A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days
By Denise Jaden
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Denise Jaden
All rights reserved.
THE STORY IDEA
Where do you get inspiration for story ideas? Mine come from all sorts of different sources. Sometimes I'll be watching a movie, and in the first five minutes I start to speculate on where the movie is going and how it'll end. Usually it moves in a completely different direction, so I'm left with a cool story idea all my own.
Sometimes I wake up in the morning with the remnants of a dream in my head. That can be the spark of a great story idea.
I also get ideas from talking with friends about things they've done or people they know, or events that have happened in my own life. Many authors take their story ideas straight from newspaper headlines.
Plot ideas can come from almost anywhere. The important thing is to keep your eyes and ears open. Pay attention to the people, events, settings, and stories that interest you.
If you have trouble coming up with good story ideas, don't worry. Chances are, you have many of them already stored in the back reaches of your brain. To access these ideas, practice brainstorming. Brainstorming is a simple but effective skill that you'll need as a writer.
Here are some guidelines for brainstorming:
1. There are no hard-and-fast rules.
2. There are no bad ideas.
3. Your instincts are more important than you usually give them credit for.
4. Dream big and wild.
5. Use free writing and writing prompts when you're stuck.
With free writing, set a time limit for yourself — five minutes or an hour, whatever you can handle — and write without stopping. Write down whatever comes into your mind, even if it's just "I don't know what to write." The process of writing will eventually get your creative juices flowing. Writing prompts, on the other hand, give you a starting place, something to springboard off of. Whether you're free writing or using prompts, I recommend pushing yourself to keep your pen (or keyboard) in constant motion throughout the time you have set for yourself. Sometimes you'll need to write through a few repetitive or boring ideas in order to get to the really good ideas.
When brainstorming, relax for a few minutes before you start and let your mind wander. I guarantee ideas will appear and start to spark your interest. Jot them down loosely, without trying to shape them. Does a certain type of person, job, or circumstance seem intriguing, amusing, or shocking? Write it down and launch from that into your free writing. This can be a seed from which you grow your plot.
So, your first task before fast-drafting is to spend twenty minutes brainstorming as many character, event, and story ideas as you can think of. Sometimes you may prefer to do this on a computer, but today I recommend the old-school pen (or pencil) and paper method. The motion of handwriting, as well as the time it takes to get the words down on paper, can allow your mind to really explore your creative ideas. Plus, studies suggest that the act of forming letters may help with memory, ideas, and expression.
I recommend keeping a notebook with you at all times. You never know when ideas will strike. In fact, I keep an app on my iPhone called "A Novel Idea." It's free, and it's a great place to make plotting and/or character notes.
Come back to your brainstorming a day or two later and circle anything that can be formed into story ideas — that is, anything to do with characters and character relationships, their motivations and desires, or obstacles. Complete as many brainstorming sessions as you need in order to get a list of at least ten circled ideas. Write these on a separate piece of paper and add any details you can think of for each one.
For example, maybe one of your ideas is about an abusive marital relationship. Can you picture either of the spouses? Write down whatever you envision. Which one is abused? What does that character want? Which one is the abuser? What does that character want? Can you think of any obstacles that are getting in the way of what either of these characters want?
Once you've jotted down some notes on all your ideas, choose a few of the ones that grab you the most to craft into short one- or two- sentence premise statements. A premise is the basic central idea, circumstance, or dilemma of your story; you will build your plot from this. You could combine numerous brainstorming ideas into a single premise, but it's good practice to trim each one into a single sentence. This is handy when you're sharing and explaining your writing with friends, and it's essential when it comes time to market your story to publishing professionals.
As an example, let's look at a few premises many of you will recognize:
A young girl gets stranded in a strange new land and sets off on a dangerous journey to meet the one person who has the power to send her home.
Do you recognize this premise? I purposely made the description a little vague, to show how the same premise might fit a variety of stories, but it's The Wizard of Oz.
Or try this one:
A suicidal family man gets a glimpse of the world as it would be if he hadn't been born.
This is the basic premise of It's a Wonderful Life.
Here's one more:
An old miser is visited by three ghosts who remind him of the spirit of Christmas.
I'll bet you guessed that this one is from A Christmas Carol.
Here is the one-line story idea I started with for my latest work-in-progress young adult novel, Tent:
Wild-child Delaney Peters attempts to punk a religious tent meeting but instead starts experiencing strange and increasingly embarrassing miracles.
We'll come back to that premise, and I'll show you how I expanded it to grow a fully formed novel.
Once you have a solid premise statement (if you have several, pick the one that pulls at you the most), spend some time thinking about genre, audience, and setting. Are you going to write your story for children or adults? Is it going to be a mystery or an action-adventure or have gory moments that will make even the strongest stomach turn? Will it be set in the past, present, or future? Will it have otherworldly elements or will characters live in the real world?
Whatever you decide, it is important to nail down one or two main genres that your novel will work into.
Here are some common fiction genres in professional publishing:
If you approach your story like it's something brand new that cannot be categorized, it may make you feel like a pioneer of publishing, but it could be more difficult to create a satisfying plot arc, to connect with readers who are used to established genres, and to get your story published traditionally.
Again, before you start to plot your story, I encourage you to wrangle your idea into a concise sentence. Your premise statement may change over time, of course, but the more you can harness your ideas and keep them in tight, quick-glance form, the more easily you can make use of them in your story plan.
PLOT AND THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
What is plot? Even if you can't explain it in concise terms, I'll bet you know right away if it's missing from a book or movie! How many times have you found yourself shaking your head, saying, "I don't get it. What is this story about, anyway?"
Plot is the structure or framework on which you hang your story. Plots vary, but when planning for your fast draft, I want you to focus on imagining your story in three main parts: First, define a problem or a quest. Then, describe the obstacles that get in the way of solving the problem or continuing the quest. Finally, in some form, resolve the problem, or complete the quest, ideally in a way that involves growth and self-revelation for your main character. This always makes the most satisfying plot.
Or, to put it into one sentence: Create a plot in which a character wants something, but there are obstacles in the way, and the character has to pay a cost and/or change in some way to get what's desired.
This three-act structure comes straight from screenwriting or movie script instruction. With script writing, the parameters are very specific in what professionals are looking for, and oddly enough, these parameters work well for novel writing, too, even down to the number of pages you spend on each stage. Though movie scripts are shorter than novel manuscripts (say, around 120 double-spaced pages for a movie compared to 300 pages for an average novel), you would be smart to work within the same proportionate guidelines — with shorter beginnings and endings and a longer middle. The middle typically includes lots of twists and turns (with several obstacles to overcome), while the beginning should have punch and the ending should quicken the momentum as the story climaxes and finishes.
Plotting a Three-Act Roller Coaster
Now, take your one-sentence premise and, using the brainstorming ideas in this chapter, spend some time expanding that with events and scenes that fit the scope of that premise. What might happen, and how might things play out? Even if you're unsure, jot down any ideas that come to you. Do not leave any idea unwritten!
Remember my one-line premise from Tent: Wild-child Delaney Peters attempts to punk a religious tent meeting but instead starts experiencing strange and increasingly embarrassing miracles.
In this case, I started brainstorming with scenes that could happen at a tent meeting, different settings and embarrassing situations where miracles could take place, and what would drive my main character to want to punk a tent meeting in the first place.
With your premise sentence in front of you, keep coming up with as many ideas as you can and see how they might fit together. Even if certain ideas don't end up playing a part in your fast-draft novel, ideas spring from ideas, so don't be afraid to write anything down. Often our aha moments come not from suddenly getting "the right" idea, but from seeing connections between ideas that you hadn't seen before.
Again, write everything down that comes to mind! You may want a separate notebook for this.
Then, to arrange your story into the three-act structure, your first section should introduce the main characters and give only the essential setting and background information. Most importantly, it should feature an "inciting incident" — that is, the first moment when things change and cannot go back to the way they were for your main character. I'll talk about this more below.
Your middle includes subplots that help your reader get to know your characters more fully. The middle should keep your characters active and busy. Often, meeting challenges sends your main character in a whole new direction — probably the wrong direction.
Your ending is all about tying things up neatly — but not too neatly.
Here is a quickie formula for planning the amount of material in each stage and for how much time to spend when you're fast-drafting:
Act I: Beginning — About the first 50 pages of a novel (days 1–7 of drafting)
Act II: Middle — The middle 200 pages of a novel (days 8–23 of drafting)
Act III: Ending — The last 50 pages (days 24–30 of drafting)
NaNoWriMo's Young Writers' Program Workbook suggests it might help to think of the plot of your story like a roller coaster. Here's one way to do so:
Act I: The Setup
This introduces your protagonist, his or her want or desire, and a possible obstacle to that want. All this can feel like climbing the first big hill of a roller coaster. Your inciting incident should hit by page 50 (or sooner), and this will feel like the crest of the first big hill — the moment from which your protagonist cannot or will not turn back.
Act II: The Middle
This is the longest section of your book — say, 200 pages — and it should build character development and tension toward the eventual climax. Think of it like all the fun little twists and turns, the hills and valleys, in the middle of the roller coaster. They are the fun parts that don't quite scare the pants off you.
Act III: The Climax and Resolution
This section should be about the same length as the beginning, 50 pages. It's the moment in your book when your readers will hold their breath, needing resolution. Think of this like rounding the peak of the roller coaster's highest, biggest hill — when you know the plunge is coming! Then comes the fast-paced falling action. After that last big hill, the story should maintain that fast, thrilling pace all the way until it makes it back to the station for the final resolution. The resolution answers two questions: Does your protagonist get what he or she wanted or not? Either way, how is the character forever changed?
A Sample Three-Act Synopsis
By the time you're ready to fast-draft, you should be able to describe the essence of what is planned for each act in one short paragraph.
Here are three brief paragraphs describing The Wizard of Oz, so you get the idea:
In act I, we meet Dorothy, the main character, and see her in her normal world of Kansas, where she's unsatisfied in her life. The dissatisfaction is bearable until her dog, Toto, is confiscated. A tornado swoops into Dorothy's life and transports her to the world of Oz.
Some may say the tornado is the inciting incident, or the moment from which Dorothy's life is forever changed. But since her dog is so important to her, and losing him ultimately brings out the side of her that would stay outside and face a tornado, I would consider the loss of Toto as the inciting incident.
In act II, Dorothy meets her antagonist, the Wicked Witch. She takes a journey to lead her home and meets three secondary characters, each with his own plight, along her path. She finally makes it to the Wizard, who is supposed to get her home, but a complication occurs: the Wizard requires Dorothy to fetch the witch's broomstick before he will help her.
Act III begins when things are at their worst, and Dorothy is locked up in the witch's chamber. Her friends help her escape and overtake the witch, but even with the witch's broom, the Wizard is unable to get her home. With help, Dorothy realizes that she has had the power to get herself home all along.
One key to creating a successful three-act structure is figuring out your main character's driving motivation. The character may want and desire many things, but one central desire should run throughout the book. To figure this out, brainstorm and list all the things each character you've considered so far might want, big or small, and circle the ones that you think could be important, story-carrying wants.
This list could include almost anything. A character might want ...
... to get into the best college.
... to date a newcomer at school.
... to be promoted within the police force.
... to become a famous chef.
... to find a missing child, and so on.
Every character in your book should have multiple wants and desires. This will help them feel human, since everyone has wants and desires. This will also give you more fodder for conflict, which, in turn, will give your story momentum. Your characters' motivation and believability will spring from how strong their wants and desires are and how well they are conveyed for the reader. Your characters' actions will only be believable to your reader if the reader believes in those characters' desires.
For each of your planned characters (and you should come back to this stage as you come up with new characters), list at least three wants or desires. Don't worry about how they'll fit into the plot just yet. Simply brainstorm motivations.
Now let's talk a little bit about need.
Creating characters with multiple wants and desires is great. It's even better when those wants and desires conflict with one another. But your main character should also have one desire that's greater than all the rest and that carries through the book. The character should need something. There has to be something essential at stake. In other words, for the main character, ask why each desire is important, and what will happen if the character doesn't fulfill it.
For example, say your main character is a woman whose driving need is to pay a backlog of rent. What will happen if she can't? As you answer this question, keep raising the stakes; really catastrophize the situation. Maybe her landlord will stalk her and interrupt her at her job. Maybe he'll threaten to reveal a secret or ruin her life in some way. Maybe she knows he's a mobster, and she fears being beaten in a dark alley or even killed if she doesn't come up with the money. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fast Fiction by Denise Jaden. Copyright © 2014 Denise Jaden. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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