Only a few more days to National Novel Writing Month! Computers are revving, crowds are cheering.
In my household, the young wrimos are eager-eyed and ready to go. Emotionally ready, that is. Not in the sense of having any real idea about their plot or characters. And that’s okay, of course. The beauty of NaNoWriMo is its freewheeling nature. The founder’s book title says it all: No Plot? No Problem! Start somewhere, keep writing, and see where you end up.
But for those of us hoping to come out of November with a viable first draft underway, how can we set ourselves up for success in the next few days before the starter’s gun fires?
Here’s one short exercise to get a jumpstart on plot. I think I gleaned something like this from Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube lectures, but whatever its backstory, this simple one-page exercise has helped give enough structure to keep my writing focused while still giving the muse plenty of elbow room.
So here we go…
Start with a blank piece of paper. You can write the awesome name of your novel at the top, if you have an awesome name.
Write the name of a few main characters at the top. I have my protagonist, the love interest, the antagonist and a wolfhound (who said wolfhounds can’t have character arcs?). Draw vertical lines to give each character their own column.
Start with the protagonist. At the top of your page, jot some notes about what they are like at the beginning of the novel. You could include what they want, what they’re worried about, the flaw that’s ruining their life, their job etc. One of my characters is fixated on an honor death, and keeping him alive’s going to be a challenge, I can tell.
At the bottom of the paper, write a few notes about how you think they’ll end up. Have they grown and changed in significant ways? Are they riding off into the sunset on their sea dragon? Sitting in a dungeon cursing fate?
There. A starting point and a finish line. That’s already amazing.
Next, draw three horizontal lines to divide the middle of the page into 4 quarters. The middle line is the Midpoint, capitalized because Something Big is going to happen here. Something that changes the protagonist. What might that be? Scrawl a thought or two.
Before that (in the first box) something happens that boots the character into the main adventure. Two droids land on Tatooine. A letter from Hogwarts arrives…
In the second box, your protagonist is probably trying the easy way to get what they want, and having some fun and some setbacks.
You’re over halfway!
After the midpoint, they’ve changed, so now (in the third box) they’re digging deep and trying the hard way. At first, there’s no traction. Then (in the fourth box) they get to show off their growth and new skills in the Great Big Climax. Intergalactic battle. Chariot Race. Showdown with Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
All these events in your protagonist’s journey have implications for the love interest and antagonist. Zip back and forth between columns as events give birth to consequences. And those random cool things—magical kirin, a Japanese castle in the snow—that have been floating round in your brain, add them in somewhere too.
It’s probably messy. No worries. Cross things out and write over the top. The page can look as ugly as it wants and still do its job, part springboard, part compass. The boxes don’t all have to be filled before you begin writing. Blank spaces are like magnets for great ideas.
That’s it. You now have a map in hand for NaNoWriMo. Make your favorite beverage and survey your handiwork with pride.
Then when the starter flag falls on November 1, set the page beside the computer, take a deep breath, and start writing.
Kez Sharrow grew up in Australia and has worked in Asia most of her adult life. As a transitions coach for global educators she is passionate about catalyzing transformation. As an author, she wants her readers to go on a journey that will take them to new places.