In the first installment in this series we laid the groundwork for how to prepare for NaNoWriMo (or how to begin to write a book at any time): defining the “spine” of the story and why it matters to you to tell it, along with starting to consider who your protagonists are.
This week we’ll continue this series to get you jump-started on your story with a NaNo prep checklist that you can adapt whether you’re a careful plotter, a seat-of-the-pants writer (pantser), or something in between.
Know Where Your Character(s) Are Starting From
- What’s the problem? Your protagonist is about to go on a journey, and at the end of it she’ll be changed as a direct result of what happens in the story. So it’s key to know where she’s starting from—her point A—and why she needs to take that journey.
That’s usually tied to someplace she’s stuck in her life, internally and/or externally; some problem she hasn’t dealt with or some lesson the character needs to learn. Even if your story involves the character facing travails that imperil a happy status quo, the character should have some area of her life that needs attention, even if she isn’t yet aware of it.
In Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away, for instance, protag Margaret seems to be poised to attain everything she ever wanted: a dream job, dream fiancé, and the perfect happy-ever-after, until a tragedy jeopardizes all of it.
But as the story unfolds, she learns that many of the expectations and ideas she had about her life were illusions and unexamined assumptions. (You can read more about those powerful character-arc tools here and here.) This “problem” she faces is revealed only as the story develops.
Your protag(s)’ problem may be more overt—maybe she’s stuck in a bad situation, or held back by some factor from a specific dream or goal, or facing a clear challenge or threat or issue. But whether your character initially knows her problem or not, as the author it can help keep your story focused to define for yourself in advance what it is—for each of your main characters.
- What does your character want—and why?
This is commonly referred to as your character’s goal and motivation, but it can be helpful to think of it in more basic, straightforward terms: What does he want, and why does he want it?
These elements can and likely will shift over the course of the story as the character travels his journey and arc. One reason I love not outlining every single element of a story before I write it is that it frees me to follow the characters’ lead organically as they travel the road of the plot and are changed by it. But it can help focus your drafting and maintain high stakes and momentum to define his initial wants and drives.
In the above example of Katherine Center’s book, because of her craving for predictability, control, and security (motivation), Margaret has a very clear and specific idea of what she wants: a concrete image of what success in life looks like to her, with the perfect job, perfect marriage, perfect life (goal).
Those goals and motivations drive all her actions for a big chunk of the story as her relentless adherence to them butts up against her changed situation, creating much of the meat of her journey and serving as the engine of the plot.
Knowing what your character wants most and what makes him so fiercely want that thing helps keep propelling him forward toward it. And that gives your story a strong plot and structure, no matter how much of it you prefer to plan ahead of time.
Set Your Character in Motion
- What does your character have to do to get what she wants? Even with a strong premise and well-developed, interesting characters who have clearly defined motivations and goals, without pushing them into action to attain those goals your story may quickly lose steam.
Knowing what your character ultimately wants—her über-goal—gives you a finish line to aim her toward, even if it shifts over the course of the story. And each scene along the road to that endpoint should encompass her trying to take some kind of action to achieve some necessary step on that goal (I wrote about this here), whether it’s moving forward toward it, or navigating an obstacle preventing it.
In How to Walk Away, Margaret’s fierce desire to regain what she lost in her accident dictates her actions, both positive and negative, throughout the story—until she begins to change as she moves along her arc and to reconsider her previous goals for the first time, and to question her motivation for wanting those things in the first place.
Your protagonist may fail at times—and likely will, as that makes for juicy storytelling. But ensuring that she is constantly pushing toward what she wants, the immediate goals that serve the larger goal, keeps the story action strong and forms the through line of the plot. And that’s what maintains strong cohesion and momentum throughout the story (more on that here).
It also makes sure your character has agency and is the engine of the story, rather than a passive bystander or witness (I wrote about that here).
You may prefer to walk the path along with your protag and figure out along with her what each next thing she must do toward her goal is as you draft, or you may be more of a planner and choose to map out each step beforehand.
I use a tool I call an x-ray diagnostically in edits. It helps authors “see” their story more clearly and make sure the bones are strong and in place to create a solid story structure. But you can create one before drafting and customize it to serve as a road map throughout, whether you prefer just a broad overview of where you’re going and the key steps along the path, or turn-by-turn GPS directions. Here’s a primer for creating one.
This is also part of what I walk authors through in my online course “5 Steps to an Airtight Plot,” which is available as a self-study here or live (with Jane Friedman) October 6 here, with Q&A for attendees ($25, with playback available afterward on demand for registrants). The course offers tools and techniques to make sure your story structure is solid, adaptable to whatever level of planning/plotting works best for you.
Next week we’ll talk about what’s in your character’s way—internally and externally—what’s at stake, and how your character changes as a direct result of her journey. See also part one of this series, on setting up the story and character, part three on setting the stakes, and part four on plot.
Meanwhile, authors, how is your NaNo prep going–have you started yet? What are your main concerns or struggles?