In the March issue of The Writer, there’s an excellent article by Neil Landau entitled “21 questions to keep your screenplay on track.” And while I am not writing a screenplay, I did find the questions he posed to be useful for fiction writers as well.
I particularly liked his first question: “What’s the catch?” As he explained it, it’s the “but” part of premise, the central conflict the character faces. In Finding Fran, the catch might be “Romance novelist is under contract for next book BUT she has major writer’s block and her own romance has hit the skids, resulting in a huge mound of professional and personal self-doubt.” In Reinventing Rita, the central conflict (at least, what I think it is this early in the process) is “Middle-age woman has built her whole identity and sense of self on being a mother BUT now that her son is grown and off on her own, she needs to figure out who she is and what she can be.”
Landau also talks about Plot Point areas, inciting incidents and the “ticking clock” or deadline under which the character is operating. But while I am a big fan of the step-by-step process, I tend to envision the story process as an amusement park ride–specifically, the roller coaster. The character chooses to get into the car (or, if the protagonist is like me who is afraid of heights, gets cajoled, forced or shamed into it!) and then inches up an incline that is even steeper than it looked when viewed from the ground (the challenge or challenges that followed the decision).
The car stops at the top—long enough for the protagonist to catch a breath and then down it goes (the action leading to the next stage) until finally reaching the bottom. Everything seems like smooth sailing, until—wait for it, wait for it—here comes the next decision, the next set of challenges, the next very steep incline (even higher than the first) and the next breathtaking rush down. One more bit of smooth traveling, then the final up and down until the ride is over and the story reaches its climax.
Ultimately the protagonist survived the ride. But where he/she gets off—the exit—is different from where he/she entered the ride. And in the process, the protagonist also changed somehow. (Of course, all this assumes that the roller coaster car the character is riding in doesn’t get stuck at some point, requiring emergency repairs or, heaven forbid, a shutdown of the entire ride…)