NaNoWriMo season is almost here, a time when Plotters and Pantsers set aside their differences to chase a common goal: pounding out a 50K novel in 30 days. If this is your first time, fear not. It can be done!
And while pantsers everywhere may start screaming (Can you hear the lambs, Clarisse?) the fact is, a bit of preplanning is often wise. How much planning is up to you of course, but there are some story and character basics that can really make life easier as you shape your novel. For example, as the star of the show, the more you know about your protagonist beforehand, the better. After all, what he wants or needs will dictate his actions throughout the entire story. Likewise, knowing why he does what he does is pretty critical too, can we agree? (For more on brainstorming on backstory, just zip over to this earlier post.)
With more developmental structuring in mind, here’s a fast and dirty rundown of some important “set pieces” you may want to explore & plan BEFORE the big day.
I think we all can agree that for a novel to be compelling, an overall storyline should take place. The hero needs to work toward achieving something, and that “thing” is something readers should view as worthy of interest. Two set pieces help us nudge the outer story in motion.
Outer Motivation is the GOAL. Win the girl’s love. Find the killer. Stop the bomb from going off. Pretty clear-cut stuff. What the heck is your hero trying to achieve by novel’s end?
Outer Conflict is the force or forces trying to PREVENT your hero from reaching his goal. The ex lover who is also vying for the girl’s heart. The slick rival detective trying to put your hero out of business. The villain bomber on a mission.
This classic story frame of Goal and Opposition shapes most novels, TV shows and movies. Make your hero’s goal a worthy one, and provide opposition that makes his journey extremely difficult. The stronger your adversary, the harder the protagonist must strive to overcome him, which makes for compelling reading.
Most stories also have an inner journey as well.
Inner Motivation is the WHY behind the GOAL. Why does he want to win the girl’s love? Why does he feel compelled to find the killer? Why must he stop the bomb? The WHY (his reason for acting) is tied to a specific *NEED he alone has. He needs to find love to feel complete. He must find the killer to prove he isn’t a washed up detective. He has to stop the bomb so he can save the lives of his children. Perhaps something is missing from his life. Or perhaps he had everything to make him happy until he lost something along the way (or had it taken from him) and now he must get it back to feel complete. His NEED to fill this void in his life is what compels him to act.
*Wonder what your hero needs most? Check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for inspiration: Physical Needs; Safety & Security; Love and Belonging; Esteem; Self Actualization.
Inner Conflict is the WAR WITHIN a character, and the battlefield is CHANGE. After all, change is scary–stepping into the unknown can mean getting hurt, screwing up or failing. Leaving one’s comfort zone makes your hero feel vulnerable, so part of him wants to avoid it at all costs. Staying the same is much safer and easier in his mind. The problem is, change is necessary for your hero to gain the insight he needs (growth) to understand what he must do to achieve his goal.
In this internal war (Character Arc), the sides of the battle are clear.
The hero’s Fear(of being emotionally wounded again, of failing, etc.), his Mistaken Beliefs “The Lie” (irrational beliefs like I am not worthy of love, it’s my fault my son died, I should have seen she was planning to commit suicide, etc.), and Flaws (the hero’s negative qualities that keep people at a distance so they can’t hurt him) face off against his Need to grow, to become something better, and feel fulfilled.
When stories have this inner journey, the character must 1) face his fears, 2) realize an internal truth (that he is worthy, or that the easy choice is not the best one, that he does deserve happiness, etc.) and 3) shed his fatal flaw (which holds him back in some way). This allows for growth (insight into what really matters, a change in attitude, etc.) which pushes him to better utilize his strengths (positive attributes) and build up his skills in a way that will lead to success. NOTE: if the hero cannot overcome his fear and see the truth, or subdue his fatal flaw, the story then becomes a Tragedy.
Dual conflicting desires can also cause great upheaval (wanting a sexy promotion that means constant travel vs. the desire to put down roots and have a family, for example). In this instance, the hero must circle back to his missing need, and discover what it is that will lead to true fulfillment.
Do you believe in structuring set pieces? If so, do you frame your story’s outer arc first, or the inner one? Let me know in the comments!
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach and co-author of three bestselling resources, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela can be found at the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.