Storytelling in Chunks: a NaNoWriMo Tip

Story structure is really just breaking your story down in chunks.  Chunks that appear in a certain sequence, building on each other as they go.

Chunks, by the way, that have very specific purposes, missions and separate contexts.  Chunks that don’t just happen, but rather, are planned and executed by their author.

Experienced, successful authors get this.  New writers – especially those whose focus is only on getting down 50,000 words by the end of the month – too often miss this essential truth.

Stories that are either written as, or read as, one long chunk of narrative exposition don’t work as well as stories that have distinct phases of life.  Even if the story is indeed delivering proper structure, the reader needs to perceive definite shifts and eras of the story.

Understanding those phases, and implementing them with high art, is the stuff of publishable storytelling. 

Which means you can and should plan those narrative shifts.

Just like breaking a cross country trip down into four days.  Like climbing a staircase that changes direction on every floor.  Like a lifetime broken down in to stages of infancy, toddler, teen, young adult, prime of life, mature years, retirement, senior citizen, ward of the state… etc.

The infant has no clue what life holds.  The senior citizen may or may not be in command of what it all meant.  Life, and stories, evolve, grow and change as they travel their allotted pages.

To every thing there is a season.  To every story there is a chunk.

Turn, turn, turn.

Instead of word count, shoot for phases of story.

In the first few days of November, try to complete two or three chapters that deliver a narrative hook.  A proposition that intrigues and demands understanding.  A reason for the reader to plow forward.

Your pretty words and sentences are never that reason.  (Here’s why.)

In the next few days after that initial phase (the hook), complete your set-up chapters.  To do this right you need to know what your First Plot Point will be.  You should have 10 to 15 chapters (short is good, 500 to 1000 words each) that lead up to that moment – which, by the way, is the most important moment in your story, trumping even the ending – by introducing your hero… showing us their life in pre-PP1 context… foreshadowing the forthcoming drama and antagonist (even introducing the antagonist)… setting up a theme-intensive sub-plot (including sub-text)… and most importantly, establishing what’s at stake for the hero.

Then, at PP1, you change everything. 

The hero’s quest – the thing this story is all about – really begins here.  Because right here, at the First Plot Point, you throw something into the story mix that challenges, that defines and/or gets in the way of what the hero needs or wants, that threatens the hero, that puts the hero’s pre-PP1 life on hold until they can conquer this obstacle, or at least defines what they must do in the near term to continue that journey.

All that happens in one chapter.  It should be at about the 20th percentile of your story.  For you word counters, that’s at about 10,000 words.  But here’s a reality check: 50,000 words isn’t long enough for a publishable book.  If that’s your goal – which is the higher goal… to start a book that will end up being publishable one day, long after November has come and gone – then your PP1 should arrive at about 17,000 to 20,000 words into the narrative.

Give yourself 8 days to get there.  This is Part 1 of your story, and these chapters are the most important of all.  Because here is where you hook your reader, where you give your story dramatic resonance and thematic weight.

Once there, you embark on the second part of your story.

You now have 10 to 12 short chapters to show how your hero responds to whatever it was you’ve thrown in their way at PP1.  Show us their emotional and action-based response (which may not be the same thing).  Show us how their pre-PP1 self isn’t enough to conquer what must be conquered.

Bring back the antagonistic force in some way – simple and clear, smack in the middle of this Part 2 phase.  If your story is about a fickle lover, give us a betrayal in the middle of Part 2.  If your story is about a sinking ship, have the ship flip onto its back in the middle of Part 2.

Part 2 ends with another major twist

It’s similar to the First Plot Point, but with a specific mission.

In the very middle of your novel, throw back the curtain that allows the hero, the reader, or both to glimpse a force that has been at work in the story all along.  Perhaps it was completely hidden, perhaps misunderstood, perhaps masquerading as something other than what it is.

Example: at the mid-point reveal that an ally has actually been plotting against the hero from the opening bell.  That’s a peek behind the curtain, though the force of that betrayal has been in play all along.

Now you’re ready for the third part of the hero’s journey.

You’re at about November 15th by now.  Halfway there.

And, if you’re doing this right, you know exactly how the story will end.  Everything you do from this point forward is a path toward that outcome, complete with more twists, complications and set-backs.

In the third part, put your hero to work on the problem.  The hero has been reacting in your Part 2 scenes (running, complaining, searching, flailing, resorting to old tapes, etc.), you now, in Part 2, will have them on the attack.  Plotting and planning.

In part two they were submissive to the weight of the problem.  They were victimized by it.  Threatened and frightened by it.  In Part 3, they take control and mount a proactive attack on whatever stands in their way.

An important thing happens here in Part 3

Your hero entered the story with flaws, shortcomings and weaknesses.  Here in the third quartile – the next 10 to 12 scenes after the Mid-point behind-the-curtain context shift – the hero realizes that their old self isn’t getting it done.

That they need to change, to be different, to grow.  This is called character arc, and Part 3 is when it really kicks in. 

As they set about their forceful attack on the obstacles to reaching their goal in the story – it’s critical that you can succinctly summarize what that goal is, by the way – show the hero overcoming that which has, before now, been holding her or him back.

The fourth chunk is when the chase scene starts.

It’s about November 22nd now.  You have 8 to 10 more scenes to write.

To begin this fourth part, which is all about driving the story toward its intended outcome, you need one final twist.  A new piece of information that either empowers the hero’s conquering push toward the finish line, or changes the game in a way that challenges the hero to be better, even more heroic than they knew they could be.

These scenes won’t exactly write themselves, but if you’ve written your story with structural discipline, by the time you get here you’ll know precisely what needs to happen in the story.  There are machinations to launch, character arc to pay off, reader satisfaction to deliver.

Four parts, four phases, four different missions for those blocks of scenes: set-up… response… attack… resolution.

Four chunks of storytelling awaiting you.

Cardinal rule: your hero must be the primary element or catalyst that brings about the story’s climax.  The hero must be heroic.  The hero must demonstrate courage and resourcefulness, rather than perfection.

Give the reader a vicarious ride as you go.  By placing the hero jeopardy and then by allowing the hero to conquer, you will have delivered the full range of story-experience to your reader.

Make this journey – your journey as the writer – one that comprises of four phases, or chunks of story, each separated by milestones. 

Write toward the next milestone, rather than the finish line (your story’s ending). 

Each scene is a step. 

Each flight of steps is a landing that changes the direction of the ascent.  You are climbing a four story mountain, and to get to the top with something you can take forward into your writing life, these structural principles are essential.

They will also keep you sane and confident.  Nobody travels cross country without stopping.  To get there in 30 days, embark on a journey comprised of four narrative chunks of seven days each.

It’s a mindset.  Wrap your head around four chunks of 12,500 words each (you can add the requisite detail and length later if you want to make your manuscript publishable), rather than the cross-country marathon of 50,000 words, which seems like a much taller mountain.

Find more story structure details here.

Learn more about writing great characters here.

Find out how to sell your NaNoWriMo novel here.

Click here to see The Single Most Power Writing Tool Ever That Fits onto one Page.

To learn what questions your story must ask, and YOU must answer, click here.

20 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

20 Responses to Storytelling in Chunks: a NaNoWriMo Tip

  1. Again, the staircase analogy is the best I’ve seen for story structure. I also liken the first plot point the thing that diverts the hero from his status quo trajectory.

    But you’re confusing me a slight bit. Previous posts on story structure had you proposing the FPP at the 25% percentile (a scriptwriting unbreakable rule and very close to the location I’ve found it in most thrillers I’ve read).

    The past couple of posts, though, you’ve been suggesting 20%. Can it be that loose? In a 100,000 word manuscript that’s a 5000 word variance.

    (I’m sticking to the 25% mark because I’m addicted to symmetry…)

  2. Hey Tony — I think it is that loose… for novelists (screenwriters need to peg it at 25%). It’s a range, actually, with those two parameters as limits. I’ve been trumping the earlier one because, frankly, the 25% PP1 calls upon the writer to have a very dense and compelling Part 1 execution, with a non-PP inciting incident at about 10 t0 15 percent in, and a killer hook earlier. These are pretty advanced nuances, making the earlier plot point a safer and more doable target for writers who haven’t yet gained the confidence and chops that a longer Part 1 demands.

    Hope this helps. If your PP is at 25%, make sure you’ve grabbed us earlier with a couple of twists and turns (hook and inciting incident) along with your Part 1 character intro, theme, backstory and foreshadowing in these set-up chapters. L.

  3. Thanks Larry. Working on the first part now.

    hook: young Aussie actress struggling to make it in la-la-land.
    inciting incident: room mate commits suicide – her only real support structure away from home (at the 5% point).
    All characters needed to get to the resolution (without cheating) at least mentioned by the 10k mark.
    FPP: she discovers something that proves TO HER that it wasn’t a suicide – he was killed.

    And then the stuff hits the fan.

    By the way, the seemingly scary nano target of 1667 words melts away when the story is preplanned. Day three and I’m at 8k so far.

    Anyway, back to it. Thanks again for pulling back the curtains.

  4. @Tony — love it. Sounds right on the money, and a great idea driving it all. And you’re right, it comes fast when you know where you’re going. Maybe you can finish this thing with a publishable length (7oK or more) by month end… now that’s a “winning” NaNoWriMo effort. Keep up the good work, Tony.

  5. Patrick Sullivan

    Following the structure plan is really starting to pay off. Last year I only sort of followed it, but this year with my 65 scenes picked out, knowing where each stood in it’s own plot thread in terms of the milestones plus in relation to the overall story, this story is just flowing.

    Best of all, the whole thing feels right, and mostly very, very smooth. I already find myself with over 6500 words, and I haven’t even hit the bulkier/juicier scenes yet.

    And the whole thing is going how it is because I actually think I get story structure now. Keep the reminders and new pointers coming Larry, because it seems to finally be paying off, for me at least ;).

    Oh, and the whole discussion from a while back on inciting incidents being able to be anywhere in the part 1? Line one baby! A dead monarch to kick start the whole story. Oh, that and the end of the scene where the heir is hearing voices in his head…

  6. This is a great post, Larry, and it’s really made me think about my writing in a new way. Instead of a novel being one huge chunk of writing, I can break the novel down into more manageable pieces, making sure I put all the pertinent information into the scenes that make up each chunk.

    I know this is going to help no end when I’m working on my stalled novel.

    I’m not doing NaNo this year, but best of luck to everyone who is. 🙂

  7. Gill Hill

    I agree with Tony, this year I am doing nano according to the storyfix principles, and 2 days in I already have over 5,000 words. I have split the 4 sections of the story into the 4 weeks available (with the last 3 days for panic writing!), knowing that I am working up to the weekend where I write the plot point/midpoint etc. It keeps me moving through the week, and for the first part I already have planned out about 10 scenes before the first plot point, so I have to get through 2 scenes a day. I have forgotten all about word count, just focusing on the scenes, and as a result I am flying through the words!

  8. Anjie

    I love you. 🙂
    I took your advice on preparing before November. It is working out great so far.
    I am not focused on the word count as much as using the deadline to help keep me motivated. Speaking of which… I need to get back at it.
    Thanks for all your suggestions. Even if I don’t use them all, it is helpful information for this newbie.
    Have a great day!

  9. James

    “Story structure is really just breaking your story down in chunks;” “Instead of word count, shoot for phases of story.”
    Both statements are correct. See http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html for story structure.

  10. Sammi

    Perhaps someone could help me out with a problem? I started NaNo on November 1 with 11 scenes, including my FPP, all plotted out. Well, based on my writing so far, I’m going to get through all of what I planned for part 1 in only 5000-6000 words.

  11. Patrick Sullivan

    11 scenes is no where near enough. I wasn’t kidding when I said my plot was 65 scenes long, and even that may not manage to quite get me to 100k (although I found a new plot waiting for me as I wrote tonight, so that’s going to be at least 4-5 more scenes added in…)

    Remember, when building a full plot, you need the inciting incident, a first plotpoint (these two can be the same, but don’t have to be), a first pinch, a mid point, a second pinch, a second plot point, and a climax. Each of these has to be their own scene. On TOP of that you need scenes setting up each of those major milestones, then more scenes showing the consequences of that milestone moment.

    So even if you just had 2 scenes on either side of the milestones plus the milestones themselves, you’re already talking 25-30 scenes or more. And those don’t necessarily give you all of your character arcs, subplots, and other things that make for a wonderful novel.

    Personally I would actually stop writing for a good 2-3 days in that position, and figure out what your milestones are (if you need refresher check the link on the right in Larry’s list of major sections for Story Structure and reread them all) and determine what parts of your story are each of them. THEN ask yourself what has to happen for those scenes to make sense, and build those moments into their own scenes.

    Finally try throwing in a few scenes that just show something important about the character relevant to the situation they are in, but not necessarily directly tied to the plot otherwise. Helping the reader become emotionally attached to your characters is arguably one of the most important things you can do, because if the reader doesn’t care about your character, they won’t give a crap about your plot either.

    Boy that was long winded, but I hope it answered your question at least somewhat…

  12. @:Patrick — bravo, sir.

    @Sammi — what he said (Patrick). A 500 word scene is pretty thin, on average. Make sure you have a mission for each scene, then create the best possible way to get to it, illustrating character as you go. Thing of each scene as a sample you’re showing an editor… is it a winner? Tense, with sub-text, character, does it build, does it surprise, does it inspire a reader response?

    Keep going, Sammi. Even if you finish with half the length you’re after, you’ll have something to build on. Length really isn’t the point (it’s what’s wrong with the whole NaNoWriMo idea, in contrast to all the good aspects of the project), knowing how your story is built IS the point. Best of luck to you! L.

  13. Great post. And I have to say, I am totally with Tony McFadden on the “seemingly scary NaNo target of 1,667 words” melting away when the story is pre-planned. I spent 2 months planning out my story structure and story scenes prior to NaNoWriMo. Now that NaNoWriMo is here, I’ve found no problem whatsoever writing and hitting my daily word count because I already know everything that needs to happen in order to get from one scene to the next. Day 3 saw me at around 4,000-plus words (I skipped a day, so I’m catching up a little), and I see no issues with continuing on at this pace and hitting 50,000 words by November 30 (I know it’s not long enough for a novel–but I figure get the bare bones down and increase the length during rewrites/edits). Yay for planning!!

  14. Sammi

    Thanks, I knew I’d get better advice here than on the NaNo board. (I asked the same question in one of their chat rooms, and I got the answer “add ninjas.” No joke.) I suppose I should clarify–those 11 scenes I plotted were all part 1 scenes. I knew my midpoint, second plot point, and pinch points (since discovering this site, I won’t let myself write anything on a given project until I’ve figured those out), but haven’t plotted the scenes around them yet.

  15. @Sammi, if the ninjas provide the ingredients for a pinch point…

  16. Hi Larry, great post. I came late to your website and am devouring as fast as I can. I’ve written several books already (but unpubbed) and am doing Nano. I was looking for this type of mathematical breakdown for years! So thank you for that. I only had up to the first PPT in my head before starting and as a fast writer I hit that this morning. I know the next few scenes coming out of this point and am going back and revising from the beginning which will add in a few thousand as I tend to write lean. My question is regarding your comment about 10-15 chapters – make them schort 500- 1000 words. You’re saying chapter not scenes? I tend to have chapters with 3 to 4 scenes each. When is a scene a chapter? Why a chapter and not a scene in your advice? And are you deliberately keeping them short to move the pace faster?

    Thanks for being so available. Maybe I will sell one of my books yet!

    Dale

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  18. P Dugan

    Son of a b*tch!

    I wish I found this website ten or twelve years ago. Earlier this year, I told my brother that I thought I’d found the secret way to structure a novel. I know it’s not really a secret since others have learned it, but anyway… I went into a long lecture about chunks. Yes, I used that word–chunks. Organize a long story with chunks.

    And it damned well works.

    Twelve years, Larry, it took me to figure that out. Twelve damned years of analysis and failure. Where was this site twelve years ago?

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