Posts Tagged starting a novel
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
As one novel flies the nest, there’s another poking its beak out of the egg.
Its working title is Echo, but so far it’s nothing more than a concept, some exciting developments I must include and two main characters whose story it is.
But I’m not going to do any more work on those two yet. My next job is to look at the other main characters around them – the people who are important, but whose change and resolution is not on the same scale as the MCs’. Not Lizzie and Darcy, but all the Bingleys, other Bennets, Wickhams et al.
What are they doing without my MCs?
Echo won’t be their story, but I’m going to start with them – and what they want to do if my MCs aren’t there. They will have aims, goals, agendas, worries, people they adore, people they loathe, rivals and scores to settle.
It’s a little like what mystery and crime writers do. They create a murder or other crime, then add the people who are investigating, or feretting out what’s going on, perhaps getting into trouble with it themselves.
Then add MCs… and stir
But my MCs aren’t going to be investigator, observer types. They have needs of their own and will get into the biggest trouble of all. Once I add those to the other characters who already have full lives… it should be a good ride.
Writing in a vacuum
Too many writers get into difficulties because they start the other way round. They have an MC who is minutely drawn but seems to exist in a vacuum. It can be a struggle to write because it feels as if the character is walking through an undecorated TV studio with only the props that immediately fly into the writer’s mind – a milk bottle, say. Or the people who pop up to help something along – a mother or a boss.
To write your MC well you also have to write their world – and the most significant factors in that world are not where the corner shop is, but the lives of the other people. If you make them up as you go along it can be a huge mental effort, especially if you need to create people with credible lives.
So the more complete your other characters are, and their problems, the easier it is to throw in your main one. Also, the supporting players will be less like puppets of the main trajectory.
By seeing what they would do without my MCs, I can make sure that when I throw them in, they really start some trouble.
Start your story as if your characters didn’t exist, then add them – and you’ll have a lot more fun.
What do you do to flesh out your world beyond the main characters? Share in the comments!
Thank you, Atmasphere, for the pic
In case you’re curious, my novel My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30th!