12 questions to ask yourself when writing a story



[Feature photo: Ethan Lofton]

IN ORDER to succeed as a writer, you have to know more than just how to construct a well-written story; you have to know when to give up on a story. In other words, how long will you bang your head against a wall before trying the door?

I should take a moment to say that I’m not advocating giving up when the going gets tough. However, there are instances when the time and energy you put into a story may not be worth the effort.

So how do you know if the story you’re struggling to finish is worth it?

Writers follow hunches, and act on gut instinct. This process is different for everyone, and it’s hard to tell how a story will turn out. Sometimes the story writes itself. Other times it goes nowhere. Revelations and sparks of inspiration certainly help, but when these things abandon you, writers must rely on clear and definite purpose to finish the story.

Having a clear and definite purpose is to writers what destination airports are to planes. Imagine if you sat down in your seat and the captain announced, “Morning, folks, I don’t know where we’re going today, but hopefully we’ll get there before we run out of fuel.” You hear this and you’d get the hell off that plane — at least I would.

Of course, a story’s destination isn’t always obvious. In hopes of minimizing future headaches, I’ve composed some questions I like to review whenever a story I’m working on finds itself in parts unknown. They are:

  1. What’s the story really about? That is, what’s the theme or Central Idea?
  2. Can I sum up this story in one sentence? (If I can’t, then I stop everything and do this.)
  3. Where do I want this story to go? What specifically do I need to do to get it there?
  4. Which sections do I need to elaborate on? Which parts should I cut?
  5. Am I forcing the story, or allowing it to flow naturally?
  6. Is this story ‘on brand’ for me?
  7. What is this story’s biggest weakness? What am I doing to correct it?
  8. Is this story similar to another story that I’ve read?
  9. What specific skill(s) do I need to finish this story?
  10. Could it be possible that, at this moment, I lack the skill(s) to write this story?
  11. Do I know where to obtain this skill(s) or knowledge?
  12. What’s the worst thing that could happen if this story doesn’t get published?

You’ll never be free from revising stories, but if at the end of these questions you still don’t know how to proceed, perhaps it’s time to put this story in a drawer for six weeks and work on something else.

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