Should I Outline My Novel Before Writing?

When the topic of outlining comes up in writing circles, the responses are usually polar opposites: either it is frowned upon or it is recommended. The great thing about writing is that every writer has their own process that works for them, but when a new or struggling writer asks for advice, they don’t always receive a definitive answer. The real answer is, “Do what works best for you.” Not really the response that these inquiring writers are hoping for.

Personally, I like outlining first. When writing longer pieces, I have a tendency to forget things, so having something to reference helps me stay on track. But again, this is my personal preference. I don’t judge writers who don’t outline their stories. Here are some things to consider if you are unsure if outlining is right for you.

Staying Organized

Do you feel that you’ll be able to keep everything straight as you’re writing? If so, that’s awesome. If not, that’s cool too because you can outline it. An outline is not a crutch, but rather a partner that helps keep your story on track. Plot-driven novels would benefit more from outlining, since making sure things happen in the right order at the right time requires strict organization. That’s not to say that character-driven novels wouldn’t benefit from outlining as well; scenes still need to happen in a specific order to keep the reader engaged.

What if I don’t know all the details yet?

Often when writers think of outlining, they think they need to know their entire plot and all the details before writing. That is untrue. Outlining can actually help you flesh out those details by making you think deeper into each main plot point. Begin your outline by listing the main events that you do know will be happening in the story. These can be general points or specific scenes. Then, ponder each event and think of a few main points that will occur. For example, if you know you want a scene between two characters that will occur in a specific location, list under that heading things they do and discuss. By doing this, you are building on your story and creating a stable path on which to write from.

Also, know that you don’t have to complete an outline before writing. Something I like to do is start with a general outline, then add to it as I write. Often times when we write, the story takes a turn we didn’t expect, or we decide something else should be added or moved around. Change and build on the outline along the way so you can reference your changes.

How should I create an outline?

The answer to this really is, “Do what works for you.” Since outlines are to help you stay organized and on track, think about how you can do this visually to best help you. There’s nothing wrong with doing the outlining format they teach you in high school, with the alternating numbers and letters as you expand each heading. Using bolding or color coding make this a very efficient outline.

Another way is to use index cards, where each card represents an event or scene. On one side of the card, write the title of the event, and on the back you can list the individual things that happen within that scene. You can hang these up on the wall in a timeline fashion or keep them in a stack on your desk to easily flip through at any time.

If you feel strongly enough in favor of outlining and enjoy using technology, there is software out there specifically for outlining. Though there are programs like Writer’s Dreamkit or Dramatica where it is meant to get every little detail out of you (I’m not putting down these programs; I’ve used the former and it’s pretty cool), there is also software that is dedicated solely to outlining—none of the extra fluff and not nearly as expensive. The one I like a lot is called Outline 4D, which uses both the traditional outline method I mentioned above, as well as a timeline view. The timeline view, however, can be confusing if your story really depends a lot on time and when things happen, so for that I use Aeon Timeline. (I’m not affiliated with any of these, I’ve just used them in my own writing.)

Still not sure?

If I haven’t convinced you to at least give outlining a try, let me suggest again that if you are considering whether outlining is a good option for you, the only way to know is to try it. You might discover that planning ahead of time doesn’t work with your writing style. Many writers like to just start writing and let the story lead them. Or you might see that it is helping you get a handle on your story before you begin, and you have a path to follow—a path that can change at anytime as you write. The only cost for trying is a bit of your time.

How to Boost Your Confidence as a Writer

As an aspiring writer, it is very easy (and common) to lose confidence in yourself and want to give up. You feel like your writing is not good enough, that you will never be successful, or your lack of skill prevents you from properly getting your story on paper. Are you constantly editing and rewriting your work, possibly throwing out the whole thing and starting over? Do you sit down at your desk to write, only to feel frustration or sadness? If this sounds familiar to you, here are some suggestions on how to get back on track to reach your goals.

Take a break

The extent to which you should take a break depends on the situation that frustrates you. If you are focused on one specific project, put it aside and work on something else, particularly something that will never see the light of day. The idea behind writing something like this is to simply get words on paper, to keep the writing juices flowing without worry of what others might think. And knowing that what you are writing is only for you should allow you to set your frustrations aside.

If you have multiple projects that you have been working on, you can approach things differently. You can either do the exercise suggested above by writing something only for you, or put all of your projects aside and take a break from writing altogether. That might sound drastic, but having multiple projects open can itself be stressful, so taking a step back for a few weeks to focus on any other hobbies you have may be the best thing to help you clear your mind so you can start fresh.

Remember your passion

Writers don’t just have a story to tell; writers have a burning passion inside them that draws them to the page and brings out the words from both the mind and the heart. It is important to remember that this passion exists within you, and to never let it burn out, regardless of how low your confidence gets. If you’ve chosen to take a break from writing, you will know when it is time to come back because that passion will push you to do it. Embrace that.

This is where the common suggestion of “write now, edit later” comes in to play. But that’s easier said than done; in fact, it can be one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Just stop and remember the passion within you and pour the words out. You can always tidy up later.

You are not alone

Nearly all writers suffer from a confidence loss at some point in time, whether it is due to rejections from publishers or their own conscience. If you are struggling with these emotions, it may be beneficial to talk with other writers. There are groups on social media platforms where you can discuss writing topics from the safety of your home, and you never have to share the writing that frustrates you. Many writers are friendly and open to helping others, and they may share things they have done to overcome the same obstacles. Try some of their suggestions and see what might work for you.

But no matter what approach you take to boost your confidence, follow this: don’t ever give up, don’t throw anything away, and let that burning passion lead you on your writing journey.

Should You Take Writing Classes?

I have seen a number of writers ask the community, “Should I take writing classes?” The short answer is yes, especially if you find yourself asking this question. You don’t necessarily need to go out and get a degree in writing like I did, even though I feel it was invaluable to me as a writer and I have become better because of it. But even just an online course or one at your local community college can help you improve your writing in ways you may not have thought possible. Do you have to take classes in order to be a good writer? No, but here are some reasons why you should still consider it.

Why reading and writing a lot isn’t always enough

Many people say that just reading a lot and writing a lot will be plenty helpful, and indeed these things are crucial for improving your skills. Reading extensively in the genre in which you are writing teaches valuable lessons in what is successful in the industry. But one thing I learned in a writing course is how important it is to read like a writer.

As you’re reading, you need to analyze things the author has done like character development, plot flow, setting descriptions, and dialogue, then determine what makes those things work for that writer. Then think of how you can apply those techniques to your own writing. A thorough writing class will include the reading of a published work with discussion and analysis just like that, and group discussions can bring up ideas that you may not have thought of.

As for writing a lot, practice makes perfect indeed. However, if you are practicing with bad habits, this can cause problems over time. Think of learning a new language; if you practice on your own without anyone or anything correcting your grammar and pronunciation, you are eventually going to have to retrain to do it correctly. The same can be applied to writing without guidance of some kind. If your characters are not fully developed or your plot is not engaging enough or your descriptions are lackluster, simply writing a lot will not help you improve.

Why books on the craft of writing aren’t always enough

There are tons of books out there about the craft of writing, ranging from the overall process to specifics like character, plot, and dialogue. Many of these books contain excellent advice, including those written by highly successful authors such as On Writing by Stephen King and The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates. But learning enough from books about writing requires a great deal of self-discipline. You may decide to skip any writing prompts or brush off certain ideas, but a writing teacher will force you to try it and learn from it anyway.

Often times writers don’t want to be forced to do things a certain way. There were plenty of times when I absolutely hated certain writing assignments for my classes, some of which I felt I didn’t gain anything from. I was also forced to read books I didn’t enjoy, which was misery at times. But of all the assignments that I thought would be pointless, most of them actually turned out to be greatly beneficial. By being forced to try new things, you begin to see things from a different perspective and add new tools to use in your writing. Tunnel vision is very bad yet very common for writers, and formal classes will help you break free from that trap.

Why writers’ groups and workshops aren’t always enough

What about writers’ groups or writing workshops? These, too, can help improve writing, but only by so much. Writers’ groups are typically for feedback on your work from other writers, and getting the perspective of others and receiving suggestions can help you improve your story. But the value of a writers’ group is wholly dependent on who else is in the group. I’ve been in writers’ groups and workshops where writers are simply there for feedback on their own writing and have little to no interest in offering assistance to others in the group. Writers like that offer no benefit to you, and you certainly don’t want to be one of those yourself. Having a teacher oversee a class and guide the discussion to include everyone will make sure all members of the group benefit from each other.

So what’s the bottom line? How will you benefit from investing in writing classes? Here’s how:

  • You learn to read like a writer.
  • You learn about proper character development, story structure, and techniques that you can practice with.
  • Having to do things you normally wouldn’t do broadens your writer’s toolbox and breaks down tunnel vision.
  • You receive constructive feedback either directly from a teacher or through teacher-led discussions.

If you’re serious about improving your writing, start searching for learning opportunities. Check the catalog of your local community college. In-person classes are the most beneficial, but if there is nothing local to you or you are uncomfortable being a part of a live group, there are online courses you can take from anywhere in the world. Be sure to supplement these courses by reading in your target genre and consistently practicing the skills you learn.

5 Reasons You Should Get a Developmental Editor

Developmental editing might be a scary thought for many writers. It’s the type of editing where a great many changes are suggested, and the red marks on the manuscript could look terrifying. You’ve poured your heart and soul into your novel, and now you are handing it over to someone who might tear it apart. Have I scared you even more? Here are five reasons to set aside your fears and embrace this type of service.

1. Developmental editors see things you can’t see

When we write, especially when we are passionately writing (which most writers do, right?), we tend to not notice things that could trip up a reader. This is not about grammar errors or punctuation issues—that’s the copyeditor’s job—but rather it is about plot lines, character development, scene flow, and how it all fits together. Story arcs make sense to those who write them, and we may think “How can anyone NOT follow this?” But your readers may struggle with plot holes you don’t see. They may not connect with your characters that seem so real to you. It is important to have someone point these items out to you and suggest how to fix them, especially if you are self-publishing. The last thing you need are negative reviews to drag you down.

2. Developmental editing can save you from potential heartache

Published authors, whether self-published or by traditional publishers, know the importance of online reviews. The more reviews received, the higher your book ranks, and the higher the chances of getting sales. But even if you get tons of reviews that bring you to that featured status due to algorithms that only look at numbers, those looking to buy your book are going to actually read those reviews, especially the negative ones. Those reviews are there to stay, and I have seen writers suffer from such reviews because they chose to self-publish without consulting an editor. Making sure your story is truly the best it can be is worth the cost to minimize negative feedback and encourage the positive.

3. Editors are objective

Writers may be worried that they will be judged by others, particularly when someone like an editor is analyzing their story so deeply. Editors are human and may naturally have their personal opinions, but a good editor will keep their opinions to themselves and focus on you and your work. Any opinions conveyed should be from the standpoint of an objective reader and not from what the editor thinks it should be. After all, the story is yours, it came from your heart. But getting objective feedback and suggestions are crucial to making sure that what you have works for readers, and editors are trained to do exactly that—objectively.

4. Red marks are not set in stone

All those red lines and comments in your manuscript are suggestions and only suggestions. You can reject all of it if you want. But before you click that “Reject all” button, read the comments carefully, over and over and over. Put the manuscript aside for a few days, then come back and read them again. I guarantee you will be surprised at how helpful those comments are. If your editor has suggested that a scene should be moved elsewhere, try it and see how it turns out. If they say a character is not well developed, that they didn’t connect with them, do some character development exercises to give them a boost. And if the editor suggests clarifying something that you think makes perfect sense, remember that your readers are not in your head and need more help than you might think.

5. Developmental editors are advocates for your readers

All of these points tie in to one important fact: developmental editors are the best advocates for readers. Though beta readers and manuscript evaluators can provide valuable feedback for low cost or even for free, they often do not give you detailed suggestions on what needs work or point out specific bits that work well and how to best utilize them. A beta reader might say, “This scene was confusing,” but say nothing more, whereas a developmental editor will explain in detail why it is confusing and use their expertise to suggest ways to make it better. A manuscript evaluator might say, “Your characters are wonderfully developed, and I connected closely with them,” but a developmental editor would tell you why they are great and how to use your skills to improve other parts of the story.

If you’re still nervous about investing in a developmental edit, whether it’s because you’re worried about how many red marks you’re going to see or because the cost doesn’t fit your budget, a professional manuscript evaluation is the next best option. You won’t get the detailed advice that a developmental editor would provide, but you can get a professional reader-advocate to tell you where your story is and where it needs to go.

Battling Writer’s Block: Letting Characters Drive the Story

It’s safe to say that almost every writer out there has suffered from writer’s block in some way, whether it’s a question of what to do with a character, where the plot should go next, how the story should end, or even how it should begin. There are a number of ways to try getting through that brick wall, but I want to focus on one that I have found to be quite helpful in my own writing:

Ask your character.

Say what? How does a fictional character that you gave life to, that you decided on their appearance, their personality, their every personal detail, have the ability to drive a story? If you’ve developed your character effectively, asking them should be like asking your friend, or at least an acquaintance.

Let’s say you’ve made it part way through your novel and you’re stuck. Maybe you have some ideas of different paths to take and can’t decide which way to go. Ask your character which way they would naturally follow. Perhaps you’re partial to Path B but your character is telling you that Path A makes more sense, that they are more inclined to drive things in that direction. Listen to them and do it.

Now let’s say you’re close to the end of the novel and get stuck there. You have no idea at all what to do, not even a single thought of where the story should go next. Ask your character. I know you’re saying it’s not that easy, a character cannot possibly pull an idea out of the sky, but if you’ve developed your character deeply enough, they will answer you. Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing next to your character, looking them in the eye and saying, “Where should we go from here?” Walk beside them as they lead you where they are naturally inclined to go.

So, you’ve got a character that has answered your questions and they have told you clearly what they want to do, but you hate their answer. You think it’s a terrible idea and your story will be a train wreck if you follow their lead. Listen to them and do it anyway. Often times when you let the character lead you, they only lead one step at a time rather than telling you the full narrative of what they want. If you take each step walking beside them as you write, you just might be surprised with where you end up.

If you’ve followed your character’s suggestion and you’re not happy with where you ended up, try writing the story going in another direction. Perhaps take that other path you were considering or go in the complete opposite direction of what your character said and compare. You might even take it a step further by telling your character, “Go down this path, then tell me what you would do from here.” Walk beside them again, and once you’ve reached your destination, decide which way worked best.

Stepping aside from the topic of writer’s block for a moment, using this character-driving technique can improve your story in other ways, particularly in dialogue exchanges. Rather than putting words in your character’s mouth, let them speak on their own. Watch their physical actions as they talk and describe this in your writing. Letting a main character shine on their own creates a deeper connection with readers, making them feel more immersed in the story.

So go ahead. Ask your character. If they don’t answer you, revisit your character development. If they have ideas, let them take the wheel and enjoy the ride.

Five Tips for Cleaner Writing

Self-editing doesn’t just have to be about the big stuff like plot, characters, or descriptions, and it doesn’t just have to be about fixing sticky grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. There are other things that writers don’t always think about when cleaning up their work, but adding these to your self-editing checklist will help polish your writing to make it shine for publishers and engage your readers.

1. Trim Wordiness

Wordiness can stem from how we would use language in speech, and that’s okay when we have other things to help engage us in a spoken story: facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. In writing, though, we only have the words themselves. Cutting back on “couch potato” words can make sentences more active and engaging. Take the following example:

There were thousands of screaming fans packing the arena.

Though the sentence sounds fine, we can make it better by trimming the generic words “there were,” because those words don’t do anything. Like couch potatoes. We can make it more active like this:

Thousands of screaming fans packed the arena.

Compare these two sentences and see which one is more active and engaging. We see the same results when we trim “there is” from a sentence.

There is an ambulance rushing to the scene.

can become

An ambulance rushes to the scene.

Analyze your sentences to see if any couch potatoes are hanging around, and kick them out.

2. Unscramble Misplaced Modifiers

This is another one that can stem from our use of spoken language in writing. Sometimes a sentence that makes sense when spoken doesn’t quite translate when written. Take this example:

I saw a hawk on the way to work.

Was the hawk wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase? Likely not. Let’s try this:

On the way to work, I saw a hawk.

Now we know who is actually going to work. You might say that the original was fine, easy to understand. Perhaps, but you can’t bet on that. Something like the following is even worse:

At almost 50,000 years old, the archeologists believe their specimens are the oldest ever discovered.

This makes it sound like the archeologists are 50,000 years old. We need to move that modifier closer to the object it’s modifying. A way to fix it would be like this:

The archeologists believe their specimens, almost 50,000 years old, are the oldest ever discovered.

Again you may have though the original was clear enough. But careful readers will stumble and be confused.

3. Redundancy

Somewhat in the same vein as wordiness, redundancy is something that pops up naturally, and because it is so natural we don’t always notice. Careful consideration can clean up some unnecessary junk.

The restaurant offers seven different vegetarian entrees.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, but in reality we don’t need to specify that the seven entrees are different. It is implied when we state the number of them.

The restaurant offers seven vegetarian entrees.

Cleaner and straight to the point. This can also happen when we feel the need to be descriptive:

I visited the tall, steel skyscraper.

Skyscrapers are usually pretty tall and not made out of wood or brick, so these things are redundant. We need to choose more unique descriptors to help this particular building stand out.

I visited the silver skyscraper with the tall, tinted windows.

Every building is unique, so we need to make it feel as such in our writing.

4. Overcooked Metaphors

As creative writers we sometimes like to use metaphor to help illustrate a scene or a character’s feelings, and this is a wonderful and useful tool. A good writer will use them only when it can truly add to the story, and to aid the reader in feeling more about what is going on in a scene. Occasionally, writers can get a bit carried away with this tool, and something like this happens:

The plan had erupted into a volcano of controversy that had cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

This is a very intense metaphor that certainly describes the tremendous impact the plan has had on the community. But it’s overcooked; a volcanic eruption and an earthquake? We don’t need that much metaphor to illustrate a serious situation. We can choose one of these metaphors and make it work.

Controversy over the plan cracked a seismic chasm in the community.

Sticking with the earthquake metaphor illustrates the impact clearly and tactfully.

5. Rambling Sentences

When I say rambling sentences I don’t necessarily mean run-on sentences. In creative writing, run-on sentences are totally okay—unless you do it too much, then the reader gets lost. Rambling sentences are just that; they ramble on about a subject to the point of confusion, and is usually resolved by cutting it into multiple sentences. Here’s a rambler:

The three-day annual festival SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts, one of the first festivals to host big-name bands, and includes local acts performing cover songs.

This sentence was painful to write, but it is a good example of a long sentence gone wrong. Many writers feel the need to have long sentences because it flows more, keeps things moving. Short sentences are choppier and can affect the mood of a scene. Both are useful at the right time. We can still split this up while keeping enough flow.

One of the first festivals to host big-name bands, the annual SummerBlast is known for its grand concerts. Over three days, fans are treated to their favorite songs, both by well-known bands and local acts.

By adding a little flair to what was already included, I was able to create two sentences that each flow well on their own, and flow together, making this fictitious festival sound more interesting.

Feeling Clean?

Don’t be afraid to clean up, and don’t try to hold onto something that the story might be better off without. We writers tend to get attached to certain ways we have worded things in our stories, but part of self-editing is re-evaluating even those bits we are so confident about. What makes sense in a writer’s head won’t always make sense to anyone else. Got that super awesome metaphor collection or long, descriptive sentences that you just love? Try to see things from a reader’s point of view; can someone else follow your train of thought? When in doubt, get a second pair of eyes to give you a valuable outsider’s perspective.

The Benefits of Changing Point of View

Many times when that great story idea hits us writers, we know exactly how we want things to go. We know who our main character will be, if we want it in first or third person, where it will take place, and likely some side characters too. Then we start putting those words on paper, everything flows, we’re proud, excited, feeling awesome.

But what happens when you change any of those beginning ideas after the first draft?

When I was in college, the advanced writing course required students to participate in the “steeplechase” writing exercise. In this exercise, writers are to follow a set of twelve steps, writing a different section of the story based on each step. I won’t list them all here, but I will discuss two of the steps that completely changed a story I wrote—for the better.

First Person or Third?

After the first step of the steeplechase, which is just writing a section of the story as you normally would, step two is to switch the POV from first to third, or vice versa. My story was originally in first person, so I changed it to third. Depending on your main character, this can either be a minor change or a drastic change in voice. In my case, it went from the voice of a fifteen-year-old girl to that of a neutral adult narrator.

Big change. Look at a story you’ve written and think about what would happen if you were to change that point of view. Would it completely change the story from what you originally planned? If so, is that really a bad thing?

For my story it was a tremendous upgrade. But the POV changes don’t stop there.

Who is the Main Character?

Step four of the steeplechase asks the student to write from the point of view of another character. Any secondary character that might have a chance to progress the story through their eyes would be a fine choice. I had a character who was somewhat of an anti-hero and played a significant part in the story, so I chose to write from his point of view, in the third person. Before long, I knew I wanted this POV to be intermingled with that of the main character. Both would drive the story together.

In your writing, pick another character in a scene and start writing through their eyes. Let that character’s voice and attitude drive the scene, then take a step back and analyze the scene’s new direction. Is it a direction you might want to continue? If not, consider it a great exercise in character development. But you might be (pleasantly) surprised at the results.

The Final Outcome

You may find that making these changes will not benefit your story, maybe even harm it. And that’s okay. But forcing yourself to write from a different angle not only makes for excellent writing practice, but also opens the mind to other opportunities. Perhaps next time you get a story idea, try this again and see the results. My story, which went through the entire twelve-step steeplechase exercise, is now told entirely from the point of view of the anti-hero in third person, and I am more passionate about it than ever. Change can be wonderful. Embrace it.

Writing a Character of the Opposite Sex

In one of my writing classes in college, my least favorite teacher of all time told the class that it was not possible for anyone to successfully write in the point of view of the opposite sex. I said hold my drink (not out loud, of course). The novel I then focused on for the class workshop starred a male character, and though told in the third person, the story focuses on his thoughts, feelings, and actions. The reader sees everything through his eyes.

How can I, a female, possibly be able to fully and accurately develop and write from the view of a male character? How can any man possibly depict a woman’s point of view? It’s well known that our brains work differently, that we see many things from different perspectives, and I’m sure we form our thoughts differently as well. Good character development comes in part from getting inside the head of the character, but unless we’re like that guy from the movie What Women Want, that’s going to be a bit difficult.

Or is it?

Analyzing Those Close to You

Most if not all of us have close friends or a significant other of the opposite sex. These are people we likely know more deeply than we would an acquaintance. Rather than try and compare them to you, focus on what is unique to them as a group. What mannerisms do you notice among those of the opposite gender? Consider both body language and dialogue. What stands out? Make your character do some of these things and see if they fit.

People Watching

As something that typically comes naturally to writers, try watching those around you. Sit in a public place like a busy park or mall and take note of what you see among those of the opposite sex. Many people act differently when in public, so take note of the differences. How do they sit or walk? How do they communicate with strangers? This may not get you into their head, but being able to describe these things will aid in character development.

Read, Read, Read

The easiest way to get into the head of someone different is to read character-driven books. Search out books that are told from the point of view of the opposite sex and read them. You might say that you read books all the time with characters like that, but you need to read like a writer, not just sit back to enjoy the story. Analyze the character and how he or she was written, making sure you get a clear picture of who that person is and what makes them that way. Be sure to choose a variety of books to review to get a clear picture of different types of people.

Get an Expert Opinion

Once your story’s first draft is complete and you are in the market for an editor, try finding one that matches the sex of your main character. Not only will you get an opinion as to whether you have succeeded in depicting your character, but he or she can provide expert advice on how to tweak it, if necessary. A story like this will benefit greatly from developmental editing.

As for my closed-minded, old-school teacher? She never commented on my male character being wrong and she gave me an A in the class. Moral of the story: You can do it.

Improving Character Development

I’ve discussed in previous posts the importance of character development and how other ways of improving your writing can have an effect on your characters. I want to dedicate a single post to this topic, as it is, in my opinion, the biggest driving force of a story next to plot.

Do you really know who your characters are? You might think so, but as I discovered first hand, it’s very possible to not have characters fully developed, no matter how much you think you know. When I had a critique done on a novel I wrote, I was surprised to hear that the characters I felt so strongly about and thought I knew inside and out really didn’t come across as developed. The critiquer even stated that by the end of the story, they did not feel like they knew that character at all.

Many writers ask how they can improve character development, not knowing where to start. I say start at the beginning. As a writing exercise, rewind your character’s life and write their story. Try answering these questions to get started:

  • Who were their parents? Or were they raised by someone other than their parents?
  • Did they grow up in a poor environment or affluent family?
  • Did they have childhood friends? Do any friends from back then stick around to show up in your story?
  • How did they do in school? Did they struggle, or did they go to advanced classes?

If your character is an adolescent, you can’t go much farther in life than this. Consider more tiny details like favorite movies, books, games, food. These are good If your character is an adult too, but also consider some more questions, depending on age:

  • What do they do for work? Have they had multiple jobs? Did they like it or hate it?
  • What kind of car do they drive? Or do they have to take the bus?
  • If they have a significant other, how did they meet? How have past relationships been?

Don’t just answer these questions in one sentence. Take it and make a mini story. For example, if your character had a childhood friend, write about their relationship. Even if this friend does not appear in your main story, writing out how they were as children or teenagers will bring out traits in your character that you might not have seen. Perhaps it’s a friend that your character lost touch with before your main story begins, and their parting affected your character’s actions toward others in the future. Knowing the details of their past will help you tune into how your character became who they are today.

Any of these questions can be developed into a mini story, and even linked together to make a full profile of your character’s life before now. Make it at least a couple of pages long, but don’t limit yourself. You might discover something new and run with it. By the end you should feel that you know every detail about them, because if you were thorough enough, you should know everything and be prepared to bring those things to life in your story.

Setting Descriptions and Improving Descriptive Writing

When writers are focused on characters, plot, and flow of a story, sometimes the development of something equally as important gets overlooked. Amazing characters and an engrossing story cannot stand on their own; the writer must put them in vivid, memorable locations. Part of what makes fiction writing so meaningful to many is the ability to travel to another world within the pages of a book, and authors who can clearly depict such a world will have readers hooked.

But what constitutes a well-written setting? Too much description can get boring for the reader, but too little leaves ambiguity. Simply ask yourself some questions and determine how it may benefit your reader.

Is the scene taking place outdoors? Consider the weather: is the sun bright and hot, warming the skin and making the character squint? Or is the night cool with a light breeze and stars so clearly visible that the character can identify constellations with the naked eye?

For an indoor setting, determine the type of room. Is it a lush living room with satin couches and custom-made sandalwood end tables, sun pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows? Or is it a musty studio apartment with creaking wood flooring and no air conditioning, a cockroach peeking out from a crevice in the floorboards?

What makes these decisions important is that the setting of a scene can have an effect on the characters. Standing in the hot sun might make a character sweat, adding body language such as wiping the brow or fanning themselves. The dialogue of characters gathered in a lush living room might be more formal. Not only do settings give your characters a place to be, but those settings improve character development.

Sometimes the tiniest of details can add more to the story than what you think. As an exercise, put yourself in the character’s shoes and look around. What do you see? I first learned of this exercise decades ago when a class assignment was to practice descriptive writing by describing a room in my house in detail, starting from directly in front of me and then moving around clockwise. As an example here, I will write a detailed description of a part of the room I’m in.

Directly in front of me near the corner of the room is a flat-screen TV, currently off. Three remotes lay in front of it, and a small cable box sits on a small shelf below the one the TV sits on. To the right of the TV is an old brown speaker with a VCR on top. The right wall is adorned with a line of four photo frames, each filled with a picture of my twin daughters, rewinding time with each photo left to right. In front of this wall is a small coffee table currently blanketed in toys ranging from plastic dinosaurs to cars to Barbie dolls to miniature animals. Beside the table is a small, soft, toddler-sized chair from my husband’s childhood. Covered in a faux wool fabric, it currently holds a genie doll with bright pink hair.

This is only a fraction of my current environment, and of course in a story situation not all of these details are necessary. But let’s pretend for a moment that this is the setting of a story; what bits of information might be useful? The photos of the children and the variety of toys tell a lot about who resides in the home. Perhaps the mention of the VCR and childhood chair depicts nostalgia as a character trait. But the placement of the remotes and the cable box would not add anything to the story.

Try this exercise either within your story’s environment to develop it directly, or in your own home or work space to practice descriptive writing. Either way, you will feel results in your writing.