Preptober is in full swing and whether you’re a veteran Wrimo or are just dipping your toes into the NaNoWriMo waters, these last two weeks of October are the perfect time to nail down what you’ll be writing this November. There are probably as many ways to plan (or not plan) a novel as there are writers, and as a reformed pantser, I’ve tried most of them. Usually, I fall somewhere into the range of “plantser” that best-of-both words chaotic neutral writer that creates a modicum of a plan with full knowledge that I will probably veer wildly off course halfway through the story. But this year, I’ll be tackling a mystery for NaNo and because the ending was one of the first things I came up with, this will probably be my most tightly plotted first draft to date. And it’s given me a chance to put a bunch of methods to the test.
Of course, if you’re a committed pantser, you probably skipped out of there the minute you saw the headline of this post. But the rest of you plot-curious Wrimos might be wondering if plotting is really for you. And here’s the bottom line: you will have to do this work at some point. Maybe you’ll do it before you write a single scene or halfway through when you realize you don’t know how this story ends. Or maybe you will simply blast your way through a first draft, hacking a story out of the jungle of your mind only to go back in and create a proper trail with rewrites. But one way or another, you’re going to have to figure out what your story is about and how it unfolds. So if you want to give yourself a bit of a headstart, read on to find a plotting method that works for you.
This is the classic, Big Daddy story structure. Your classic Greek myths, epic tales of adventure, and hero origin stories all stem from this core. But interestingly, it wasn’t developed as a way to plan stories. Instead, it’s a structure used to explain what some of the greatest stories of all time have in common and why they feel so satisfying. When I first started writing, I used the Hero’s Journey a lot because I thought that was how stories were supposed to be structured. It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t the right base for the kind of stories I like to write, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for you.
Great for: Plot-heavy adventure tales with a large supporting cast, epic fantasies, and transformational journies.
Cons: Hello patriarchy! There’s a reason it’s not called the Heroine’s journey and if your protagonist doesn’t resemble Hercules, pre-Kylo Luke Skywalker, or a hobbit you’ll have to contort this structure quite a bit to make it work for you.
Put a spin on it: Road trip anyone? Mash this up with National Lampoon’s Vacation and giggle your way through wacky adventures.
At first glance, this structure looks a lot like the Hero’s Journey, but with some major updates. I tried this method out for the first time while prepping for NaNoWriMo 2018 and I don’t think I’ll ever write another book without using it. For me, no matter how plot-heavy a story is, if I don’t care about the characters I will get bored. This method makes sure your characters are driving the story forward.
Great for: Character-driven stories (which should be all stories IMO). Plantsers who want to know the general shape of their story but don’t want to get too into the weeds.
Cons: Each plot embryo focuses on a single plot thread so if you have a large cast of characters each undergoing their own journey (external or internal) you’ll need to create multiple plot embryos and weave them together in a larger outline.
Put a twist on it: Create an antihero with Rachael Stephen’s Tragic Plot Embryo and watch them go down a dark path from which there is no return!
Originally designed for screenwriters, the Save the Cat method is great for NaNo because, with fifteen beats to hit, you can easily map out your story goals for the month along with your word-count goal. If you check off one beat every two days, you’ll not only have 50,000 words at the end of November but a complete beginning, middle, end story.
Great for: Beginning novelists who want a step-by-step guide to follow. Expository writers who sometimes forget to give their characters something to do.
Cons: Think about a film adapted from a novel. How much of the original material was left out? Because this method was created for screenwriters, it’s not as expansive as more novel-focused methods.
Put a twist on it: Be a NaNo rebel and try writing a screenplay! Or pick up Save the Cat Writes a Novel to adapt this method to your novel project.
Since I haven’t queried a book yet, I’ve never had to write a synopsis for anyone but myself. I’ve heard that it’s hard and awful to try and simplify your whole novel into a one-page synopsis. But that’s not what we’re doing here, so no worries! No, this synopsis is just for you and all it is is a braindump of what will happen in your story. It’s totally okay to include questions you don’t know the answer to yet, fill-in-the-blank-later character names or backstory, and a few alternate endings. Think of it like your NaNo novel in miniature. My recommendation: set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes and scribble as fast as you can what you want to happen.
Great for: Last-minute planners or writers who want to forgo the rigid structures and just get some sort of plan down on paper.
Cons: Without a guide to follow, you might end up creating a mess of story-related content that doesn’t actually help you.
Put a twist on it: Start from the ending and work your way backward. Knowing where your characters end up might help you figure out how to get them there and what obstacles might stand in their way.
Katytastic 3 Acts, 9 Blocks, 27 Chapters
This is a new method that I’m trying this year so I’m not completely sure how it will work for me, but I’m excited about it. I’m terrible at structuring my chapters so I like that it’s already planned out that way, and it might work well for NaNo because you can plan to write one chapter a day with three free days if you can’t write or some chapters take longer than one day.
Good for: Writers who want a lot of structure. It seems like it could also be good for planning the overarching story of a series in addition to a single book.
Cons: Might be too rigidly structured.
Put a twist on it: Be a NaNo rebel and plan a TV series or comic with each “chapter” representing a different episode or issue.
Did I miss your favorite plotting method? Let me know in the comments!