Sometimes I have these random ideas and think, “Wow! What a great idea for a story – if I had the time to write it.” I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on.
Good news! November is National Novel Writing Month, and that’s the time to pick one of those ideas and build the first draft of a novel.
Let’s say one of the plot ideas is for a pair of characters who are thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.
I will list eight questions: the basic premise of the story will be answered in these eight questions.
Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline (next post).
1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. Now adults, they have become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.
2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.
3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.
4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.
5. How did they arrive at the point of no return? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:
- It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
- It didn’t belong to him in the first place.
- He intends to use it to depose the true Pope, and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.
6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.
7. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s lady, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.
8. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes, so I’ll list them as they occur to me.
Even if I choose not to outline, the answers to those questions make writing a novel go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, and why the goal is difficult to achieve. I may not know how the story ends exactly, but I will by the time I get there.
At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately. In this case, Scuttle wants his lady released from the Cardinal’s dungeon. He’s terrified that she’s being abused, and fears she’ll die before he can rescue her.
Question number six is an important question to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective? Will Scuttle be forced to become a spy for the cardinal? Will he be pushed to sell out Pip? I don’t know yet, exactly. This is a spot where I can write the outcome in several different ways.
Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.
The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?
Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end by the 30th of November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.
This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NANoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.
In the next blog post, we will take these eight questions and draft a loose outline for our novel. I say loose because nothing I write ever follows the original outline.
Writing is like the art of the sculptor; we sculpt and reshape the story as we go.
The finished piece looks nothing like the block of stone we carved it from.
Credits and Attributions:
Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).