Before the First Word is Written

What many readers and new writers don’t realize is how many decisions are made before that first word is written.

1. Who is the main character (MC)?

I may have a vague idea about the character, but soon I need to “get to know” this person.

a. Name, sex, age, physical description, etc.
b. What he/she wants and why.
c. How the MC’s past will influence his/her actions and attitudes?

2. Who is the antagonist? (The villain)

The reader may not know who this is until the end of the story, but I need to know.

a. I need to know almost as much about this person as I do about the MC.
b. I need this person to have a convincing reason to oppose the MC
c. For my MC to be strong, I need a strong adversary

3. What point-of-view (pov) will I use?

a. First or third? Each has benefits and limitations.
b. Omniscient? All knowing is tempting but not as popular as it once was.
c. Second person? This has been used by some writers, but I don’t think I could pull it off.

4. How many povs?

a. Only the MCs? This limits what the MC can see, hear, or know. May make the reader feel closer to the MC, but it creates limits for the story.

I used 1st person pov in all of my P.J. Benson Mysteries, including Eat Crow and Die. The reader only knows, sees, or hears what P.J. knows, sees, and hears. The reader is in her head throughout the entire story.

b. Multiple povs?
A few writers have used multiple 1st person povs. I find that confusing. Too many “I…”
Some writers have mixed 1st person pov with 3rd person povs, usually reserving the 1st person pov for the MC
Multiple 3rd person povs allow for subplots and allow the reader to know what characters other than the MC see, hear, or think.

I used two 3rd-person povs in A Killer Past. I needed the reader to know what Mary Harrington was thinking. She’s the one who knows about her past. And I needed Jack Rossini’s pov so the reader would understand why he suspects Mary and why he’s worried about her safety.

5. Type of pov?

a. Close 3rd person pov has become quite popular. When used, it’s almost like 1st person pov. The reader knows what the character is thinking, is “In the character’s head.”
b. Narrator pov? With this pov it’s a narrator telling the story. The reader is hearing what happened rather than feeling as though s/he is there with the character(s).
c. A combination? Parts of the story told through the eyes of the various characters, other parts narrated. Handled well, this works, but if there’s too much “telling” the reader is placed at a distance from the action.

6. Whose point of View?

a. If the writer is using multiple povs, then the writer must decide which character’s pov to use for each scene.
b. The general “rule” is to write the scene using the pov of the character who has the most at stake.
c. Sometimes I’ll write a scene using one character’s pov and then write the same scene using another character’s pov. Seeing the scene from different povs helps me pick the pov I feel has the most tension.

7. Which verb tense? Present or past?

a. More books are being written in the present tense. This is a necessity if using 2nd person pov. I find using present tense very difficult, but when done right it gives the feeling that the reader is right there with the MC.
b. Past tense is still the more popular tense to use.
c. Mixing the two. This only works if it’s obvious the writer is in control. Too often it looks like sloppy writing.

8. Time Period.

a. When does the story take place? Contemporary or past? Each has its limits and good qualities. If mixed (time travel), the difficulty may be in keeping each straight for the reader and explaining (convincingly) how it happened (or why).

9. Setting or settings.

a. Will the setting influence how the story flows?
b. Will the setting create limits on what the characters can or cannot do? Or will it offer new possibilities? Will moving from one setting to another give the story more drama?
c. Is it possible to give a sense of place without creating a travelogue?

10 Season

a. What influence would the weather have on the story? The time of the year? Holidays?

And finally–

11. Where’s the best place to start?

a. In medias res is the suggested (common) place. Start in the middle of things. Start when life as it has been is about to change.
b. But exactly where is that point?

That’s what I have to decide for this new story. I’m mulling over all of the above questions as I mentally work on my next book. I have many decisions to make before I actually start. Decision one: Should I write or play with my new puppy?

"Why won't you share with me?"

“Why won’t you share with me?”


Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Before the First Word is Written

  1. I’m guilty of starting without making several of these decisions – and then I spend a lot of time revising. But then again, sometimes I just need to put words on the paper, otherwise the agony of trying to make decisions keeps me from writing! Do you really make ALL these decisions before starting each book?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Patty, I usually make the basic decisions before I start writing, the who, what, where decisions. The more I know about the main characters, the better, but usually I learn as I go along. Also, I’ve been known to change character names after I’ve started and I’ve changed the villain more than once, which is rather fun.

  2. All of these are important considerations before starting a new book. I try to write a rough, flexible outline for the plot before I write a word and also make separate ones for each of my main characters.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I’ve tried writing character sketches, but I usually give up before I’ve put everything down. I have discovered, when writing a series, it’s very important to have some sort of file that has the essential information about the continuing characters, otherwise, by book three, I’m in real trouble remembering what came before.

  3. That’s a good list of questions for each writer to answer at the beginning of a new story. I begin with a short paragraph that is a note to myself about the story or novel–what is this all about. I look at it every now and then as I write, to see if it still works or if I need to revise it.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, I like that idea. I’ve tried character interviews to get a better idea of what a character thinks and why. I’ve never tried a paragraph or two about the story. I’m going to do that for this one.

  4. Maris…you are so on top of writing…It’s a great list! I’m going to try it your way…but I wonder if my head/fingers will cooperate. When I write…the story, protag, pov, conflict is just there….not a planned process. Perhaps that’s why you are so successful! So, my next project….I’ll do it your way.
    Play with the puppy……too!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Wil, I bet you’ve made many of the decisions I listed without even actively thinking about them. When you start, you pick a tense to write in, know if you’re going to use just one pov or many, and so on. After awhile many of these decisions just come naturally to us.

  5. Maris, you give such good advice to writers at all stages of their writing. I usually scribble with pencil and paper in the beginning as I’m making some of the first decisions. I like to see the ideas/thoughts on paper.Then I’m very likely to change them, but that process seems to work for me. With arthritic hands, the keyboard is becoming a challenge and making typos stops my thought process cold. pretty sure it’s an age thing. . . .sigh.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I’m not far behind you, Loralee. I guess that’s one reason why I “think out” a lot of my decisions rather than writing them down. Nevertheless, there comes a time when I do have to put things either on paper or in a computer file. Not that I might not change my mind along the way, but I will know what pov I’ll use, how many povs, what verb tense, location, etc.

  6. You obviously plan ahead a lot more than I do, and I suspect that’s a good thing, Maris. I sometimes begin a story with nothing but a statement of overall theme….or even a “great” first sentence generously donated by my muse while I’m trying to watch something important….like American Idol. 😀

  7. Paula says:

    I wish there was some way I could tag this post in my folders! Good advice. I also want to say, of all your covers in the sidebar, the cover for “A Killer Past” is my favorite so far. Nice to see “Eat Crow and Die” up there too.

  8. Melissa Keir says:

    What great questions. I do think a lot about my characters and then sometimes they lead me on the way through the story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, the word “lead” is a good one. As my main character takes form she (this one is a she) starts dictating my decisions. The better I get to know her, the more the story takes shape.