Five ways to get to know your story before writing


03 May 2022
Advice on getting to know your novel from bestselling author Laura Barnett.

Whether you like to plot intricately or just let your instinct guide you into your story, it’s a good idea to make a few key decisions before you start to write. For myself, I know that if I don’t spend time getting to know my story, my work will be far harder later on.

So, where do we begin?


1. The essence of your story

You may already know the core of your story – your central preoccupation or the key question that drives it.

Imagine a friend asking you, ‘What is your story about?’ That friend doesn’t want a shaggy-dog-story of an answer – they’re quite interested in what you’re doing, but not that interested – so keep your answer pithy: one sentence, if you can manage it.

That one line is all-important. Keep it in mind – and maybe stick it on your wall.

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2. Setting

Where is the action going to take place, and when? Figure out the parameters of your fictional world.

3. Characters

Who is/are your protagonist(s)? Take time to get to know them so you can bring them instantly to life on the page. Exploring character can also help you decide where your story is heading.

4. Research

If your story involves people, jobs, settings you aren’t intimately familiar with, spend time researching. If your story is about a doctor, speak to some. If it’s set in Ming-dynasty China, read some histories.

But don’t lose months and years of writing time to research: it’s a useful precursor to writing, but it’s not the writing itself.

5. Choose your ballpark

Before starting a novel, I think about where it might sit in a bookshop; about which novels it might be placed next to, and why. Then I go and read some of those books: not to emulate them, but to be inspired by them.

On a bad writing day, I pick up one of those novels and read a page or two, to remind myself that it is possible, that another mere mortal has managed to achieve it, and so perhaps – with a lot of work, and a dose of courage – I can too.


Learn the fundamentals of narrative structure and weave together the threads of your story on Curtis Brown Creative’s new four-week online course: Plot & Story – The Deep Dive, with Laura Barnett. Enrol by 23 May to start your course on 25 May: