NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin with an outline, but my story always goes in directions I never planned for.
Sill, the outline helps me stay on track.
I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.
Making an outline helps you keep your story arc moving forward.
Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that epic quest for the unobtainable something.
By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.
As I said above, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.
Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for.
Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, with a brief description. So, how do we approach this little task? First, NaNoWriMo says 50,000 words is a novel. How long do you think yours might be? Divide it into manageable chunks.
Act One – not more than 25% of total words: Where does the inciting incident occur?
- Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
- Introduce the characters. In your outline, ask, “What does each desire?” List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.
- Foreshadow the incident that takes them out of their normal environment.
- Inciting Incident – the event that changes everything.
- characters are thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
- Things start to get crazy.
- Characters react to the inciting incident.
- Characters try to get control of the situation and fail.
- Characters regroup. They must continue, but what are they willing to risk?
Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.
- Pinch Point #1—a dangerous situation orchestrated by the antagonist.
- The antagonist applies pressure to your character. This demonstrates the threat presented by the antagonist and forces your character into action.
- Regroup, process what just happened, plan to achieve the goal. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
- Move toward the next encounter.
- Pinch Point #2—Calamity. When and where does this occur?
- The protagonist is thwarted and may not win the goal after all.
- How are their attempts to achieve the goal frustrated?
- Someone dear may die.
- Crisis of faith
- The costs of the battle are weighed against what is gained.
- Faith is restored, plans are laid for next encounter
Act Three, the final 25% of the novel:
- The protagonist faces the antagonist, and the battle is on.
- Final resolution
- The protagonist wins, but at what cost?
- Do they achieve the original goal in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?
- All threads are wound up, and the book has a finite ending (NOT a cliff hanger if you are an unknown author, even if a book two is planned).
Sit down with a notebook (or if you’re like me, and Excel spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen in each “act.” In my outline, each chapter has a brief description of what I think will occur in each scene, such as:
Chapters 15 – 22
|15||Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t heal his heart-take him to Hemsteck|
|16||Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard|
|17||Star stone falls outside Waterston|
|18||Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive|
|19||South of Kyran, water wraith|
|20||North of Kyran, a mob attack|
|21||Nola – inn|
|22||Maldon, highwaymen, and William|
If I take the time to note all of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I can make sure the events are foreshadowed logically and don’t appear to be a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)
That means a plot twist that is pulled seemingly out of nowhere and used to miraculously resolve an issue. Miraculous is the key word. If you rely on this, your plot will be unbelievable.
What is the underlying theme? How does this theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story? (See my post: The interpretive layer of the word-pond: Theme.)
When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:
- What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
- What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
- At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
- How badly does he want it, and why?
- Who is the antagonist?
- What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
- What happens at the first pinch point?
- In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
- Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
- At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
I always feel it’s necessary to have an outline of the story arc even if my novel has multiple possibilities for endings. Winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo have taught me that winging it for extended lengths of time means I might run out of fresh ideas of what to do next.
If you begin with a simple outline, you won’t become desperate at the halfway point and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up. Many times, someone must die to advance the plot or fire up the protagonist, but readers get angry with authors who kill off too many characters they have grown to like.
Besides, you might need that character later. Bringing them back from the dead is a whole different Deus Ex Machina.