Pre-First Draft Checklist
You've developed your characters, you've plotted your story, and you've gone over it so many times in your head and over an outline that you're ready to write otherwise you’ll go mad. Congratulations!
But before you do, make sure to check these last crucial details so you don't hit any big problems along the way.
Are the stakes high enough?
You will tire of hearing this, but it's the most crucial question to ask yourself, because if nothing is at stake, if failure doesn't have dire consequences then your audience won't be as engaged. Also, there should be a double threat with the stakes. The personal to your character, and wider implications to the world they inhabit. If they fail not only will there be some kind of metaphorical, if not literal death, but the world will also suffer.
For example, you're a former detective, shamed and now wallowing in self-pity and regret having failed to catch a killer. That killer is back and they're goading you, and they've kidnapped your ex. What's at stake? Your redemption and the life of someone you once cared about. Those are personal, but the wider threat, this killer is on the loose again and each day you don't catch them, they kill another person. If you fail, there's a lot of death and this might be enough to push you from wallowing to suicide.
Is the inciting incident clear and big enough?
This is the moment that kicks your character out of their comfort zone and pushes them into action. The first thing you tend to see is your character in their normal life, whether they're a ballerina or the angry alcoholic that hangs out on the same bench each day waiting for death. Something needs to happen that destabilises the norm and starts the story. The What If?
For example, someone may sit next to the drunk and offer him one million pounds if he does a job for him. That job is to kill someone, and with nothing left in his life, maybe the man will take the job, but he would be conflicted about it which makes us relate to him, because we've all had difficult decisions to make in our lives, though hopefully not on that scale! We've established he's at his lowest, so to him the risk is probably worth the life-changing reward, but it already throws up so many questions. How did the man get this low? Will he be able to go through with it? What would we do in that situation? Why is he chosen? A later complication could come in the form of him showing up to kill the person, and it's his brother who abandoned him. He could then decide not to kill him, but that angers the man who gave him the opportunity. There you have progressive complications, twists and turns, which all came from an inciting incident and lead to the character having to make very difficult choices.
As an exercise, think of some inciting incidents from films or a series, or spot the inciting incident when you next watch something. Think of it as a disturbance to the character's life, or simply a stranger coming to town. Your character's every day life is the town, and the stranger is the disturbance, whether it be a person, lottery ticket, package etc... In Amelie (2001), she discovers a box behind a bathroom tile and wants to reunite the box with its owner.
Does your character make enough irreversible, difficult choices?
One of the biggest flaws in stories I read, and sometimes my first drafts is that not enough happens. There need to be big moments in the story where your character makes choices there's no coming back from. This is when we really get to know the character, through their actions. Take Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008) who makes so many difficult decisions that push him deeper into the darkness and mean he can never go back to a normal life.
Is the crisis a true crisis and illustrative of how bad it can get?
Make sure the crisis you build to is BIG. Often it will be when all hope is lost, death is in the air, and maybe there has even been a death. The protagonist has lost the thing they wanted, or lost to the villain, but it is in this crisis that we see true character, where they learn that what they wanted may not have been what they needed, and they have the power to move forward and complete their journey in the major climax.
Can you answer these questions about your protagonist?
What makes her special?
What does she want more than anything?
What's her biggest fear?
What is her external goal?
What is her flaw? It normally relates to something she hasn't gotten over. An emotional wound.
What is her coping mechanism? It could be an addiction or some form of distraction or displacement.
And do the same for your antagonist.
More info on character development can be found on the character development questionnaire.
Have you avoided?
- Passive characters - It's a tedious note to get and you may in your early writing work, because it's easy to create a normal character and surround them with larger characters who bring the complications. Make sure your character is active and makes tough decisions. The best piece of advice I ever got was 'Don't protect your main character.'
- The protagonist being constantly told what to do - Obviously different stories have different needs. For example, in a fantasy where a girl has fled during her village being burned down and her parents being killed, she will have no idea what to do. The world is a mystery, and she will need some kind of mentor to guide her and explain the world and tell her what to initially do, but eventually, there comes a point where she will have to make choices to reveal her true nature. Other characters who are less helpless need to be driving the action far sooner.
- Heavy exposition - This is tricky as some stories require hefty amounts of exposition, but think of ways to put it in action so it’s less jarring.
So in summary. Make sure the stakes are high so we emotionally engage with your character and want them to succeed. Make sure the inciting incident is gripping and starts a sequence of life changing events. Make sure the character has to make hard choices, revealing their true self, and that they drive the action and push the story forward.
Hope this was helpful.