8 Pre-Writing Questions for Novelists

RamonaGravitar“What do you need to know before you begin writing a novel?”

This was the question my short story writer friend asked after learning that I—a fellow short story writer—had written a novel. After some thought, I decided on the following 8 basic questions.

  1. Who will tell your story?
  2. What is your story question?
  3. What is your log line?
  4. What is the story world?
  5. How will you introduce your main character?
  6. What is the inciting incident?
  7. Where does the story begin?
  8. How will the story be presented?

Let’s examine each in detail.

Who will tell your story? Every story requires someone to tell it. That someone may be a single narrator or multiple ones. Some stories are relayed intimately, by the person who experiences it as it is experienced (first person POV) or it is reported by an uninvolved, unbiased omniscient narrator. There’s no right or wrong about choosing a narrator, but one must be chosen. Who is the best teller for your story? When you think about your story idea, whose voice or perspective is the strongest?

What is your story question? Make your life easier and determine exactly what you want to explore via the plot. The answer to a murder puzzle? The unveiling of an enemy? Emotional survival? Life after divorce? The story question helps you stay on track as you pile on pages. If you find yourself writing scenes that bear no relation to the Story Question, do those scenes belong in your story?

What is your log line? This is a marketing or promo sentence but it also acts as a focus aid. Identify the genre, the main character, and the primary plot in a single sentence. Like the story question, a log line can guard against meandering or writing off on tangents.

What is your story world? Story world means where the story happens—time and place, realistic or fantastical. Ground the reader in the then and there in Scene 1. If your story world includes magical powers, zero gravity, aliens, an ancient race, talking animals, etc., clarify the rules of the world so the reader won’t be confused or distracted by them. Knowing the rules of the world you plan to create before you begin writing may prevent story logic errors.

How will you introduce your main character? First impressions count. The first thing your protagonist says or does reveals much about him, so make the introduction memorable and accurate. Or, go the opposite route and show the character doing/saying something that is completely out of character, if the reader meets the character in extremis. Either way, a strong revealing introduction leaves a strong, revealing impression.

What is the inciting incident? An event occurs to change the status quo of the story. It may be a murder. It may be the discovery of a disease, an affair, a love child, a crime. Whatever it is, it should be big enough to impact the lives of the characters and change the course of their lives—or for 300 pages.

Where does your story begin? There is no one way to open a story, but you have to choose only one. Beginning with a normal day to show how the main character lived before the life-altering event occurred is a choice. Beginning with the life-altering event on line one is another choice. Beginning with a cold opening—a scene where an unknown person is in an intriguing or dire situation—is another choice. Conventional wisdom suggests starting a story as close to the inciting incident as possible.

How does your story begin? The opening sets the tone for the pages ahead. A leisurely opening indicates a relaxed storytelling style. An action packed opening hints that the plot will rocket along. The opening introduces the plot, but it also delivers an expectation of what the book will be like. If a thriller opens with a torture scene, a reader can expect a violent story. If the story opens with two people sharing witty banter, the reader can expect to be amused in the pages ahead.

These are the 8 questions I sent to my short story turned novelist friend. What questions would you recommend?

Other posts of interest:

How to write a Story Question

How to write a Log Line

12 Terrible Ways to Open a Story

How to Write a World Changer






10 thoughts on “8 Pre-Writing Questions for Novelists

  1. I think you pretty much covered it! The only thing I would add is that once you have these questions answered, write the summary paragraph you’ll use in your query letter–i.e. who is your protagonist, what is her problem, and what will happen if she doesn’t solve the problem? Combine this with your log line and you have your query written. It’s much easier to write before you start the book than try to distill the finished story into a paragraph or two. All you have to do now is revise it when you know more about your story.


  2. I tend to ask myself first “who is my protagonist, what does she want, what will she do to get it, what is keeping her from having it, and how does this quest change her?” I tend to start more with character and the emotional journey and work my way to story/plot. Some work the other way around.


    1. Thank you, Deborah. Those are great questions, and you are right that there is no one way to approach writing the story. I’m now thinking back to my various projects, and I think I flip flop–some began with a character, others with a situation, others with a more clear problem/journey. Hm. You have given me something value to think about. Thanks!


  3. Love this…and what you said about the tone is so important–are you writing a cozy thing? Or a thriller thing?

    And maybe point of view?

    I also wonder about series vs standalones–each one requires different story arc decisions..

    this is so great!


  4. For the pantsers out there, these are exactly the right questions to ask as you move from draft one to draft two. (Ramona– we pantsers might have the answers to a couple of these questions before starting, but even if we do, they might change by the time we get to writing “The End” of our first draft.)

    ~ Jim


    1. Interesting, Jim! I don’t think I could proceed without having some idea of each one, but I am not much of a pantser. I think it’s brave to forge ahead with out a plan, but it seems to work well for you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s