The Great Novel-Writing Checklist (Just in Time for NaNoWriMo!)

The Great Novel-Writing Checklist (Just in Time for NaNoWriMo!)I adore lists. They bring order to the chaos of my brain and allow me to rest in the knowledge that even if I don’t remember everything I have to do, the list remembers [spoken in an epic Jeremy Irons bass]. This is why today I’m going to share you with you my ultimate novel-writing checklist—and just in the nick of time for NaNoWriMo too!

But, first: a caveat.

Great as checklists are, a novel is not built upon lists alone. As we talked about in last week’s post on formulaic story structure, too great a reliance on lists can sap the organic energy right out of your writing. However, there is, without question, a time and a place for novel-writing checklists, beat sheets, and other formulae.

A recent discussion with “Aviva” in the comments on “The Only Good Reason to Write” gave me the opportunity to talk about the important progression from a reliance on lists to a mastery of it:

Aviva: Oddly, I find myself torn between feeling extremely grateful for having found the rules of storytelling vs. feeling strangled by them. There was freedom in ignorance, when I would write for hours, losing myself in painting pictures with my prose, delighting in a clever exchange between characters, or making myself cry with a deeply poignant scene.

But nowadays I don’t seem to trust my instincts at all anymore, so I’m stopping before I even start. On those rare, wonderful days when I get so lost in my literary world that I finally start falling in love with writing again, I’ll “wake up” and discover the whole scene has to be scrapped because I need an inciting event or pinch point scene more.

Katie, have you ever experienced the same struggle, and how can I retain all the structure I’ve learned without it spoiling my ability to write freely and joyfully?

Me: I believe we have to come to a place of harmonizing conscious and subconscious—logic and creativity. We have to learn how to balance them, so we can optimize both. It’s a tricky balance to find sometimes, but you just have to keep working at. Don’t overthink things. For me, there were a couple “rough” books there when I was first learning structure, where I was too aware of the structural needs. But now the structure is like second nature, and I can pretty much just let the story flow again.

Aviva: Ah, I get it. It’s like a young athlete learning to develop muscle memory, say a figure skater. At first, they’re painfully conscious of every movement, every necessary element. But soon, with time and practice, the marriage between technique and artistry becomes second nature, allowing the performance to simply flow out from body and soul in perfect [synchronization].

Me: Exactly. Great analogy.

That said, we all need checklists in the beginning. They’re tremendous brain-savers. They’re training wheels when we’re still learning, and they’re safety nets when we become forgetful.

In a recent email, Felicia Change asked me for this post:

I’m done with my third draft of my current WIP, but feel like the character arc is not strong enough, while my CP says I need more conflict. I’m aware that there are probably a lot of other things I’m missing. I’d like to start with the bigger problems (character arcs) and then make my way down to smaller problems like dialogue tags. So I thought a list of all the big and small factors a novel should have would help me. The only problem is that I’m not sure what should be on the list. Do you perhaps have a list or something similar which would help me improve my novel?

Obviously, such a list would be compendious. Indeed, in some senses, this entire blog is the list. [And now I feel like we need Jeremy Irons to do an evil chortle or something.] The art of writing a novel is a vast storehouse of technique after technique.

But.

There is a list. Today, I want to offer a fast novel-writing checklist of the five most important elements in any successful novel. (In a few weeks, we’ll also talk about the smaller things you need to be aware of in writing and revising.)

The 5 Biggest Things on Your Novel-Writing Checklist

The “big” things on this list are the foundational things. They are the story. Get them right and everything else will fall into place around them.

1. Structure

Structuring Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel Workbook by K.M. WeilandIt all starts with story structure. Once this is solidly in place, you can build everything else on top of it. But if your structure is out of whack, then all the cosmetic tweaking in the world won’t save your story. To make sure your structure is doing what it needs to, check the following off your list.

  • Three Acts

The First Act (1%-25%): Setup. Characters, settings, and themes are introduced within the context of your character’s Normal World.

First Act Timeline

Second Act (25%-75%): Conflict. Characters pursue their goals, meet with obstacles to those goals, and learn how to pursue better goals more effectively.

Second Act Timeline

Third Act (75%-100%): Confrontation/Resolution. Characters enter a final confrontation to determine the ultimate success or failure of their plot goals.

Third Act Timeline

>>More Here: The Secrets of Story Structure (Complete Series)

  • Three Major Plot Points

5 Secrets of Story StructureFirst Plot Point (25%): Doorway of No Return. Characters experience a life-changing event that forces them to make the irrevocable choice to leave behind their Normal World and enter new the Adventure World of the main conflict.

>>More Here: Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

Midpoint – Second Plot Point (50%): Moment of Truth. Characters are presented with both the story’s thematic Truth and, as a result, insights into the true nature of the conflict. These realizations allow them to enter the second half of the story better equipped to reach their goals.

>>More Here: How the Perfect Midpoint Moves Your Protagonist From Reaction to Action

Third Plot Point (75%): Low Moment. Characters are plunged into defeat and despair, forcing them to evaluate the moral alignment of their goals and make the final choice about what they will pursue and how they will pursue it in the final act.

>>More Here: What’s the Most Important Moment in Your Character Arc?

  • Two Pinch Points

First Pinch Point (37%): New Clues. The power of the antagonistic force to threaten the characters’ goals is emphasized, but the characters also gain new insights into the true nature of the conflict, setting up the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint, which will then allow the characters to begin taking more active control of the conflict.

Second Pinch Point (62%): Emphasis of Stakes. Again, the antagonistic force flexes its muscles in reaction to the characters’ pursuit of their goals. As foreshadowing for the low moment at the Third Plot Point, the stakes are emphasized by showing how much the characters have to lose.

>>More Here: What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?

  • Two Important Turning Points

Inciting Event (12%): Call to Adventure. The characters are first introduced to the conflict that will officially kick off in the First Plot Point. They will start out by either rejecting the Call to Adventure or having someone else reject it on their behalf.

>>More Here: Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Climax (88%): Final Confrontation. The characters move forward into their final pursuit of their goals, their final conflict with the antagonistic force, and the ultimate confrontation that will decide their success or failure in gaining their plot goals.

>>More Here: Want Readers to Adore Your Book? Learn How to Ace Your Climactic Moment

  • Solid Beginning and Ending

Hook (1%): The first domino of the plot kicks off in a way that balances introductions of the character, setting, and theme against the requirements of hooking readers with interesting situations.

>>More Here: How to Find Exactly the Right Story Hook

Resolution (98%): The final moments in your story bookend the beginning, offer commentary on the decisive moments in the Climax, and create a sense of continuity as characters continue with their lives.

>>More Here:The Characteristic Moment Belongs at the End of Your Book Too

2. Character Arc

Character arc and story structure are closely linked. Build one and you’re automatically building the other. Once you have a solid understanding of story structure, you can use it to help you create a character arc that is pertinent to your story at every juncture.

Character arcs incorporate all the above structural moments, but also include some uniquely important elements of their own.

  • The Lie and the Truth

The character’s pursuit of exterior goals will be an extension of the inner conflict, which is based upon a fundamental and damaging misconception about life, which is in opposition to an empowering and enabling Truth.

>>More Here: The Lie Your Character Believes

  • The Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs

Creating Character Arcs Workbook 165

The character’s Want and Need are extensions of the Lie and Truth. The character’s Lie drives him to Want something wrong or for the wrong reasons. What he Needs is always a manifestation of the Truth.

>>More Here: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

  • The Ghost

The Ghost (or wound) is something in the character’s backstory that haunts him and motivates his belief in the Lie.

>>More Here: Your Character’s Ghost

3. Theme

Just as character arc flows out of structure, theme flows out of character arc. As you develop your primary character arc—and particularly its Lie and Truth—you will be discovering your theme.

Three things to remember about theme:

  • Linked to Plot

Theme must directly emanate from your characters’ actions in the plot. The choices they are making in pursuing their goals must ask the questions that create the plot. If the two are not linked, the story will not work on an emotional level.

>>More Here: Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes?

  • Message

Your theme will be a universal statement about how the world works. It will be applicable to any story—indeed, to life itself. But the way your own specific story handles and demonstrates that Truth will create its message. The two are not the same thing.

>>More Here: What’s the Difference Between Your Story’s Theme and Its Message?

  • Complex Moral Argument

Good themes are complicated. They should not be black-and-white statements about good or bad. Instead, seek to create complex and honest moral arguments in which you authentically and compassionately examine both sides of the dilemma.

>>More Here: Want a Powerful Theme for Your Novel? Play Devil’s Advocate!

4. Setting

Good settings are characters unto themselves. They are so integral to the story that to remove them would change the entire narrative. As such, they should always be chosen conscientiously right from the beginning of crafting the story.

Here are three angles to consider:

  • Catalyst

The most important factor in choosing and using a setting is making certain that it matters to the plot. How does it set up the conflict? How does it then contribute to the conflict by turning the plot?

  • Backstory

In choosing your setting, examine its history. By using the continuing ramifications of past events and motivations in your story, you will create a greater sense of verisimilitude and deepen reader suspension of disbelief. Don’t just tell a story about an isolated moment in time—tell a story about one moment that is part of something bigger.

  • Cast

Your setting will determine your supporting cast of characters. Consider what interesting people can originate from this place and its unique culture. How can these particular people influence your story in pertinent and organic ways?

>>More Here: 16 Ways to Make Your Setting a Character in Its Own Right

5. Point of View (POV)

Finally, don’t forget to consider your story’s narrative. The character(s) you choose to tell this story will influence every single word you write.

  • The Narrator(s)

Your story may be told by one narrator or many. Usually, fewer POVs are better, since greater numbers of POV can easily fragment your narrative and demonstrate a lack of authorial control. Most of the time, the protagonist and/or main character will be the primary narrator. If you’re uncertain which character to choose, determine which character is a) present for most of the action, and b) has the most at stake within the main conflict.

>>More Here: 6 Questions to Help You Choose the Right POV

  • The Distance

Once you know which character(s) will narrate the story, you must decide how deep or distant you want the narrative to be. Deep narratives delve into the character’s mind in order to create the impression that every word is coming directly from her mind. Distant narratives pull back farther and simply observe the character’s actions, acting more like a movie camera, rather than a mind reader.

>>More Here: Everything You Need to Know About Writing a 3rd-Person POV

  • The Tense.

You must also determine in what tense you will tell your story–past (“I walked”) or present (“I walk”). Past is the standard, since it creates a grounded and easily comprensible approach to events. Present is most often used in literary stories and YA, in order to create a more immediate and often “airy” feel to the narrative.

>>More Here: Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then

  • The Voice.

Last, but absolutely not least, is the question of how your narrative will sound. This will largely depend on the character(s) you have chosen as narrators. What are their personalities? What is their vocabulary? Your goal is to create a realistic narrative that injects as much personality and momentum into the prose as possible.

>>More Here: Writing Voice: 6 Things You Need to Know to Improve It

***

Every one of the items on this novel-writing checklist will impact every single page in your story. Whether you’re outlining, drafting, or revising, use this checklist to make sure you’ve got all your story’s most important pieces firmly in place. Keep at it long enough, and they will all become second nature!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What does your own novel-writing checklist look like? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. James Griffith says:

    The list presented is a good idea, and suggested for those who have never developed structure for their book. But, what I also read in the list is formula structure. Many movies and books follow the lists formula. Nothing wrong with that, I like to twist the formula in a few spots removing the idea of what the reader might suspect next.

    In movies and books one sees formula quite a bit, mostly in action pictures: The actions starts with 50 or 100 actors, dwindles to 25, then to 10, and finally 2 and then 1. War movies are a good example of this. It’s been used many many times. Or, starting with 1 character who comes up fighting many. First Blood and Riddick are two examples of good ideas in a formula setting. Both characters continuing in more movies with the same formula.

    So, if it is a formula, what makes it different? The idea is the same, but the writing and action are new, and must be very good to make the formula work a second or third time with the same characters, such as in John Rambo. But after the third time, viewer interest really falls off and the series drops into the two or three star category. Some really bad movies have made the mistake of re-making an older successful movie. The ‘Thing’ was one of those. Originally made in 1949 with James Arness at the Thing, was really well done and considered the bases for all other SIFI movies. It was copied twice more with poor results. I’ve read books that I thought should have been made into movies, like ‘Whiteout”, and never were.

    This is the reason I read lots of biography’s. 1: I learn a lot about human nature. 2: there is very little formula in real life situations. It is hard to believe that real people can actually get themselves into and out of impossible situations.

    So, yes, the list works well. Hollywood has used it since film was invented, but I suggest after one feels competent with their witting, and has a real good complicated book idea, take the list and mix it up.

    How many movies have you seen where the beginning of the film is actually the end, and you are hooked right away wanting to know how the character got that way in the first place.

    To many movies rely on the car exploding every time it goes over a cliff. Don’t do it! Think long and hard on how you can make that scene better. It may take days to figure it out, but there is always a better writing way to do it. Steven Spielberg will not do that. He has refused producers to re-film endings where the car or truck blows up going over a cliff. You can do it too.

  2. Oh, thank you for this post! The conundrum Aviva describes so perfectly at the beginning is exactly what I’ve been suffering from lately and tried to convey to my brother over lunch on Friday when he asked about my writing progress. SO HAPPY to discover that I’m not alone in this process, that you’ve been there, too, and are holding my hand through it. 🙂

  3. There are no words to adequately express how I feel right now after reading your latest post, but I will try:

    Feeling a bit like a roughly-peeled, decaying turnip this morning, I dragged myself out of bed and into Starbucks to write. Trying to wake up, I skimmed your Monday blog post (packed with useful info, as usual), and what did I see written between the lines? Kindness. Generosity. Camaraderie. Time selflessly given. And that was before I even noticed my own name and words printed there. And then I did see my name, and the tears began to flow. Good tears, healing tears, because I finally realized that I can do this. I am not alone.

    Writing a novel has not been an easy road for any of us, I’m sure, and I think we all have things in our pasts–doubts, insecurities, even hurtful words–that whisper defeating lies into our heads, trying to stop us from believing we can be writers and finish what we start. But then God gives us people like you, Katie, who offer their time and expertise the way others casually hand over a napkin or pass the salt. Your servant’s heart means more to me than you will ever know.

    Do you even have an inkling how much you mean to all of us? You are more than a story structure/writing expert. You are a true friend. So thanks again, Katie, and God bless you for everything you do to mentor writers into authors. God willing, in a few years, I will be one of them 😀

  4. Great post! I really want to try NaNoWriMo next year. Doing research now so i’m prepared by 2018.

  5. As always, a phenomenal post. I loved the bit in the beginning and the analogy given between creativity and logic. Beautiful. So difficult at times, but I like that challenge. Amazing how many of these posts I have bookmarked. So much to think about, especially when writing a romance because I’m using 2 POVs and 2 protags. Definitely going to be coming back to this post haha

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It *is* a beautiful challenge! The longer I write, the more I come to appreciate that particular juxtaposition above all others.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the more POVs you add, the trickier it gets. But all that complexity just gives you the opportunity to be more amazing. 🙂

  6. Thanks KM
    I’ve seen and read much on plot structure. However, this is the most user-friendly one ever. Brief yet packed with info and organized in a clear manner.

  7. I’ve been trying to write a proper novel for a while now, and I didn’t realise how important structure was. I’m actually working through your ‘Outlining Your Novel’ workbook and it’s really helpful. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The awesome thing about structure is that I bet you money you’re already using it instinctively. 🙂

  8. This is wonderful, Katie. This is short and sweet, exactly what I need (I’m proud to say I checked off almost everything on the list).

    I’ve been revising my own WIP and accidentally fixed four mistakes with one correction: the complicated relationship between the main character and her uncle. Just like that, I created more conflict, a solid drive, a Lie that my MC had been missing, and a theme I couldn’t find. I hadn’t realized what I had done until a few days ago.

    My point is that what you’ve been saying all along about story cohesion is true. It is a wonderful feeling. Many thanks, I bow my already lowered head to my knees.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! I love creating complicated character relationships. It’s one of the easiest ways to up the stakes, conflict, and theme all at the same time.

  9. Thank you for the post!
    Currently writing the 20th draft of my WIP (I’m kidding it is the 30th) and sometimes we sit and think: is this story worthy of another draft? Well this list will save me some time and headhecks! Thank you!

  10. Thanks for the post!

    I’ve been writing for a while, and I certainly understand the tension between structure–all of those things we learn in books and writing courses–and pure creativity. The more you write, the harder it gets it seems (I’m pretty sure someone famous said that, but I’m terrible with names, unfortunately).

    I think keeping a balance is extremely important, but it can be difficult to know how to do this at times. My inner editor is snarky and never wants to leave me alone. Years ago, it was so loud that I almost gave up writing altogether. But when things are most difficult, you’re ready for a breakthrough. Now, I sometimes (regularly) have to tell my inner editor to shut up and let me work, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can take a deep breath and not worry so much.

    For me, worrying about the backbones of writing doesn’t come until the second draft, and it increases with each draft I do. I allow myself to become a little more aware of structure the further I go. But the first draft I try not to worry about any of it. Like you said, it becomes second nature after a while, so a lot of it is there already, but initially I just want to find out what the story is about.

    As I go on, I examine the story more and more, until I get to editing, where of course structure plays an integral part. That slow transition from mostly creative to more logical seems to work well for me.

    Have a happy NaNoWriMo! And thanks again for the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just last night I was reading a wonderful essay by Elizabeth Gilbert in the anthology Light the Dark, in which she lamented the fact that many authors use aggressive terms to discuss their writing–“opening a vein,” “killing it,” etc. She talked about how she had learned to move beyond her internal editor by focusing on the “wonder” of writing rather than looking at it as something to conquer. I find myself on the brink of much the same epiphany. I think it’s a place we have to grow into, but it’s definitely worth pursuing.

  11. Max Woldhek says:

    “Blinks.” Oh yeah, November is nanowrimo. I’d completely forgotten.
    And I got done with outlining and structuring my plan for my third book yesterday. What fortuitous timing.

  12. Classic Weiland. Indisputably awesome sauce.

  13. Great stuff, KM!
    Thank you!
    Happy Halloween!!! 😀

  14. Thank y0u f0r this checklist. I’m not nearly as ready as I’d hoped but I’m armed with a basic outline with story structure points as well as a detailed character arc taken from the questions in your book Creating Character Arcs. I’ve learned a lot from your books and articles and am confident enough to take on NaNoWriMo for the first time. Thanks again.

  15. Bryan Fagan says:

    As a former pantser I have come to realize structure works best. The key is to find what works best for you. It might be something drawn out and detailed and some something small and simple. A lot of it comes down to the personality of the writer. Most of all it comes down to telling a good story. If your a good writer and you are organized you have a chance in this gig.

  16. I’m actually an ML for my local NaNoWriMo region for the second time this year, and this list sums up preparation quite nicely. I may just send this link out the next time I share a group message. A great way to sum up novel preparation, with some handy links within for more detail if need be.

  17. I love this post and as a first time writer I’m sure I’ll be referring to it often! I’m no where ready for NaNoWriMo this year, but maybe next year.

    I remember you saying that you often have an idea in your head for a year or two before you even start outlining and I’m beginning to see why. The deeper I dig into my characters and their interaction/relationship with each other the more my story idea changes. lol Is this common in the beginning of the process?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’d say yes. In the beginning, you’re just seeing the story’s form rising out of your subconscious. Sometimes your conscious makes wrong guesses about it. 🙂

  18. I must be a “pantser” Or whatever you call it. I pretty much just write it as I see it in my head, but I run into issues with not knowing where one story ends and the other begins, or finding scenes I like but are more less info dumps disguised as dialogue or scenes…Though I found them amusing, my friend was quick to point out the info I was trying to tell (relating to character history or other stuff) isn’t something a character would bring up in a normal conversation. (at best it was that seems out of character, or isn’t something relevant to the scene, at worst, got the it reads like a “soap opera drama” or this really is inappropriate and makes the character look bad/ I don’t like the character because of unrelenting backstory. criticism.) It is really REALLY hard not to dump character backstory or descriptions of physical appearance. So many things I want to show and tell, but finding the relevant spot is tricky to say the least. I have been reading some of your books and they are helping.

    The next challenge is working on scenes. I’m getting better though. Realizing that I need to be more selective. I may visualize the “daily life of my characters” but not all of it fits the plot of the story written, and some of the info I want to pass on, I have to find better ways to show it than sometimes the first idea that comes up.

    I’m bad at making outlines, but I have started to jot out rough notes of key plot points and what I generally want out of the series I’m working on. I’m finding it much easier than to write it this way than it was back then.

    I guess part of my issue is stubbornness aka “Killing my darlings”. I was trying to keep to the same story structure since its creation over 15+ years ago. But I had a reader point out tons of things that couldn’t be resolved with just changing dialogue or a scene here or there….

    I’m having to rewrite the entire series keeping this info in mind. Daunting, and challenging, but fun at the same time.

  19. What I like about your list is that it’s a list-with-support. The help desk is built in because you provide links that focus on each of the five points you make. I appreciate that–thank you.

    The story I’m writing right now began organically with scenes that came to me one by one during my morning writing sessions. I wasn’t sure if the story would develop into anything, but I decided to give it a chance to develop. I didn’t want to scare it away, so I just took my time and wooed my characters into being.

    Because I have so much structure and character arc in my brain from reading your books and studying your data bases, my “organic” writing does follow a kind of basic structure. I’ve now reached the magical 20,000 word mark with my rough draft–the perfect time to work through your lists and make sure I’m on the right path, so that my next 20,000 words naturally fill in the holes my organic writing made.

    Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying Thank YOU. Your post of lists arrived at just the right time for me and my story.

Trackbacks

  1. […] NaNoWriMo time! Jenny Hanson has 10 ways to make NaNoWriMo work for you, K.M. Weiland has a great novel-writing checklist to keep you moving, Savvy Book Writers celebrates NaNoWriMo, Rachel Dacus prepares for NaNoWriMo […]

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