Tools for Writers

Every writer needs a full toolbox, but we all have our favorite tools A particular screwdriver that you hate may fit my hand perfectly, and your favorite hammer might be too heavy for me. The key is to try each tool out and see if it works with your writing style and personality. Keep the ones that work, and soon you'll be crafting better fiction with less effort.


These are some tools that work for me.

How to Create Fully Developed Characters
  • 20 Questions: a Character Inventory. My very favorite character tool, 20 Questions was developed by Barbara Nelson, a writing teacher I had at Arizona State University. This tool works for me because I can freewrite in paragraphs, letting my creative right brain take over. I often write seven to ten single-spaced pages on main characters in a novel, and three to five pages on supporting characters. Great tool for Pantsers!
  • Character Chart is a lengthy fill-in-the-blank chart. It's a handy reference tool once the character is already developed, when you're writing chapter 18 and cannot remember what color the character's eyes are. Militant Plotters will like it for developing characters as well.
  • Character Profile Worksheet is a hybrid of the other two. More structured than 20 Questions, but less regimented than the Character Chart.
  • Character Questionnaire is a list of 100 questions you ask your character. It works especially well if you role play your character and videotape someone else asking you the questions.

Quick-and-Dirty Methods to Develop Plot

  • Mind Mapping: A visual brainstorming tool, mind mapping works best when you've already chosen one element of fiction: character, setting, theme, primary conflict, etc. You already know how to use this tool. 
  • Cause and Effect Flowchart: This brainstorming method works best if you already know your Inciting Event (the initial event that changes your protagonist's life).
  • Holly Lisle's From-Scratch Plot Exercise: if you have absolutely no idea what you want to write about, this is a good place to start.
  • Gary Provost Sentence: I blogged about this recently and presented it locally in 2008, so I won't go into it here. But the short version is that if you replace each of these key points with specifics to your novel, you will have enough structure to support it. This method (and Michael Hauge's, below) work best when you already have a story idea but want to make sure you've included all the necessary elements.
  • Michael Hauge's Story Concept Template: This is similar to the Gary Provost Sentence in that you replace his general words with your specific examples, but Hauge's a bit more complex.

More Complex Novel Plotting Methods
  • Three-Act Structure: This is a traditional stage play structure, but it works for novels as well. 
  • Five-Act Structure: This is a little dated, but it's useful to be aware of it because writers do talk about it. 
  • Literature Modeling: Modeling a novel after a piece of classic literature is a time-honored technique.
  • The Writer's Journey: Christopher Vogler developed this complex storytelling method from Joseph Campbell's work on mythic structure. It's well worth buying and reading his book.
  • Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure: This extremely complex structure involves two story arcs: the Inner and Outer journeys.

Two Generalized Plot Development Methods

Final Thoughts

Trust yourself. You've been hearing and reading stories all your life. At a gut level, you understand what makes them work. Don't worry too much about following rules. Just tell a great story.

You can always clean it up later, but you can't edit a blank page. So start writing!