Welcome back, my pretties, to Preptober: Week 3! Last week, we discussed the who, what, and where of your story–your main character (MC), their Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts, and how to detail your setting.
This week, we’ll go a little deeper into the what. Namely, what happens in your book, the plot.
But first, it’s good to know that there are two basic different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Like it sounds, plotters plot out their “what happens,” while pantsers dive right in, writing away until their plot becomes evident. They “fly by the seat of their pants,” as it were.
Full disclosure: I’m a plotter with pantsing tendencies. That is, I plot heavily, using a structured outline, but if/when my characters diverge from that, I let them. Especially in the early drafting stages.
Why am I telling you this? Because my Week 3 is mostly about plotting. If that’s not your jam, don’t worry! There are plenty of articles out there for pantsing like this one from Janalyn Voight.
All righty, plotters, get ready.
Step 1: Write the short version
Through much trial and error, I’ve found that having a one-sentence pitch or summary is a great way to stay on track. It condenses your story, distilling it into its component parts.
So, write this first! In the dark of night, when you’re out in the weeds with your plot, you can come back to this to remind yourself “What in the heck am I writing again?”
I use the following template:
When [OPENING CONFLICT] happens to [MAIN CHARACTER], they have to [OVERCOME CONFLICT] to [COMPLETE QUEST].
Let’s try it for a few well-known books:
When Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the inhumane and violent Hunger Games to save her sister, she finds herself a pawn in the corrupt Capitol’s plan to pit teenagers against each other in a brutal game of death.
When Harry Potter finds out he’s no ordinary boy but a famous wizard, he must master the classes at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to fight the world’s most deadly and infamous evil wizard, Voldemort.
See? I told you it works. 😉
If you’re having trouble with this, go back to Preptober: Week 2 and review.
Another great side effect is that you can use the one-sentence summary to query agents, publishers, editors, etc. Also, say goodbye to dreading the question, “What’s your story about?” Now when someone asks, you have a ready-made answer!
Step 2: Outline
I know, it sounds like a horrible waste of time. I promise you, it’s not. To “win” NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Even the most professional writer needs help to stay on task at that rate!
There are many different ways to outline, and I’ve found it’s more of a personal choice than anything else. Here are some of my favorites:
1. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: A bit dated, but this book on screen-writing is invaluable for breaking down story into its necessary “beats.” Its easy to read and concise, and the website has beat sheets from several famous movies like Guardian of the Galaxy, Jaws, E.T., and many other movies.
Save the Cat is what I use, but try it out for yourself. Every writer is different, and your mileage may vary.
2. Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel: This novel from an industry expert details all the necessary elements of a next-level story–from emotional impacts to universal appeals and ways to make your story rise above the crowd. There’s also acompanion workbook with exercises.
3. Robert McKee’s Story: A lot of people swear by this book, which is why I’m including it. McKee breaks down story structure and character and how they relate. Very intensive and exhaustive.
In addition to these fine sources, there are tons of sites and blogs about NaNo outlining like this one from Sofia Wren on using postcards to plot out your characters, setting, etc.
No matter what outlining style you use, there are a few things to remember when plotting your story:
1. Remember your favorite books? Chances are, the characters were interesting and dynamic, and the plot was filled with dramatic, memorable events
2. To hook readers, use universal emotions: love, hate, jealousy, hope, anger, fear, etc. Readers relate easiest to characters who feel the things they do.
3. Don’t be afraid to hurt your character. A story in which nothing bad happens isn’t much of a story.
4. Have internal AND external conflict. A story with only internal conflict will seem to happen only in the MC’s head while a story with only external conflict will make a character feel emotionally distant. Ask: what does the MC stand to lose–emotionally and physically? To gain?
5. Don’t be afraid to be original. This is often the challenge of writing–how do you create something original yet also appropriate for your genre? You learn the rules of your genre, and then you break them. Purposefully.
6. Keep tension rising. In Star Wars, notice how Luke fights Tusken raiders, then stormtroopers, and only AFTER THAT, he fights Darth Vader. If he fought Vader first, the rest would seem anticlimactic. The same goes for your story–keep the action rising, the stakes rising, and the tension will rise as a result.
And that’s plotting in a nutshell. Go forth and conquer, my pretties!
Slán go fóill!