Nail Your NaNoWriMo #6: Filling Out the Big Picture

31 Posts in 31 Days to Help you Kick NaNoWriMo’s Ass

All this talk about your idea… let’s expand on that.

The overwhelming odds are that your original “idea” — the very first glimmer of a spark for a story, originated as something less than a story element, or it if was a legit story element, it already resides in one of three categories.

If it wasn’t a story element — your idea was “to write a mystery” or another genre… to write a “love story gone wrong”… to write “something like my favorite author writes” — then your idea is more food group than entre.  In other words, you still don’t have a starting point for a story.  Even though that idea may already be pointing you in a given direction.

A legitmate story spark, one that has moved forward from intention to nature, usually comes from one of these three places: it’s a concept… it’s a character… or it’s a theme.

Occasionally the “story” might be your intention to write about something that happened to you or someone you know, or would like to happen… but that’s rarer than those first three.

Here’s today’s tip, and it’s twofold.

First, seek to understand where you are on this continuum.  Is your spark an intention, or is it closer to a concept, a character, a theme, or maybe a sequence of happenings. 

If it’s just an intention, then play ‘what if? with it until it cleanly falls into one of those three categories: concept, character, or theme.

At the point at which you’re sure you know which of those three things it is, then proceed with this absolute necessary at the front and center of your mind: you need to add the others to your original story spark.  To fan that spark into a flame, which will in turn build into the raging inferno of your story.

If you begin with a concept, then you need to develop (add) a character (hero), and then a theme (meaning).

If you begin with a character in mind, then you need to add a concept and then a theme.

What do I mean by “add” in this context?

A story is always a combination of concept, character, theme… and then structure.  No exceptions.

So, if you only have one of those elements framed solidly in your mind, without the others having taken form, you don’t yet have a ‘story.”  Which means, if you start writing without that in place, your story will be broken, rendering the draft itself a step in the search for story process.

So, leveraging the creative energy and potential of the one element you do have, begin to focus on the others. 

For example, if you have a solid concept — like, “what if a newly divorced man seeks revenge on his ex by marrying her daughter?” — you now need to leap naturally into character, which is a development of your story’s hero.  Which in this case could be either the man, the ex or the daughter.  You need to decide, because each story is different, and only now can you make a choice that “optimizes” the inherent potential of your idea.  You can’t really begin writing until you make that choice.

And yet, so many writers do begin writing at this point… and they don’t get there. At least not without another major drafting process.  Which, with NaNoWriMo, you don’t have time for.

And then you need to be clear on what it all means, what you’re saying about this situation.  That’s your theme.

At some point you’ll realize that you’re bouncing among all three of these elements, using a step forward from each to help move the remaining elements forward.  After a while the three will be marching in lock-step toward a story sequence… and then you’re in business.

Story sequencing — which is structure — is always most effective when done with a solid vision for each of the other (concept, character and theme) clear in your mind.

For a while it will feel very non-linear, perhaps uncomfortably so.  But not nearly as uncomfortable as reaching page 170 in your manuscript and then realizing it isn’t working, which will happen unless you approach it this way. 

This non-linear chaos during the planning phase is normal, this is good.  The more you immerse yourself in it, the sooner you’ll begin to see how it all should be organized. 

And that’s when things get really fun, really efficient.

And it’s also when — to dispell the mistaken myth clung to by many pantsers — a new creative layer of sizzle comes to the story, because the basics are already there, freeing you to tweak and add-depth and tension and empathy, all with your genius literary voice.  It’s hard to sing when you’re still trying to figure out the tune… story planning is like an ear-bud playing the bass track in your head while you get to ad-lib and riff around the melody line.

Biggest mistake you can make, especially for NaNoWriMo, is to start writing before these elements are solid in your mind.  Don’t rely on your draft to make them work, you won’t have enough time.  But if they’re solid at the blueprint stage, odds are they’ll come alive and play nice together in your draft — your first draft, your NaNoWriMo draft — in a way that just might exceed your wildest hopes.

It won’t be an accident when it happens.  It”ll be the natural, ordained outcome of a proactive, informed story development process.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Nail Your NaNoWriMo #6: Filling Out the Big Picture

  1. Love how your provided the example in this post. Examples are key to drive home the point.

    I’m wondering how many book writing hopefuls even know how big the idea box is, with it’s 36 plot ideas and 5 types of conflicts, concept, character, theme have much room to bounce around within.

  2. Oh, yes, get things planned a bit first. We’ve hammered at this quite a bit over time, but basics are vital.

    Another analogy could be running a marathon. If you and several others are in a marathon, the organizers don’t just say, “Start!” Where to go? Route? (Has to be just so long), etc.

    Doesn’t do you much good to have to stop (or at least slow down) and look around at each intersection, wondering (and wandering), “What next? Where?”

    With a route marked out (the concept, character, theme, and structure) at least decently well, you are then free (creatively) to run full tilt and be able to concentrate on the tactics of which lane to run in, when to do the water stop, etc. With knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going, you can unleash your creative abilities without worrying about getting too lost.

    Now go write something great.

  3. Larry: When you wrote Bait and Switch and The Seminar, which of the three – theme, character or concept – did you start with?
    Thanks for the insight!

  4. This is beautiful!

    I have been doing this unconsciously for years, usually in mid-process. My novel ideas start with one of those three elements – I can think back and recognize which one for every single novel I’ve written. Usually I discover Theme after finishing the book, but start with a strong character in an interesting concept.

    This year, I got an idea for a cool Character first. Then I got the idea for a Concept and thought that was another possible book. I combined them and wow, the combination was better than either.

    Today, while reading this and recognizing it was cool, I stopped to chat my best writing buddy and came up with a third idea while talking to her. Then it hit me. I had a Theme with that third idea.

    I fused it with the combo of Character and Concept and wow, now I have a feeling this year’s Wrimo is going to be a strong book, one with a lot of potential.

    Thank you for doing this. You’re 100% right on it. All of my ideas are at least one of these things and many combine two or more by the time I get to the first page – usually Character and Concept, with Theme something unconscious.

    I think it’ll help knowing the Theme going right into it though. You’ve helped me so much! This structure is like studying anatomy compared to figure sketching. Sketching from life a lot can result in good proportions but also studying anatomy will make it a lot easier to create a good drawing. It rocks.

    I love this series.

  5. Allow me to expand on my previous comment.

    I believe many writers, including myself, stumble in the beginning because they need the “Structure of Ideas Demystified”. I want to write a book, but when I try to think of something worthy, my mind goes blank as if someone asked me to memorize a dictionary. I love Larry’s advice on story structure and I will use it when the time comes to write my own, but I realized what I lacked was Idea Structure. I had to go back to something I read years earlier to find the “Idea Box” I was looking for. That Idea Box is the 36 plot ideas and 5 conflicts that human storytelling falls within. I realize now that for me, whether I have a concept, a character, or a theme, I need to put it into this overall Idea Box to see what awesome possibilities present themselves to enrich my concept, character or theme. Once I have that, I’m certain I’ll be able to follow the rest of Larry’s gameplan to create something special.

    Two resources I found that mention the 5 conflict types and 36 plot ideas are: (5 conflict types) http:[shash-shash]presentrat[dot]wordpress[dot]com/2008/01/01/106/ and the 36 plot ideas: http:[slash slash]www[dot]rpglibrary[dot]org/articles/storytelling/36plots[dot]php

    After my idea has marinated inside the Idea Box, I’ll run it through the “What if” model, populate Larry’s circus tent and beat sheet, and have something special for my own scene execution and voice.

    Larry, I’d love for you to do a survey and ask beginning, aspiring writers how many plot ideas and conflict types exist. I’m betting only 30% would know.

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