NaNo Prep for Plotters / by Jeff Leyco

NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Are you as excited as I am? Probably not. I'm pretty excited.

Many writers fall within the Pantser-Plotter spectrum--Plotters outline their stories and for the most part try to stick to those outlines, while Pantsers typically fly by the seat of their pants. A lot of us end up somewhere in-between. I'm more of a Plotter myself, but I often leave a little bit in between to let my imagination run wild. 

It works out sometimes!

There's no one way to do it.

If you've ever taken an English course, chances are you've come across ideas on story structure before. And you probably know that there's no one way of doing it. 

Most story structures have very similar elements. Stories, after all, have a beginning, middle, and end. A story without one of those is ... well, frustrating. You could get away with just saying, "Cool story, bro" about those.

Cool story, bro.

Cool story, bro.

That being said, many of these structures have their uses when thinking about how to plot out your story. What follows is a collection of some of my favorites. Given that I'm not an English professor or anything resembling that, I won't comment in-depth about these, but I'll provide enough basics to give a sense of how these things work.

The five-act structure.

There's the classic five-act structure:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Resolution

In brief, the story starts with the exposition--who your characters are, where the story takes place, and what the important things at stake are. Tension rises until it reaches the point of climax (oooh, sexy), then the tension falls to the point of resolution.

This is a classic structure, though it's often compressed into three or four acts instead. Variations on a theme. Frequently, this is reserved for screenwriting and plays, but it also helps when thinking about novels.

Don't make the assumption that each of these acts are of equal length, however--the falling action and resolution can occur very quickly. Some stories jump straight to it. For instance, many of Jim Butcher's wonderful Dresden Files books tie up falling action and resolution in a single chapter, the last chapter in a book climaxing with a multi-chapter confrontational battle.

Example: Shakespeare's Macbeth

The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell theorized the monomyth, the Hero's Journey that seems to be present in stories across many different cultures:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call to Action
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting with the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The Ordeal
  9. The Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. The Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

You can indeed see this structure almost everywhere. With the recent explosion of superhero movies, it's easy to see this play out almost without even trying. Luke's journey through Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is basically the hero's journey exemplified.

Example: Star Wars

The 7-point story structure.

Dan Wells, a host of Writing Excuses (which is in my pantheon of writing podcasts), has an interesting and modern take on story writing. The 7-point story structure is actually the tool that I use most in outlining my own works. This breaks down to:

  1. The Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

I recommend watching the entire talk he gave on this, available for your viewing pleasure on YouTube! 

More than any other story structures, Dan's gets straight to the point of the story. The hook is meant to act as the inciting incident, the thing that gives your story its reason for being. It's exactly where the trouble begins, and it's supposed to hook the reader in for the rest of the story.

The pinches also indicate the points where things get worse for your protagonists, the points at which their mettles will truly be tested. Their fortunes, really, should be getting worse and worse until the end of Plot Turn 2, the point at which they know they can (or can't!) defeat their antagonists, leading to the resolution.

Example: The Tell-Tale Heart, as examined by the Writing Excuses crew

The story circle.

This is a more recent entry on my radar of story structuring. Developed by Dan Harmon (yes, of Community fame/infamy), the story circle structure seems to riff off of all the above-mentioned structures:

via Wired

via Wired

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort
  2. But they want something
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation
  4. Adapt to it
  5. Get what they wanted
  6. Pay a heavy price
  7. Then return to their familiar situation
  8. Having changed

There's a lot of interesting symmetry to the structure, too, reflecting Campbell's structure. Points 1 and 5 are interesting points of conflict--if point 1 is who the character is at the beginning, point 5 is where their sense of self comes into serious conflict. On a similar note, point 3 is where they go from the known to the unknown, and across it at point 7 is where they return from the unknown to the known.

The story circle is one of the most character-centric outlines you could go by. I suppose there's a reason Dan Harmon focuses so much on this as a TV screenwriter.

Example: Any episode of Community

The problem with outlines.

Outlines are fantastic for giving your story direction, but it can also be restricting. It's happened too many times to me--I've outlined where I want my story to go, but when I start putting words to paper (or screen), the characters seem to want to go off in their own direction and do their own thing. Sometimes I let them do that, and it completely derails everything else I had planned.

Outlines work well when you really need your story to be defined. It's especially helpful with genre fiction. Many markets, from scifi to fantasy to romance to mystery, often rely on very clear story structures in place, structures that define the particular genre you're working within. 

To get the most of your outlines, you have to understand that things are malleable. Where you think the story will be going one day could very well change the next. Outlines, for writers, should serve as a guide, to help you figure out where your story is going.

It's entirely possible to plot out an entire story before committing prose to paper, but it can be difficult.

Often, the plan doesn't survive contact with characters.

Next up: NaNo Prep for Pantsers