Five Days to NaNoWriMo: Plot What Now?

Okay, if you’re signed up to do NaNoWriMo this year, we’re rounding out your final weekend of freedom before the serious writing gets going on Friday. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Done something fun? Spent time with your family? Great. Because November 1st, you’re turning into a WRITING MACHINE.

It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared – as it always should be.

H. P. Lovecraft

In my first two countdown blogs, I talked about getting yourself set up for National Novel Writing Month and sketching out your characters. Today, we’re going to take those beautifully fleshed-out characters and make them do stuff. Day -5 is about plot. Now’s the time to break out your Word document, Scrivener synopses, or actual index cards. We’re going to be writing almost 2,000 words a day next month. Let’s get a scene or chapter list going to map our route.

You can use Cherry Adair’s Plotting by Color method. Or make a 40-space grid like my friend Chrissie Manby taught me, and write one short sentence or phrase for each block, representing 40 chapters or scenes. (Turn those into 1250 words a piece and you’re in business for 50K by November 30!) Even if you just kick it old school with an outline á la 8th grade English class, you’ll have something to go on.

“But, Manda, I don’t want to plot. I’m a pantser…” (or a panther, if autocorrect has anything to say about it). That’s okay. If you’re a discovery writer, there are still things you can do to prepare yourself for the basic storyline you want to write. And to paraphrase one of my favorite writing teachers, Damon Suede: We’re all plotters. It’s just that some of us write a big, messy outline… called a first draft.

Video added for coolness rather than relevance, but it DOES give you something to do while you’re brainstorming on Day 27…

Whether you plan to plot your story extensively or not, I recommend at least refreshing yourself on basic story structure so you will have some helpful reminders along the way of where your story should be going. That way, when you’re staring at your word count on November 15 and wondering what you’re going to do with the next 1,667 words, you’ll have some idea which part of the story you’re in and which direction will lead you out of the woods.

There are lots of great resources on story structure: from Syd Field to James Scott Bell and many others. My current favorite is Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. If you have time to squeeze this book in over the next four days, DO SO. (The audiobook includes a downloadable PDF as well, which is convenient if you need to use your commute time productively this week).

No time for a whole writing craft book ? Fear not. Chapter Two alone provides an overview of the Save the Cat 15-Beat Structure. Just writing a few notes about each of the 15 beats can help you decide if the story in your head is going to flow easily onto the paper in November, or if you’ll need to make adjustments.

If you truly do want to just start writing and see what happens (or if you’re reading this at 11:50 p.m. on October 31st because you’re doing NaNoWriMo on a drunken Halloween candy dare), that’s okay, too. Here are some questions to get your mind churning, so your subconscious can begin plotting even if you don’t.

  • Who is your hero at the beginning?
  • What are her goals–internal and external? How can you–sadistic author that you are–thwart her progress by throwing obstacles in her way?
  • What is the worst thing your hero can imagine happening?
  • How would that event ^^^^ transform him?
  • Who would your hero want to spend time with LEAST?
  • What would happen if she were trapped with that person ^^^^ in an elevator (proverbial or literal)?
  • What will be your hero’s low point?
  • What will redemption look like (if there is any)?

And if I’ve learned anything from years of studying writing, it’s this: when in doubt, RAISE THE STAKES. Keep making things worse, until your hero makes the fundamental internal change that will make things better again.

Remember: whether you plot in advance or not, it’s always okay to change things up, to go off-book if you’re not feeling the story as you originally imagined it. The key to fast drafting in NaNoWriMo is to just. Keep. Writing. Everything can be fixed in post.


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MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a distracted writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. She blogs erratically with writing advice, random observations, and reflections on raising very loud kids and dogs. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

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