February 8, 2018

Writing Craft: Master List of Story Development Skills

Notepad with text: To Do: Learn Story Development Skills

Last time we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the learning curve because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That means we might think we’re ready to start our editing process before we really know what we’re doing, which can lead to us wasting time and/or money. Not to mention our endless frustration and struggles if we jump the gun.

Instead, as mentioned last time, we need an intelligent guess at where we are on the learning curve before starting the editing process because any advice will be of limited use if we’re not ready to understand.

In that post, Step Two advised us to create a “master list of craft skills.” With that list, we might have a better idea of where we fall on that learning curve, and we’ll get ideas of what skills we should study next.

Me, being the perfectionist that I am, decided to try to take on this project of working up a “master list” that we all can use. But I’m just one brain, so I’m going to get things started, and we can add to this list with your help. *smile*

I’m going to break down this project into three posts, one for each phase of editing:

  1. content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues)
  2. line editing (fix scene and paragraph-level issues)
  3. copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues)

The craft skills we’re discussing come up both when we draft and when we edit. After all, whatever we don’t understand during drafting will need to be fixed in editing, and editing generally happens in the order above (as there’s no point in polishing words in a scene that might be cut or entirely rewritten).

So today, we’re starting with content/developmental editing

What craft skills do we need to
understand and be able to apply
to develop a story and characters?

What Is Content/Developmental Editing?

The first phase of editing goes by many names:

  • content editing
  • developmental editing
  • substantial editing
  • or when we’re self-editing, it’s often just called revising

This editing phase looks at the big picture: story arc, plot flow, stakes, character development, motivations, theme, etc. That’s why we’re calling this portion of our master list Story Development Skills.

Do you know all these Story Development skills? Here's a “master list”... Click To TweetDuring the drafting process, these skills help us write a coherent, meaningful, and hopefully engaging story—or at least the best we can do before revisions. During the editing/revision process, these skills will help us fix the big-picture type of problems that make readers throw books against walls and strengthen our story and the elements listed above.

Either way, if we don’t get these skills down, it won’t matter if we know where to place commas or not. Without strong storytelling skills, no one will care about the nitpicky stuff. We’ve probably even suffered through books with poor grammar just because we couldn’t put the story down.

The other editing phases all work to support what comes out of this phase. Either our storytelling works or it doesn’t.

The Ultimate List of Story Development Skills


  • Yes, this list is hella intimidating. We don’t—and can’t—learn everything at once.
  • No, we don’t have to be skilled at all of these before moving forward in our publishing career. Many of these skills will be an ongoing learning process, and the advanced ones will only come with lots of time and practice.
  • Most of these bullet points are roughly in order of basic to advanced skills.)

Don’t worry. This list gives us a map for our journey, but we’ll never reach the end because there’s always improvements we can make. There is no “done.” *smile*

We need to know how to:

Develop Premise and Story Arc:

Develop Characters and Character Arcs

Develop Plot and Subplot

Develop Story Beats and Turning Points

Develop Conflict

Develop Stakes

  • create stakes appropriate to story and genre/reader expectations
  • develop stakes (consequences) for every choice characters face
  • ensure every “failure” has consequences
  • raise stakes throughout story
  • ensure our Black Moment consequences are bad enough but also match the stakes of the story
  • understand how stakes create motivations for goals
  • understand how goals, motivations, and conflict all interact with stakes
  • understand the options for revealing stakes (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Develop Goals

Develop Character Motivations

  • create motivations for every goal (What are their reasons for their goals? What do their goals and stakes motivate them to do?)
  • develop motivations appropriate to character’s backstory, wound, fears, longings, false belief, etc.
  • ensure motivations are strong enough to explain character choices and actions
  • ensure antagonists have motivations too (and understand how villains’ motivations often echo protagonists’ motivations)
  • understand how goals, stakes, and conflict all interact with motivations
  • understand how tweaking motivations can solve many plot/story issues
  • develop motivations that reveal character fears and flaws (potentially taking immoral action)
  • ensure motivations ring true to character
  • understand options for revealing a character’s motivations (subtextual, dialogue, narration, action, character internalization, etc.) and when each option might flow best

Create and Maintain Tension

  • decide on appropriate level of tension for story and genre/reader expectations
  • understand what creates sense of tension
  • understand the importance of antagonists (not just villains) in maintaining tension
  • understand how goals, conflicts, and stakes affect tension
  • understand how tension affects pacing
  • decide whether the known (dread) or unknown (suspense) creates the right level of tension and reveal details as appropriate

Create and Balance Pacing

  • decide on appropriate pace for story and genre/reader expectations
  • understand what increases a story’s pacing
  • understand what slows down a story’s pacing
  • balance providing context and avoiding information dumps
  • find the right pace for resolving our story’s various arcs, plots, and subplots so the ending doesn’t feel too drawn out or too rushed (the latter issue seems to be more common, with all resolutions stuffed into one scene or chapter, which can lead to shortchanging some)

Develop Themes

Use Showing and Telling

Evoke Appropriate Emotion

Decide on Point of View

Balance Elements

Many skills such as POV and showing vs. telling are important at both the developmental phase and the line-editing phase. However, the line-editing phase will look at these elements in a single paragraph, page, or scene.

At the developmental editing phase, these skills are analyzed at the big picture level. Do we…?

*whew* Yes, this post took as long to put together as you’d think (if not longer…ugh). Hopefully with this list, we can get a feel for where we are on the learning curve as far as story development skills. And as a bonus, this list might help us know what to look at for self-editing our story’s big picture. *smile*

Have you ever created a master list of writing skills? Were you able to come up with a list for story development? Can you think of additional skills we should add to this list?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Gabriella L. Garlock

Wow. =)
What an amazing menu of food-for-thought for some time to come.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Lots there! One point I would make is to have enough real-seeming secondary and background characters, and give them an arc of their own. Otherwise they are talking furniture.


Wow! This is pure Gold.


This is so helpful, also for asking for feedback on writing. I have sometimes been frustrated by getting paragraph-level or even sentence-level feedback from beta readers on a story that I know is not working on a developmental level. Made me feel like my readers wanted me to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. I could use this list to ask them some more specific questions.


[…] content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues) […]

Renee Regent

Yikes! That is quite a list. When you’re new, you don’t know what you don’t know, but when you’re experienced, you don’t realize how much you know! I didn’t even realize it, but I do all those things when writing. Maybe not all correctly, yet, but it’s amazing how much thought and learning goes into writing a novel. People who have never done it have no idea….thanks again for a thorough post, Jami!


[…] your first draft, Stavros Halvatzis addresses writing the second draft, and Jami Gold presents her master list of story development skills and her master list of line editing […]


[…] weeks, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy […]


[…] content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues) […]


[…] a massive project: creating “master lists” of all the writing craft skills we need for story development, line editing, and copy editing. Yep, I’m a glutton for […]


I haven’t read all your links, so I don’t know if you already have this covered.

Do you have a link with many examples of themes? I had a hard time at first identifying what my themes were. Or, rather, the dry “war versus peace” kind of things I came up were not particularly useful. I like your links where you point out we can have more than one theme going. And, you give a few examples. You point out in one link that identifying one’s themes helps during revision — helps make the novel more consistent. I agree. Once I had some themes, yes, keeping them in mind was helpful.

Also, it was helpful to find Blake Snyder’s list of stories even though the list is not perfect or complete. He has Dude with a Problem. I thought, oh, I write Dudette with a Problem. It helped me to identify what kind of story I write. I don’t begin to write the emotional journey that a romance novel can have. Yes, my heroine does everything in her power to change bad things. Yes, she is emotionally involved. Yes, deep down she wants to belong somewhere, and her growing closeness with her team is important. But the big planet threatening events take center stage. Can she prevent disaster?

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber


I’m very excited about these lists!

I think creating good Villains might need a little more mention. Knowing what is involved in preventing them from stepping directly from the Evil Overlord list is just the tip of the iceberg. 🙂 Is it ever okay to intentionally use a cliche with a villain? Is there anything different to consider when working up the wound, fear, lie/belief, etc for a villain? And the one I’m trying to grok right now is “Understanding what relationship the villain’s backstory elements should have with the backstory elements of the Hero and/or Heroine”.

I’m bookmarking the lists, so I can watch them for updates!

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

How about the skill of making your intended audience laugh? (Does this skill count?) We talked about how there are different styles of humor, so not everyone will find your writing funny. But you do want your target audience to laugh when you want them to! There’s quite a bit of skill involved in writing humor and comedy, even if your story isn’t in the comedy genre per se.


[…] ago, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy […]


[…] content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues) […]


[…] content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues) […]


[…] ago, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy […]


[…] One of the best resources for story benchmarks is right here at Jami’s Writing Craft: Master List of Story Development Skills. […]


[…] Writing Craft: Master List of Story Development Skills […]


[…] content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues) […]

Rachel Capps

Hooley, Dooley! That’s a fabulous list. It must have taken ages. Thank you so much for taking the time. I’m bookmarking it 🙂


[…] it comes to writing craft, some terms are quite technical sounding (Verisimilitude? Pacing? Conceit?) and require some […]

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