I always start my novels with a ‘What if…?’ question. For my most recent novel The Lie the question was ‘What if four friends had to turn on each other in order to survive?’
2. Mind mapping
Once I’ve got my question I begin mind-mapping. I take a large sheet of paper and write my question in the middle, then I start brain storming everything and anything that occurs to me.
I find it useful at this point to ask lots of ‘Who?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Where?’ ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ questions.
Who – are my characters?
Why – is my main character unreliable? (psychological thrillers often feature unreliable narrators).
Where – is the action set?
What – does my main character want?/What’s her goal?
How – do I prevent her from achieving it?
3. Character Goals and Emotional Arcs
Characters need to have a goal, something they desperately want more than anything else in the world. It has to be something that’s difficult for them to attain, there have to be a lot of risks and difficult decisions involved and there has to be real, or imagined (there’s the unreliable narrator again), danger along the way. If your reader likes your character enough they’ll be mentally urging her on to achieve her goal, holding their breath as they turn the pages.