Have you suddenly noticed a big plot hole that you don’t yet know how you’re going to fill? Have you realized that your main character is deadly flat, and you’re not sure how—or if—you can fix the problem? Do you need some quick information on, say, how you’d destroy a gigantic killer robot, because you have to get rid of that sucker within the next two days or your whole story falls behind?
You need to talk to somebody—and fast! I’ve talked before about how you can get help of this nature by talking to friends, being part of some group whose members are all doing the NaNo together (or who are at least cheering on the people who are), or signing up at the official NaNoWriMo site and visiting the discussion forums with your problem. So I thought I’d take a quick cruise through the official forums and give you an idea what sorts of help people are getting.
Say you need to establish that your main character isn’t alone in the world but has some family. So you write a couple of scenes in which a family member appears—yet those scenes contribute nothing at all to the plot. Do you really have to choose between 1) including useless scenes just to show that there is family and 2) letting the reader think your character sprang full-grown and solitary from the head of Zeus? Is this really an either/or situation?
Not necessarily. If you pose that question at the NaNo forums, someone’s going to respond with possible ways around the issue. Is there any way to make those “useless” scenes somehow contribute to the plot? What if the family member who appears for a page or two just happens to casually mention something she saw on the news or something her coworkers were talking about on a break, and that tidbit of information is the last piece of the puzzle your main character was wrestling with? Or what if the family member says that a stranger asked him to deliver an object to your main character, and it turns the whole plot around? (And then you’d have to find out who the stranger was, and you might involve the “extra” family member in that search, making his scene less “useless” than you thought it was.)
Or say you needed a way to smuggle something into a building, but you’ve got some extra vigilant security guards at the loading dock, one of whom actually suspects that something is going on? How do you get that character into the building unscathed and without creating a big uproar, even if that second security guard tries to take some action? There isn’t supposed to be any alarm raised either. How do you do it? I don’t know what I’d suggest, myself, but other helpful NaNo writers and moderators are sure to come in and make suggestions.
There are NaNo writers in the forums asking questions about soap opera plots. Or pirate politics. (Let me say that again: Pirate. Politics. Just trying to figure out what that might involve would be a story in itself!)
There are, of course, the obligatory fantasy plots where you really need to figure out how to solve a problem with magic, but you also need to keep the magic consistent with the magical laws of that world. And yes, there had better be laws and things you can and especially things you can’t do with magic, not even because it will get you out of a fix. If you’ve never heard of the phrase, “deus ex machina,” now would be a very good time to look it up. (Just as an aside, my younger brother and I went through this sort of exercise together, many years ago. We were both writing fantasy stories, and we would read them to each other. And then we’d pick apart the magic, showing each other where something seemed to contradict a rule that was previously established, or where something suddenly appeared and became important that had never even been mentioned before. Both of us made our magical worlds consistent and plausible as a result of these sessions, and our stories were very much the better for doing this. So as I’ve said before, as long as you can brainstorm with someone, it’s going to help you get out of sticky problems.)
Back to the forums, though, and the plot issues. One thing I’ve seen in plot discussions as well is where someone comes in and says, “I’ve got these various elements floating in my head, but they aren’t pointed in any direction.” And they list elements such as a mysterious object, a demon-conjurer, three little scenes that don’t seem connected, a woman who can’t remove her silver bracelet without dire consequences, and a dog. And a couple of other people come in and say, “This suggests this sort of plot to me” or “I see a character facing this particular type of situation” or “Add a magic quill in a wall safe in a tycoon’s office, and you’ve got a plot that goes like this…”
Remember that people who are standing outside the situation might see patterns that you are oblivious to. Or they have imaginations that run along quite different lines, so two objects might suggest something to them that might never have occurred to you. It’s a good thing to ask for help if you have a plot that you just don’t know what to do with. There are many people out there with brilliant suggestions, and you can just take your pick and run with it.
This is another really tough one, and I think I’m going to go even further into characters in a later post. But this is another place where the official NaNo forums really shine. For example, you can get opinions on how many characters you should really have. Or you can ask for advice on how to write specific types of characters. If you are male, can you write plausible female characters? And vice versa?
Some writers aren’t even sure whether they need an antagonist for their main character. Is that absolutely necessary? If you were to ask that question, you would likely get people asking questions about the type of story you wanted to write; the direction you wanted to take your story might perhaps determine the types of characters you should have. For example, if you didn’t want an antagonist, as such, should the story even have conflict? What if, instead, you created a story where there was a struggle, but it was not so much a “conflict” as it was an attempt to reach a difficult goal? In that case, the “antagonists” might be more along the lines of the obstacles to the goal rather than people or a person resisting and working against your main character.
You might need advice on how to make a seemingly bad character be likable to your readers. Or you may even be finding that a character who is supposed to be liked is turning out to be quite detestable. I had a queen like this in a story once. She was supposed to be the main character’s love interest, but the more she acted in the world, the more dislikable she was. I was eventually able to turn his marriage to her into a kind of tragedy for both of them, with all sorts of consequences that actually made a very good story, even if it had a sadder ending than I had planned. But this was after I had tried to reform the young woman to make her more likable, and it just didn’t work.
People you ask for advice might be able to suggest ways of writing a character that can change the direction they seem to be going. So you might be able to salvage that character and take them in the direction you originally wanted them to go after all. Or, like my queen, who just got worse and worse no matter what I did, your character may be unsalvageable. But as people make suggestions, you might find that this is kind of a godsend, because it makes you take your story in a new direction. With some help, you might discover a whole new subplot or an even richer main plot, despite your character refusing to be fixed.
What if your main character dies unexpectedly, and it’s a surprise even to you? It’s an understatement to say that that’s sure going to affect your plot. So what do you do? First off, you run to your cheering section or your fellow writers or the “Character Café” forum on the official NaNo site and yell, “Help! My main character just died, and it’s November 14! What the heck am I supposed to do now??”
And into the fray leap several of your fellow writers or some of the NaNo moderators, and a discussion ensues about how you need to handle the plot from hereon in. Perhaps you will need to use flashbacks now to keep your main character as part of the story, at least until the end. Perhaps the role of the main character must now be passed, like a relay torch, to someone who’s been playing second fiddle to the main character up to this point in the story. Or perhaps—and you knew this had to be one of the possible options—perhaps your main character isn’t “really” dead after all. And if that’s the case, how are you going to work the plot so that this person can eventually—and plausibly—come back again? Was this death deliberately staged for the main character’s secret purpose? Or are you writing a story in a world where resurrection is possible. Or—again an inevitable question—is this a world where your character might return as one of the undead?
You might just want help with making your characters more realistic. Some people are great at writing scenery or developing a plot, but they are lousy at writing plausible characters. Other people can craft characters so real and plausible and lifelike that they feel like they’re going to leap off the page, but they can’t think of anything for these characters to do that would constitute a plot.
Don’t try to go this alone. If you don’t do it on the official NaNo forums, then talk to somebody, at least. You don’t need reminding, but I’ll do it anyway: you’ve got just thirty days to get this all completed. So if you have a major plot problem or character problem, you need to get these issues sorted as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid of the NaNo forums; they are full of experts, fellow writers, and people with rich imaginations that can help to supplement your own. And if you see someone else with their own plot or character problems, you might be able to help them too.