Preparation Helps NaNoWriMo Flow
As we approach another year of National Novel Writing Month, I’m reviving an article I wrote that was first published in the Spotlight Newsletter of the Romance Writers of America – Greater Vancouver Chapter in October 2015. These ideas help me prepare for a month of feverish writing every year, and I hope they help you too.
Universal Organizing Principles
Whether you’re a practiced plotter, or a pantser seeking guidance, I want to review my favourite models of story structure that others have created. I’ve mashed a number of methods together and seasoned them to my own taste. You too will find the tools that work best for you.
The Hero’s Journey
Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey) is still the bible, but like the bible, it’s long, complex and uses some obscure language. Nevertheless, the architecture is valid, and when you have time it makes for fascinating reading.
Imagining Vogler’s story stages as an underlay, I superimpose the conceptual framework of screenwriters Michael Hauge and Save the Cat author Blake Snyder. For me it works better to start with the simplest benchmarks of the Three Act Play and refine as I go.
Going to the Movies
Table comparing Vogler, Hauge & Snyder’s Story Stages
|Call to Adventure
|Refusal of the Call/
Meeting with the Mentor
the First Threshold
|Tests Allies & Enemies/ Approach to the Inmost Cave||The Ordeal
|The Road Back
|Return with the Elixer|
|Setup: Fully in Identity
|Turning Point #1: Opportunity||New Situation/
|Turning Point #2/
Change of Plans
Vascilates between Identity & Essence
|Turning Point #3/
Point of No Return
|Complications & Higher Stakes/Fully in Essence but Reverts to Identity||Turning Point #4/ Major Setback & Final Push/Fully in Essence||Turning Point #5 Climax
|The Aftermath/Transformed Existence|
|Opening Scene & Set Up
The Catalyst/Inciting Incident
Act One Choice
|Fun and Games
Point of No Return
Half of Act 2
|The Bad Guys Close In/ All is Lost
Dark Night of the Soul
From Hauge I takeaway one particular concept that is especially useful. It’s the notion that your protagonist begins the story entrenched in her “identity” and moves through the events of the book, the crucible with which you torture and challenge her, and comes out the other side fully embodying her “essence.”
From Snyder I especially like the way the demands of screenwriting keep pacing at the forefront of the equation by using the Beat Sheet. The language also grows out of a visual medium that lends immediacy and believability to scenes. Although writers have tools that screenwriters lack, such as internal dialogue and description, watching your story unfold on the movie screen of your mind keeps you from overindulging in your love of words.
Getting to Know Your Characters Before the Journey Begins
Bestselling author Robert Dugoni speaks passionately about the importance of character, and stresses that if your characters are believable and likeable, the reader will follow them anywhere, even through the most tired and familiar plots. So what tools can we use to get to know our characters before we dive in?
Laurie Schnebley Campbell teaches two amazing online courses to help you figure this out. You can interview your heroine, or write a journal in the voice of your hero, but for me, working through the steps of Schnebley Campbell’s Hero’s Personality Ladder, and taking that further through Plotting Via Motivation works every time. The key to this is the way it forces you to dig down deeply into the “why” of your characters’ wants, needs and actions. This gets to the heart of motivation, and beyond any superficial ideas that might come to mind, distilling what makes our characters tick down to some pretty basic, fundamental human needs. This is what makes them relatable, empathic, and harkens back to that universal collective unconscious that Vogler channels. Knowing them this well makes it easier to identify their strengths, flaws, manners and speech.
Be Clear About Character Motives
If we are that clear about what motivates out characters, then figuring out what drives them through every scene, as advocated by Debra Dixon in GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, should be a piece of cake. Another reason why doing a little homework before you begin putting words on the page will pay off.
Once we know our characters and what drives them, we understand their identity and how they need to change to embrace their essence, we can much more easily see what plot turns are required to forge this change. And once we understand that the structure of the story stems more from the universal human experience of this transformation, it’s easier to see why we must organize our stories to bring this about. The story stages represent the very events in our lives that teach us lessons and help us come to know our essential selves in a universal quest for [love, belonging, fulfillment, happiness, —-]. And if we don’t succeed? Well that’s just tragic.
Are you planning to do Nanowrimo this year? Did you find these tips for getting ready helpful? Comment below, and mention what your project will be this year and your Nano handle.