Countdown to NaNoWriMo - structuring your novel
September is drawing near. That means it’s only two months away from beginning the latest challenge for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or NaNo for short). If you’re new to the concept, NaNo is about setting aside a couple of hours each day to challenge yourself to write 50,000 words of a novel within the month of November. If this sounds like a daunting task, then, by breaking it down into little bits (an average of 1667 words a day) may sound slightly more manageable. Many people think that they have a novel in them, but they don’t know where to start. NaNo is about breaking those barriers, whether it’s getting support or encouragement from fellow writers, or simply the fact that you are daring yourself to write SOMETHING. By making a public affirmation, you’re inviting people to ask “how’s the novel going?” It’s not going to be easy. Real life has a habit of getting in the way, and while the idea is to finish (or write a good chunk of a novel) if you only write 10000 words instead of 50000, then you’ve still achieved something. But signing up to NaNo means that you’ve taken your first step away from procrastination. There’s a good community on the website where you can register yourself and your work, and hopefully find a few friends online who you may already know, or who may be on the other side of the planet and write in a similar genre to you.
I have started this post in August to suggest that you give yourself some time to think about what the novel will be about. When my muse came to visit me this time last year, she gave me only a vague outline. “There’s only two characters,” she warned me. “So you’re going to have to sustain the narrative based on what THEY do. You can’t have a Raymond Chandler moment for when the plot gets dull and you need to have a man with a gun walk into the room.” With so little to work with, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough to sustain the 50000 words. And when I started the story, I had absolutely no idea how it was going to finish. This made me a “Panster” – which the NaNo website describes a panster as: “You believe in hardcore spontaneity. On November 1, you’ll have a blank document and your imagination.” My story does have a beginning, a middle and an end, but the ending came as much of a surprise to me as I hope it will to my readers. The objective of the second draft is to include a sufficient amount of foreshadowing to ensure the clues are there and that the reader doesn’t feel cheated.
NaNo and Me
This year I have three stories that are waiting to be written. They are ideas that have been sitting on the backburner for some years now. But that’s really all they are. Skeleton ideas. I know who the characters are, I know how they find themselves in a particular situation and I think I know how it ends, as well as individual scenes of importance as the novel progresses. The difficulty is that all of them are vying for my attention. And there are also a few things that are appearing in my diary that are also likely to demand my attention, so I think – this year for certain – being a Pantser is out because I need more structure. This leaves me the options of being a Planner or a Planster. A Planner is – as the name suggests – someone how has everything meticulously plotted before sitting down on 1st November and writing the line “Once upon a time” which, if the author follows the plot to its conclusion, will ultimately end up as “They all lived happily ever after”. But I find when the plot is worked out a) it destroys some of the spontaneity of writing, and b) I never follow the plot anyway. I seem to weave around it. A Plantster, on the other hand starts the challenge “with a comfortable mix of improvisation and loose structure.”
Use your time wisely
This final two months is an opportunity to think about plotting and structuring your story. It is one thing to write a murder in a sealed room, but another to have a plausible explanation as to WHY it happens. Likewise, you may have major climaxes in your story, but if they all fall in the first 50 pages and there’s nothing in the last 150, then you’re selling short your reader. In addition, you need to build up the tension, rather than simply have something jump out of a closet and shout “boo” (although those *shock* moments do have their place, it is so easy for them to be ineffective). I have to confess I use some of the devices included in my old role-playing games, like using the weather as a dramatic device as found on pp. 15-16 of the Ravenloft II module, or using the “Path” cards to create tension. Anthony Brotherton has usefully listed the “path” cards here.
Before you start: what’s your STORY?
Story is about the characters and how they deal with the challenges facing them. In the film Titanic, we KNOW that the boat is going to sink, but we WANT TO KNOW if Jack and Rose will get together before it happens. So, from the outset, you need to know what the character wants to achieve and who or what will get in their way. From this you have character MOTIVATION and CONFLICT and OBSTACLES. Going back to Titanic, the conflict is with Rose’s fiancée, the obstacles are the ship sinking, as well as Jack being handcuffed to a pole while the boat sinks. (Honestly? Trying to murder someone on the Titanic really seems like the most futile exercise ever, but it dragged out the film for another 15 minutes or so).
The Three Act Plot Structure
Let’s assume that your novel is going to be around the 60,000 word mark. You can divide this into three, with each act being 20000 words (give or take). Or you can divide it into four parts of 15000 words each.
In the first act (first quarter): set up the characters and their situation. Set up the event that is going to set the story in motion. At the end of the first Act, the main character should be pushed to a point where they have no choice but to follow the path that fate (or the author) has dealt them.
In the Second Act (second and third quarter): The protagonist finds themselves in a progressively worse situation. Aside from a few, rare, glimmers of hope, things become progressively worse for the characters. Most, if not all, attempts to overcome the situation are thwarted, often leaving the characters in a worse situation than they were before. Tension rises and the characters face new, seemingly insurmountable challenges. The action finishes on a major plot point.
And in the Third Act (final quarter): while the protagonist faces new challenges, they lead to a climax and a final showdown with their adversary. For extra spice, add a character in mortal danger, a volcano’s immanent eruption, a ticking time bomb or all three. (for extra bland include the line “Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth.”)
When it starts to peter out …
I’ve copied below a chunk from Stephen J Cannell’s lecture on plotting as it’s great advice. There are key points when the plot refuses to move forward (This is taken from his website)
Because Act Two is the hardest act to plot, most people give up on their ideas in Act Two; "This isn't working." "This idea sucks." Most of the time the reason we break down plotting Act Two, is that we tend to "walk" with the hero because we identify with the protagonist. We walk through the story inside his or her head.
Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. "What do I do now?" "Where does this protagonist go from here?" The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer's expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.
Here's a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven't been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist's head and you're looking back at the story to date from that point of view. "Wait a minute... Rockford went to my nightclub and asked my bartender where I lived. Who is this guy Rockford? Did anybody get his address? His license plate? I'm gonna find out where this jabrone lives! Let's go over to his trailer and search the place." Under his mattress maybe the heavy finds his gun (in Rockford's case, it was usually hidden in his Oreo cookie jar). His P.I. license is on the wall. Now the heavy knows he's being investigated by a P.I. Okay, let's use his gun to kill our next victim. Rockford gets arrested, charged with murder. End of Act Two.
See how easy it works? The destruction of the hero's plan. Now he's going to the gas chamber.
Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey
Although Joseph Campbell’s structure of the monomyth (or the Hero’s Journey) has seventeen parts, these are also divided into a three act plot. I’ve listed the seventeen steps below, but they are discussed in more detail here.
Many successful authors observe that most plots will fall into the monomyth structure, although some good advice that I recently read advised against using it as the basis for a first draft. Instead, refer to it during the editing process and see where it corresponds to your own story. If there are places where your story isn’t working, then refer to the structure and see if there are areas that need to be more clearly defined.
I would advise against using it as a basis when first drafting a story. Use it as a guide in the editing process, recognise where your story hits the marks, and if you feel it's falling flat, consider whether making the stages more well-defined will help.
The Five Act Structure
This is what worked for the Elizabethan dramatists and early novelists who were trying to copy their style, such as Horace Walpole who wrote the first “gothic” novel, The Castle of Otranto. I’ve listen below the contents of each act, with a short bracketed description provided by Tzvetan Todorov.
In Act 1 (equilibrium – all is as it should be): The characters and location are introduced, along the background and the major conflict of the story.
In Act 2 (disruption of equilibrium by an event): Things become more complicated, building tension and momentum.
In Act 3 (recognition of the disruption): The action reaches a climax and the hero is placed in an impossible situation. It looks like the “Bad guys” might win
In Act 4 (attempt to repair the damage of the disruption): the consequences of such actions of Act 3 are revealed. Tension is heightened by false hopes.
And in Act 5 (new equilibrium): the conflict is resolved, whether it is through the redemption of the hero where they all live “happily ever after” (for example, Twelfth Night) or whether things turn catastrophic for the protagonist and they suffer their own downfall.
Elizabeth Edgett has nearly summarised James Scott Bell’s suggestions of what the five act structure should look like.
A final revelation
Something mentioned early in the story may serve as a revelation in the final scene. I recently read a novel where the protagonist is a writer and, as part of the backstory, she says her mother worked in publishing for a while but “didn’t get on with it”. It’s revealed at the end that her mother had an affair with the Director of the company, the protagonist was the result of that liaison, and that same director has been flattering and manipulating the protagonist in order to win her trust and to lure her to a secluded place where he can kill her. The seeds of the plot are there from the beginning and once the character’s motivations have been revealed, all the rest of the plot falls into place. It’s like watching “The Sixth Sense” for the second time.
A thought for NaNo
Some stories don’t get written because they’re not planned properly. Some aren’t written because the writer loses faith in the story – what they are writing sounds too similar to what they’ve read elsewhere. But the MAIN reason why some stories aren’t written is because the writer makes too many excuses and reasons why they shouldn’t.
So – whether you’re a Plotter, a Panster or a Planster, go and find your notebook and your favourite pen. Make sure you have plenty of cartridges. And, on 1 November, start writing. You’re probably not going to get a perfect first line on the first try, but that’s ok. The novel will become easier once you’re past this hurdle and you can always go back and change it later.
I’ve attached below links to other writing blogs, relevant to NaNo and other writers which I hope will be useful.
Ten mistakes made by new writers
Overcoming the Monster: National Novel Writing month 2016 - rising to the challenge. (including links to Vladimir Propp as well as the seven (or six) basic plots)
Novel Writing: An endurance sport (my thoughts after NaNo 2016)
How to eat an elephant: thoughts for NaNo 2015