Recently I read a great article for pantsers by the great Nathan Bransford, How to Plan a Novel Without Actually Outlining. He proposes three simple questions that will get your brain going without being crushed under the weight of outlines and beat sheets.
And, because every writer is different, I started thinking on which three questions I *need* to know before I feel ready to write a story.
Who are my characters?Best to figure this out first, because you're going to be spending a lot of time in their company. And I'm a character-person anyway - my stories always start with characters, long before a plot or even a story makes an appearance.
Beyond the basics of male or female, young or old, worldly or naive, I need to delve deep into my characters' inner workings - their greatest fears, hopes, vulnerabilities. In short, what are their biggest issues? How can I ensure they face said issues as much as possible? For instance, Dev in LAST NIGHT IN GHOSTTOWN fights a combination of anger, denial, and regret. Naturally he gets mixed up with Rishi, who challenges every single one of these demons, forcing Dev to face what he's spent years ignoring or bottling up.
What kind of world do they live in?This question undoubtedly carries more weight for SFF writers than most. What makes this world different from the "normal" world? Even urban fantasies and modern-day settings have something that sets them apart from the world we ourselves inhabit.
For more far-flung settings (second world fantasy, distant futures, so on and so forth) what are the key features of this world? Because I dislike writing (and reading) what has been done a million times before, I always look for a different take on things. LAST NIGHT is set in a distant future where Earth is a footnote in the history books. Nothing new there. So I went for an Indian-inspired setting, and tried to build the worldview, history, and technology from there.
And most importantly, how does this world affect the characters? I'm always drawn to stories where the world is so real that it's practically its own character, which allows for more dramatic interaction with the main characters than a flat, passive backdrop of a setting.
What kind of story do I want to tell?Perhaps even more than the others, this question is the kicker. Because no matter how real your characters or believable your world, a story that you're not interested in telling is a story that won't be written.
I knew from the beginning that LAST NIGHT would be a love story. Other ideas, however, aren't so easy. One of the ideas currently bouncing around in my brain is about an empath. He has a tragic past, and his present isn't too great either. He meets people - people from his past, mysterious people, people with Special Abilities like him - and struggles to learn who he can trust as he makes his way in the world. His world is modern-day, or relatively close, and set in the US southwest.
And I have no idea what kind of story it is.
Does it want to be a mystery, as he discovers his place in the world and figures out who he can trust? A thriller, as he struggles against a shadowy force which would harm People Like Him? A romance, as he learns to control his ability and decide which emotions are he feels are real, and which are just reflected back?
Honestly, this idea could become any one of these things, or perhaps all of them. I'm not sure yet. But until I know, this will keep simmering on the back burner.
Because a story can't come together if it's having an identity crisis.
What questions do you need to ask yourself before you're ready to write? Do they change from story to story or are there certain answers you need every time?