Plot Structure for NaNoWriMo

A lot of beginning NaNoWriMo writers get stuck due to poor planning.  “Oh!  I’m just going to sit down and write!”

One of the solutions to that problem is to look at structure.  The idea that you can plot out what you’re going to write next offends some people: what if your work isn’t that original?  There’s a whole discussion to be had around the idea that you can be original in a story, but the important point to remember with NaNoWriMo is that nobody gives a damn whether you’re original or not, and looking at a good structure will tell you what kind of thing to write next if you’re stuck…something fun to write that will help keep you motivated and un-frustrated.

I’m a proponent of the Blake Snyder/Save the Cat! plot structure, although I strip it down to the most basic elements and throw in a few bits and pieces of other structures.  Here are the points in my simplified/modified outline. I was shooting for 2100-word chapters, although I’m running over just a tad.

Try to end each chapter on an “Oh Shit” moment.

Setup and Introduction: 1-12,500 words (Days 1-7.5, Chapters 1-6)

Introduce the main character, setting, and problem ASAP.  Show/hint at the main problem the character will eventually have to deal with, and show the character vacillating on how to deal with it, usually between Stupid Solution A and Stupid Solution B (thesis and antithesis).

Have something desperate and major go amuck toward the end of this section, driving them into the next section.

C1: Intro character/setting and give a mini-quest (problem).

C2: Start out on the mini-quest; something horrible happens just at the end of the chapter.

C3: Resolve mini-quest; resolution troubles the main character and foreshadows the main plot problem.

C4: Just when there was supposed to be a moment’s peace to think about things, the next quest (the start of the main quest) comes along, and the stakes are much higher, the solution much more muddied.

C5: One of the two solutions (A) is tried out, goes horribly awry.

C6: Nobody’s happy, and there’s nothing we can do about the real problem at this point, but the main character has to get the heck out of that situation in a hurry.

Fun and Games: 12,500 words to 25,000 words (Day 7.5 to 15, Chapters 7-12)

Enter into the “Strange World” of the main part of the story (crossing the theshold).  The setting itself changes significantly.

This is the stuff that made the idea of doing this story appealing, before you get to all the reversals (tests, allies, and enemies).  The emotional core of the story (B plot) happens here.

Right before the next section comes the midpoint, in which there’s a false victory or a false defeat: one HUGE event that is the “tent pole” for the rest of the story (crisis/reveral, abyss, etc.).

C7: New setting is cool, and often a team of unlikely allies forms.  A breather in which the subtext is “but we’re missing the point, aren’t we?” The beginning of a mini-quest to solve the main problem along the lines of the other solution (B).

C8: A new problem emerges, one that should just take care of itself, if only people were emotionally tougher, but they aren’t.

C9: The emotional problem does a headbutt into solution B and causes even more problems.

C10: Everyone tries to get solution B back on track, but the emotional problem just makes everything worse.  A moment of slapstick.

C11: Solution B is back on track, the people with the emotional problem have been bullied into keeping their mouths shut or otherwise silenced into semi-functionality, and POW!!! the main problem rears its ugly head.

C 12: The main problem is too much to handle, solution B is knocked off course again somehow, the emotional stuff bursts out around the seams again, and everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Bad Guys Close In: 25,000 to 38,500 words (Day 15-23, Chapters 13-18)

The bad guys get closer, members of the team are stripped away, and THE BIG PLAN TO SAVE EVERYTHING goes horribly awry, leading to a black moment/moment of death when the character realizes all the things they thought were doing right are failing miserably.

C 13: Everything is massively worse, yet there is a glimmer of hope: a big plan to save everything, and the main character puts the plan in motion.

C14: A mini-quest that is the first part of the plan kicks into motion with all hope of success, but something comes up, tied to the emotional crap that we made shut up for a while in Fun & Games…

C15: The bad guys have anticipated the plan somehow (a trap!), and attack the good guys, who fight back valiantly, hampered by their emotional vulnerabilities that they put off dealing with…

C16: The good guys are pulling ahead, and things look like they’re going to succeed (even if some unacceptable compromises that would just break your heart might need to be made), but then…

C17: Everything falls to pieces.  Every single element of solution B goes wrong.  Every new idea they’ve tried has failed.  The team is struck down, stripped away, even killed (especially if there’s a mentor).

C18: But wait, there’s more!  Even more things go wrong, and the main character is worse off than when they started.  They may as well never have tried; everything they tried to do has made things worse, and everything they care about is stripped away.  They don’t care whether they live or die at this point.

Storming the Castle: 38,500 to 50,000 words (Day 23-30,  Chapters 19-24)

The main character regroups, gathers as much of the team as they can, and leaves the strange world to invade the bad guys’ stronghold in one way or another.  They have a PLAN, which the bad guys thwart easily – it’s usually a trap that strips off every defensive/offensive advantage the main character has, at which point, they have to reach deep inside, slap something they learned from the beginning of the book (Setup), something they learned in the middle of the book (Fun & Games), and the desperation of the black moment (BGCI) to craft a final, original, surprising solution.

The rewards of victor are at 50,000 words, Day 30.

C19: The main character has a new plan, a desperate plan, a risky plan…”That’s so crazy it just might work!” They gather all the resources they can muster and head forth valiantly.

C20: Ooh, it’s a trap; didn’t see that one coming.  The emotional crap from the middle two sections rears its ugly head and says, “I told you so.”

C21: The main character frantically fights back, but every resource they brought into the fight is stripped away from them, one by tortuous one.

C22: The main character is utterly defeated, ripped down, ego smashed into a thousand pieces.  The light turns on: hey, maybe if I stuck parts of Solution A onto parts of Solution B using the values I had in Setup with the tools I picked up in Fun & Games, and knowing the failures of Bad Guys Close In, maybe I could…Nah, it’ll never work.  But what else have I got to try?  If the bad guys have to make a speech, do it here to give the main character a moment to go, “What idiots…I was almost like them…but now I know better…NOW I will listen to the emotional crap.”

C23: The new solution (synthesis) is tried out.  It shouldn’t work.  It almost doesn’t work.  There’s no real reason, from the point of view of the character as they were in the Setup, for it to work.  It’s like magic.  And it works.

C24: Bloodied but unbroken, changed but undefeated, the main character applies the new solution (or sees the ramifications of the new solution) to their world, seeing benefits both to themselves and their loved ones.  Peace at last, even if (in a series) the peace won’t last for long.

You can split the pieces up however you like, as long as you hit each new section at the end of each NaNoWriMo quarter.  Being a gamer, I find it helpful to think in terms of mini-quests vs. main quests.   You have to follow the main quests throughout the story, but if it looks like things are slowing down, then throw in a mini-quest (aka subplot).  If the main quest is mostly an emotional quest, throw in active mini quests, and vice versa, but always come back to the main quests, which should take up 75% of the time.  I’m really seeing this in romances.  Too many action mini-quests, and I’m disappointed with the book.  The mini-quests should help level the character somehow, too, without feeling like you’re grinding.



4 thoughts on “Plot Structure for NaNoWriMo”

  1. I like plot structures, but I’m learning they don’t work for me (which is weird because I’m a planner). Maybe I haven’t found The One yet? I just feel like it’s too formulated. I like using the basic concepts most of the structures seem to drive—like ending every chapter on an “oh shit!” moment. I’ve been doing that with Sandpaper Fidelity and it’s working really well. (It even gets me involved!)

    I still love the idea of looking at a book as a video game. I’m fairly certain you mentioned it in your post on Larry Brooks’ plot structure. That pretty much sums up why I adore you, De! And now I want to go play something…

  2. May I quote:

    “The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

    “The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”
    –Stephen Brust.

    I submit you haven’t found “The One” yet, and that story structure is like grammar in that it puts an order to things – gives you rules that allow you to communicate clearly – but, after you learn it, can easily be abandoned when it’s to the reader’s advantage.

  3. The Save the Cat books are the ones that resonated with me. The stuff that’s says, “Based on Joseph Campbell” are the ones that fry my brains.

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