Monday, February 9, 2009

Sketch a Novel in an Hour Exercise

Sketch a Novel in an Hour
By Christina F. York and J. Steven York,
Based on Outline a Novel in a Hour, an exercise by Alicia Rasley,
A free-writing exercise designed to help you discover the novel already inside you. Though it is focused on novels, it can also be useful for short-form fiction, screenplays, and we’ve even had people use it on a non-fiction book, though that isn’t what it’s designed for.
For the purposes of a non-fiction book, you can treat a real person, place, theme, subject as the main “character” of your book, and work from there. We make no claims, but it’s certainly worth a try.
This is a free-writing exercise. Free writing is a technique that helps you bypass your internal editors and censors. The point is for a defined period to write (or type) everything that goes through your head, without formatting or censoring yourself.
In free-writing, don’t worry about spelling, correctness, or even coming up with complete sentences. Every word, image, or thought goes onto the page. Don’t pause writing, because you never stop thinking. If you stop, it just means that you’re editing yourself. Don’t change, cross-out or correct. Those are all editing functions, and that’s for another time.
It’s fine to write multiple, or even contradictory answers to each question. In some cases, you can make use of more than one, and in any case, the third, or fifth, or tenth answer you come up with may well be better than your first. Decide later.
If really you can’t think of anything to write, write the last word you put on the page, or a random word (I suggest “banana”) over and over to keep your hands and fingers moving. Your brain will quickly get tired and come up with something else for you to write.
Remember that this is not a test. You will not be graded or judged. There are no right answers. Nobody ever need see what you write except you. After you’re finished, you can burn the paper or delete the file, and your thoughts are as private as they ever were. This is just a way of getting them out of your head for a while for you to examine and consider.
To do this exercise solo, make yourself comfortable, and make time to go through the whole process in one sitting, as each question builds on the previous ones, and you want them fresh in your mind. You will need a timer. A simple digital kitchen timer works very well for this.
Decide how long you want to give each question. You can do as little as a minute, but we don’t suggest much more than about five. Any more is just too hard. You can always repeat the exercise on the same book if you think it needs more brainstorming. 3-5 minutes is a good length.
Remember to take a brief break between questions to catch your breath, limber up your hands, and stretch a bit. We’ll remind you to take a short break half-way though the exercise.
Read each question in turn, and think about how it applies to your potential novel. Consider how your responses to previous questions will inform the current question. Give yourself a few moments to consider the question (not too long, as planning is just another form of editing) then start your timer and begin writing until time runs out.
By the way, to help you understand each question, we’ve found it useful to provide an example from a story that everyone is familiar with. To do that, we need a story that’s almost universally known and remembered, and that is simple and clear enough that the workings of its character and plot are fairly simple and obvious.
For this document, we’ve chosen to use the movie “Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope,” (or for those of us of a certain age, just, plain “Star Wars”). Most people have seen it, or at least are familiar with the story, and it’s simple, plain storytelling without a lot of hidden subtext. All the workings are right there in plain sight for you to study.
1. What makes your character different or unusual? What makes him or her worth writing (and reading) about?
A sample answer: Luke Skywalker is powerful in the ways of the Force, but he doesn’t know it.
2. When the story opens, what interesting or exciting thing is he or she doing, or on the brink of doing.
A sample answer: Luke is trying to “escape” his life on the farm to attend the Academy and become a pilot.
3. What external event, beyond the control of the character, will influence the action throughout the story? This may not be their initial goal, but it is the one that will drive them through the bulk of the story.
Sample answer: The Rebel Alliance is at war with the Empire.
4. For the time the story covers, what is your character's primary goal?
A sample answer: Luke wants to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like his father
5. What are at least three obstacles in the way of achieving your character’s goal?
A sample answer:
Lack of a ship
Darth Vader
The Death Star
The death of Obi-Wan
6. What qualities of the character will help or hinder him in meeting that goal?
A sample answer:
Desire to embrace something bigger than himself
7. How will your character change or grow as a result of confronting the obstacles and either overcoming them, or being defeated by them?
A sample answer:
He learns the cost of his ambition
He becomes less naïve
He becomes more determined
8. What is at stake? What is the cost to your character of NOT achieving his goal?
A sample answer:
Failure of the Alliance
Loss of his world
He has nothing left
9. What is the darkest moment?
A sample answer:
The death of Obi-Wan
10. What outcome do you want to bring about? Will the character achieve his goal, or fail to overcome the obstacles?
A sample answer: Luke embraces the Force, destroys the Death Star, and saves the Rebel Alliance.
11. What price will the character pay to make that ending come about?
A sample answer:
Luke loses his innocence.
He loses his family, and his childhood
His new friend Obi-Wan is killed, tragic in itself, and leaving him without a teacher in the ways of the Force.

Putting It All Together
The intent of this exercise is to make you think about important aspects of your character and story and to draw out new ideas. As such, don't think there's any set way you need to apply what you've put down. Use is as it works for your particular book.
However, the following guidelines may help you in making use of your discoveries...
1. What makes your character different or unusual? What makes him or her worth writing (and reading) about?
Question 1 defines what is most distinctive about your character, what is most important for you to communicate to the reader. Clue: It most likely is not their hair color or shoe size. It probably is not their job or social status, though that can be some part of it.
Look beyond the superficial labels by which most people brand themselves, to what is really important, and what is really interesting. Look for the thing that will immediately grab your reader's interest, and make them want to know more.
2. When the story opens, what interesting or exciting thing is he or she doing, or on the brink of doing.
Question 2 gives you a starting point, an inciting incident.
A common writing mistake is to start with your protagonist at rest, then subject your readers to the entire process of bringing them up to speed. The most common example of this is the "he woke up," opening. If the alarm clock goes off in the opening of a story, it's a fairly sure sign that the writer only knew the day, when their story starts, not the moment, and so they just started things at the beginning of that day.
It's almost always advantageous to start with your character already in motion or action, or at least poised to take action. It's far more interesting to start with your character in an argument, in a car chase, hanging from a cliff, wrestling a 'gator, planning a murder, or about to jump from an airplane into a combat zone, than having them thinking about which toothpaste to use this morning.
Likewise, if your character wakes up hung over or beaten up, it's just possible you started your story too late.
Combining one and two, you have a strong opening: an immediately interesting character moving through (or about to enter) an interesting situation with an uncertain outcome. All these things combine to grab your reader and leave them wanting more.
3. What external event, beyond the control of the character, will influence the action throughout the story?
The answer to this question will put your character in a context, an environment. It will provide them a time and a place, and help define how they relate to it.
In many instances, this context can be as important as the character themselves. This is the canvas you'll paint your story on, and it will provide more interest if it has a rich texture of its own to add to the whole.
It generally will provide more reader interest and more story opportunities if the main character finds themselves in conflict with this environment than if they are in harmony with it.
4. For the time the story covers, what is your character's primary goal? This may not be their initial goal, but it is the one that will drive them through the bulk of the story.
This is the engine and rudder that will move your character through the course of the book. It may define their ultimate destination and the end of the book as well, but not necessarily so. Yes, you character's story arc can be a powerful speedboat, dancing across the tops of the waves, but it may be more interesting to have it be a lumbering freighter, caught in a fast current and headed for a reef.
But in either case, it is the character's struggles to move toward their goal, and how that goal evolves over time and circumstance, that make your story interesting.
Combining the answers to three and four will help to define a story arc for your character through the course of the book, as goals, drive, and external forces interact and come into opposition.
5. What are at least three obstacles in the way of achieving your character’s goal?
If your main character sets out to discover the cure for cancer, and by the end of chapter one has achieved this and gone off to a happy retirement, you haven't got much of a story. Books are about struggle, and for this, you'll need to throw obstacles in your character's way.
These can take the form of practical considerations, external forces, environment, antagonistic characters, characters with their own conflicting goals, or even misunderstandings and miscommunications that throw your character off their path or stand in their way.
6. What qualities of the character will help or hinder him in meeting that goal?
These answers help define how your character will respond to the obstacles you've placed in their way, and remember that the "hinder" list is just as important as the "help" list. These characteristics are illuminated as you bring them into play here, and help add depth and reality to the character.
The characteristics from your "hinder" list can be especially important in endearing your character to the reader, and allowing them to identify with the character and the story.
Remember too that virtues can hinder character as easily as shortcomings. An extremely moral character can be stopped if the only solution to their dilemma requires moral compromise in the interest of the greater good.
7. How will your character change or grow as a result of confronting the obstacles and either overcoming them, or being defeated by them?
As the story progresses, your character will refined and remade by the conflicts and challenges they encounter. They shouldn't end the book as the same person they started. If the protagonist isn't changed by the journey, what was the point?
Even a series character (such as a superhero, movie, or television character) can have their established character illuminated, verified, or reinforced in a way that serves the same story function.
Combine the answers to 5, 6, and 7 and they provide you with a series of try-fail cycles around which you can build scenes, chapters, or extended story arcs.
A try-fail cycle is defined as a story element where your character, in proceeding towards their goal, encounters difficulties or opposition. They then respond with a course of action that seems logical and reasonable for that character, in that situation, given the information and resources at their disposal.
Always remember that this may not seem the best course of action to your as the writer, or to your reader. We may know that the character's headstrong nature will steer them wrong, that their hatred of a romantic rival is leading them to self-destruction, that there's a killer hidden behind the door they're about to open, or that the stolen map they're following is leading them into an ambush. Their course of action need only seem believable for that particular character in that particular situation.
8. What is at stake? What is the cost to your character of NOT achieving his goal?
The answers to this question define the stakes in the outcome of the book, both for the protagonist, and for the reader. They create tension, and add weight to every decision, action, challenge and plot-twist that occurs to the book. Though they shouldn't be mentioned excessively, these consequences should be lurking at the back of the reader's mind all the way through the book.
The stakes are another driving force that will direct your protagonist through the book, and force them to reexamine and redefine themselves and their goals as the story progresses. The stakes force your character to put themselves in emotional or physical danger, to compromise deeply held opinions or beliefs, to sacrifice things, status, relationships, and even people important to them.
More than anything, the stakes are what allow you to put your character's feet to the fire and make them suffer in service of a goal, and that's what makes for compelling storytelling.
9. What is the darkest moment?
This answer provides you with an important landmark in any story, often the pivot on which your entire resolution will turn: the darkest moment. This is the moment when all seems lost, when all your heroes' efforts have failed, when hope is dashed and the character's goal seems utterly unattainable. It's the moment that puts your character to their ultimate test, which they will then either pass or utterly fail.
If your character is to succeed, this will be their turning point. This is the moment where the athlete finds a last reserve of strength, where the detective identifies the hidden clue, where the priest rediscovers his lost faith, or the drowning man decides to fight death rather than slip quietly into the depths.
Of course, depending on the needs of your story, they may still fail in their ultimate goal, but the turn at this point defines how they go out. They can meet defeat still proud and defiant, head held high, struggling to their last breath.
Or not. That is where the character fails their ultimate test. They surrender to defeat, they make the moral compromise from which there can be no redemption, they give in to corruption and greed, or they give up their pure goals and trade them for violence and revenge.
The darkest moment may come quite near the end of the book, the last twist before the resolution, or it can come near the beginning, after which your character can begin a long climb up from the depths of despair, or we can follow them step by step as they tumble down a staircase of depravity. But its most common position is maybe 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to the end, a gateway that leads us into the final acts and the resolution of the plot.
10. What outcome do you want to bring about? Will the character achieve his goal, or fail to overcome the obstacles?
11. What price will the character pay as the result of this resolution, or to make this ending come about?
The answers to these questions provide your ending and validation. This is the time to not only wrap up the events of the plot, but to give them weight, resolution, and closure.
Showing the cost of victory (or failure) adds weight to the book and reassures the reader that they haven't wasted their time reading about insubstantial events. It offers your character, and the reader, time to contemplate what has gone before, and to consider if it was worth the price.
It's also often wise to assure the reader that this resolution of events is the real resolution, as by this time you've repeatedly shown your protagonist (and your reader) potential victory, only to snatch it away. Certainly, the villain may seem dead, but it still might be wise to have some go over, kick the body a couple times, and announce, "yup, he's dead all right!"

Other ways to use this exercise
This exercise is aimed towards helping you to create a straight-forward narrative story with a central protagonist. It can be used to help you in plotting a novel, a short-story, or anything in-between. But obviously, not every book will fit this mold. Here are some hints on other ways you can use this tool.
Multiple viewpoint novels:
For multiple-viewpoint novels, you may find it useful to run this exercise for each of your major characters. Doing so will help to give each of them an independent story arc, and will illuminate the various ways their individual goals and attributes may allow them to cooperate, or bring them into conflict.
The Villain's Story
Nothing will undermine a novel like an under-developed villain. Remember that in the villain's mind, they aren't a villain. They're the hero of their own story. Run the exercise from their viewpoint and learn why they choose to do the things they do. Evil isn't the answer you're looking for. Nothing will enhance your hero like a well-developed and interesting antagonist.
This isn't our idea, but believe it or not, we've had people we've taught at conferences report using this exercise on non-fiction book projects. Even more amazing, they've actually found it useful.
In order to make this work, I'd suggest using the subject, theme, place or person that you book will be about as the "character," and run things from there. Doubtless some flexibility is going to be necessary on some questions, but I can see how it could work.
If you try it, and find it useful, or have suggestions, please let us hear from you.
Good luck.
- Chris and Steve York

Did you find this article useful? Your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.


  1. Thanks for this. Dave Farland suggested this in his latest "Kick in the Pants," and now I see why. Your examples and explanations help a great deal and cause one to pause and really think about underlying motivations. I'll be linking to this in my blog as well.

  2. This is great stuff, useful not only when getting started on a novel but after the novel is written. I am planning to go through and see what areas of my novel I can strengthen using these questions and examples. Thanks!

  3. I also saw Dave's recommendation. I had complained to him about my difficulties outlining. This is a different way of going at it and I'm going to try it on my next novel.

  4. Outlining has always intimidated me, but this I can do.

  5. This makes more sense than the worksheets that want you to profile your characters based on looks and money, with a few plot questions in there. I have trouble with plots (borrowing from others always works), and these questions center around keeping the story moving with the plot ideas and such.
    You really should thank David Farland for linking you in his e-mail. He IS amazing.

  6. Awesome article. Love this approach. Now to stop planning and start writing...

  7. And I hope you don't mind but I put a link to this article in my own blog over at and recommended it on a couple of forums where I post. :)

    Really an excellent article. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for the comments so far. For those asking for permission to link, please do! We love the traffic.

    - Steve

  9. Great article, I linked it to my blogspot, :)

  10. Thanks for the article. I saw it in Wolverton's "Kick in the Pants" also. And it couldn't have come at a better time: I am just starting a novel, so I think this can really help give me some direction.
    I added a link at my blog:

  11. Will be checking this out, and linked it to my blog, too! Thanks for sharing---and putting on teenlit authors, would not have found otherwise.

  12. I'm going to link it to my blog post tomorrow. I'm going to try to apply it to my latest picture book manuscript & see if it'll work. If nothing else, it should help me with my middle grade novel. Thanks.
    The Differently-Abled Children's Author
    J. Aday Kennedy

  13. I've been stuck on how to outline my non-fiction work-in-progress and I'm excited to get started on this!
    Thanks for sharing.
    Kimberley Payne

  14. I'm gong to try this today.
    Thanks so much for posting.

    Writerly blessings to all


  15. Glad to see that people are still reading and using this post. Please feel free to share the link or publish it (the link) in your writer's club or workshop newsletter. If you'd like to publish the article in its entirety, please contact us for permission and terms of use.

    -Steve York

  16. Found this through a Google search. It looks very helpful. (Even three years after you posted it.) :)


  17. This just helped me find a BRILLIANT driving force/external influence for MC. One that I didn't even know he needed! Thank you! :D

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