Plot: Keep it simple and wing it


Don't use too complex a plot or setting

Don’t use too complex a plot or setting

This may be one of the most important issues of all, depending on what your own NaNo goal is. If you primarily want to try to craft a story and perfect its language and expression, without being too concerned whether or not you reach a specific word count, then this point is less important. But if your goal is not just to build up to that 50K word count but to come close to finishing your story, if possible, within those thirty days—this is crucial. You may not be able to finish an entire novel this month, but you can certainly finish a novella. But there are strategies you need to adopt to accomplish this feat.

You only have thirty days, and not every minute of those days will be spent in writing. If you have a really complex plot, you will very likely give up by your second week, as it becomes obvious that you have no hope of succeeding with this plot by the end of November. All you’re really going to have time for is a plot that rises fairly steadily and directly to the story climax and then falls fairly quickly toward the end.

Your plot will need the usual basic requirements: a conflict or goal, a complication or obstacle to reaching that goal, a resolution where the goal is finally accomplished, and then a wind-down. Try not to make things more complicated than that, or you will spend more time trying to think of how to fit in all your multiple details and far less time writing.

I’m on my twelfth NaNo, but I often don’t even count my first try. The reason is that it was very brief, lasting barely a week, if that. I had a plot that involved some young characters from our time going back to the mid-1800s when Austen Henry Layard did an archaeological dig and discovered the lost city of Nineveh in what is now Iraq. Archaeological discovery, especially with respect to Ancient Near Eastern civilizations, is one of my passions, so this should be a relative breeze, right?

But I had two problems: 1) I started reading about the details of the dig and the surrounding area while I was doing the NaNo, not before, and 2) I discovered that the political and social situation in that part of the world had so many complex factors that related to the discovery of Nineveh that I couldn’t possibly understand or include what would need to be included to write any sort of story at all. Certainly not within thirty days.

As I said, I gave up in less than a week.

If you want to write a story that takes place in the midst of a complicated social or political situation or that takes place in a time whose history and customs you know virtually nothing about—do not do it. Or if you do decide to do it, spend the previous few months reading up on that history and those customs, so you have a chance of writing a story with any validity at all. In the very midst of your plot, on November sixth, is not the time to spend hours researching a historical event so you can write something plausible about it. And even when you know your stuff ahead of time, you will still need to simplify your plot pretty drastically if you want to finish the story within the month of November.


This dovetails nicely with the previous discussion about meandering, but the idea I’m talking about here is a bit more anchored than what I described in my previous post. My counsel, always, is that if you think you can handle it, the very best way to deal with a plot is to have a fairly simple idea of where the story should go and then let specific characters take you there themselves (always being open to their deciding that the plot should change).

Throw an ancestor or two into the fray

Throw an ancestor or two into the fray

I’ll give you an example of how this can work. The year after my Layard/Nineveh debacle, I swung in the completely opposite direction: I had virtually no plot at all. EXCEPT. I had one female character (and her male coworker, who decided he needed to become part of the story), and I had my own genealogical research into my own family. I decided to give this character the same ancestors as me, for simplicity’s sake. And I flipped through my family tree, chose an ancestor at random (though I chose one that had an interesting background), and I had him appear as a ghost in her living room one evening. That was the beginning of the story.

That was all I had. But those first interactions between the character and this ancestor gave me ideas for what might happen the next evening. I picked another ancestor at random, had him pop in, and off we went. The very nature of the ancestors and what tiny bits of their history I knew suggested where my character might go. It wasn’t long before the ancestors themselves developed conflicts with each other—having one ancestor be a Scottish Highlander and another probably be a British officer, right around the time of the famous battle at Culloden, ended up lending itself to a rather specific sort of clash of personalities. And suddenly my character, not to mention her very nice and helpful male coworker, were faced with trying to resolve a conflict that was going on in the afterlife, not to mention what repercussions it might have in the living world.

Whenever I felt stuck and wasn’t quite sure where the plot should go next, I went through my genealogical notes, picked another ancestor, and flung her or him into the story, just to see how this would shake things up. It was a blast.

The next year, I wrote an anime-style story where five students were studying at an elite school that created and used a huge library of virtual reality simulations that began to intrude into the real world. I also had one character who had a very good reason to hate a fellow student, which affected how he behaved when the group got into difficulties. When things got stuck in that story, I threw in a new simulation to see what trouble they might get into inside it. That was another “seat of your pants” story, in which the characters and these randomly thrown-in ideas worked together to create a plot and push the story forward.

Two years ago, it was a magical library, where three characters could literally walk into a section of the stacks and find themselves in some world in one of the books in that section. I chose books by using dice to narrow things down to a particular part of the Dewey decimal system. I don’t yet know how that story turned out, though; although I reached 50K words and “won” the NaNo that year, I didn’t finish the story. I may pick it up and do another 50K for next year’s NaNo.


Can you keep track of your subplots?

Can you keep track of your subplots?

Most novels have a main plot and then several subplots that have their own resolutions and that all contribute to pushing the main plot forward. The writer often has several characters’ individual stories to carry and resolve as part of the subplots. One of the marks of a great writer is that she can juggle all these different sub-stories and have them interweave with and affect each other and still be resolved at the end.

But the problem is that once again, this adds extra layers of complexity to the work. This is somewhat akin to writing a story set in a complicated historical or political situation, except that you can’t do much research ahead of time for all of these subplots. These are things that you’re making up as you go along, and if somehow they start contradicting each other or tearing your main plot apart, you could find yourself spending your time trying to figure out solutions rather than actually writing.

So again, if you can, try to keep your subplots to a minimum, and try to ensure that whatever subplot you do use is fairly closely connected to the main plot. Unless you have spent weeks ahead of time doing research and thoroughly outlining your story, complexity is probably going to be your nemesis.


Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC BY 2.0)

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (CC BY 2.0)

Of course, you don’t have “plots,” exactly, when you’re writing nonfiction. But you do have the issue of narrowing your topic down enough to be able to write about it at all. For example, you can’t just write about astronomy. Thousands and thousands of scientists all over the world have been doing that, collectively, for a few centuries, and they’re not done. You’re probably not going to cover much in thirty days and fifty thousand words.

You need to decide exactly what, in relation to astronomy, you’re going to write about. Galaxies? That’s another big topic, but it’s getting better. Galaxy formation in general? Still better. Or perhaps the different types of galaxies? That’s even more manageable.

Want to write about cats? Sure! How about the different breeds? That’s a big topic, because there are a lot of breeds. You could end up writing not much more than headings and brief descriptions, for thirty days. What about one breed, like the Norwegian Forest Cat? Now you’re getting somewhere; this is a unique breed that not many people know about, and these cats have several fascinating characteristics that set them apart.

To do the NaNo, it’s important always to keep in mind the important fact: you have thirty days only, and fifty thousand words. You can write more than that, but you can’t go longer than thirty days. This is not your magnum opus, the great work of a lifetime. You are writing within a thirty-day span, so you need to narrow your task down to something short and simple enough that you can actually hope to accomplish it in that time. If you choose a huge, complicated topic or decide on a really complex plot, you may doom yourself to failure from the start. Keep it simple!


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Filed under * NaNoWriMo, * Writing tips

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