EVENTS Maz Evans’ Ten Questions

There are many questions writers ask themselves when working on their current work-in-progress (apart from ‘Why am I doing this?’). Events Editor Fran Price reports on Maz Evans's WriteMentor webinar in July, which highlighted ten key questions when planning a book.


Isn’t the writing community a wonderful thing? WriteMentor is hosting free webinars* on our craft and I was lucky enough to attend the first one in July, with the amazing Maz Evans. Without being too gushing, I must admit that at the start all I could think was how lucky was I to be at an actual Maz Evans event for free, on the Art of Storytelling.

Maz began by praising Stuart White, coordinator of WriteMentor (and, possibly, a secret wizard). Then we were off, on Maz’s gripping, unique, hold-on-to-your-seats style of presenting, where she actually stands all the way through and you’re so busy writing down every nugget of pure writing wisdom she comes out with that you almost forget to breathe.

Without repeating absolutely everything that Maz told us, these are her ten questions** she always asks herself at the beginning of a new piece of work. And, says Maz, ‘possibly the most useful thing I ever learned.’

1. Whose story is it?

‘From whose point of view (POV) are we telling it and why? You may have an unreliable narrator and see the story from other POVs, but be consistent to one POV in a section. Think of it as a camera lens, you can only look through one lens at a time. It’s a common mistake among debut writers to switch from one character to the next within a paragraph.
So who’s story is it and from whose POV are we watching it, because they’re not necessarily the same thing.

2. What do they (the MC) want?

And what does that tell us about the character? Are they insecure, venal, greedy, shy, lusty? Whatever they want will tell us a great deal about them. It will be very revealing about their inner life: big want, small want, whatever it is.

3. What do they need? What is their flaw?

What emotional state is the MC in at the beginning? What do they need for completion? The flaw has got to keep tripping our character up. A lazy example would be Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes; or James Bond’s weakness for women. But flaws should be more internalised and personal really. So it’s the emotional journey, they’ve got to be flawed at the beginning and got to have made some progress by the end. Often in that pivotal moment they face it (eg. their fear of heights, their lack of trust) and they move on.

Maz's first novel in the Who Let the Gods Out? series.

4. What is the inciting incident?

However briefly every story needs to start with a status quo, a sniff of the character’s normal life. The inciting incident is the moment when the character’s ordinary world changes, when the story is set off on its course. It’s key, and should happen within the first 10,000 words (based on a 40-60,000 word novel). There’s a reason why agents ask for three chapters or the first 10,000 words, because they want to see the inciting incident happen within that timeframe.

5. What obstacles are in the character’s way?

Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes — internal flaws, physical things (like an enemy or an earthquake), a big emotional obstacle or a little thing, for example, they lost their phone. Put as many obstacles in their way as possible, internal ones, external ones, physical ones, emotional ones, because that creates…

Don’t be afraid to keep throwing obstacles at the character because that’s how we know their mettle.

6. What’s at stake?

What will they lose if they don’t achieve their objective? Some stakes are a given: a meteor is heading towards earth that will destroy the human race (the stake) if it’s not blown to smithereens. Some are harder to identify, eg Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets. What’s at stake if he doesn’t change? He’s looking at quite a lonely life if he doesn’t accept friendship and love into his life. Even if it’s not explicit in your story, understand what’s at stake if your MC gets it wrong. 

7. Why should we care?

This is where the vast majority of debut submissions fail. It could be a great story, lovely world-building and characters, but it just leaves you thinking… meh. A note I give a lot is, “So what? Why should I care?” Creating flaws, needs and wants helps us to care. Because we all know what it is to want something. Make the character someone we are rooting for either because we’re like them, or because we want to be like them, or we really don’t but we are compelled by them. And we care how the story ends. 

8. How do they change?

What have they learnt from point A to B? Avoid moments of internal monologues or some massive realisation. A good way of showing change is to show the same thing twice. For example, they hogged the ball and lost the game. Fast forward to the final and our MC has learnt to pass the ball, they score and win.

9. If they don’t change?

Are they confronted with the consequences of NOT changing? A great example of this is Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Future: he sees what his life will be like if he doesn’t change. But this can be done more subtly, eg that moment when the character realises that if they don’t stand up to the bullies in the playground it’s going to be them tomorrow. They see what will happen if they don’t get their act together — it doesn’t have to be explicit on the page, but something you should be mindful of.

10. How does it end?

Does it pay off the inciting incident? Is it moral, is it ironic? It all comes back to setting up very clearly in the first place what your character wants — their general want and specific want and their need, that’s where you’re going to get your ending from.

So, do they find love? Yes. Was it with the hot cheerleader? No, it’s with the geeky librarian. Do they get what they need? Yes, they realise that social acceptance isn’t everything because true love and friendship will always be more important.


If you’ve got those needs and wants clearly defined your ending is going to take care of itself. Quite often the character might not get what they want, they get what they need, because what they wanted wasn’t the right thing anyway.


These ten questions have seen me through every creative endeavour I’ve done. It’s interesting if you put even what you think is a well-formed idea up against them how many you cannot answer. It’s important that your story stands up to your own scrutiny.’

(**Courtesy of John Yorke, who Maz describes as, ‘The Don when it comes to story structure.’)

* The next free WriteMentor webinars are: Character with Emma Read, on 2nd September; Dealing with Dialogue presented by Maz Evans, on Thursday 9th Sept at 19.30. More details are in the WriteMentor newsletter.



Maz Evans is the author of the bestselling WHO LET THE GODS OUT? series, which has sold to 19 countries worldwide and has received over 20 award nominations, including the Carnegie Medal, Branford Boase, Books Are My Bag and Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Year. She narrates the audiobooks for the series and her acclaimed live events have featured at Hay, Imagine, Edinburgh, Bath, Cheltenham, Bestival, Wilderness and countless literary festivals and primary schools around the UK.


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures online magazine. She writes picture books, chapter books and middle grade. Twitter: @FranGPrice

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