These are examples of DOs and DON’Ts for the character sheet and chapter-by-chapter stages.

LOGLINE: Overachieving network exec Jake Billings finds his world turned upside-down when a challenge from his father—take a failing network and turn it around within a year—brings him into conflict with the network’s shining star, a gorgeous cooking-show host who won’t be steamrolled.

STAGE ONE: Protagonist Sheet – DON’T

Spend approx. 2-3 hours on Stage One.

Protagonist Name:

Jake Billings

Driving Goal (a concrete goal this character is striving toward):

Jake wants to prove to his father that he’s capable of taking over the family business.

WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: It’s too general. HOW does Jake plan on accomplishing his goal? How long does he have? Give him a specific plan, with a timeline.

Internal Need:

Jake has spent his whole life trying to meet his father’s impossible standards. He needs to take over his father’s business so he can move out from under his shadow and set his own goals.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: This is what Jake thinks he needs, not what he actually needs. Taking over Dad’s business will not make Jake happy. With this prompt, the question we need to be answering is “What would bring this person real happiness?”


Love is a fairy tale.

WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: While this is a common misbelief, it’s not specific to Jake. Why does he believe this? How does it spark conflict, given Jake’s situation? Also, does this mean “true love exists and will magically solve all of my problems”, or does it mean “unconditional love is a lie”?

Specific ORIGIN scene that caused NEED and MISBELIEF:

When Jake was in sixth grade, he entered his school’s science fair. He won and went all the way to the national fair, where he took second place. He ran to his father, bursting with pride. His father showed him a fancy watch and told him second place was first loser—but when Jack proved himself a winner, that watch would be his. Twenty-five years later, he still feels unworthy of love and recognition, having failed to win that watch.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: It makes Jake sound like a bit of an underachiever. He’s in his thirties—has he never done ANYTHING that would count as coming in first? Make sure your origin story is consistent with who your character is now. A billionaire who never wins doesn’t ring true.


Jake has a deal with dear old Dad: if he can take this failing TV network and turn it around within a year, not only will he get the Patek Philippe, he’ll get the keys to the kingdom: the entire Billings empire will be his to control. If he can’t, well, he’s had his shot. Dad will go with an outside hire. Jake will keep his current position, but he won’t have much room for advancement.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: We’re on the right track, but we can still up the stakes. Characters and situations should be larger than life: a win needs to mean EVERYTHING. A loss needs to be DEVASTATING.

Conflict between NEED and MISBELIEF:

Jake believes love—all love—is a fairy tale. He knows his father won’t really love him if he manages to work a miracle with this failing network, but he still has to try.

WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: This conflict needs to be clear, and it needs to set up romantic conflict. This is weak and convoluted, and it makes Jake sound kind of desperate. Also, this doesn’t set up Jake’s internal conflict—how his misbelief is preventing him from meeting his need. It basically just restates the misbelief.

Inciting Incident:

The crown jewel of Jake’s struggling TV network is a long-running, much-beloved cooking show. Its ratings aren’t spectacular, but they’re consistent, and its audience is loyal. (Picture that Bob Ross painting show, but with food.) Jake decides to retool this show as a fast-paced reality cooking competition. The host, our heroine, is NOT on board with that—but, with her mother just having moved into a high-end memory care facility, she can’t afford to lose her income.

Working with the heroine to develop a show they can both live with, Jake’s drawn into her world, and into her large, loving family. He gets a glimpse of what real love and acceptance look like, but how far can he allow himself to be drawn in, with Dad’s deadline hanging over his head?


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: This isn’t an inciting incident. It’s not an incident at all. It’s just the central premise restated. The inciting incident needs to be an actual, specific incident that sets the hero on a collision course with his destiny. It’s tempting to use this space to start filling in plot details, but don’t. Focus on just one moment that turns your hero’s world upside-down.  If you need to, start your own doc where you dump ideas you don’t have a spot for yet. You can come back to them later in the outline.

Main Trait

Trait: Hypercompetitive

UPSIDE: Jake’s competitive nature ensures he never backs down from a challenge. A lot of what he’s achieved has come from his desire to be the best.

DOWNSIDE: Jake isn’t a gracious loser, and can come across as aggressive and even boorish.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: While this type of attitude is believable from a billionaire, it’s not appealing in a romantic hero. Readers need to fall for Jake along with the heroine, and this version of him reeks of toxic masculinity. The simplest fix here is to pick a more appealing trait, but making the downside less unattractive also works.

Character’s Secret:

Jake is deathly afraid of needles.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: It’s an interesting quirk, but it doesn’t connect to anything else in the character sheet, or in the story: while Jake’s fear of needles does reveal something about him, it doesn’t play into our scenario. Rather than random quirks, aim for secrets that play into your plot, reveal something about your character, or have direct relevance to your theme.


STAGE ONE: Protagonist Sheet – DO

Spend approx. 2-3 hours on Stage One.

Protagonist Name:

Jake Billings

Driving Goal (a concrete goal this character is striving toward):

Put the failing TV network he’s just bought in the black within a year.


WHY THIS WORKS: It’s tangible and comes with a set deadline.

Internal Need:



WHY THIS WORKS: It’s simple and straight to the point. Answers the question of “What does this character need to learn or accept to be happy?”


Love is conditional, and it’s tied to success. Jake believes any love that comes his way depends on his status as a winner.


WHY THIS WORKS: It’s a simple belief in motto form, in direct conflict with Jake’s internal need, and requiring significant growth to move past.

Specific ORIGIN scene that caused NEED and MISBELIEF:

When Jake was in sixth grade, he and his brother both entered their school’s science fair. Jake’s brother placed first and Jake came in second. They both ran to their father, bursting with pride, but while their father praised them both, he also pointed out that life doesn’t reward second place: in the real world, there can be only one winner. To drive this point home, he rewarded Jake’s brother with a trip to a baseball game. Jake had to watch the game on TV. He never forgot how that felt, not only losing but being left out in the cold. Since then, his motto’s been “victory at all costs.”


WHY THIS WORKS: This is a specific and highly impactful scene from Jake’s formative years, and it’s directly linked to his misbelief.


Jake’s father has set him and his brother in direct competition: they’ve each been handed a failing business and instructed to turn it around within a year. Whoever achieves the better result gets the keys to the kingdom: the entire Billings empire will be his to control. If Jake wins, he gets Dad’s final, most meaningful stamp of approval: the media empire he’s spent his life building from nothing. If he loses, Dad will hand the reins to his brother, who sees Jake as his competition, and will definitely get rid of him at the first possible opportunity.


WHY THIS WORKS: Clear and devastating consequences for failure.

Conflict between NEED and MISBELIEF:

Jake believes approval is something he can win—just like the science fair, and just like the keys to the Billings empire. Until he understands that love isn’t love if it comes with conditions, he’s going to keep battering himself against that brick wall.


WHY THIS WORKS: It’s clear that Jake’s need (acceptance) cannot be fulfilled till his misbelief (love is conditional) is given up.

Inciting Incident:

Dad’s about to retire, and will hand over his empire to one of his sons—but he hasn’t decided which one. But he does know it needs to be someone strong and adaptable, who can rise to a challenge. He presents Jake and his brother with a contest that will give one brother everything he’s dreamed of and leave the other in the cold.


WHY THIS WORKS: This is a specific scene that will trigger a major change in Jake’s life and set up his goal. 

Main Trait

Trait: Stubborn

UPSIDE: Jake doesn’t give up. This makes him highly effective in business—and it also makes him a loyal friend. He doesn’t give up on people, even when he probably should.

DOWNSIDE: When Jake gets an idea in his head, it’s tough for him to let it go. To Jake, changing his mind feels like failure.

WHY THIS WORKS: The upside makes Jake personally appealing, as well as good at his job. While the downside is definitely a problem, it’s a relatable problem—one that won’t alienate readers, because we’ve all been there.

Character’s Secret:

Jake secretly LOVES reality TV, because any episode can be anybody’s moment in the sun. Underdogs can rise up and win. Losing contestants can go on to get their own shows. Success can take all sorts of forms. He genuinely thinks the cooking show could be fun with a contest element thrown in, but because he approaches the matter from a dollars-and-cents perspective, the heroine doesn’t immediately see that there’s more to his plans than just “let’s boost our ratings.”


WHY THIS WORKS: It fits with the driving goal, gives us some insight into Jake’s character, and also serves to humanize him.



Stage Five: Chapter-by-Chapter



Chapter One (DON’T) (Below all one sentence max. answers)

How does this chapter change the story?: Jake calls Kate, the heroine, wanting to talk about her show.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: Right from the get-go, this setup is very static. Jake’s alone in his office. The main verbs used to describe his actions are “figuring out,” “researching,” and “looking,” all of which suggest passive onlooking, rather than actively tackling a problem.




Jake is in his office in Billings Tower. It’s late: he’s pulling an all-nighter. He has a headache, because he’s spent the last several hours watching some of the worst TV he’s ever seen, and he can’t imagine how he’s going to salvage this network. Not only are all the shows junk, but they don’t even seem to have a coherent theme. There are game shows, docuseries, kids’ shows—the only criterion seems to be, all the content is family friendly.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: We’ve now learned a fair bit about what Jake’s doing and what he thinks of it…but we still don’t know WHY he’s doing any of it. Also, he hasn’t left his desk or interacted with anyone.

Jake’s secretary pokes her head in and asks if he needs her to stay late. He tells her no, she should go home to her kids. He didn’t even realize she was still there, and feels bad. He gets out his phone and reads his father’s texts again. He can hardly believe it: the old man’s finally retiring, but rather than splitting the Billings media empire between Jake and his brother, he’s going to hand the whole shebang to just one of them. He’s set up a competition between the brothers, where whoever takes a failing network and turns it into more of a success by the end of the year gets to take over the whole company.

WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: This is the inciting incident, and it’s happening off-page. Highly emotional scenes, especially those that represent turning points in your characters’ lives, should happen ON the page wherever possible. Also, we’re still in Jake’s head, and he still hasn’t left his desk.


Jake is annoyed, but he’s never been one to back down from a challenge. What he needs is a bit of that star power—something that’ll draw viewers to the network, then keep them watching. He just needs ONE show with name recognition, one show to pull them in, and he can build out from there. He goes back to the network’s highest-rated show—a cooking show he watched earlier and found boring as hell (though the host, a cute, curvy redhead with an enthusiastic smile, definitely caught his eye). He watches her teach viewers to make gluten-free brownies that DON’T taste like cardboard, and he starts thinking she has something. She’s funny. She’s smart. She makes him want to hear more, though he has NO interest in gluten-free brownies.

Then, she drops a ladle on the floor, and her reaction sparks something in Jake. She gets noticeably frustrated and appears to ALMOST drop an f-bomb, then covers it with “oh…frogs’ legs!” It’s funny and charming, and Jake wonders what would happen if he set her up with one little frustration after another…like in a reality show. Maybe a cooking competition where she’s the judge, and the contestants are…kids? No—not kids. Fratboys, and it’s their first time in a kitchen. And they all have to follow her recipe…it’ll be hilarious.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: Now, not only has the inciting incident taken place off-page, the meet-cute is happening remotely, with no physical interaction between the hero and heroine. Jake’s plans for our heroine’s show are also being presented in an info dump, inside Jake’s head, rather than through interaction between the two. It’s okay to save some details for later—in this case, to let the reader find out what Jake’s planning at the same time the heroine does.


Jake feels like he’s cooking with gas. With a show like that as his centerpiece, he can retool the network as reality shows for a young demographic—high schoolers, college kids, young professionals starting out. But first, he’ll need to get that chef on board. She’s currently the network’s biggest draw, and updating her show for the market he’s targeting will be the perfect first step. He picks up his phone, not even caring how late it is. He needs to get started right now.


WHY THIS DOESN’T WORK: This chapter ends with no real hook—we’ve already spelled out, in Jake’s head, exactly what he’s going to discuss with the heroine. We can imagine how she’s going to take it. There’s not much here to persuade anyone to keep reading. Furthermore, though this is quite a wordy summary, there isn’t enough content to fill 2,000-2,500 words. Introspection doesn’t take up a whole lot of space on the page, so the manuscript writer will be forced to come up with content to fill out the chapter.



Chapter One (DO) (Below all one sentence max. answers)

How does this chapter change the story?: Jake meets Kate, a popular TV chef, and sees potential in her, though her show doesn’t fit his vision for the network.


WHY THIS WORKS: The conflict is clearly laid out for the writer, using active verbs: Jake and his brother have been “pitted against each other”. Jake needs to “scope out his challenge” and “develop a plan of action.” Already, we’ve set out the threads of conflict that will carry us through this book.




* Jake’s in Dad’s office, staring at Brother’s thunderstruck face across the room. He demands Dad repeat himself: WHAT did he just say? Dad repeats his terms: he’s retiring at the end of the year, and wants to hand over his empire to either Jake or his brother. He’s acquired two failing networks, one for Jake, one for his brother. They have till year’s end to turn them into winners. Whoever wins MOST gets the CEO spot.


* Brother’s protesting—this is ridiculous. He’s the obvious choice: he’s older, more experienced. He has contacts Jake doesn’t. This is a waste of his time. Dad tells both brothers he fought tooth and nail to build his empire. Whoever takes over needs to be prepared to do the same. Brother storms out, furious. Jake knows he should go after him—he’s sick of Dad pitting him and Brother against each other, and what it’s done to their relationship—but his competitive side wins out. He asks for more info.


WHY THIS WORKS: Instead of being alone in his office, dealing with the aftermath of the inciting incident, Jake’s right in the thick of it. We’re getting a sense of who he is, who his father and brother are, and what’s going to happen next. Not only that, but we’ve jumped straight into a tense family moment, kicking off the conflict from the get-go. Finally, we’re presenting the reader with a defining moment, revealing Jake’s nature: rather than storming off like his brother, Jake dives right into the challenge.



* Cut to Jake at the studio, getting a tour. His guide’s going on about some game show being filmed, and Jake cuts him off. He tells him he KNOWS the network’s dying. This certainly explains why, but he’s here to see what can be salvaged. He asks the guide if he personally watches anything filmed here. The guide tells him yes. He’s a fan of Kate’s Kitchen. Jake tells him he wants to see THAT.


WHY THIS WORKS: Action, interaction and movement! When characters interact with their world, we learn about their dilemmas and their personalities. In this scene, we’re also getting information through dialogue, which is easily digestible by the reader, AND it allows the manuscript writer to reveal more about Jake’s character by how he interacts with others.

* Walking in on the cooking show, Jake’s immediately captivated by the host, a round, vivacious redhead. She’s making gluten-free brownies, which are Jake’s definition of boring, but when she calls for a volunteer to try the first bite, Jake’s on it. But when she goes to hand him the brownie, he’s distracted by how good she smells, and thinks she wants him to bite it. He does, and she drops it, getting icing all over her smock and his shoe.


WHY THIS WORKS: We’re jumping straight into the meet-cute within the first few pages, and setting the scene for a whole lot of sexual tension. Jake, the composed, focused billionaire who didn’t even fly off the handle when his father presented him with a ridiculous challenge, is distracted by Kate’s charms. We’ve got one-on-one interaction, immediate attraction, and a fun, memorable first encounter.


* As the show wraps up, Jake peppers his guide with questions: so, who watches this show? What does the average viewer look like? His guide tells him the actual network viewers are mostly middle-aged women, but the chef, Kate, has a huge following on YouTube—mostly among 18-30s posting funny outtakes. She’s a popular meme subject due to her good looks and comical facial expressions. This all sounds great to Jake—not only does he find Kate enchanting (he can’t take his eyes off her), he wants to target a younger demographic. She has potential. She’d be GREAT for reality TV.


* The show wraps up. Jake catches Kate and introduces himself. Upon hearing the Billings name, she gets flustered: clearly, she knows about the buyout. Before Jake can get a word in edgewise, she starts in with her ideas for updating the show. Jake, needing time to prepare, suggests a demonstration tomorrow at dinner: she can SHOW him her ideas right here in the studio, while she teaches him to cook a simple meal. With fire in her eyes, Kate agrees: challenge accepted.


(In this version, his actual vision for the network would be presented in chapter two, where we’d see the (very nervous/resentful) heroine’s reaction first-hand. The first chapter remains focused on the protagonist’s dilemma, and of course, the meet-cute.)


WHY THIS WORKS: Though this version of events is more concise, it gives the writer a lot more to work with, while leaving room for improvisation. This should easily fill 2,000-2,500 words. We finish up with Jake and Kate arranging to meet for dinner, and with an unanswered question hanging in the air: what are Kate’s ideas for her show, and will they align with Jake’s? (Spoiler: they won’t.) This chapter leads straight into our No Way 1 beat…as well as an opportunity for further sexual tension, while Kate cooks Jake dinner.



TIP: When writing sex scenes, remember, just like any other scene, they need to move the plot forward. Make them hot, make them sizzle—but make them specific to your characters. Use your foreplay and afterglow for unguarded moments and surprise revelations: what comes up in the heat of passion and changes the relationship between your characters? If you could lift out your sex scene, paste it into another book, and it would still make sense, it probably needs work. Also, enthusiastic consent is hot, and readers love it—make sure both partners are clearly into this.