The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: The Basics of Plotting

I have discussed plotting before, but usually in the context of a serious novel project. Yes, I went there. I just made a distinction between serious novel projects and NaNoWriMo. Let's face it. There is a huge quality differential between a NaNo novel and a novel someone writes during other times of the year. With the sacrifice of quality for quantity, NaNo books often require a great deal more editing in order to make viable for market.

There are some writers who can turn a NaNo project into a viable novel, but usually it takes significant editing compared to projects written in a more serious fashion.

This is not to discount those who do write during NaNo. NaNo is a huge accomplishment. It just isn't a great breeding ground for quality writing work.

Because of the nature of NaNoWriMo, I actually plot in a different fashion than I do for a ‘standard' novel. Because of the deadlines, I find I need the freedom to make more choices in my plotlines. I need a more robust plotline. When I have time to think about what I'm doing as I write, I don't need as extensive of a plotline. I can figure it out, adjust it, and enhance it as I go.

This is not the case with NaNoWriMo. I'm going to talk about the basics, as I see it, of plotting a novel for NaNoWriMo.

The Concept

The first thing I think is needed is the concept: The basic idea of what your novel is about.

I tend to approach the concept as a few sentences or back-of-cover blurb of the story line. To me, a good concept is what you use to entice yourself — and others — to read the book. It's the heart and soul of the story.

What is your basic story about?

Some people can boil this down to a sentence. Some need that back-of-cover blurb to get a real idea of what the concept of the book is really about.

Either way, in order to build a successful plot, you need to know what you're writing about. It's basic. Pantsers will often go into a story with no real idea of what they're writing about. When you're plotting, especially for a project like NaNoWriMo, the destination is really important.

The Conflict

Now that you know what your story is basically about, you need to identify the conflict. The conflict is the main thing preventing your characters from getting what they want, or doing what they need to do.

To reference one of my favorite stories, the conflict in the Lord of the Rings is the One Ring. One side wants to destroy it. One side wants to reclaim it and use it to control all things.

These two opposing forces are what drive the story onward, as the characters battle each other, and themselves, to get what they want.

Know your conflict. Remember that a good book has many conflicts, too. But, know your main conflict. It's important.

Know your Characters

Characters drive stories. Plots are things characters do. Without characters, your plot is worthless. If your plot is due to things happening to your characters, I have a hint for you.

You're doing it wrong.

Characters create plots. While there are excellent environment vs. man plots out there (Yummy, yummy nature destruction movies…) it is important to remember that the characters make decisions and interact with the crumbling world around them.

The plots are still driven by the characters, the choices they make, and their reactions to the world around them.

When you build your plot, never forget your characters. They're the ones who ultimately make the final decision on where they're going. If you try to force a plot because a character wouldn't do something, you'll end up feeling like you're suffering from a writing block.

This leads to my next point of discussion, and something I feel is the most important thing to remember when building a plot for a NaNoWriMo novel:

Give your Characters Choices

A plot is the marriage of character choices, events, and consequence. It's the direct result of conflict and tension. A plot is more than a series of events which take place during the course of a story.

It is a chain of events, all stemming from the choices your characters make.

When you are plotting, remember your character is a person, and they have choices — difficult choices — to make. This will really help give your characters and your plot depth. It might help you to write out the various choices a character could make, and the one you feel is the most likely to happen.

Build your plot like a spider's web of decisions, indecision, and character choices. You might end up writing out four or five different plots for your novel — yes, a little like a choose your own adventure book — but it'll help guide you as you write during November.

Giving your characters choices and options is a good thing. It can be a source of tension and conflict between the characters. It can help prevent you from getting stuck as you're writing, as you will already have a good idea of what will happen for each choice the character makes.

It is a lot more work this way, but the more you work with plots, the more you learn how choices impact characters and story, the easier it is to create better, deeper, and more engaging plots.

Plotting, like everything else in the world, is something you need to practice. The more you practice, the easier it gets. To start with, give your characters as many options as they can. You may find yourself gaining insight on what makes these people tick, and how they'd realistically react to certain situations.

Understand Resolution

Raising the stakes, enhancing the conflict, and nurturing tension among your characters is one of the basics of writing a novel. However, many people forget the importance of Resolution. Resolution is how conflict and tensions are resolved. The climax is the moment of truth, the moment before the resolution, where the character is poised on the brink of making a decision. The resolution is what follows the implementation of the decision.

Back to Lord of the Rings for a moment: The climax was the moment where Frodo stood on the edge of Mount Doom with the One Ring, struggling with himself about whether to throw the ring into the lava or not.

The decision was to keep the ring.

However, Gollum had other thoughts on this decision. He takes the ring. (Yummy!) Frodo's decision is reversed.

This is where the resolution comes into play. Gollum taking the ring is another decision in the climax arc. The entirety of the situation is resolved when Gollum throws himself (with the ring) into the fires of Mount Doom.

The ring is destroyed.

The conflict is resolved.

Stories have many, many resolution points. Understand that not every conflict can last an entire story. Close the conflicts, resolve them as needed, and move on to the next challenge. That's how people handle things in real life.

How people handle things in real life is the foundation of how your characters handle things in your story.

Novels imitate life. Sure, we can throw in the mystical, the magical, the speculation, and things of fiction, but at the end of the day, readers connect with characters who feel real.

Characters who feel real have realistic reactions to problems. They feel things. They have quirks. They have likes, they have dislikes.

They try to resolve their problems or wallow in them. In short, you need to understand the relationship between people and the world around them, and how real people resolve real problems. Then, you can take all of this learning and apply it to people who were never real to begin with.

The Basics of Plotting

Conflict – Climax – Resolution

Have a problem. Force the characters to make a decision. Resolve the decision they've made, for better or for worse. A resolution doesn't have to mean it is good — it just is! A resolution is a fancy word for Consequence. There can be good consequences for a decision.

Characters make choices

Even outside of the climax moments, characters make decisions all of the time. Understand your characters, and understand why they make the choices they do. If you aren't sure why your character would do something, take a look at their personality, their culture, and their experiences.

Let your characters make the wrong choices, too. There is nothing wrong with failure. If anything, failure motivates characters to do better next time.

Write all of this stuff down

Plotting is keeping track of all of these little things. If you have an idea, write it down. You may never use that idea, but if you wrote it down, you'll remember it when you need an idea.

These are just the basics. More to come on all of these things, and a variety of different ways to track this information for use in November!

Good luck, writer!

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