Some people plan like crazy for NaNoWriMo (which is now less than a week away), while others like to have basic idea of what’s going to happen and just go with it (known in the NaNo world as the planner vs. the pantser debate). Regardless of how you will to go about things, you need some sort of plan. But how do you know when you’ve planned enough? Can you over plan? Can you get away with barely planning at all?
It’s important to have some key things set in your mind for you to be successful in this year’s NaNoWriMo, and depending on your process, these things may mean something different to you than they do to someone else. Whether everything is typed up and stored safely in your NaNoWriMo 2011 folder on your computer, or jotted down on a few sticky notes you’ve got posted above your desk–there are certain things you need to already know going in.
1) Characters. Who is this story going to be about? While their personality may change over the course of the book, you should at least have an idea of what you are going to writing about.
2) A Narrator. Who is telling this story? Is it going to be in first person from the main character? Will it be in third person with an omniscient narrator? Or will it be told through the eyes of an extremely observant toaster? It’s very important to know who is telling the story because from the first word till the fifty-thousandth, it will be in that voice.
3) A Goal. What is it that your character ultimately after? There has to be something that your characters are looking achieve. Do your characters need to rescue a princess? Do they need to solve a murder mystery, or finally bond with a family member before they are gone for good? There has to be something your character is after and a then reason to achieve it.
4) A Complication. What is going to stand in your characters way? Now this one can be a little more vague since over the course of 50,000 words, your character should probably encounter a significant number of obstacles. Something needs to always be in the way of the character’s achieving their ultimate goals. Is an evil witch always standing between them and the magic gauntlets? Is it illegal for the two lovers to marry because they are cousins? Despite the numerous setbacks they encounter, the characters need something to ultimately overcome at the climax of the story. Will it be a terrible fear of flying? Or a crippling disease? Either way–something had to be standing in the way.
5) Stakes. What makes the goal so important to achieve and why is the complication such a problem? There has to be something at stake for the character? If they don’t accomplish their goal because of said complication, what happens? If they just continue on with their lives, it doesn’t really matter if they achieve their goal or not and then your reader won’t feel any agency for the story. Maybe the stakes aren’t as serious as life or death, but something has to be at stake–the characters have to stand to lose something.
Beyond that, you don’t absolutely need much else to start. The reason these things are important is because you will have to set the story up with all of these things in the first quarter of the story. Just don’t resolve anything too quickly–you have 50,000 words to write!
If you’re worried that you’ve over-planned, the main pitfall you have to watch out for is finishing the story too fast. You don’t want to type out the words “The End” at only 30,000 words. Sure, you’ve got a novella, but not a novel. Make sure to include enough small complications to get you to the major plot points. Have subplots and plot twists, don’t make the narrative one long straight shot to the end, take a few detours and side trips. You can always cut the boring ones out, or the ones that don’t fit. When it comes to NaNoWriMo, it’s all about getting words on the page and seeing where you end up. If you only stick to your step by step detailed outline, you’re gonna find yourself too far into the plot too fast.
And if you get stuck at any time during NaNoWriMo, I’ll be providing prompts during the month of November in case you aren’t sure what to do next. I’ll also be linking to some fun ones I find around the web. Aren’t you glad I decided not to personally participate this year? Now I have plenty of time to find all these great resources for you!
You might also want to check out Larry Brook’s similar post over at StoryFix. It deals more the with the classic story structure that you’ll want to set up. I agree with everything he says except that you should know how the story ends. When I was writing my NaNo novel, I had no clue how it was going to end (and I didn’t get to the end until mid-summer rounding out at about 70k words). Sometimes you just don’t know where all the twists and turns will lead you and half the fun is finding out!