I’ll be honest, this year’s NaNoWriMo outline is kicking my ass. I am feeling the deadline somewhat. And in that confession I’m pretty sure I’m scared a few people who are already nervous of the whole concept of NaNo, so I kind of considered maybe letting anyone who doesn’t feel confident enough to do the whole “write An Book in a month” thing or who remains flummoxed by writing original fiction have a go at basically whipping up an outline over the course of that month instead, with this Helpful Selection of 30 exercises (one per day).
Days 1-10 are for exploration. This is when you begin to discover who you’re writing about. It might not stick, but that’s okay. You can always do it again if you need to.
1. Make your protagonist.
Or the person you think is going to be your protagonist. This can always change! Write about three paragraphs giving a vague idea of what they’re like – how they look, sort of, what they want, what they fear, where they’re from, what kind of person they are, really. This can and will be added to later.
2. Make a place.
Chuck down three paragraphs about a location, making it up as you go. Where is it, what kind of function does it have? How does it relate to the world? Is it a room, is it a business, is it a place in the wilderness? How do people get there?
3. Put your protagonist in the place.
Get them to explore. Maybe four paragraphs this time, or as much as you need; what emotions does the place arouse for them – have they been there before? What does it remind them of? What does it smell like? Feel like? Are they comfortable there or ill-at-ease? How do they move around the space?
4. Make a second character.
Same process as 1.
5. Put that character in the space, and have the two characters interact.
Give yourself a side of A4, and write their interaction. Pick whose point of view you want to represent, and try to consider how they’re going to convey the interaction – how do they perceive it in their own head, how much attention do they pay to what they’re doing vs what the other character is doing.
6. Write the same interaction from the perspective of the other character.
What is different? What is the same? How clear is it that their experience of the situation differs? What is suggested about their relationship as people? How does the other character’s narrative voice – their way of conveying themselves and the situation to the reader – differ?
Write a few paragraphs outlining the additional things you have learnt about the space, and each of the characters, based on their interactions with each other. Is there some hint of a struggle, quest, or unresolved issue that needs exploring? What is missing? What are they avoiding?
8. Create another location
You will want to write more than the first time you did this. This location is to be explored in the context of how it differs and relates to the first, and to your two characters. You will want to people it, and think about its use and function in a narrative: what kind of things might happen here? How would they effect your nascent characters?
9. One more character.
This character is hiding something from one or both of your characters, and wants something from one or both of them. When you write your description of this character you need to consider all of the previous days of writing: how do they relate to the two locations, and to the two characters, especially? What deeds have they committed in those locations, and how were the other characters – including the people you placed in the second location – involved?
Today is for answering any questions that you have found arising in the Reflection section or any of the previous days of writing. Can you answer questions about your characters and locations that you couldn’t answer before?
Days 11-20 are for interlocking narrative and planning. Some people find it easier to write if they know where they are going; others find it easier to work out where they are going by writing. The following exercises should give you the opportunity to work out which you are by alternating between both.
Feel free to loop back round and do days 1-10 again if you were unsatisfied with the characters, before moving on. Strictly speaking, there isn’t actually a time limit on any of this.
11. Blind writing.
Take your two locations, your three characters, and all that you have learned about them in the ten days so far. Pick an object at random from the room you are writing in, and write a short scene – no more than 400 words, no less than 200 – with dialogue and descriptions of action/place, in which the item is a source of conflict or tension between the characters. This can be as silly or as trivial or as deep and meaningful as you like; trivial conflict can often be mined for much more profound plot and character development than you first realise.
Today, draw a flow diagram or similar chart – whichever you find works best with your way of thinking – showing how the conflict over the random object evolved from the past interactions of the characters, however minor, and how you think it is likely to affect their future interactions and behaviour.
Referring to your scene, and to your flow diagram, write three paragraphs about how the conflict might be resolved favourably, unfavourably, and to whom, and how likely you think each outcome is based on what you know of these characters.
Pick the most likely outcome and write a scene describing how it comes about. If the outcome is complex or takes a while to reach fruition, resist the temptation to try a different outcome or return to the drawing-board. Instead, write a series of one-to-two sentence snapshots of how you think the progression takes place. These will constitute an outline. You do not have to write these sentences in order if you get stuck. If you know where you think the scene is going but not how to get there, start at the end and work backwards.
And congratulations, you’ve made it a fortnight. You’re doing well!
Look at the conflict and potential resolutions you’ve just described, and the one you chose to follow as most likely. What could happen next? Think about the situation as it has come about, and the world you’ve created (it’s often a good idea to do this thinking while you’re engaged in something else, like exercise or chores, sometimes that helps the brain tick over things differently), then write a list of the following circumstances:
A. Something that could realistically happen which would improve the situation for the protagonist.
B. Something that could realistically happen which would improve the situation for the antagonist.
C. Something that could realistically happen which would cause a temporary collaboration between the antagonist and protagonist, or the foundations of a more lasting one.
16. Twists and turns.
Pick one of the circumstances above and, without a set limit on how long the piece should be, write it out as prose narrative. If this becomes unwieldy, or threatens to take up more of the day than you can reasonably afford, remember the outlining technique from Day 14.
17. Return to the start.
By now you have a reasonable understanding of your protagonist and antagonist, and a decent selection of characters who surround their conflict, interact with them. With this in mind, make a list of reasons that their opposition might have begun, and what formed the relationship between the protagonist and one of the other characters. Try to bear in mind that it’s rare in reality for a single, defining event to create a strong opposition without some kind of underlying pressure, be that pressure social (prejudice, disparity), historic (prior interactions, family feud), or psychological (own past, suppressed attraction).
18. Deprive your protagonist
This should reasonably form the beginning of a narrative. Bearing in mind what you know about your protagonist as a person and how they respond, prior to any developments you have explored following on from your introduction of the objective they are in conflict over, write at most one page of an outline, using the short, linked sentences approach, in which the protagonist has something taken away from them (this can be an item, a person, a state of being, social status, certainty…) which leads to their pursuit and conflict as previously described.
19. Map the power balance swings.
Look back over all the narrative and outlines you have of character interactions so far, including those between secondary and side characters. Make a list of all the characters who are present or mentioned in the story and outlines. Next to each character, write down a short summary of all the moments when things appear to be in their favour. You may also wish to write down what action of theirs or inaction of their led to them gaining or losing the upper hand.
This will help you to visualise the shift in power balance throughout the narrative; it is usually good for a story to take the protagonist through losing and gaining the upper hand in a situation, no matter how trivial, in order to keep the reader interested, and traditionally a protagonist (or indeed any character) should cause at least some of these power exchanges through their own actions.
However, like most narrative rules, this can be broken intelligently and to great effect!
Write a short scene in which the balance of power between the protagonist and an antagonist – it doesn’t have to be the antagonist – starts out in favour of the antagonist and shifts to the protagonist. Read over it: how does the power shift occur? What does the protagonist do to make it happen? Remember that in a good story, the protagonist is active, and causes – if not always directly – the plot to progress through their behaviour and responses. Things can’t just keep happening to them.
Rewrite the scene to show the balance of power shifting through a different action of the protagonist. Can either version of the scene be placed within the narrative you are building?
Congratulations, you’re two-thirds of the way through this list!
Days 21 to 30 – the last stretch of these exercises – will be about refining your ideas and introducing subplots. Always remember, please, it’s okay to change your mind at any point, or decide to pursue a different part of the story. You’re exploring, all the way through this, and no “false start” is a waste of your time – it’s a valuable decision made, because you find out what it is you want to be writing.
At this point it’s worth making an overall note: share your ideas with people. Don’t get locked into the idea of the ivory-tower creator or feel that you must remain aloof until the finished work is available and perfect; that makes the business of writing unnecessarily difficult. Instead, describe your story and lament your blind spots to those willing to listen – even if they have no solution, you may find often that explaining it to other people helps you to straighten things out in your own head. Often, someone will ask a question you haven’t considered, and set the story off on a new course. Talk to people. Remember that writing is a communicative art!
21. Reflection: What unanswered questions and new characters and places have you acquired?
You don’t need to answer them! Just make a note of them when you think you’ve come up with all of them. If the answers and profiles for these new characters come up while you’re making a note of them, though, feel free to note them down. This would be a good time to talk about what you’re doing with someone else, to see if they have any questions you might not have considered before, too.
22. Take a side character for a walk.
Get the protagonist and antagonist to stop hogging the limelight. Take one of the side characters in any given scene you have so far, and write the interaction from their point of view. What are they thinking? How are they responding? How do they see what is going down? Is their interpretation radically different to those of the main actors? How important is it to them? What else is on their mind? Where did they come from? Where are they going?
23. Follow the thread
Review what you’ve written on day 22. Make a list, or mind-map, or whatever other method you like, of how you think this character’s story touches on the main story, and where it diverges. What are they likely to do in the same timespan as the main story which has an effect on the main story? What else are they doing? What questions about their life and their goals do you want to see answered?
24. Take another side character for a walk.
This character should be someone who both appears in a scene you have written previously, with the main characters (the protagonist and antagonist) and also someone who has a connection – personal, or professional, but quite strong – with the character you wrote about on day 22. In addition to sketching out how they see the scene they appear in, write about their prior/future interactions with Character From Day 22. How does this progress/impede either of their agendas?
25. Map your threads
Time to draw or write out how you think the two (or even three) plots you now have relate to each other. Pay special attention to how they drive each other: what would happen if one of the people involved wanted something different, or behaved differently? If it alters the entire way the story is going, do you prefer that direction? Is it still in keeping with what you would expect of that character?
26. Alright in the end.
Taking as long as you want and as many words as it needs, write the climatic scene. This is not the same as the final scene, as many stories close with a coda, or a rebalancing – a tying up of the remaining loose ends, a series of scenes dealing with some of the remaining consequences, or cementing what has already been hinted at. Quite frequently in a story with a romantic subplot, the conclusion of the romance occurs after the conclusion of the main plot. It’s up to you to decide (And re-decide) when the subplot will come to its conclusion, or whether its conclusion is bound up in the main plot’s end.
Today, though, take into account everything you have so far, everything you know about the story so far, and write the flashpoint, the part of the story in which evil is finally defeated/good finally defeated, or the goal achieved/irretrievably lost/judged to be not worth achieving.
27. How did we end up here?
Today, write the two short scenes immediately preceding that ending. It’s possible one may be part of the subplot; it’s also possible they may both be from the main plot, but whatever happens in them should see the characters and the narrative progress from the state they were in, driven by the events and their own actions, to the state in which the story reaches its climax, which you wrote on day 26. Remember that even if they are reacting to external events, the characters have to drive some part of the story themselves. Even people trying to survive an inevitable extinction-event-causing meteor impact still have other obstacles that can be altered or exacerbated aside from the incoming space rock, for example.
Take today out to look over all of your work so far. Arrange what you have, narratively, in a chronological order (when you come to write the story it needn’t be presented in that order, but it can help to get a grip on what’s going on). Read through it. Does anything leap out at you as unanswered? Is there a nagging question which has arisen as a result of what you’ve come up with? Are there conflicts which haven’t been resolved? Make notes of them. Don’t attempt to answer or resolve them, just note what they are.
29. Loose Ends #1
You saw this coming: pick one of the loose ends, and write about how it can be resolved. This can be done either exploratively – by jumping into the scene and following it to its conclusion – or descriptively – by sitting down and making notes on what a likely or desirable course of events within the narrative would be to see this thing resolved one way or another.
30. Loose Ends #2
What you wrote yesterday will almost certainly have created a cascade of new possibilities. As we are at the end! THE END! Of our planning, all you need to do now is make a note of these possibilities. Diagram out how you think they’re most likely to connect into what you have already, what you think they’re likely to change, and then put your pen down.
31. Put this in a drawer for six months and think about something else!
None of these techniques will magic a book into being. You still have to write it (yes, I know, how annoying). But hopefully these will provide you with an adequate selection of tools to get to grips with your own imagination and wrestle the narrative to the ground. Even if you’re tremendously experienced, there’s always some new method or problem left to tussle with.
If there’s an overall piece of advice I have, based on the questions I get asked a lot and the tension I see in people, it’s release your fear of fucking up.
You’re going to fuck up. It’s a necessary part of getting it right. You have to write wrongs before you can write right. That’s part of the process, and needs to be embraced that way. Charge in demanding to know which piece you’re going to end up throwing out the window. Produce too much. Fill the garden of words with gibberish and weed it until you’re left with glory.
When I was learning to stilt-walk – there are less weird examples from dancing and so on but it was stilt-walking that I learnt it in so I am giving you the advice from there – the first, first thing we learnt, after “how to put stilts on”, was how to fall. Not how to avoid falling, but how to fall safely. How to land on your padded knees, not your painful and underpadded butt. You had to unlearn putting your hands down to save yourself (this leads to fractured wrists); we practiced falling all day. Fall, fall, and fall again.
Artists fill sketchbook after sketchbook with pictures that aren’t quite right. Musicians play ten thousand scales, bum notes, and god alone knows what else. Imperfections, wrong directions, and a draft where you lob everything out of the window barring the secondary main villain and an interesting question about the role of animal passion in shaping fear or something are part of the process.
Henceforth address it as “whee, fucked that up” not “oh god this is terrible I have ruined this story and now the story can never be told properly”. They’re adaptable fuckers, and every story has a thousand iterations; you just have to find the one that works for you. Knock it back, pick a different cast, and try again.