NaNoWriMo – From Idea to Plot

By Posted in - On Writing on October 29th, 2010 7 Comments

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, a few of you asked me to talk about how I develop ideas into plotlines. Ah, yes, such an easy thing to explain… not. Because everyone has their own way of achieving this.

And because I’ve tried pretty much every method that others have talked about.

I started off by plunging in and letting my muse lead me. But she got bored and wandered off, looking for chocolate, and never came back.

So then I spent about a year learning how to plot by taking all sorts of classes and workshops. With my head weighed down with theory I told tedious, well-structured stories without any heart.

So now, on my third NaNoWriMo, I’m trying the in-between place out for size. I’m not plunging in without a plan, and I’m not planning everything analytically. This is what my process has become:

I have a vague idea. It might be “steampunk” and nothing else. A week goes by while I think about what I like about steampunk, read in the genre, and make lists of my conclusions. A bit like gathering ingredients for a new recipe.

It includes my ten favorite books/movies in that genre with a one-sentence breakdown of what I liked about them. It includes a list of all the cool stuff I want in my book (ridiculously long, but entertaining when scrawled all over a 6′ x 4′ whiteboard) and a bunch of images that I want to know more about, like this one:


I develop the “world-building” list, and the “possible characters that might be found there” list, and then work on the “possible conflicts” list. I freewheel, too, just to see what’s in my subconscious:


Then I go back and read some critiques of the genre on the internet. What do people criticize about the genre I’m writing in? Can I meet those challenges head on? What would it take? Another list.

Which of my possible conflicts interests me the most? Which can I get most heated about? And will it help me avoid the genre pitfalls?

Sometimes I still can’t pick a conflict until I’ve started playing with the characters some more. In my current NaNoWriMo project I have a society split by opposing ideologies, which is a great start. Conflict is inherent in the world they live in. So who’s on what side? Why? What lengths will they go to for their cause? What are they willing to sacrifice? And what are they NOT willing to sacrifice? That gives me the stakes.

How can I complicate the stakes? A love interest that works for the other side? A cure for a problem for the hero’s side that can only be achieved by the heroine’s society? Better and better… what kind of problem would be important and personal enough to the hero to make him venture into enemy territory?

Now what could go wrong? What else could go wrong? What reallllly bad thing could happen next? What does it take for the hero to figure out that his current modus operandi isn’t going to cut it in this world? How black can his blackest moment be? What provokes the ah-ha moment that shows him a new way around the problem? What’s his new plan? Does it work?

See how the plot is growing?

For every answer, I write an index card (I use the whiteboard or Scrivener, depending on my mood). For National Novel Writing Month, I need a card for every day of the month of November. 30 days = 30 cards.

I’m not talking about scenes, or chapters, just a plan for that day’s writing, for where the story needs to go next in the loosest terms.

Next, I look at the cards and figure out where the Act 1 break is (about 25% of the book so that means my cards should show that on Day Seven, I need to be hitting the end of Act One and setting off into the increasing complications of Act Two. And by the 24th day/index card I want to be heading into Act Three.

Now I look at the cards and see if the action of the story jives with that structure. If it doesn’t it’s easier to fix the index cards than to fix the manuscript!

If I spot a problem I use a piece of advice from one of Donald Maass‘ workshops – pick up the cards and throw them all in the air. Let them fall where they may. Release yourself from the structure you’ve created.

Imagine that you’re only allowed to save one card to tell the story. Pick the one you and the story can’t live without. Which one is it?

Imagine the story gods are relenting a bit and they’ve allowed you two more scenes. Which would you pick?  Finally, you can have two more. Go ahead. You’ve now got five pivotal scenes. The inciting incident, the plan, the game-changer in the middle of act two, the climax and the ending. Place them on temporally strategic days on your NaNoWriMo calendar. Now fill in the gaps, keeping your eye on those five crucial scenes as signposts.

Enter your revised 30-card novel plan into a calendar, complete with the number of words you need to have achieved by day’s end. There’s a self-adjusting calendar tool here for recalculating the totals daily in case you exceed or don’t meet each day’s goal.

When you’re done, you’ll have a plan for November that will not only keep your story on track, but keep your timing on track to finish your novel by the end of November instead of ending NaNoWriMo with a 3/4 finished novel and never getting round to finishing it.

It’s easier to put flesh on those bones after November than it is to find your way to the end of the story once the bright flame of NaNoWriMo support has gone out.

Finally, I write the back copy blurb of the book. This is the final test. Can I make it sound irresistible? What’s unique about my story, character and setting? Is the conflict intriguing enough? Would I want to read this if I idly picked up a book in a store and read this blurb?

If the answer is “Hell, yeah!” then I’m on to a winner. Full steam ahead!

If you do manage to get to 50,000 words before December 1, you can call yourself a NaNoWriMo winner. Success stories include The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, which was made into a film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.

Both of those sent their characters to the circus. In total, more than 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been published.

This is my method, and it works for me, but wouldn’t work for everyone. How do you prepare to write a new novel?


Further Reading:

If you’d like to read a great two-page document on “Making Sense of Scenes” by Lorin Oberweger, founder of the Donald Maass Breakout Novel Intensive workshops, head on over and join the NaNoWriMo Warriors group on Facebook, where I’m running support, word wars and live group chats throughout November. It’s a closed group, so you need to join up to read the document, but you can leave at any time and it’s a super lively group of over 150 writers, all heading into National Novel Writing Month together. The more the merrier!

Useful Links:


(7) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Kim Koning - Reply

    October 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Great post Lia. I also love the new look of your blog. Love "that throwing your cards into the air". This NaNo I am doing similar to you, part prepping and outlining and part following the musings of the characters and their stories. I am definitely looking forward to my first NaNoWriMo.
    Good Luck for NaNoWriMo..
    "Hope your Eliza leads you to her story as smoothly as my Eliza leads me to mine.."

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    October 29, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Hey, Kim! Thank you for the thumbs up on the blog's new look. I felt like changing things up a bit!

    As for that throwing the cards up in the air thing, it nearly killed me to do it the first time – Don Maass had us spend HOURS putting every scene on an index card before the workshop and we all showed up with our huge pile of cards bound with elastic bands in perfect chronological order, only for him to tell us to toss all that to the winds. Can you imagine? He said that in nearly every manuscript he reads there are unnecessary and meandering scenes where we were writing our way into the story, and this is the easiest way to see how to tighten things up. But by the time the manuscript is complete it's so much harder to kill our darlings! I wanted to see if the theory applied to story building, too, and I've found it does. Not that I won't have to do it again later, when I edit, but this ensures the story will be more focused to begin with. 😉

    Good luck with NaNoWriMo! May your Eliza lead you to fascinating places, people and adventures!

  • Sheryl Gwyther - Reply

    October 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Lia, I love your logical mind! And your idea of dividing your month up into days of scenes etc – I'm thinking that might be the way for me to go instead of hoping that I might end up doing enough every day.
    This is my first NaNoWriMo and I've decided to work on an incomplete first draft of a story for 8-10 year olds – so it won't be 50,000 words. But that doesn't matter, as long as I FINISH it this month! That is my challenge. 😛
    Thanks for this support group you've put together – it's lovely having a little community of fellow writers all ready to face the challenge and who I can check on every so often.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    October 30, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Sheryl, I think it's because I DON'T have a logical mind that I need the structure that some kind of loose plan gives me. 🙂

    I'm so glad you joined the NaNoWriMo Warriors. It's turned into a really enthusiastic group, and that energy will help us all get to The End, regardless of how many words we're going for.

  • Birgitte Necessary - Reply

    October 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

    This is genius!!!! Maybe it's just that we write (plan) in a similar style, but if I can do this little action of yours, I might have a chance in Nano of finishing! I'm going to work on those little scene cards tonight. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    October 30, 2010 at 10:35 am

    I'm so delighted you found it useful, Birgitte! We blog away like lunatics, never knowing what will resonate, and it's such a huge plus when I read a response like yours! Now I can picture you playing with the cards like a kid in a sandbox and that makes me happy. 🙂

  • Raye - Reply

    August 4, 2011 at 2:22 am

    just found this post and LOVE it… esp the white board and the calendar… so much to think about… as i go to sleep.. thanks for posting, Lia

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