Board member Alice Wootson, author of eleven romance novels, Mad Poet, and former teacher has been in this business for years.  She shares her process for writing a great story, every time.

So you want to write a story. Maybe it’s been bothering you for a while but you didn’t know how to start. Keep these four things in mind:

Who, what, where, when and why.

Who is your story about? These are the characters. Usually you have two main characters and secondary characters who are only there to move the story along. What is the story about? This is the plot. Why does the story happen? This ties closely with the plot. Where and when make up the setting.

There are three necessary elements: characters, plot and setting. I’ll address them one at a time. I’ll start with characters, but it doesn’t matter which one you start with. Remember to use all five senses.

Characters:

Who is your story about? Usually you have two main characters. How do you decide which one is primary? Whose point of view are you’re writing about? Whose story is it? That’s your main character. You can change point of view for some scenes. That will depend upon who has the most to lose in that scene, but the story is about your main character.

Where do you get the main character? None in mind? No one in your head who keeps bugging you to write their story? Okay. The next time you’re in public, look around. Pick out someone you don’t know and who is not standing or walking near you. Let your imagination take over:

Who is this person? (Sometimes they tell you their names in your head. Don’t laugh. It happens to me all the time.) Are they poor? Comfortable? Wealthy? What kind of housing do they live in? Do they own or are they renting? Or are they homeless? Were they born into this situation? If not, how did they get here? Any family? Friends?

Where are they going? Why? How do they feel about this? Happy? Sad? Angry? Relieved? Why?

Do they live alone? Are they happy about this? Why or why not? What main problem do they have to solve? Does it involve someone else? Is someone keeping them from succeeding? How do they plan to go about solving it? What do they plan to do?

How old are they? What has their life been like up to now? It’s about to change. How? Why?

Now you’re ready to develop your main characters. It might help for you to make a biography and resume’ for each one to flesh them out and make them real. Talk to them if necessary. Get their story.

You have to know all these things about your character in order to know him or her and make them seem real, but much won’t be revealed and most of what will be revealed will come out as and when needed to move the story forward; a little at a time and only when needed to move the story forward.

Secondary characters are other characters in your story. They may come and go, but they are only there to move the story forward. They only need names if they interact with other characters. Maybe a main character goes into a store. They may or may not have a conversation with the sales person or with another customer. Something or someone from this scene may come up later.

Every scene must move the story forward.

Setting: Where and When

Where will the story take place? Use description to take the reader there. The setting must be an integral part of the story: your story could not take place anywhere else. If a cattle farm is your setting, use aspects of cattle farming as part of the story. Not all cattle farms are alike. How is yours different? Large? Small? A particular breed? For market or for other ranchers? Family history? Thriving or struggling?

Even if you set your story in a particular place in a city, make sure you distinguish it from any other location in that city. Poor neighborhood? Middle class? Affluent? Safe? Dangerous? Stable? Have families have lived there for generations or are the residents often changing? Rentals? Owners?

Use all 5 senses.Take us wherever your characters are. If your character is walking down the street, let us become that character. Let us see what she sees. React as she reacts. Let us feel, through emotions; what she feels. If she stops at a food truck or a small neighborhood store, why did she make the choices she made? Let us taste what she tastes. Is she alone? Why? Are there distinct odors? Describe them to us. ? In some scenes, let her touch important items. Why those item?

Don’t give us any of these all at once. Pretend you are the CIA: everything is on a needs to know basis. (When I start a story I know where and when it will begin and I have a general idea of how it will end, but I have no idea how my characters will get there.)

When will the story take place? If historical, how far in the past? Do a lot of research if you choose this. Don’t have a character open a screen door if screen doors didn’t exist. Don’t let them stop at a stop sign if there were none. If you make a mistake a reader will catch it. What was the political climate like and how did it impact on your characters’ lives?

If futuristic, how far in the future? Here? On another planet? Known by others or not? Whatever you decide, you must create a universe. Worlds. Maybe examine one or more cultures here on Earth. You might decide to pick one (or a combination of several), and make changes as needed for your story. Consider governments, clothes, the appearances of the inhabitants, the physical environment, the culture(s). Who rules? Anyone? How is this decided? Peace times or war? Why? How does this affect the characters? Are they accepting? Opposed? Decided to change things? How?

Most novels written are contemporary. They take place now. This is the “easiest”, if there is such a thing. Even if your setting is contemporary, you must still do research. City? Suburb? Rural area? Why is the character there? By choice or not? Content or dissatisfied? You can ask yourself some of the same questions from the settings above.

Your object is to make it as difficult as possible for the reader to put the book down. Don’t be predictable, but be logical. Let the reader think afterwards, “I didn’t expect that to happen, but I see why and how it did.” The plot uses the setting to do this. The characters live both.

Plot

Where do I get ideas? Consider reports in newspapers, on television, your experiences, and your imagination. What happened before the news that was reported? What was the cause of the events in that story? Again, ask why. If a person was involved, why did they act as they did? Don’t tell us. Let it unfold as you move your story forward. Regardless of how society might feel about the actions, the character thinks they are justified. For example, a character says, ”If he gave me his wallet I wouldn’t have had to kill him.” Again, look at a story in the paper. What happened before? What caused it? Who caused it? How can the problem be resolved?

Finally, this is the Golden Rule of writing: Show, don’t tell.

Don’t tell that the character is angry. Make her actions show it. The same if she is happy, scared, sad, distracted, etc. Don’t tell us a place smells. Describe it. Give us something the reader can relate to. If it smells bad, compare it to three day old garbage, for example.

Happy Writing!