I’m not much of a planner. I don’t even plan dinner and I certainly don’t do much in the way of planning my novels. All I need is an idea, a great opening line and I’m off and running. I do, however, ask some essential questions while writing those all important first chapters.

Here Are Some of These Questions:

What does my protagonist want and why does she want it?

The most important part of this question is why. Even a pair of shoes can be compelling if your heroine has a good reason for wanting them. It’s not what the protagonist wants that will touch a reader’s heart it’s the “why.” This is the motivating force behind a protagonist’s actions. It’s the “why” that keeps a character fighting impossible odds to reach his or her goal.

I once had a conversation with a four-year-old who was on a desperate quest to find a spider. When asked why, he replied “I want it to bite my grandmother.” Needless to say I was shocked until he explained that Spider Man got his super human powers from a spider bite. Since his grandmother was having trouble with her eyes, he figured that a spider bite would help her see again. The driving force behind that little boy’s actions was his love and concern for his grandmother and his desire to help her. His motivation was simple, yet compelling, and I admit it made me teary eyed. That’s the kind of response we want from readers.

What is my character’s inner need?

I like to think of inner need as something in conflict with the outer goal. Let’s say our protagonist’s outer goal is to be a good cop but his inner need is to be a good son. Now let’s suppose he learns that his father has committed a serious crime. Our protagonist must now choose between his outer goal and inner need. What does he do? What choice will he make? Ah, sweet conflict.

What does my protagonist have to learn before reaching his goal?

This one’s easy; we’re talking about character flaws. A flaw can actually be an admirable trait taken to extreme. Too much confidence can turn into arrogance. Cleanliness taken to extreme can become compulsive. Love is a good trait until it becomes smothering or obsessive.

Inner demons make sympathetic characters and this is an essential ingredient for getting readers to care about what happens next. A character’s struggle to overcome a problematic trait creates tension and conflict and that keeps readers turning those pages.

Certainly there will be many roadblocks keeping a protagonist from his goal, but the last battle he must fight before reaching the golden sword is his own character flaw. Of course, he can’t do that until he sees the light. This leads us to the moment of grace. This is the revealing scene in your story when your protagonist comes to realize the truth of Pogo’s statement: we have met the enemy and he is us.

Character flaws demand some sort of change or growth which creates a character arc.

If your heroine is a compulsive person she may have to learn tolerance or forgiveness before she can reach her goal. Perhaps your hero has to become more dependable before he can find true love. A cop might have to learn to trust his partner before he can reach his goal of making detective.

To change or not to change: that’s a choice your character now has to make. Of course unless he learns his lesson he will not get the girl, win the war or otherwise find his heart’s desire.

Once you’ve established character flaws you’re ready for the fourth and perhaps most important question:

What is the moral premise of your story?

In his book The Moral Premise Stanley D. Williams tells us that the moral premise is a conflict of values: Love vs. hate, forgiveness vs. bitterness, trust vs. distrust. He writes “When a writer knows the moral premise, he knows the reasons for his story and the true psychological motivations of his characters.” According to Williams, the best defense against writers block is to know your story’s moral premise.

Williams offers this formula for coming up with a moral premise:

(Vice) leads to (defeat) but (virtue) leads to (success).

A moral premise for a romance novel, for example, might read something like this:

Mistrust leads to suspicion and misery, but trust leads to love and happiness.

Next comes the part that frankly took me many years to learn: the moral premise must be the basis for your story’s every sub-plot, character, scene, dialogue, turning point and, yes, even location.

The premise of my current work in progress is that things aren’t always what they seem, and this can lead to injustice (This also happens to be the premise of To Kill a Mockingbird). I needed a location that met the requirements of my premise, and so I set my story in a small desert town. Nothing in the desert is what it seems at first glance. Lakes can be mirages, and what often looks like an arid wasteland actually teems with life. Even the thorny exterior of a cactus can hide a soft center.

The moral premise helps tie together every aspect of your story, and this leave readers smiling at the end. That’s about as good a plan as any writer could want.

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