Like Cake versus Pie or Star Wars versus Star Trek, NaNoWriMo participants break down into two warring factions: plotters and pantsers. I’m a kind of a plotter. My best friend is purely a pantser.
If you’re pretty sure you can hit 50,000 words without any plot work, I tip my hat to you.
For everybody else, here are some things you can do to sketch yourself a map without stressing about it too much.
At this point, I think it’s useful to get a zoomed-out perspective on your story.
The guy behind The Snowflake Method recommends a 15 word (or fewer) sentence summarizing the action of your novel. You’ll want to include a reference to your protagonist as well as a snapshot of the starting action of your story.
- [Your character high concept][does something interesting][for a reason.]
- A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.
- An extroverted cop and a stoic assassin commit fraud in order to save the Emperor.
This is sometimes called the Throughline. I’m pretty sure I first encountered it in a book by Blake Snyder, but it’s not his concept originally.
This is a punchy blurb that could easily go on the back of your book to hook potential readers. Before you even start writing, the throughline should hook you. This is why you’re making a throughline; it’s something you can go back to if you start to lose your way.
The Dresden Files RPG provides a template that goes something like this:
- When [bad thing happens] [your protagonist] must [react]. But will they succeed, when [plot twist or adversary action]?
- When [bullies terrorize local changelings] [fire elemental Tyson Flynn] must [organize the community to stop them], but will he succeed, when [it turns out the Angels are involved]?
When I’m thinking about the story at this level, sometimes I will write two throughlines. If your story changes a lot around the midpoint, having a new throughline for the second half of the book can be useful.
The middle of your book is very important.
A lot of people lose momentum in the middle of the book. Maybe you don’t know how to get to the climax, or maybe you’re able to bridge that gap, but you get to the climax really early and then you have no idea what else to do.
(If you have this problem in other areas of your life, talk to your doctor.)
You can buffer yourself against this by planning around the midpoint. This will prop your novel up in the middle to keep it from sagging. It will give you something to write towards at the beginning, and something to kick off from as you near the finish line.
I don’t want to be prescriptive here. Your “midpoint” doesn’t have to happen in the middle. However, the middle is a tried-and-true place for a mini-climax. Options include:
- The protagonist learns something important.
- Something they thought was true turns out to be wrong.
- The protagonist gets what they want... and it sucks.
In addition, author James Scott Bell talks about something called the “mirror moment” that happens around the middle of the story.
This can be brief—just a fraction of a scene.
At around the midpoint of the story, your protagonist “looks in the mirror” and has some kind of reaction to what’s going on.
- It could be a logical assessment. Even your stoic hero might have to pause and consider their odds of success.
- It could be an emotional assessment. Do I really want this? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of person do I have to be to get what I want? How do I feel about what’s going on?
Think about your High Concept, your Trouble, and your Want.
In particular, they might realize they Want the wrong thing. They might realize they need to deal with their Trouble if they’re ever going to get what they Want. They might realize that getting what they Want will change their High Concept.
Because people are complicated, they might be afraid of actually getting their Want or losing their Trouble.
You have a lot to accomplish at the beginning of your novel. Most of all, you MUST be interesting. Unleash your inner Buzzfeed clickbait artist.
You’ll need something to draw your protagonist out of their comfort zone and get the story started. Think about what that could be.
- Start as late in the action as possible. You can fill in the preamble later if you must.
- Set the stage for your reader: protagonist, genre, setting. Be immersive by using sensory language. The way you describe the location can also tell the reader how your protagonist is feeling.
- What is the original problem? What action are they taking to solve it?
- If you’ve got a Trouble, how can you demonstrate it early in the story?
In a lot of ways, the climax is why you’re writing this novel. What do you want to see? Do you want to see your protagonist pull off a daring rescue? Put a serial killer behind bars? Reject the constraints of society? Find love?
How do you want your reader to feel when they close the book?
- Visualize your climax.
- What’s going on with your Trouble? Has your protagonist grown? Demonstrate their progress-or their failure.
That’s it! NaNoWriMo starts the day after tomorrow, so I’m not going to be writing any more of these. My next one was going to be about outlining, and here’s my biggest tip about that:
Scenes vary in length. Mine tend to be 900-2,000 words. 1,500 on average. I ended up doing basically a scene a day, and I always tried to start the next day’s scene before stopping for the night—it’s much easier if you don’t have to sit down to a blank slate.
For 50,000 words, I expect about 30-32 scenes. For a four act story, that breaks down to eight scenes per act. You don’t need every scene to be on your outline. An outline with 12-18 scenes is a good place to start.
- Write a throughline.
- Plan something significant for the middle of your story.
- Kick off with some urgency.
- End with a bang.