Back in the day, at around 11pm, on the network television channels, a public service announcer would say:
“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”
Three weeks prior to NewNoWriMo, I’m asking you:
“Do you know where your story is?”
(If you don’t know what NewNoWriMo is, check out this post.)
So, again, three weeks prior to a month dedicated to writing, have you got your character sketches completed? Have you plotted out your main story arc? Got your scene list and beats?
Or are you just gonna wing it?
Even if you do decide to allow your muse to take over, it is nice to have a well-thought out idea of who (or what) you are going to write about. Otherwise, you might get halfway through the month and hit a wall.
We don’t want to do that. The goal is to finish your story (or whatever goal you set out for yourself), and planning out the steps needed to make it to your goal gives you (and me) a better chance of reaching it.
As many writers there are in the world, there are as many ways to write a book (or novella or short story). Some even say that each book is written in its own way. Very few writers follow the same course for every book they write. But there are a few guidelines one can use to help get started.
Below I’ll present different ways you can go about planning your novel. These are just ideas. I’m not trying to tell you how to write, but for those who struggle with the planning phase of any project, the methods presented below may help. Feel free to mix and match techniques.
For those of you with more experience, in the comment section, let us know how you have successfully completed a novel.
From a spark to a universe
My writing coach once told me that all writing should serve dual purpose. Actually, far more than just two, but two is the minimum. A line of dialogue should not only convey crucial story information, but it should also give us a sense of who the speaker is (i.e., their word choice and cadence should reveal their education and emotional state). So, too, for all the writing, or meta-writing, you do for your story.
One method of outlining can do double-duty by providing your story’s theme, a tag line, a query pitch, your back-cover blurb, one-page synopsis, two-page synopsis, etc. Get the picture? First come up with all that meta-writing before you start writing.
This is probably the most intensive of all the outlining methods and requires in-depth knowledge of your story, the plot, character motivations and background, the setting/world-building, etc. All of which you should write about first.
That’s a lot to think about.
Doing it this way is a detail-oriented person’s dream. There’s no end to the amount of outlining or summarizing you can do before you actually write the story. So, if your friends always rely on you to plan the night’s activities, get at it. Now is the time to write about what you are going to write.
The downside to this method is that sometimes, all the creative, fun stuff happens while you’re outlining and you lose the drive to, you know, actually write the story. 😦
Similar to this is the snowflake method. (Or maybe it is the snowflake method.)
Borrowed from plays and screenwriting, the three-act structure has, like you would expect, three parts.
Act 1 is considered the “status quo” or the “normal world”. Taking up about 25% of your story length (so, for a 50,000 word novella, Act 1 would come in at around 12,500 words), this is where you introduce your protagonist and all the major characters. Near the end of Act 1, some extraordinary incident occurs, catapulting your main character into a new world (for them) and introducing the main problem they have to solve.
Act 2 is the bulk of your story. With our 50,000-word story example, this part will end up at 50% of your word count, or 25,000 words. In this section, things heat up for your protagonist. Not only does your heroine have to save the world, but our villain has upped the stakes by making it personal – the bastard has kidnapped Aunt Em, threatening to make her suffer for eternity if our hero doesn’t get out of their way. Or something like that. The idea is that the stakes are raised and story complications increase in Act 2 until we think there’s no possible way our heroine is gonna make it.
Act 3 is the end, of course. In the last quarter of the story, in about 12,500 words, the story is resolved. Our protagonist figures out how to stop the villain AND save Aunt Em (or maybe not, if this is a tragedy).
As you can see, this method is fairly loosey-goosey. You can mix story and plot elements within the three-act structure, but the bones are what makes this “outline” work for just about every movie and screenplay out there.
Here are a couple of resources on the three-act structure:
The upside to this method is that it is fairly straight forward, giving you some guidelines along the way, but overall allows one to just go for it.
However, for those of you who want more detail, and still want to use the three-act structure – no problem!
For Act 1, you can include a Hook (a compelling plot event that gets the reader involved in both plot and story), the Backstory or world setting (introduce the protagonist and lay the groundwork for plot and story), and a Trigger (an intense event that propels the protagonist into some sort of crisis).
Then in Act 2, you can include a Crisis (your protagonist suffers from their emotional crisis caused by the trigger because of her character flaw), then her Struggle (against ever-increasing obstacles), and finally her Epiphany (when your protagonist realizes her flaw and overcomes it).
In Act 3, your protagonist can now formulate a Plan (that she couldn’t do before her epiphany), include the grand finale in a Climax (where your protagonist is thrust against her antagonist), and finally Ending the story with plot and story conflicts resolved.
Character = Story, Story = Character
There’s a long-standing debate regarding character versus plot driven stories.
We’re not going there.
But suffice to say that for some writers, plot (the physical events in a story and their sequence) is meaningless. For them, their character (and why and what they do) is the story. If that’s the case for you, then sit down and ask yourself these questions:
- What’s your main character’s history? Where did they grow up and with whom? What events made them who they are today (when the story begins)?
- How do they talk? Do they have a low or high voice? Do they like to use big words or short phrases?
- What do they look like? How do they dress? The idea is for you, the writer, to know this. You might never actually describe your character in your novel, but you should know what they look like and how other characters might react to how they look.
- What sort of friends does your main character have? Do they visit their parents or other family members a lot? Are they social, reclusive?
- What is the passion of their life? An environmentalist? A pro-lifer? What are they trying to do in this story? What is their internal (unstated) need?
- What’s wrong with your character? Everyone has something wrong them. Quick to anger. Lazy. Self-centered. What’s your character’s flaw and how is it keeping them back?
- We all have internal dialogue. All. The. Time. What’s it like in your character’s head?
- Are there any physical or mental weaknesses your character has to overcome to reach their goal?
Answering these questions can often reveal your character’s story, essentially having your main character write the novel for you.
Scene and Sequel
Ah, now we are getting to the nitty-gritty of writing!
Not really an outline method, but a method of writing that helps guide you through a story. If you subscribe to this way of thinking, a novel is made up of connected (or semi-connected) scenes where stuff happens, with narration (a chance for your characters to react) in between.
Scenes are what drives the story forward and is where all the conflict and action occur. You have to have a goal (your character wants a drink of water), conflict (the sink is so far), then a disaster occurs (when she gets there, she discovers the plumbing isn’t working).
In the sequels, your protagonist gets to respond to the disaster by showing her emotion (disappointed there’s no water, she’s so thirsty), then she has a thought about how she got to that point (her good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend followed through on his threat to break her water main). After that, she has to make a decision about what to do (she can’t let that mofo get away with it) and that naturally leads to some action (she goes and gets her Smith and Wesson).
The object of last the action, then becomes the next scene’s goal. So on and so forth.
Again, this method of writing with scene and sequels isn’t really an outline method, but if you’re a pantster, this might be a good way to keep your narrative focused and on task.
Here’s a slightly different, but very similar take on scene and sequel. (Remember, everyone does it differently.)
A Pantster’s Dream
If all that is too much structure for you, you can just wing it the whole way. However, that may only get you a few pages in before you run out of steam, and we want to make it through an entire month (or 29 days).
There are several ways you can keep the narrative going by using techniques that keep the story interesting to you as a writer and moves the narrative forward. Basically, the idea is that every action has a reaction (physics – yay!). When something happens in your story, it is for a reason. If your character wakes up in the morning, it’s because they have to go to work, or school, or meet a spy for lunch so they can plot the king’s demise. If you get stuck between scenes, you can always fall back on this – there’s always a reaction.
Another way to think of this is that every action has a reaction but not necessarily the reaction your character wants. So, my character wants to meet that spy to plan an assassination, but when he gets to the meeting spot, his partner is dead. Therefore, he must either do it alone or get someone else to help him, but there are four burly women at the end of the alley watching his every move and he may be dead soon too. Therefore, he goes on the run, but…
You get the picture. You simply keep going, throwing obstacles in front of your protagonist.
This is the “but-or-therefore” method (read about this in more detail here).
Start at the End
Lastly, you can start at the end and build your outline from there – backwards. Maybe you know your main character is going to die at the end, their death the result of saving a planet or a loved one. How did they get there? Why are they there? Who’s this person they sacrificed their life for?
Answering those questions can help you find the main points in your story so you can build a compelling narrative.
That’s it from me.
I only skimmed the surface of all the methods I presented above. This post is not meant to exhaust all the ways you can plan and prepare to write your story. There are many many more ways. (And I didn’t even go into other stylistic choices you can make like point of view and tense.) If none of the ideas presented above spark your interest, try these:
Good luck! Next week I’ll post my schedule for NewNoWriMo. I hope it inspires you to pencil in writing time on your calendar.