something positive that is now necessary. This is called the Noble Quest–a worthy, justifiable goal. Restated, they either have something negative that happens and they need to pursue a positive outcome or they have something positive that happens and they want to keep that positive outcome.

The Noble Quest also gives rise to a secret desire. It’s that deep want, sparked by their greatest dream that starts to fuel the Noble Quest. The Noble Quest is always shown through an external goal. However, it’s driven by that internal desire.

Thus, they launch on their “journey,” either physical or metaphorical. While the journey has an external, physical goal, the journey itself–the entire story, is about character growth. The story is not about how they achieve their Noble Quest, but rather how the Noble Quest sets the character free of their fears, heals their flaws and gives the character their secret desire.

The Noble Quest reaches its apex toward the end in Black Moment Event–or the realization of their Greatest Fears. As a result of this event, the character experiences a Black Moment Effect–or the realization of their need to change. This effect drives them to their metaphorical knees where they experience an Epiphany, or realization of the point of their journey, some universal TRUTH that sets them free, changes them and gives them the tools to do something at the end they couldn’t at the beginning, sometimes called the Grand Gesture or Sacrifice.

If your character hasn’t had a black moment, an epiphany and a character change, then they haven’t completed their journey.

Figuring out how to construct this internal character change against the backdrop of external goals can, admittedly be overwhelming.

Or not, if you take it apart, piece by piece.

Or, you start at the beginning, the Character Bio, or Dark Moment Story.

This is the center of your story equation.

So, as you look at this journey, ask yourself: Does your character have a true journey?

Here’s a checklist:
  • Does your character have a powerful motivation for their Noble Quest? 
  • Does he/she have an external goal, something tangible that he/she is “questing” after? 
  • Is it propelled by a Secret Desire or Greatest Dream? 
  • Does your character have a greatest fear? 
  • Does your story have a Black Moment Event, or the realization of that greatest fear (often the antithesis of the Noble Quest). 
  • What does your character realize about himself/herself after that Black Moment Event, or a lie they believe? 
  • What Truth (Epiphany) sets them free? 
  • Can your character do something at the end that he can’t in the beginning? (A Grand Gesture or Sacrifice?) 
If you can say yes to all of these elements, then you have the bones of a brilliant story.

If you see this list and are unsure if your story has all the elements or just feel overwhelmed, don't worry. I'll admit it is a lot to cover in one blog but I have all this and more broken down in easy lessons at stop by and check them out.

Now Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels withTyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she's an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she's also the author of the popular writing method,The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: Contact her at:

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