Ten Questions to Ask When Beginning a Book

Do any of these describe you?
  1. You’re a plotter, and you’re starting to figure out the structure of your novel.
  2. You’re a plotter, and now that you’ve worked out all the ins and outs of your story structure, you’re ready to begin the book.
  3. You’re a pants-ster, you’ve got an awesome idea, and you’re ready to charge into writing.
  4. Plotter or pants-ter, you’ve finished draft 1 of your book and you’re ready to give it an overhaul.
This post is for those of you are ready to tackle your book project, beginning at the beginning.

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And man, that beginning can be a toughie. Richard Peck writes his entire novel, then tosses out the first chapter (without reading it) and writes it again. Jerry Spinelli, award-winning author of Stargirl, says he tosses the whole BOOK out after finishing draft one. It’s not until he finishes that first draft that he feels that he really knows what the story is about.

Why am I thinking of these things? Because I’m revisiting last year’s NaNoWriMo novel—the one that didn’t quite happen—and I think I understand why the words refused to flow. I didn’t know the answer to these questions. This week, I’m busy answering them—and I hope you find them useful, too!

Questions to Ask When Beginning Your Book

  • Who is your audience? Why will they read—and keep reading—this book? Before you type those first words, it can be helpful to paint a mental picture of your ideal reader. What will he or she look for in a book? What will they love about your story? Keep your answers in mind as you write.
  • Who is the heart of the story? You need to bring them to life in a few swift brush strokes. You need to show off their strengths enough that a reader will be willing to stick with the character through a few hundred pages. A few years back, I attended Donald Mass’s  Writing the Breakout Novel workshop, where he recommended allowing your character to be heroic in some small way in the first chapter. In the opening pages, what will “wow” your reader?
  • What is your main character’s flaw or weakness? Just as you want to hint at your main character’s strengths in the opening pages, you also want to pave the way for his weaknesses. Make sure the opening scene gives you some way to , and how can you reveal it in the opening pages?
  • What does your main character need or desire? Think about how you can show what your main character needs or wants in the opening pages, which will hint at the conflict to come.
  • How can you show the elements most important to plot and character, rather than just telling the reader?Telling is a speedy way to get information to your reader, but showing can capture a reader’s emotions. For example:
    • “Sally longed for her mother to return” (telling) provides information.
    • “Sally studied faces in the crowd, searching for her mother. She didn’t realize she was biting her lip until she tasted blood.” (showing) helps the reader to feel Sally’s anxiety as well as providing the information that she wants her mother to return.
  • What is the “ordinary world” of your main character’s Hero’s Journey, the status quo that changes as the story begins? In order for readers to understand the changes that your character faces, they need to understand her starting point.
  • What is the “inciting incident” in your main character’s Hero’s Journey—the event that sets your character on a new path? Without this incident, you have no story. This is what starts the story rolling, and it’s generally a good idea to have it show up in the opening chapter.
  • What background information is absolutely essential to know in the opening paragraphs and pages? What information does NOT need to be revealed until later in the story? Sometimes backstory absolutely must make an appearance in the opening pages—but not nearly as often as we writers like to think. Pare background information down to the bare minimum so you can pull readers more quickly into the story action.
  • Where is the story going? Fellow critique group member (and amazing writer) Julie Peters says she writes her book’s ending before writing the rest of the book. She’s not an avid outliner—but by having a clear destination in mind, she can make sure that her story stays on track.
  • How are you going to surprise your reader? Plot twists and reversals keep readers reading, while predictable sequences of events can be the death of a story. Even if you don’t map out every plot point before beginning to write, start thinking about how you will upend readers’ expectations.
  • What promise does your story make to your readers, and how will you keep that promise? Thanks for adding this to the list, Alexa. Even in the opening scene, the author is presenting a particular story type to the reader, and each story type has an implied promise. What will your reader expect from your opening? Although you want to keep some surprises up your sleeve, you also want to remain true to the promises unfurled in the opening.
  • From Giselle: What can your character do at the END of the book that he or she cannot do at the BEGINNING of the book?

Thanks to Sarah for some more great questions to ask:

  • Who stands in the main character’s way, and how does he or she prevent the hero from achieving her desire? (the antagonist)
  • What does the character stand to lose if she fails to achieve her desire? What does she stand to gain if she succeeds? (stakes)
  • What’s the worst that could happen? (this usually turns into a fun free write, because there are lots of ways to go from here!)
Your turn!

Anything to add to the list? What questions help you get a clear enough picture of your characters, plot, and world to start writing?

Did you find this post helpful? You can download this post in worksheet format to help you prepare to write YOUR next novel. Enjoy!
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  1. says

    Great tips! I just finished reading a book about beginnings called HOOKED by Les Edgerton. It’s a fantastic read and helped me a lot of how to decide where to begin a story.

    • says

      Hi Christine, sounds like a great book! I’ll definitely check it out.

  2. says

    Wow, this is such a great list! I’ve heard of writers throwing out their whole first draft. I can’t even imagine! I like the advice to show something heroic about your mc in the first pages. I’ll remember that while I’m revising my first chapter. Thank you

    • says

      I know, I don’t think I’d have the willpower to throw it out completely. Of course, I’m the type that likes to cut passages and paste them into a “cut scenes” file just in case I ever need them again. (I haven’t yet…)

      I found the “show something heroic” advice helpful, too. I thought it was in his book but couldn’t find it; he definitely mentioned in his workshop, though.

  3. says

    I would add, what is the promise your story makes to the reader–in reference to Bill Johnson’s A Story is a Promise. Great list!

    • says

      Ah yes, that’s a really important one. Thanks for the suggestion–I’ll add it to the list!

  4. says

    I would also include: Do I love this idea enough that I can let it take over my life for the next 2+ years?

  5. says

    Thanks so much, Cheryl for this very informative post…it’s my first visit to your blog! I think you have covered all the bases. It’s a good checklist for the children’s book I am in the process of writing, I’m looking forward to perusing all the links you have in the sidebar.


    • says

      Thanks for stopping by–so glad you found the post helpful!

  6. says

    Good stuff :) Don’t know whether I’m a plotter or a pantser yet. Still working on my first novel and I’ve done both in the process.
    Good points to consider.
    Thanks for putting these questions down in writing. Sometimes we forget.

  7. says

    Very timely post. I too am revisiting my NaNo project. I’m finding that it needs a lot of work (no surprise here), but there is more of a story there than I thought. Going to look at the manscript with this post in mind tonight. Thanks!

    • says

      So glad it’s helpful! Have fun with that NaNo project :)

  8. says

    Great post! I use a spreadsheet to track the answers to all of these types of questions early on, and I often answer them for the antagonist as well.

    I would also add:

    – Who stands in the main character’s way, and how does he or she prevent the hero from achieving her desire? (the antagonist)

    – What does the character stand to lose if she fails to achieve her desire? What does she stand to gain if she succeeds? (stakes)

    – What’s the worst that could happen? (this usually turns into a fun free write, because there are lots of ways to go from here!)


    • says

      Hi Sarah, thanks for some great additions to the list!

  9. says

    It was my good fortune to come upon this post today as I tread the waters for my new novel.i can relate to what Peck and Spinneli do because I just feel like I don’t know my characters that well. Sure I get to know them a little more everyday, but I can see myself writing a draft, completely tossing it, and rewriting it again. I’ve done it before. But this post has given me some great things to think about. Thank you.

  10. says

    Love this post! Answering these questions is a great way to negotiate the murky waters of story development. Thanks for sharing!

  11. says

    Great post. Good questions that I need to go over for my story… trying to get all of the foundations and research down before November.

  12. says

    I never seem to get to the heart of the story until I’m beyond 40k words, but once I do, revision is fairly easy. :) Thanks for the questions. Passing along to a few new writers. :)

  13. says

    Hi, Cheryl! These are wonderful questions! Lots of great little nuggets here to get plotting and character development underway. Another question I might add is “What will your character be able to do at the end of the story that she could not do at the beginning?” This ensures that there has been character growth. :)

    • says

      Hi Gisele, that’s a great question to add to the list! You made me laugh with your second comment–I do exactly that when I’m deep in thought about my WIP.

      • says

        Yeah, and that’s pretty much always the way it goes. My characters are never too far away, no matter what I’m doing. lol

  14. says

    I should have said “that he or she could not do at the beginning.” LOL! Was thinking of my current characters. :)

  15. says

    I would add is this worth adding to my story?