The Napkin Test: Secret Story Design Hack of Bestsellers



Bestselling authors use a secret story-design hack to super focus their narratives. This simple hack zeros in on the main plot-line of the story, helping bestselling authors reduce or eliminate confusing, meandering and unrelated story settings, characters, activities and subplots.

In fact, this story design hack serves as a powerful guiding force for the narrative. The story itself flows outward from the design, and everything else in the story is tested by how well it supports this design.

Got a napkin? Then you may have a bestselling novel. 

The story design hack is something called The Napkin Test. Simply put, the Napkin Test is that if you can shrink a story idea down to the size of a napkin, then it is likely a compelling story.

Why does this make sense?

Again, mostly it has to do with focus. If a story idea is concise – say “Ex-CIA agent rescues kidnapped daughter” – then the writing of said story is likely also focused, condensed only to characters and actions that matter.

The Napkin Test is about drilling down to the DNA of the story, the core elements that make this particular story, this story and not any other story. It is about finding the heartbeat of the story, the central conflict and characters that must be present and active in the narrative.

The Napkin Test: Example

Here is my napkin test for my Past Lives novel series.

Napkin Test

Notice a few things about this example Napkin Test:

  • There is a hint at character: A man – what kind of man? Eric Shooter, in fact, a drifter.
  • There is a focus on the central conflict: A man discovers he is a reincarnated serial killer (I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me 🙂
  • There is an indication of the story culture, genre and environment: Serial killer and hypnosis.
  • The idea generates a story question? What does the man do about his discovery. Does he become a serial killer? Does he fight the urges?
  • There is a hint at how the story will begin: Probably with the discovery or something that leads quickly to the discovery.

How Bestselling Authors Tap the Full Potential of The Napkin Test 

The Napkin Test can be extremely useful at each phase of the writing process. At the idea-generation phase, to help streamline an idea and to see if it is compelling in its most basic form (if so, you might have a bestseller on your hands – or at your fingers!). At the writing phase, to narrow the plot sequences to those actions that drive the narrative toward, within and ultimately through the central conflict named on the napkin. At the editing phase, to trim away all but the essential elements of the story as they relate to the idea on the napkin. At the submission phase, to help write the query and synopsis.

Bonus hint: the idea on the napkin might make a great first line in your query!

How to Use the Napkin Test for Your Story

  • Attempt to write the idea of your story on one side of a simple, regular-sized napkin. Points for brevity!
  • If you can, great! Feel free to celebrate.
  • If not, your story may benefit from added focus. What is the one main conflict in the story? Who are the essential characters who cause and/or resolve the conflict?
  • Once you have the story idea condensed down to napkin-size, share it with a few trusted friends, family members and fellow word-slingers. Watch their reactions closely. If they are immediately interested and fascinated, then you are likely on the correct path. This is a subjective step, for sure, so I encourage you to be open to feedback AND to following your own gut.
  • If you are ready to move forward with the story, keep that napkin handy as you plot out the scenes and characters in your story. Do any scenes not relate to the conflict on the napkin? Change them until they do or cut them out.
  • Don’t plot? No problem. Write your little heart out, but keep that napkin close by so that your narrative doesn’t wander far off the “napkin” path.
  • As you write, read the idea on the napkin regularly to keep the story focused on the conflict and characters that truly matter to this story.
  • Take the napkin out again when it’s time to edit. Examine each scene, each action, each character, each setting, each line of dialogue in light of the idea on the napkin.
  • If you craft a query letter and/or synopsis, glance at the napkin again. This is the heart of your story. Consider using the idea just as it is written on the napkin for the query letter.

The Napkin Test: If your story idea fits on a napkin, it may fit on the bestseller list.


Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in Writing
4 comments on “The Napkin Test: Secret Story Design Hack of Bestsellers
  1. Pamela Siemsen says:

    Very interesting information. You seem to always keep your readers wanting to find out more. Awesome work!!

  2. Rae Elliott says:

    This is a really intriguing new idea. It sounds like a great way to keep your story concise and anchored to the main idea and purpose of the story. I definitely want to try it. Thanks for sharing!

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