So a couple of week ago I mentioned to you guys that I was thinking of attempting a slightly scaled-down NaNo where I would try to write a few short stories and make up maybe 30,000 words. Well since then I took a trip to Canterbury with my boyfriend and had kind of a half-baked novel idea. The more I thought about it the more I thought why not try it out for NaNo and aim for the full 50,000? Why not, right? Because I didn’t have that much sanity there anyway so it’s not like I’d be sacrificing much. So in order to give myself the best chance of “winning” I thought I better plan the thing out ahead of time in the hopes that this will make things easier. I will now share with you how I did that.
Like I said, my idea was pretty half-baked to begin with. I started by doing a “What If?” brainstorm which, if you don’t know, is where you ask a lot of “what if?” questions about your plot and characters to come up with random scenarios and ideas that might fit your novel. You don’t have to actually use all of them, it’s just about generating a lot of ideas and possibilities. I used this to explore possible settings, conflicts and motivations for my characters. If you maybe like the idea of brainstorming but don’t know how to do it or haven’t been able to make it work for you, Rachael Stephen can probably help you.
Next, I used this step-by-step guide to building a plot outline to help flesh out some of those ideas. I have used this guide time and time again and find that’s it’s a really helpful way to keep generating ideas whilst simultaneously organising them into a strong plot structure. A lot of my ideas from the “What If?” brainstorm got transferred over to my plot outline at this stage, and I built on those to keep fleshing it out. By this stage, I had some pretty solid ideas for scenes which I transferred onto individual scraps of paper, just giving a very brief (and sometimes frankly scrambled and nonsensical) description of what would happen in those scenes.
Next I turned to Ellen Brock on YouTube because I had seen her video series on How to Plot a Novel and found her explanation of what needs to happen at each major point in the story really helpful. Ellen’s explanations spoke to me, but there are so many different ways of explaining story structure and each with their own different set of terms that you might need to look around a little before you find somebody that’s phrasing it in a way that you personally find helpful. Ellen works in terms of the first plot point, the midpoint, the second plot point, and the climax with two pinch points. Couldn’t be simpler. At this point I went back to my scene cards (read: glorified sticky notes) and labelled the scenes that corresponded to each of Ellen’s points.
I then came across another helpful tool from How to Write a Book Now: the W-Plot, which matches up pretty well with all the points Ellen talks about (I prefer her actual descriptions of each point, but I find the W-Plot a nice way to visualise the structure she describes). So next I got to arranging my sticky notes, ahem, I mean scene cards, into the W-Plot arrangement. To begin with, it looked like this:
So I had around twenty scenes planned with the little green arrow-shaped markers showing the major plot points. You can see that the first plot point happens at the bottom of the first line, the midpoint is at the top of the second line, the second plot point at the bottom of the third line and the climax at the top of the fourth line (I also made a label for the “resolution” which Ellen doesn’t talk about but I felt it fitted my story). There are also two labels halfway up the second line and halfway down the third line for the first and second pinch points. Things were shaping up pretty nicely, so I taped some sheets of newspaper together to make a plot board, and transferred my scene cards onto it so that I had more room to build things up. When I had things laid out in front of me I could see some gaps between scenes and missing information which I went ahead and filled in. It started looking like this:
You probably can’t see it very well but I categorised each scene according to whether it represented the characters moving closer towards achieving their goal, or encountering obstacles and moving farther away from achieving their goal. I drew a green plus sign on cards describing the former and a red minus sign on cards describing the latter. This helped me to see whether I was maintaining tension by taking the reader on a journey of ups and downs with just the right balance of hope and doubt: too many green plus-signs and it would look like the characters’ journey was too easy; too many red minus-signs and it would look like the characters would never achieve their goal so the reader might give up on them.
My story also includes some flashback scenes, so I labelled those to make sure there were not too many grouped together at once without giving the reader a present-moment update.
By this stage I felt that I had charted things out pretty well so I went ahead and filled in the Act Structure table that goes alongside the W-Plot (just scroll down to find it, it will be more useful to those who prefer tables rather than graphs). I also filled in this At-A-Glance Outline from Writer’s Digest. I probably didn’t need to do both, but it helped me ensure I had everything straight and pointed up any remaining blanks.
Last but not least, I filled in character sheets for my two main characters. Now I realise that to a lot of people this will seem pretty backwards: I have outlined my entire plot before getting to know my main characters. This is just the way I personally work. I usually never even bother to fill in character sheets as my work is usually more plot-driven and frankly, I just don’t find them useful. I tend to map out my plot first because then I am sure of creating characters that would realistically take those actions, rather than doing things the other way around and having my fully-formed characters rebel against me when I try to shoe-horn them into the story I had in mind. (This is not to say that my characters are always so well behaved, but I think it helps.) I then updated my plot outline in conjunction with my character sheets to ensure my main characters had well-developed and believable character arcs written in.
I mentioned that I usually don’t find character sheets helpful, which is true, but since this story is much more character-driven than my usual tipple I decided to give it a go. I created my own pared-down character sheets with what I view as the essential questions–personally I don’t find it remotely helpful to make a list of my character’s favourite movies or their earliest childhood memory. This is the type of thing that will probably come to me as I’m writing if it’s ever relevant (which it usually isn’t). Everyone is different of course and I really recommend making your own character sheets according to what you find most helpful to know about your characters. But if you want to take a look at mine, you can find it at the link below. By all means feel free to use it and I’d love to know what you think if you do!
By getting a fuller idea of how my characters are likely to act and why, this last step pointed up one or two more things I might want to include in my plot outline, so I went back to my plot board and added them in. Now that it’s pretty much finished, my newspaper-sticky-note-labelled-scene-card-monstrosity looks like this:
What I like about it is that it’s living rather than stagnant: when I’m writing I can easily add things in and move things around while maintaining a good overview of how this might impact the other scenes. Over the course of November if I get stuck I can skip ahead and write a scene I’m more excited about without losing track of what’s going on.
This is not to say that I have mapped out every little detail and I have deliberately left things that will need to be improvised when I come to write them so as not to completely erase the element of spontaneity. I do find that if I try to over-plan I can end up sucking all the fun out of the thing.
So are any of you planning on participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Are there any other first-timers reading? Have you planned things out already or are you waiting for inspiration to strike on November 1st? If you are taking part please let me know, I would love to add you to my buddy list and see how you get on!
Character Sheet Downloadable: