Whether you use an outline to keep your story on track, or write the story and fix the inconsistencies or plot problems later, you should know a few basics before you begin.
1. What genre do you intend the story to fit into?
Genres have some specific characteristics that separate them from other types of stories. Even if there are some features of your story that cross into more than one genre, you’ll need to know where it will fit on a bookstore shelf.
2. Who is your target audience?
You need to know the age group, education level, and gender of your potential readers. While a broad audience may end up liking the story, writing for a general audience may require different language, plot ideas, and vocabulary than a story targeted to a particular group.
3. When does the story take place?
Readers need to have a frame of reference for what is going on, and clarifying the time period can help. Some stories occur over a few hours or days, others span generations. The time period may be in the future or the past, but a reader will have expectations about what could occur in that period, and they’ll not accept story devices that don’t seem believable.
4. Where does the story take place?
The setting doesn’t have to be a recognizable location, but it must be clearly defined. Your audience will want to know more than the basics, such as urban vs. rural, small town vs. big city, or Earth vs. Pluto. They should be able to follow the characters through the story without being distracted by things such as inconsistencies in street names, the location of the rooms in the protagonist’s home, or the number of moons that circle the planet. Setting can be a vital element of a story even though it isn’t taking an active part in what happens.
5. Why are you writing this particular story?
Your motivation for writing a story can be varied: to entertain, educate, inspire, or otherwise affect the emotions of your readers. But why is the particular story you’re writing the right one to accomplish that goal? Is it important, believable, saleable—is it worth the time it takes to write it?
How much planning do you do before starting a story? Which story element do you think is most important? Which one is hardest for you to write?