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National Novel Writing Month is coming. You really want to do it this year, and you have a great idea. That’s good, but the problem is: most ideas are just beginnings. Sometimes they’re endings, if you’re lucky. But no matter what, that first seed of an idea rarely includes the middle. And that’s what every novel needs: a beginning, middle, and end. The only way to know if that seedling can grow into a complete story is to outline that sucka. Click through for some tips on getting there!

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Ah, the eternal NaNoWriMo question (I never heard these terms before I started doing NaNo). A plotter plans out their stories, whereas a pantser writes “by the seat of their pants”. After spending the last ten years filling up my free time with creative writing – workshops, critique groups, books on the craft, and reading like a writer – I’ve decided that any successful author that falls under the “pantser” category is an anomaly. For the rest of us, writing an entire story of any length takes planning and development.

The Parts of a Plot

If you haven’t yet picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s amazing book on writing, Wonderbook, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. His chapter on Narrative Design does a fantastic job of explaining how stories are structured. When thinking about what goes into a plot, I’d like to paraphrase the components described in this chapter (see pages 137 and 138 of Wonderbook):

  • Reversals: These are the setbacks for your main characters. Every storyline is going to have a healthy dose of reversals – just when things seem to be going right, they will go wrong!
  • Discoveries: Since you’re not going to give everything away on page one, your characters have to uncover mysteries one layer at a time. The points that are revealed can be external – a physical clue, for example – or internal – such as an insight about themselves they weren’t aware of.
  • Complications: In some ways, these are plot expansions. The central problem if never easily solved, even if it appears to be at first. Instead, each step toward resolution leads to a deeper issue that twists and turns the characters, making their journeys longer and harder.
  • Resolution: At the end, there is a conclusion to the story, and it has to be reasonable enough to satisfy the reader. Maybe not everything is wrapped up in a nice, neat package, but something is wrapped up.

The W, or Something Like It

There are lots of ways to envision your plot, and lots of potential formulas to follow. Classic examples are the Freytag Pyramid (start normal, something happens, climb to a climax, then resolution), or the three acts (hitting two “turning points” at the ends of acts one and two).

Contemporary plots tend to be much more erratic, but the gist is the same: you’re looking at a series of ups and downs. Another way to think about this is to figure out what you’re ending is going to be – and trust me, if you have some idea of the end, this will be easier – and then these spiky graphs represent the clues and reveals that help push the plot toward resolution (the up-swings), as well as the obstacles, hazards, detours, and potholes that block progress along the way (the dips).

Let’s take a look at a simple example:

Simple "W" Plot

This simple W is great for Setting a Course for Adventure! Start off with some normal, day-to-day happy life stuff, then throw us some bad news. Go off down the road and learn something new – now you know what you have to do! But oh no, here comes another setback! Well now you have a real challenge to overcome. But when you do, close this book, because YOU WIN!

Okay, something a little more interesting. Here’s one I call “Rags to Riches”:

Rags to Riches Plot


Here’s your downtrodden orphan, serf, street urchin, prairie farmer, goblin, or whatever that has nothing to look forward to – that is, until the story begins and they are presented with Opportunity. Oh, but it’s not going to be easy – they’ll have to overcome some intense challenges along the way, and each time they’ll get a little wiser, a little stronger, and a little closer to the goal.

Despite my flippant examples, my favorite sighting of this in the sci-fi world is The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. The main character starts the story as an idiot grunt left for dead. His brutish will and craving for revenge slams him upward through the story as he progressively gets smarter and stronger and more deadly.

Last one – let’s make this more erratic:

Big setback plot

Now this is my kind of book – take someone happy/normal, crush them down to the lowest depths, then slowly bring them back up and they will be thankful just to be alive at the end, regardless of the fact that they end up lower than they started. For an example, there’s lots of stuff by Chuck Palahniuk, such as Fight Club.

Your plot doesn’t always have to go up, down, up, down, but too many ups in a row and you’re going to lack tension. Too many downs in a row and you’re going to be mired in depression. This kind of plot analysis is even more useful in later drafts of a novel, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind during your first draft because knowing that every gray cloud has a silver lining (and that every silver lining hides a bloody knife) keeps the writing process interesting.

What this boils down to: One thing leads to another. As long as your plot moves from one point to another, you’ve got something to write every day of November. I’ve found that having this map, no matter how simple or complex, is key to keeping the momentum throughout your first draft.

Where to Start

“I don’t know where else to start, so I guess I’ll start at the beginning.”

(please don’t start with this line…)

You know what? Don’t worry about it. When you’re writing a first draft, start with a scene that feels good to you. Start with whatever you’re excited to write about. You need whatever jump start you can get to get this crazy idea off the ground.

I don’t care what you do: your beginning is going to be wrong. So just let it draft. I can almost guarantee you’ll change it later. You’ll find a missing piece that needs to kick things off, or you’ll realize you’ve got too much fluff that needs to be cut. That’s second draft work. (And third, and fourth, and ninth.) I give you permission to not give a shit during the first draft.

50,000 is Just a Number

There are a few critics of NaNoWriMo out there, and one of the big – and somewhat legitimate – complaints is that writers are encouraged to crank out steaming piles of crap. But just because you’re setting a goal of 1,667 words a day, that doesn’t mean your result has to be helpless garbage. You can come away with something that works well enough that it can become a novel someday.

But we all know that NaNoWriMo isn’t really about encouraging writers to crank out steaming piles of crap. It’s about cranking out a Shitty First Draft (credit to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for the term). So what’s the difference? A Shitty First Draft is a First Draft. Which means there’s a Less Shitty Second Draft in the future. And and a third, and probably many more.

So one thing I’d really like ambitious writers to keep in mind when they dive into November: it’s not called National 50,000 Word Writing Month. It’s National Novel Writing Month.You’re not writing words, you’re writing a story. Do yourself a favor and do just a small amount of planning and you’ll build the foundation of a novel, instead of just the foundation of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Take it from an author whose first complete novel started as a Shitty First Draft in the month of November, 2009 and (several drafts later) was picked up for publishing and comes out mid-2015.

So now you tell me: What’s your W look like? Got any tips for your fellow NaNos when it comes to outlining a plot for November?

Check out more posts on NaNoWriMo.

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Thanks for reading!

Jason LaPier is the author of Unexpected Rain, an interstellar murder mystery that reviewers have called "unexpectedly unique" and an "homage to past masters". Learn more about this noir SF novel that kicks off a trilogy.

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Jason W. LaPier is a multi-genre writer, delving into science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, slipstream, literary fiction, and surrealism. Originally from Upstate NY, Jason now lives in Portland, OR with his wife and their dachshund. By day, he is a software engineer at Elemental Technologies, where he creates the kinds of virtual worlds that actually do something. He is always in search of the perfect Italian sandwich.

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