NaNoWriMo #15: Stuck? Try this and move forward.

At this point in the planning process the room divides into two main categories: those that take to this quickly, easily and with great relief… and those who don’t. 

Doesn’t mean you’re fighting it off or don’t get it, it just means that you may be used to, or prefer, conducting your “search for story” by drafting, which with NaNoWriMo is usually a daunting process. 

Either way, I highly recommend you plow ahead with your October story planning.  It’ll make the difference between a pile of 50,000 words perhaps leaning toward a viable story (or perhaps not)… and a story that may actually work at the first draft stage.

Here’s a killer way to discover your story. 

Quick reminder: an “idea” for a story isn’t a story… until it is.  Knowing the difference is THE essential quality you need to warp your head around to write publishable, effective stories.  We must evolve our ideas into concepts, then marry them to five other non-negotiable core competencies.

Today’s tip is most effective if you have an initial “idea” in your head that you’re in the midst of evolving into a concept (often a sticking point), but it’ll help anyone who is engaged in sequencing the 60-ish scenes that will comprise your completed draft.  If that’s what you’re stuck on — you don’t have an “idea” for a story yet — keep asking yourself what kind of story you’d like to read this weekend, then couple it with some combination of your deepest desire, your greatest fear, a burning issue or a compelling question… and let it simmer.

If you’re otherwise stuck… rent a DVD tonight.

I’m dead serious.  Browse Blockbuster or Netflix and find a film that comes close to the genre (and if possible, your idea), and bring it home.  You can also do exercise this with a novel, but a film is a much quicker solution, and time is of the essence.

Carve out a few quiet hours to hunker down with the remote control and a notepad (or an open Word file or Excel spreadsheet). 

Note the total running time of the film.  Use the clock-timer on your DVD to help you keep track of the scenes, which can help you identify the plot p0ints.  You’re going to be charting the story… literally using the remote to PAUSE the film after each scene, then write down the mission/purpose of that scene.

Not what happens… but what it means to the story. A generic blueprint. 

It might look like this (just the first five scenes, in this examples):

1.  Meet main character at work, he’s obviously unhappy.

2. We meet his spouse, who is hiding something, mean to him.

3. Hero with a good friend, is told his wife is cheating on him.

4. Hero comes home, finds wife dead (inciting incident). (Note: this isn’t the First Plot Point… way too early.)

5. Police show up unexpectedly… he flees.

Later, somewhere around the 12th to 15th scene or so, somewhere around the 18th to 25th minute of the film, the First Plot Point will arrive.  You’ll recognize it when it give the hero something meaningful to pursue (note that the inciting incident above, while it may do that, doesn’t ignite a journey with stakes and opposition… the FPP will do that). 

And then you’ll see how the entire Part 1 was sequenced, leading up to that point.

The more you understand about story architecture, the better this will work. 

Do this for the whole film.  You’ll end up with roughly 60 scenes (give or take 20), each with an accompanying generic “mission statement,” or the exposition it imparts.

Doing this will show you how a story is paced relative to the major milestones. What connects them.  How the milestones are teed-up and then paid off, and each with a unique scene.  You’ll notice how each scene usually delivers a single piece of narrative information that propels the story forward, and yet, each scene also builds character, setting, time and place (especially in the first quartile).

Your planning is all about defining the mission for each scene (before you write it or envision how the scene unfolds), in context to the large parameters of 4-part, 3-milestone story structure.

A big part of being stuck is not knowing what to do next with what you’ve already got in your head. 

So check out how someone else got it done, in a story similar to yours.  This will reveal an essential behind-the-curtain infrastructure of exposition, one that you can use to build you own sequence of scenes.  That infrastructure, in a generic sense, won’t be one the author made up, but rather, one that guided them.

Which means, you can use it, or something close to it, yourself.

Will you change it up, make it your own?  Of course.  Will it look at lot like the one you’ve charted?  It should.  Because chances are the story on that DVD has been developed to the point at which it does, which at a professional level is known to be the point at which it works best.

Feel free to share your experience with this technique here, so that others (stuck, and otherwise) will be inclined to give it a shot.  It’s one of the most powerful learning tools — and creative inspirations — that you can access, regardless of your level of experience.

Stay tuned for more deconstruction of Bait and Switch… coming soon.

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10 Responses to NaNoWriMo #15: Stuck? Try this and move forward.

  1. Carmen

    I wanted to let you know that as a result of your NaNoWriMo posts, I decided to give a new story idea a whirl next month. So I finally cracked open STORY ENGINEERING, which I bought earlier this summer but thought I didn’t need to read right away because I was already well past the outlining stage of the project I had been working on for five years. (I’m sure you know that song and dance.)

    Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes, I needed to read this book the second I got my hands on it. If only it had been around five years ago. My old project is now on the back burner; meanwhile I’m watching my new story idea bloom like a flower as I read your book (and your NaNoWriMo series of posts). I don’t know why anyone sees outlining in this manner as constrictive. The things I have outlined or even simply noted over the past week are things that I would have eventually done, perhaps three years from now; they are necessary parts of the story, so in a way they were already there. But with your guidance, I knew the questions to ask and when and what to do with the answers after I called them up from wherever these things come from. I can’t wait for November. Thank you. Once I’ve actually finished reading all of STORY ENGINEERING (currently I’m jumping around within it in the interest of time), I will leave a glowing Amazon review.

  2. Preparation for Nano is so individual. I’ve done nothing and I’ve done everything. Everything is better. See you November 1…


  3. Martha

    Larry the Magician! I’m at exactly this point in a new story: I have the idea but exactly where is the story? And how best to tell it? Watching a movie and noting the scenes is brilliant, as all your suggestions and ideas are. This came at the exact moment I needed it.
    And for the rest of you who find Larry’s Story Engineering as brilliant as I do, you are cordially invited to come to Portland, Ore on October 29 and 30 and join us for a 2-day feast of Learning with Larry. For details, visit and click on Story Engineering. We hope to see you here then!

  4. Great suggestion. Since I’ve begun taking my writing seriously, I watch TV shows and movies with a completely different mind set. Instead of just idly watching, I analyze what the characters are doing and why, instead of just watching for the sake of watching.

  5. This is so great. You go to the heart of it.

    Write what you want to read.

    That has always worked for me. It’s never failed to generate a good story done exactly to my taste. If I feel that way about it, that will come through in the prose. I’ll work harder on getting it right. I’ll sparkle and soar instead of getting bored with the project.

    A lot of challenges start with “Get out of your comfort zone. Try something you’ve never done before, something you usually can’t stand.”

    The challenge is Nanowrimo itself and its tough deadline. Head right into your comfort zone and keep on going. That’s the style and genre and type of story you’ve read most often, enjoyed most, played with most often, gotten your best ideas in. So pick up on it like an old friend and think about what would make you happy if it just appeared on your screen a paragraph at a time.

    That’s the best way to get it to flow as if that’s what happened, whether you’re a pantser or you like to have every scene worked out in detail before you start.

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  9. Great suggestions and great timing. I will take your wise advice into November.

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