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.
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Angela, I'm a huge Maslowe fan!
I've never taken up the NaNo challenge, mostly because I'm such a slow writer. But know that whoever does, I'm on the sidelines in my too-tight cheerleading skirt, shaking pom-poms!
Though, nowadays, lots more shakes than pom-poms. Sigh.
I hear you, lol. I hope one day you do go for it though, because it really is a magical and creatively freeing experience. You don't have to win...every new word is a victory!
Great post! I can never get enough of inner and outer conflict and motivation, I need constant reminder teachings. But, usually I get the inner story arc--except with YA, especially paranormal, then it's easy to figure out the outer story arc too. Amy Kennedy
Happy this helps! For me, it's the opposite--I always seem to know the outer story first, and then I have to build a character and his or her internal journey that will best compliment the outer story elements. Understanding how these two fit together though really helps make it easier to figure out. Happy writing!
Angela, I have all 3 of your books and recommend them to all my writer friends. Now I'm waiting --impatiently--for your Setting Thesaurus.
I'm all about my character's inner journey. I was a total panster but wrote myself into too many corners I couldn't get out of so I've taken several plotting workshops. Thanks to Plotting Via Motivation, I have a very basic outline of my next ms. I'm planning to try NaNo again this year. I'm anticipating better results. Last year I wrote myself into a corner. Thanks to a little preparation, I'm hoping for better results this year and I'm really looking forward to getting started on my story.
Thank you so much Carrie! Becca and I love it when people discover our resources for the first time, because they are very different from what most expect. I am thrilled they help you, and appreciate you telling others about them as well! I wish you good luck with NaNo when you hop in. Pre planning is important I think. the one time I lost NaNo, it was because I didn't know my character well enough and I just lost heart in the book.
I used to be a full on pantser, but I now see the benefit to some organization. It has helped my writing a ton to get some set pieces in place, and have a deep understanding of my character before I start writing. There's always room for pantsing too, which is the best part. 🙂
I'm doing my prep now, incorporating just what you've said for my MG time travel story. My problem is that it's a sequel, and I made the Dad in the 1830s too sensible and conservative! I'm having to devise a situation in which he would put his farm at risk without going completely out of character to fall for a scam. But inner and outer conflicts? Oh yeah!
That's great! Perhaps it is tied to a secret he carries, or a bad habit he has? Someone he is trying to protect? You're right, if he's sensible and conservative, you will have to come up with something that is deep and more emotionally charged for him to act in a way that deviates from these traits, but it can be done. Who would he put above his farm? What mistake has come back to haunt him? Who or what past failure lurks in his past that he refuses to repeat? Lots of interesting question you could ask to come up with the right fit!
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Last year I was there and loved the challenge. I completed the first time ever first draft of a 74,000 word story. This year I plan on spending the month learning how to create a better story from the one I've written and begin a rewrite. Angela, I shall take a look at your books. Thanks for sharing.
Doesn't it feel amazing to know you completed a novel of that length? It sort of opens up a world when a person completes a novel...you've done something you didn't know you could do, and that means you can do it again. So many stories to tell. 🙂
Taking a month to learn better craft and applying it to revision is a great idea. Becca and I took a year where we read about a dozen craft books, and then compared notes and discussed. Boy did this ever help us elevate our craft. Do check out Helping Writers become Authors blog, as it is a treasure trove of advice. Good luck!
What a concise how-to-plot-without-really-plotting guide, Angela! Thanks for this keeper.
Happy it helps Fae! Happy plotting!
I'm starting NaNoWriMo early this year, so great to see this post! I haven't seen the internal character arc broken down in that formula before, very useful. Thanks.
I am glad it helps--good luck with NANO--I think starting early is a great idea to take some of the pressure off and get into the groove.
I'm late to the party. Great post, Angela. Thank you!!
I never seem to time it right - somehow I'm always in revisions when November rolls over me. Maybe next year. 🙂
November is not always the best for me either. I know last year, Becca did her own Nano in January, when it fit her timeline a bit better, so maybe tuck that idea in your back pocket! 🙂
Great post! I plan to do Nano again this year. I always have good intentions & rarely finish 50K but I get a lot of stuff on the page!
And that is the real victory--new words on the page! Wishing you the best of luck, Candace!
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