6 Steps to Story Development

spinning platesWhen you get right down to it the major goal of the fiction writer is to keep the reader reading.

And like the performer who spins plates at the top of a stick, writers must spin several plates too—characters and character arc, plot and plot development, conflict, dialog, show vs. tell, and pacing. If we focus on only one aspect of story development and neglect the others, the story falls flat.

But that’s a lot to deal with. I certainly can’t get my brain wrapped around all those things at the same time as I write.

So what’s the answer?

Focus on one at a time, using these 6 steps.

Seat-of-the-pants writers (those who work without an outline) will do this work during the revision process. For non-pantsers (those who have an outline of some form), much of the work is done before the actual draft is written.

Characters and Character Arc

Readers want 3-dimensional characters, flaws and all, with a goal to reach.

  • Does your character have personality? Do a web search on “personality temperament” to learn more or consider reading Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey.

  • How does your character grow in his or her efforts to reach the story goal?

Plot and Plot Development

  • What are the goals of your main characters?

  • How do you get them from having a goal to reaching that goal?

  • How does each scene move the plot forward?


There’s nothing exciting about reaching for the brass ring and grabbing it the first time around the merry-go-round. Your characters have goals, and to keep readers interested, you need to keep them wondering whether your characters are going to reach those goals.

  • How big is your character’s goal? It should be like jumping the Grand Canyon to reach it.

  • What’s at stake if the character doesn’t reach his or her goal?

  • What obstacles do you erect along the way?


  • Does each character have a distinct voice? I’m not referring to pitch, but to how the character speaks—intelligently, with an accent, never in a complete sentence, etc.

  • Is your dialog real. (Take some time to listen how people really talk. It’s rarely in proper English.)

  • Does your dialog serve a purpose? It should. Dialog can be used to develop character, advance plot and conflict, create mood and suspense, and more.

Show vs. Tell

  • Do you use sensory details to paint word pictures that put your readers in the middle of the action?


As defined by James V. Smith Jr. in his book The Writer’s Little Helper, pacing is

the ability to make your writing feel like a quick read.

This is one step you cannot complete until you have written the story. Fixing it comes scene by scene.

Even if you outline, you’ll want to reexamine your draft manuscript for each of these elements during your revision process. Whether you work on these elements in this order is up to you. Find what works best and do it.

I’d love to hear from you. I’m an outliner. What are you? What elements, if any, of your story do you know before you start writing?

Related posts:

9 Aspects of Dialog from Author Cecil Murphey
How Do Plot and Scene Work Together? Part 1

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  1. I am a pantser on my WIP trying to find my fictional voice. I keep telling myself to get the ideas down in a very rough first draft and I can clean it when I revise.

    • Donna, that’s probably your internal editor impeding the process. Even as an outliner, I still have to tell my internal editor to be quiet when I sit to write the manuscript. She has learned to leave me alone most of the time as long as I tell her she can edit to her heart’s content when it’s time to revise. Or are you just finding it hard to find the time to write?


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