Quick and dirty NaNo plan

For those without the time or attention span to slog through my much longer Octoberfest prep guide, here is a truncated version of what you need to get your act together for a fruitful November.

Characters (and how they make plot)

Your character needs three things: a WANT, a NEED, and a FLAW. What your character wants is his goal. It is the thing he is trying to accomplish that moves the plot forward. His flaw is the part of him that keeps getting in the way of his achieving that goal. It is the thing that affects his actions and choices and causes him to screw up. His need is complicated; at least partly, he needs to overcome his flaw if he’s ever going to attain his goal. Sometimes he needs to realize that his want is not really worth having, or that what he wanted isn’t what he really needs. So a need can also be a sort of shadow goal, or real goal, however you want to look at it.

In the beginning of your story, you set up the want, the goal, and the character starts working toward it. Like I said, he’s got a flaw that keeps screwing him up. He’s too proud to accept help. He’s too stubborn to admit when he’s wrong. He’s too timid to go after the girl. Whatever it is, his flaw influences his decisions negatively and makes his situation worse somehow. This happens throughout the first third or so of the book.

Then, you have a change. The stakes are upped. The character realizes that going about things in the same old way is not going to get him anywhere, so he tries another tactic that is still flawed. He’ll accept help, but he wants to be in control. He’ll admit he was wrong in the first place to get someone on his side, but he still doesn’t really believe it. He grows a pair and gets super macho and goes after a BUNCH of girls instead of the one he wanted in the first place, but inside he’s still the same timid guy putting up a front. This goes on for another third or so of the book.

Finally, the character realizes he’s flawed. By now, he may have actually achieved his goal, his original want, but he may have figured out it’s not what he really needed. Or he still hasn’t gotten there and he knows that he won’t until he truly changes. So, he either has a new goal or he’s ready to change so he can achieve the original one. He learns to collaborate and listen instead of being stuck up. He recognizes that everything is his fault and it’s his job to fix it all. He gains enough self-respect to stop playing games and be honest with the girl he likes. Final plan is implemented, climax ensues, denouement unfurls, FIN.

What else do you need? How about an antagonist! Some stories don’t have one, or they have more than one, but here’s a basic approach: treat your antagonist like another protagonist. He also has a want, a need and a flaw. Generally, he needs to get his butt kicked, and his flaw is what the hero will exploit to make that happen. Whatever the protagonist wants somehow conflicts with what the antagonist wants. They could both want the same thing, like a job promotion, or they could want mutually exclusive things, like freedom versus slavery for some country’s people. Regardless, the antagonist gets in the hero’s way whenever possible.

It can be cool if both the protagonist and antagonist have essentially the same flaw, but one overcomes it while the other either thinks it’s a strength or denies its existence to the end. A lot of stories take this sort of mirrored approach (see Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as one example) but it might be getting a bit old at this point. It’s also up to you whether there is more than one antagonist and maybe one is redeemed while the other isn’t; see Star Wars for details.


When and where does your story occur? At least know where it starts, and if you can, cobble together a general list of locations where scenes will take place. I take a “fog of war” or “points of light” approach; I make notes about the information that I think will be relevant to the story, with more detail given to important stuff and less to the world as a whole. So I would be fairly descriptive with regards to places where things happen; I would give some thought to generic locations that might be mentioned but wouldn’t actually be visited; and I would basically ignore the rest of the world unless it had some specific bearing on the story or characters.

Patricia C. Wrede created a vast and extremely helpful series of questions to guide you in your world-building process. Even if you’re not actually making up a new world, these questions can be very helpful in defining your setting clearly and completely.


Aside from what I already mentioned with regards to character, there are a few suggested methods for laying out your plot, but I think the most useful one overall is the Snowflake method. The only thing that I find odd about it is that you don’t develop your characters until step 3, but otherwise it’s a solid approach. To paraphrase, first you should write a one-sentence summary of your plot. Then, expand that to a paragraph. Then, expand each sentence to its own paragraph. I’m sure you see where this is going.

Your protagonist should start in a place of stagnation, with a need that he may not even know he has to fulfill. Then, something occurs to disrupt that stagnation: the inciting incident, which may involve the antagonist in some way. This incident provides a goal for the protagonist, who then works to achieve that goal in some way and is opposed by the antagonist.

Think of the novel as a series of decisions that the protagonist makes, which lead to consequences, which lead to further decisions and further consequences. Don’t forget that your antagonist is working behind the scenes or out in plain view to oppose the protagonist, which creates conflict that further propels the action forward. The harder you make things for the protagonist, the more satisfying it will be when he finally gets what he needs.

4 Responses to “Quick and dirty NaNo plan”

  1. Mia says:

    I currently have an attention span similar to that of an ant, this was brilliantly helpful! I’ve never been much of an outliner but I think for Nano I need to at least have these ideas in my head.

  2. Valerie says:

    I don’t know, ants can be pretty focused… 😛

    You’ll do fine, worry not. Outlining can take a lot of different forms, you just need to figure out what works best for you.

  3. Excellent tips! I usually start off using the snowflake method (though I do change it up a bit to fit me). I’m one of those you would find odd, I guess, because I don’t start out creating characters until I know what the basic story is.

  4. Ruth says:

    Awesome post, Valerie. You really got it down to the essentials!

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