Making a List and Checking It Twice: How to Know If an Idea is Naughty or Nice

Danielle here! I’m still busy with NaNoWriMo, as well as finishing the edits on Journaling to Become a Better Writer. So instead of writing a new blog post this week, I’m recycling something I wrote for Carrie’s blog, Carrie Lynn Lewis Writing. This is the follow-up post to the one that appeared here at Indie Plot Twist last week, Working with New Characters. Enjoy!

Making a List and Checking It Twice

In my last guest post, I mentioned using a combination of list making and what I call the “gut test” to draw the story out of a character. But what should go onto that list? And how do you know if your “gut instinct” about an option is right?

Making the List
The first question is easy. What should go on your list? Everything. This is definitely where you ban the editor part of your brain. Slap down every idea that crosses your mind, no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched.

Your heroine has been washed up on a desert island after a storm that wrecked her ship. What does she do next?

  • Curl up on the beach and cry.
  • Explore the island to see if it’s inhabited.
  • Expect a short stay and build a signal fire, devoting herself to tending it.
  • Expect a long stay, roll up her sleeves, gather provisions, find or create a weapon, and build a hut.
  • Build a raft to get to a nearby (hopefully inhabited) island.
  • Realize that living alone on a deserted island is a dream come true and throw a party—with herself as the only guest.
  • Hyperventilate about being eaten by cannibals and run around the island screaming.

Those last two options on my sample list embody the spirit of throwing down any—ANY—idea that crosses your mind. You just never know!

Once you have a list, pause for just a second. One option probably catches your attention more than the others—like a magnet drawing you in. That’s your gut instinct saying, “This is the right way to go.” For me, the option that drew my attention the most was the heroine throwing a party—alone at last! What a twist on the classic shipwreck story.

But is there any way to verify your gut instinct? You bet. Give it the three-tiered test.

Checking It Twice
Or in this case, three times.

  • Question #1: Is this option true to the character?

In other words, would the character ever actually do something like this? You’ll notice in the list above, each option suggests something different about the heroine’s personality.

Curl up and cry—a vulnerable woman who is in no way prepared for the struggles ahead of her, alone on a desert island.

Roll up her sleeves and hunker down—a self-reliant woman already equipped with wilderness survival skills, or at least instinct and good sense.

Or my favorite option, throw a one-person party—an off-the-wall woman who marches to the beat of her own drum.

  • Question #2: Which option is true to the rest of the story?

If you’re still in the beginning stages of a book, you may not have a “rest of the story” yet. Fear not. You may have noticed in the list above that each option suggests not only something about the character, but also the story. Crybaby—soap opera. Sleeve roller—adventure. Party girl—humor.

On the other hand, you may already have a vague idea of some future events that are likely to go into the story. Maybe while you were lying in bed one night, you thought up a scene in which an adorable but mischievous monkey works its way into your heroine’s life and food stash. You love the monkey idea. You’re almost positive you’re going to keep it. Do any of the options in your list support the monkey idea?

For the party-with-myself woman, the monkey could add conflict. Miss Heroine has a whole island to herself, and she’s not about to share it with anyone—a pantry-raiding primate least of all.

Finally, we reach the last question, which should actually have been first because it’s the most important, but I saved it for last because it feels so boring.

  • Question #3: Is this option true to the real world?

In other words, could or would such an event ever really happen? This is the part where we ask, “Will the reader believe this?” If not, your story’s credibility may be on the rocks—along with your heroine’s ship.

Maybe you’ve previously established in your story that there are NO other islands around for hundreds of miles. Then your heroine ups and builds a raft. Is this realistic? Nope. Beware that you do not inspire book-tossing impulses in your reader.

Carrie thinks my writing methods are instinctual. But do you want to hear a little secret? After fifty lists and a hundred and fifty tests, it can actually feel pretty cerebral! So however you approach a story, don’t be afraid to give this method a try. You just never know what your characters may tell you.

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