Set a central question
Your work will likely have a big picture idea you’re thinking about as you go. You might not know exactly what this is immediately, but you must have some idea, or you wouldn’t be writing. Write down whatever you’ve got—a fully formed idea or a general concept—and then translate it into a question.
For example, I spent a couple months scribbling down ideas for my dissertation, and then formed my central research question after I realized what united them all—“What does this have to do with normative masculinity?”
The purpose of this question is two-fold.
First, it needs to fit on a post-it, short and pithy, so it sharply focuses your thoughts as soon as you see it. I recommend posting it at your desk so you can refer to it at the start of your writing session or if your focus strays.
Second, it needs to relate to every chapter, scene, or conversation you produce, at least tangentially, so that your piece or project has a uniting thread that runs through the whole thing.
The sooner you can set up this question the better. By all means, go wild in the planning stages. Don’t constrain yourself. But as soon as you’ve run out of steam, look for the question and keep yourself focused there as you go.
[BTW, that means, if you’re writing and randomly produce something that has nothing to do with your central question, either open a new document and set it aside, or check to see if your central question needs re-articulated. More often than not, you can save these errant thoughts for new pieces, maybe within the same world or non-fiction topic even.]
Set related questions
Because, after all, you can write related questions that guide chapters and scenes. ; )
Connect those questions to your characters
Not every character thinks the same way, so take some time to consider how they would answer the questions you have in mind. Their approaches will clue you in to their role in the bigger picture of your story and give you material for writing.
To take a fiction example this time, I’ve set the central question of my novel as…“what happens when magical and non-magical worlds collide?”…with related questions about how they would perceive each other’s economies, priorities, ethnic and racial makeup, genders, social mores, generations, etc. I looked at my characters and matched their personalities with the questions I thought would most occupy them. That way, their collective conversations will create the bigger picture, and whatever scene I’m writing, I feel like I’m making progress toward answering my central question, which compels me onward.
Even if you’re an outline or plot driven writer, instead of a thematic thinker, I would recommend doing a little bit of this work, just as, if you’re a thematic writer, you should still make basic outlines.
What if you’re not yet sure what you want to write? Or you’ve started something that doesn’t feel quite…you?
All your central questions and thematic possibilities are lurking in your writing journal self-analysis…so let’s talk about that next.