I’m now the probationary member of a new writing group in Bend. Along with my first sub, I’m sending them the following list of things I scrutinize when revising my first draft of a story, aside from basics like grammar, punctuation, consistent viewpoint, and so on.
Questions to Test a Story
- Do I set up a character and situation and interesting question soon enough and strongly enough?
- Is the interesting question resolved well enough by the end?
- What does the character deeply want? What concrete goals advance the character toward what they want?
- Does the character — or at least the reader — gain deeper insight into what the character wants?
- Is the character tested, and does that test show what they’re capable of, either strength or tragic weakness? (Some writers ask if the character is changed, but not all stories involve change so much as revelation, and change implies revelation.)
- Are there enough threads in the story, that is, enough sub-stories of supporting characters giving texture to the story. Is every bit player used to good effect? Could they be fleshed out more, or would that draw energy from the story? (The lives of other characters surface and recede from the story, but I need to know — and more importantly explain — enough about the untold story that when a minor character surfaces at point A and resurfaces at point B, the thread of their own story is both clear and clearly important to the main story. Or maybe after considering the thread, I decide to demote or remove the minor character.)
- In each scene, especially a dialog-heavy one, is there enough emotionally consistent background detail layered behind the foreground detail, like smells or noises that comprise a motif. (The curtains are blue for a reason — absolutely. The viewpoint character filters the story through their perceptions, and what they notice reflects their mood and attitudes, so anything that impinges on that attention is important. )
- Is the foreshadowing good, or is the development telegraphed? (That is, will people see things coming a mile away that I want to be a surprise?) Are surprising things prepped well so they come off as a logical rather than arbitrary surprise?
- Is the story significant enough? Does it have universal overtones, or is it too small? Does it mean anything?
- Does it resonate? That is, does your imagination work on it after the last line?