A story checklist

Over at Black Gate, a thought-provoking post by M Harold Page on checklists and their function.

Nowadays before an operation it’s the thing for — usually — a senior nurse to work through a list with items like: “Does the patient have any allergies? Has the anaesthetist raised any concerns…? Is this even the right patient for this operation..?” There are also checklists for emergency situations such as reviving somebody fished out of a pond to make sure critical injections aren’t missed. … Why this is mildly terrifying is because (a) checklists significantly raise patient survival rates, and (b) the medical profession has only recently adopted them!

I didn’t know medical personnel did this! It makes so much sense. I’m glad they do. I hope they don’t skip it if I’m the one going under the knife! Page then goes on to mention similar checklists for pilots and then (of course) relates the concept to writing.

The whole post is worth checking out, but here are the items on Page’s checklist for a story:

1. Can the story be summed up with the following format: Question, answer, but now? Like this: “Can Frodo take the One Ring to Mordor? Yes, but its destruction heralds the end of Middle Earth as we know it. Now he and the world must cope with modernity.”

2. Does your story start with the question and end with the answer? Long-winded infodump prologues by definition start somewhere other than the question, so this would be a type of check aimed against that kind of structure. I will add that I like long epilogues (usually).

3. Do all the character choices make sense? An excellent question, to be sure. I would say there are two main ways a story can fail this test: a) the protagonist acts out of character; and b) the protagonist does something unbelievably stupid (emphasis on “unbelievable”). At least, those are things that kick me personally out of a story if I’m reading happily along.

4. Is the exposition timely? I would phrase this: Is the reader ever confused, and if so how long does that last? I think readers are willing to wait for explanations and tolerate puzzlement, but probably not forever.

5. Is the pacing right?

6. Do the transitions work?

Not terrible as a checklist goes. I think (1) is probably helpful for coming up with back cover copy or (worse) two-sentence elevator pitches. And I don’t dislike all prologues, but I think the writer should probably consider carefully whether a prologue is adding value or not. Epilogues too, though as I say I usually like epilogues (much more often than prologues).

First readers can help with that “Do character actions make sense” thing. It can be truly difficult to tell, or at least I find myself uncertain about that exact issue more than many others. Same with pacing, in fact. Actually I’d say 3 through 6 are reasons to have an analytical beta reader check over completed work before you open your hands to let the stories fly.

Click through to read the more extensive comments about each item. There are two more items, but they’re not really about evaluating the story, so I left them out here.

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