Octoberfest: preparing for NaNoWriMo

October 22, 2009

Even though it’s replicated in a few places, I’m sticking this guide here for the sake of not having to go looking for it again. It’s sort of a compendium of stuff I’ve found elsewhere and distilled through my own feeble brain. Hope it’s helpful!

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Like most writers, when I decide that I’m going to write a story, I usually have one of five reasons:

1) I have an interesting character whose story I want to tell.
2) I have an interesting theme or idea that I want to convey.
3) I have an interesting setting that I want to describe.
4) I have an interesting plot that I want to explore.
5) I have an interesting scene that needs a home.

Saving the last one for discussion later, the other four reasons have to do with four basic elements of literature: character, theme (or idea, or premise), setting and plot. Every story has all of these elements, be it short short fiction or a multi-volume novel, but the best stories are able to interweave them into a cohesive whole without letting one or the other dominate. Unfortunately, it’s rare to have all four of these things magically appear in my head all at once, so while I generally start with one, I have to work to create the other three.

But how to approach that work? What’s the most efficient and effective way to assemble these elements into the proverbial well-oiled machine that is a good story? Different methods are successful for different people, but here’s my take on the subject, step by step. I’m assuming that you’re writing a fairly straightforward story with a relatively happy ending; if not, you’ll need to make some modifications to some of the points I discuss. Hopefully, however, this will be useful no matter what kind of tale you plan to tell.

* * * * *

Character and premise are the foundations for any story. Most of the time, the argument goes that character yields premise, but it’s sort of a “chicken or the egg” question: you can start with a character and then craft a premise, or you can start with a premise and then craft a character. Either way, there are important questions to answer about both your character and premise.

Your protagonist, or main character, is the motivator of your story. Why? Because he is the one making the decisions that lead to the events in the story. If the character isn’t developed, then the actions don’t seem motivated, and the characters become puppets going through the motions at the whims of their master. It’s tough to relate to a character that has no control whatsoever over what’s going on around him or seems to make inconsistent decisions. It’s even tougher to relate to a character that has no depth, no past, no defined personality and quirks. The more you develop your main character, the more the reader will sympathize with him and become concerned for the outcome of his story.

So what do you need to know about the character? If you know nothing else, you need to know:

* What he WANTS
* What he NEEDS
* What his MAJOR FLAW is

Those three things will create the premise for you. Unfortunately, those three things are not always immediately apparent, so it’s usually easier to do some other work first. Let’s try to answer some basic questions about the character, stuff that won’t necessarily be included in the story but can be helpful for creating a realistic, compelling character. Try these questions on the protagonist first, then move on to the antagonist, then to secondary characters and so on.

1) What is the character’s name?

I’m terrible about picking names. I always want them to be significant, but not cheesy; cool, but not so cool that they sound unrealistic; unique, but not ridiculous. Baby name websites can be a good place to start, because they’ll often give you information about what names are currently popular and what weird names celebrities are using for their kids and so on. They also let you search by various criteria such as country of origin or meaning. Or you can try my new favorite method: random name generator. I don’t stick with exactly what is produced here, but it is an excellent jumping off point.

Sometimes it’s best to pick the name of one of your friends or family or coworkers just so you have something to call the character until you answer more questions. You can always go back and change it later, no charge.

2) When was your character born?

Every year, Beloit College puts together a list they call the Mindset List, which includes a number of factoids regarding the students who enter college that year. For example, this year’s introduction states, “Most of them will be about 18 years old, born in 1990 when headlines sounded oddly familiar to those of today: Rising fuel costs were causing airlines to cut staff and flight schedules; Big Three car companies were facing declining sales and profits; and a president named Bush was increasing the number of troops in the Middle East in the hopes of securing peace.”

When your character was born can affect his outlook on the world, his knowledge of history and culture, his tastes in clothing and food, and many other important aspects of his personality. The good news is, you get to decide when he was born so you can pick a time frame that’s convenient to you.

You might also want to consider the astrological significance of your chosen birthday. This can help you focus on specific character traits if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want your character to be like. Scan the horoscopes and see if you’d rather your character be an Aries or a Libra, a Pig or a Dragon. Not only is this a useful tool, but if you get rich and famous and people become obsessed with your character, this kind of thing will become important and significant to them and you don’t want to get caught with your pants down, figuratively speaking.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi of some kind, this is still important but you’ll be operating within a historical framework of your own invention.

3) Where was the character born?

See above regarding outlook, tastes, etc. You can always make your character a rebel in his hometown, but be sure you know what he was rebelling against in the first place.

It’s probably best to have the character come from a place you are familiar with. I am reminded of an episode of CSI: Miami, in which the main character visits a house in Coral Gables. To anyone who lives in or near Coral Gables, there was no doubt that this house and its neighborhood were most definitely NOT in Coral Gables. If people in your audience can tell that you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ve lost them. However, if you’re willing to expend the time and energy to properly familiarize yourself with a specific location, go nuts.

Also, you can make your character from a specific place, but set it up so that the character moved at such a young age that he doesn’t remember anything about said location. It’s cheap, but it works if you absolutely must have him come from a place you haven’t visited. I don’t see why you’d do that, but to each his own.

4) Where does the character live now?

See above. This may or may not be where the story takes place; if it is, see above harder.

5) What is your character’s race/ethnicity/heritage?

This may or may not relate to both #3 and #4, but see both for details. Don’t pick a heritage unless you are familiar with it, because again, you’ll just end up looking like an idiot to people in the know.

Each culture has a different set of norms and moral imperatives, so keep those in mind when you decide what ethnicity to choose. In addition, race can be a volatile issue depending on the setting of your story; don’t set a story in the Deep South and make the character Hispanic unless you intend for sparks to fly.

Again, if you’re making up your own world, you set the rules for how cultures interact. Just be sure you don’t whitewash everyone and make culture insignificant; it would be lovely if such a society existed, but the likelihood is low.

6) What does your character look like?

Write at least the basics: height, weight, eye color, hair color and skin color. Consider race when making your choices, as certain traits are more common to certain ethnicities/races. Try to avoid really strange options if you’re going for a realistic character, even if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction. Exceptions are characters that are deliberately trying to be strange or rebellious, i.e. a teenager who dyes her hair purple and gets yellow contacts that make her eyes look like a cat’s. Keep in mind, however, that the “normal” people in the story will not be overly accepting of an abnormal appearance, whatever your definition of normalcy might be.

The height and weight of a character will affect how he acts and moves. How muscular or athletic is your character? Don’t create an overweight middle-aged character and then have him sprint after bad guys unless you intend for him to die of a heart attack during the chase. Likewise, don’t create a tall swimmer-type and then have him collapse in exhaustion after minimal exertion.

Decide whether your character is attractive or not so much. Most main characters are above average in the looks department, but whether that is true for your character is up to you. This can also affect the character’s personality; good-looking people usually have more self-confidence and are less introverted than not-so-good-looking people. Another popular trend is for a character to be good-looking but not know it; this is bordering on trite at this point but is still an option if you so choose.

Does your character have any tattoos or piercings? Again, this affects how other characters will react, and it can be a telling factor with regards to your character’s personality.

7) What does your character do for a living?

The broader question here is one of lifestyle. Does your character make a lot of money or not so much? Does he like his job? Does he have a dream job that he idly lusts after or is actively pursuing?

A character’s job can say a lot about him, or it can stand in contrast to his personality. Imagine an accountant who secretly wants to paint nude models, or a janitor who can do advanced mathematical proofs in his head. Or, perhaps consider an engineer obsessed with making everything perfectly straight, or an actress who immerses herself in her roles to the point of losing contact with herself. Whichever you decide, make sure it’s realistic given your character’s age, location and physique.

8) What is your character’s major strength?

This could either be a virtue that your character possesses–wisdom, courage, prudence, mercy, honesty, etc.–or it could be a source of strength for the character, such as love for his children or a sense of justice and fairness. This is the thing that keeps the character from giving up when the odds are stacked against him and failure appears to be imminent (or it has already happened). Usually, this is something that the antagonist lacks, causing him to underestimate the protagonist’s will to succeed.

Be very careful with this question; a trap that many burgeoning writers fall into is that they load their protagonist down with strengths and go light on the weaknesses. This kind of character is called a “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” and is typically an idealized version of the author, created to allow the author a fictional realm in which to be awesome and revered. All of us have fantasized about something like this at one time or another, but it doesn’t make for good reading to everyone else. Try to pick one central strength, or a few complementary ones, and leave it at that.

9) What is your character’s major weakness?

See above. This could either be a vice–lust, cowardice, greed, indifference, etc.–or it can be something that weakens the character like an emotional Kryptonite, perhaps a phobia that paralyzes him or the sound of his father’s voice that makes him feel like a helpless little kid again.

This is the thing that makes the character fail, the thing that he must overcome in order to succeed. Typically, the events of the story will cause this flaw to be exposed, acknowledged, then squashed like a bug. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, the character must change between the beginning and the end, and this is where the bulk of the change is focused.

For example, a proud person might not want other people to help him reach his goal (what he WANTS). By the end of the second half of your story, this character would understand that he is flawed and can’t do everything himself, and that he needs his friends/family/whoever to help him reach that goal. He overcomes his pride and succeeds. Roll credits.

Remember those three things I mentioned in the beginning? The ones you MUST know about your character? This is one of them. Give this considerable thought before you commit, because it will be used to create your plot, if not your premise and theme as well.

10) What does your character want?

This is a pretty heavy question. People visit psychiatrists for years trying to figure this one out for themselves, and now you have to do it for your protagonist. The answer to this question will determine at least the first half of your plot, during which your character will spend his time trying to get what he wants. Think of it has his driving goal, the motivation for the story. It can be an object–Dude, where’s my car?–or it can be a person, or it can be some outcome of events–revenge, workplace success, learning to use the Force, etc. Whatever it is, you must be able to clearly identify it in, say, five words or less. Yes, five is an arbitrary number, but the point is to keep it short and sweet.

Will your character get what he wants? That’s for you to decide. As the Rolling Stones say:

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need”

Which leads us to the next question…

11) What does your character need?

This is even more important than what your character wants. Think of a toddler screaming at his parents in the middle of a grocery store: what he WANTS is candy, but what he NEEDS is a good spanking. It’s like that with your character as well. He may know what he wants, but rarely does he realize what he needs until the second half of your story, if he ever realizes it at all. Your job is to figure out what he needs and see that he gets it. Maybe he wants to learn to use the Force, but he NEEDS to gain the maturity and discipline to use it properly. Maybe he wants to get the girl, but he NEEDS to learn to respect women instead of treating them like objects. Maybe he wants to win the big game, but he NEEDS to discover that winning isn’t everything.

There are near-infinite possibilities, but as with determining the character’s want, you must be able to define the character’s need very succinctly and specifically. The two can be complementary, in that your character can achieve both in the end, or the need can surpass the want. Whatever you decide will influence both the premise and the plot, so don’t go changing one unless you’re prepared to topple a whole house of cards in the process.

There are many other questions you can answer about your character–Does he like coffee or tea? How often does he brush his teeth? Is he allergic to anything?–but these will give you the solid foundation you need to start thinking about the next step in crafting the novel: Premise.

* * * * *

Once you have a firm handle on the basics of your protagonist (his want, his need, and his flaw) then you can move on to the next most vital character: the antagonist. This is the person who will, quite simply, oppose your character.

Unless you’re writing a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the antagonist needs to be as realistic as the protagonist, meaning you have to know a lot about her as well. As with the protagonist, the antagonist will have a want, a need and a flaw. The good news is, once you’ve answered these questions about your hero, it’s as simple as flipping the coin.

Whatever the protagonist wants, the antagonist probably doesn’t; in fact, she probably wants the opposite thing, so you’ve already got that part taken care of. However, it may instead be that she merely wants something that would, by its nature, conflict with the protagonist’s want. Either way, by already having the protagonist’s want established, you’re most of the way to determining the same thing for your antagonist. If you’re making the antagonist an all-out villain, what she wants will probably be motivated by some vice or flaw like greed, envy, insanity, revenge, power, etc.

Assuming you are writing a fairly straightforward story, what the antagonist needs is, well, to lose. Alternately, you might say that the antagonist needs to realize that her want is wrong and that the protagonist’s want is preferable. Or you can give the antagonist a completely different need based on her flaw. Which leads me to…

The antagonist’s flaw will not necessarily relate to the protagonist’s flaw, but her flaw will be the thing that eventually leads to her downfall. Whether this flaw is directly manipulated by the protagonist, or whether it impedes the antagonist in some other way, this is what will make the difference between winning and losing. Typically, the antagonist will be able to clearly see the protagonist’s flaw, but not her own, and because of that she will never change. If you want your antagonist to be redeemed at the end, you’ll need to make her aware of her flaw and give her a means to correct it, just like you did with your protagonist. Sometimes, you may even want their flaws to be the same; few things are quite as motivational as having your protagonist realize he has a lot in common with his nemesis, and could have ended up in a similar position had events transpired differently.

As a side note, I’ve noticed something about villains: It is likely that the antagonist will never truly comprehend the protagonist’s source of strength. Because of that, she will underestimate him and he will beat her. This is something useful to consider when creating your antagonist, because it may give you an open door into her back story. For example, a protagonist who finds strength in his friends would lead to an antagonist who cannot understand why the protagonist would rely on other people for anything. This kind of antagonist probably didn’t have many friends growing up; why not? Answer that question and you’re on your way.

When creating your antagonist, use the same questions and template you used for your protagonist. Always keep in mind the basics discussed above, and make sure that they are supported by the rest of the details that you add to make your character more realistic. Few things kill the joy of victory so much as having a fully realized hero but a one-dimensional villain; after all, if the bad guy is made of cardboard, how hard is it to beat him? And how good does it really feel when you do?

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Now that you have a protagonist and an antagonist, you’re finished with character stuff, right? If only.

Think of all the people you’ve met in your life: friends, family, classmates, colleagues, coworkers, and so on. Pretty long list, huh? And in their own ways, they’ve all impacted your life somehow, making you who you are and helping bring you to the place you are today. Thankfully, you’ll never have to put that many people in your story, or even worry about defining them in order to create your characters. However, you will need to do some brain work to come up with the supporting cast for your story.

There are three basic categories of secondary characters: those who 1) help the protagonist, 2) help the antagonist, or 3) help the reader. Don’t go crazy coming up with every minor character in the story at this point; just define the ones who will be most important to the character. You can work on the “extras” when you discover that you require them.

Characters who help the protagonist can be just about anyone. Usually they will be friends or family who stand by your hero in his hour of need. They can also be the professor who provides a necessary clue to help solve a mystery, or the good Samaritan who gives him a ride when his car breaks down; basically, anyone who assists your character, in whatever way, to achieve his goal goes into this category.

Conversely, characters who help the antagonist (or harm the protagonist) can also be just about anyone. They will usually be friends or minions of the villain, or simply enemies of the hero, and they are determined to get in the hero’s way and stop him from achieving his goal. Perhaps the protagonist is being chased by the police for a crime committed by the antagonist; those police officers, even if they are good people, are helping the antagonist and hindering the hero.

What about this helping the reader thing? Characters in this category won’t necessarily help or hinder the hero, but they will usually help the reader understand what is going on in the story somehow. They may explain vital plot points, or describe aspects of the setting, or they may exist mainly to provide the reader with a sense that the world of the novel is a realistic one populated with real people. Few characters will tend to fall into this category, as most of the people who would deserve any attention in your world should do something to further the plot, and would thus be either #1 or #2. But, say, a girl who stumbles on a spaceship sometime prior to the events of the story, thereby letting the reader know that aliens are abroad, doesn’t really help anyone but the reader. Think of this as the infodump character or the dramatic irony character. Use this type sparingly or you risk getting didactic or excessively expository.

It’s fine if you want to hold off on this part of your preparations until you have a better idea of what you need based on your plot. You don’t want to create a really great minor character and then find yourself with absolutely no reason to include him in the story. But if you already know that your main character won’t get along by himself, or that your antagonist needs some goons to do her dirty work, now is the time to develop those characters so that they can be as realistic as your hero and villain.

And realistic they must be. Try to give them a want, need and flaw just as you did for your main characters. Even if their goal aligns with or opposes the protagonist’s, they should have a logical reason for that goal. The cops may be after the hero because the antagonist left evidence that leads them to do so. The short-sighted goon may be working for the antagonist because he is being paid really well. The mysterious ninja is helping the hero because she wants revenge for her family, which was killed by the antagonist. Remember that these characters, just like the protagonist and antagonist, had lives before they entered the story.

Additionally, beware of creating secondary characters for the sole purpose of filling some plot requirement; I call them Plot Puppets. The most common occurrence of a plot puppet is the romantic interest. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having romance in a story (especially in a romance novel, duh), but having a character exist simply so that the protagonist has someone to love is cheap and unsatisfying. To paraphrase Kant, people are ends in themselves rather than means to an end, and they should be treated as such in a novel just as in real life.

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The premise of a story is, basically, its theme. What is it about? Where does it start and where does it end? What is the cause and what is the effect? What is the moral of the story? The premise answers all of these questions succinctly but accurately.

One of the best introductions to the concept of the premise was written by Lajos Egri in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing. His work was written primarily in relation to plays, but is applicable to just about any narrative writing.

The most notable things about his approach are his emphasis on premise as arising from character, and his notion of the explicit cause and effect nature of premises.

Some of his examples of premises include:

Bitterness leads to false gaiety.
Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Heedlessness destroys friendship.
Ill-temper leads to isolation.
Materialism conquers mysticism.
Prudishness leads to frustration.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Confusion leads to frustration.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Dishonesty leads to exposure.
Dissipation leads to self-destruction.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Fickleness leads to loss of self-esteem.

Now that you have your protagonist in place, you can create your premise. Think back to the character’s strength and flaw, his want and his need. If this is a positive story, the premise should describe how the strength leads to the achievement of the goal. For example, “Faith in friends leads to triumph over evil.” With that statement, you’ve set up that the protagonist will succeed in his quest to defeat some evil by relying on his friends.

You can also think back to your antagonist’s goal; whatever it is, the protagonist should probably keep her from achieving it, right? So your premise could also be a statement describing how the hero’s strength leads to the villain’s failure. For example, “A mother’s love overcomes a kidnapper’s greed.”

Try to use your character’s strength and need to create the premise for your story. It should be very brief, no more than a short sentence, and should have both a cause and an outcome. Keep it simple but precise; you can embellish with more details later, when we start to worry about plot.

Some premises may sound like proverbs or platitudes. If you’re having trouble forming your premise, try finding a saying that at least comes close to what you think the moral of your story should be. Then rework it so that there is a clear cause and effect relationship within the statement. Bam! Instant premise.

Here are some good places to start your search:

http://www.manythings.org/proverbs/
http://creativeproverbs.com/
http://aesop.pangyre.org/morals.html

Remember: slow but steady wins the race!

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Once you know who your characters are and what your theme is, next you have to figure out where it all happens. Every story takes place somewhere and somewhen, and that setting can have a strong effect on not just the atmosphere, but also the action of the narrative and the characters themselves. A story’s setting can even become a character in its own right, reflecting or contrasting the emotional states of the other characters.

There are two main aspects to setting that you should consider, not just for your novel as a whole, but for the individual scenes that will compose your novel: time and location.

Time refers to when a story or scene occurs. On a macroscopic level, you need to decide the era: medieval? Roaring 20’s? Far future? Year of the Thumping Rabbit? This applies whether you are writing within the so-called Real World or one of your own creation; the past affects the present and the future, so you have to be cognizant of your narrative’s place on the historical continuum. On a microscopic level, you need to decide things like season and time of day. Does your story start in the dead of winter or the blazing heat of summer? In the middle of the night or at sunrise? Certain times have symbolic significance, which you can either use to your advantage or manipulate to balk the conventional interpretations.

Location refers to where a story or scene occurs. On a macroscopic level, this entails things like country, state, and/or city. You should already know where your characters are from, but where are they now? Are they natives or transplants or visitors, and how comfortable are they there? What are the most notable qualities of the place as a whole, and how do they support or undermine the characters and events? On a microscopic level, you would determine where individual scenes or events take place, as well as specific details like where the character lives, works and spends his free time.

Another facet of setting that is basically a combination of time and location is circumstance. This is a description of what is going on in the world at large and in the character’s life specifically. Is the country at war? Is the economy tanking? Did the protagonist just lose his job? Are his parents getting divorced? What’s the weather like? Think of this as the kind of thing that would be on the front page of a newspaper (macroscopic) or on the character’s last blog post (microscopic).

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself just how much detail you need to have in order to be adequately prepared for actually writing the novel. The short answer is: however much you need to feel comfortable. Some people need to write another book’s worth of notes about the setting, even if most of that information will never make it into the final product. Other people prefer to play fast and loose and make up details as they are needed. Personally, 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 the times and places that are important to the character and where the actual events will occur and less to the world as a whole. So I would be fairly descriptive with regards to the characters’ homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and places where things happen; I would give some thought to hometowns, famous area landmarks, bars and restaurants, and other 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.

But what if you’re creating an entire world for your story? I defer to the delightful Patricia C. Wrede, who has 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.

* * * * *

Characters? Check. Premise? Check. Setting? Check. At long last we come to the one, the only, the plot of your story. It is likely that some kind of plot has been percolating in the back (or front) of your mind as you developed everything else, so you’re probably not starting from scratch here. Even if you are, that’s okay, because you’ve got your characters and premise to guide you.

The plot is, simply put, what happens in the book. Not what happens before, not what happens after, and strictly speaking, not what happens behind the scenes. Do you still need to know all these things? Absolutely, but not in as much detail because you’re not going to write that stuff, you’re going to write the actual action or narrative. I am assuming for the sake of this exercise that you’ll be writing a fairly linear novel as opposed to some kind of post-modern fiction that is more lyric than narrative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but those works play by their own rules so it’s kind of pointless for me to sit here and try to establish guidelines for them.

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.

For the purposes of NaNoWriMo, I recommend having at least a sentence of plot description per writing day, so 30 sentences total at a minimum. Each sentence would correspond to a roughly 2000-word chapter, and you would write one of those each day of November. The benefit of this is that you will know exactly what events need to occur in that chapter and how long it has to be. If you want to go really crazy, write at least a sentence for each scene in a given chapter, which will likely yield a paragraph per day. This sounds excessive, but think of all the time it will save you when you’re actually writing your novel.

But, you say, what if I have no idea what my plot is beyond a few basic details? Go back to your premise. That, combined with your characters’ needs and flaws, should give you at least a beginning and an ending. 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.

That opposition will create conflict, which is the gasoline that makes your novel-car go (or sets it on fire, whatever). At least 50% of the scenes in your novel must contain some kind of conflict, otherwise there is no sense of obstacles being overcome and no tension to make the reader want to find out what happens. Ever sit down to watch a movie or read a book and find your attention wandering in certain slow parts? I can almost guarantee that lack of conflict is the problem. But the good news is, you can use this to your advantage when outlining by defining the conflict in each scene. State which characters are involved in the scene and what they each want, and make sure that those wants are in conflict somehow. Character A wants ice cream BUT Character B wants cake. Character A wants to be left alone BUT Character B wants to talk. Character A wants to attack the town BUT Character B wants to use diplomacy. You get the idea.

At the end, your protagonist should get what he needs, though not necessarily what he wanted to begin with (i.e. his goal). Likewise for the antagonist. The second half of your premise should be fulfilled. Beyond that, it’s all about detail and execution.

Which brings us to the horrifying and painful part: the middle. The Sisyphean hill littered with the breathless, prone bodies of the pitiable writers who couldn’t keep pushing the rock. What the hell do you do between the beginning and the end? If you’re using the Snowflake method, and if you go by what one of my more useful professors taught, you need to come up with two or three major screw-ups, in which the best laid plans of the protagonist not only fail, but make things worse. One way to approach this is to have the first mess occur because the protagonist is approaching the situation with his initially flawed mindset; then have the second mess occur because the protagonist does an about-face and tries to come at it from the opposite direction; then have the protagonist truly overcome his flaw, thus allowing him to solve the problem appropriately. So, say, you’d have the proud protagonist think he can do anything and fail because he wasn’t aware of his own limitations; then he’d lose all self-confidence and fail again because he was too timid; then finally he accepts his own flaws but also recognizes his strengths and is able to achieve his need using his newly developed sense of perspective.

Why does this work well? First, because it creates a character arc, which is vital to any novel. Second, because it forces the plot to be motivated by the character, rather than forcing the character to conform to the plot; this avoids the problem of having a novel in which things seem to just happen to the protagonist, which tends to be unsatisfying and, at worst, unbelievable.

If you’re writing a tragedy, you’ll go about things pretty much the same way, except your character won’t overcome his flaw and as a result will ensure his failure to achieve his want AND need. Dramatic irony may or may not be involved, but that’s pretty much the gist of what makes something tragic; at any point, if the character had grown and changed, the unhappy outcome could have been avoided. But he didn’t, so it wasn’t, and the reader is left to mourn for unrealized potential.

If at any point you get stuck on your outline, it helps to ask: what’s the worst thing that could happen? Brainstorm a bunch of responses to that question, and you’re likely to hit on something that will move the action forward. 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.

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