Preptober Plotting Tips

Welcome to Preptober! If you’re like me, you’re probably gearing up for November, which for lots of writers is simply known as NaNoWrimo. I’ve spent the last four years participating in every NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo, but I’ve never been able to fully finish a challenge. After much careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s probably because my writing habits could use a change and a little more self-discipline. I’m very much a pantster when it comes to writing – I just start writing by the seam of my pants and hope for the best.

While this method might be great for getting the creativity flowing, it also means that you’re more likely to encounter roadblocks to the plot. I find these happen most often in the middle of your book. It’s easy to write the beginning and the ending of a story, but the middle is where you’re most likely to drop the ball if you don’t have a set plot with a linear continuity already planned out. And if you’re participating in a writing challenge like NaNoWriMo it’s so easy to give up halfway through because you don’t know what you’re doing. 

That is why it’s a great idea to try and become somewhat of a plotster. You don’t have to detail out every single minor event or occurrence, but having a general idea will definitely help get you from point A to point C without giving up when you hit point B. And this year for NaNoWriMo I’m determined to finish a full 65k manuscript, which is why I’m spending Preptober coming up with a solid enough outline to help me next month.

I’ve been following a simple three-act outline that focuses more on the character development. The setting isn’t something that you need to worry about as it pretty much writes itself. But the plot and characters are pretty intertwined. I personally like to outline my characters’ reactions to certain major plot points. And if you follow the traditional three-act plot, it’ll create a pretty easy-to-follow outline that you can turn to when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo.

Check it out below:

Act One

Opening/Narrative Hook:

  • Introduce character 
  • This is also the place where you can do a bit of world building as you set up and Introduce your character’s normal world
  • Introduce your character’s unfulfilled desires or what’s holding them back

Inciting Incident:

  • What happens to disrupt your character’s sense of “normalcy?”
  • Character can react to either want to change things or escape things

First Plot Point:

  • The moment the character makes the full commitment to whatever the inciting incident has called them to pursue
  • Character struggles with fears or a lie they believe about themselves/others/the world

Act Two

Rising Action:

  • Your character begins the proverbial “hero’s quest” and along the way must confront the things that make them uncomfortable such as fear of failure, fear of their own shortcomings, breaking down long-held beliefs, etc.
  • Your character’s fight against the antagonist begins
  • This is also when your main character begins to see that their fears/beliefs are wrong

Midpoint/Second Plot Point:

  • This is the biggest part of your novel so far, in which your character comes face to face with the antagonist

Post-Midpoint Rising Action:

  • The main character devises a plan to defeat the antagonist
  • They make a small step toward their goal
  • While continuing to grow as a character, they still struggle with previous fears/old beliefs

Act Three

Character’s Darkest Moment:

  • Right after that small step toward their goal in Act 2, the main character suffers a major setback that forces them to confront the fears or misplaced beliefs that have been holding them back the entire story
  • The release of their repression further fuels them to defeat the antagonist

The Climax:

  • The conclusion of the character’s arc is complete with the defeat of the antagonist (but keep in mind if this is Book One in a series then the smaller antagonistic force is stopped, but not the overarching antagonist of the entire story)

The Resolution:

  • Your character returns to “normal” but having experienced change they can’t return to the status quo, so they begin their life in a new way

Narrative Tension for Beginners

Narrative tension. You can’t create a page-turner without it. If there is no tension, the story won’t be very intriguing. How many of us have always dreamed of reading a book about a man who just sits on a bench the entire story? My point exactly. We want to read something that will pull us in. Give us the story of a man on a bench waiting for his blind date when some aliens suddenly land on Earth. That definitely makes things more interesting. Adding tension to your story can be tricky when you’re first starting out as a writer because it’s all about finding balance. You don’t want to overload your story and make it so convoluted with tension that you confuse your readers, but at the same time you don’t want it so thinned out that your story reads more like a to-do list with different characters than an actual plotted out idea. 

So, how do you find that balance? Simple. I’ve come up with some tips for first time writers looking to build tension in their stories. It’s important to keep in mind that tension is something your story should have, no matter if it’s 2,000 words or 200,000 words. 

Keep Raising the Stakes:

Okay, so you’ve got an initial conflict that sets your story in motion, but then you need to layer on top of it the smaller complications that arise from that end goal. Let’s dissect a classic plot for a moment. Lord of the Rings. We have the overarching goal that sets the story in motion, Frodo has the ring of power and he has to get it out of the Shire. But he’s only supposed to get it as far as Rivendell, however, the council votes to take it to Mordor and throw it into the fire and Frodo volunteers. Boom! The stakes just got raised for Frodo. Then the mines of Moria happen and Gandalf is lost. Stakes are raised again for the whole fellowship. Then the group splits up when the Uruk-hai attack. Stakes raised even further. Merry and Pippin are taken hostage causing Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli to go rescue them. More raised stakes – and that’s all just the first book!

But you can see where I’m going with this. One main conflict can have a ripple effect of other conflicts that arise, and your characters have to react to them. Each new minor conflict is you leveling up the tension for your characters, and making your readers want to keep reading because they don’t know how the character(s) will react. Your plot doesn’t even need to have a dragon and five armies to make it tense, every day contemporary stories can be just as intense. It all boils down to your main character wanting something, going after it, and setting in motion a bunch of minor hiccups that arise along the way, making it a constant choice between A or B. Love triangles are a very popular example of this. And a character’s desire doesn’t always have to be this grandiose desire to bring justice and equality to the world and tear down the corrupt system in order for your plot to have a purpose and drive conflict forward. Let us not forget that Shaun of the Dead’s events all started because someone wanted a Cornetto. 

Balance Tension with Moments of Calm:

I know I said you need to keep raising the stakes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character(s) a bit of break every once in a while. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to give your readers a chance to digest what’s happening in between obstacles. If you have too many problems arising for your characters all at once, it becomes too much. Plus, these moments of “rest” are where you can build the stories in other ways like characterization or revealing bits of backstory. For example, if you have two bank robbers trying to make it down from Montana to the Mexican border, you can slow it down a bit by maybe giving them a flat tire on a remote stretch of highway somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona. You’d still have the tension of a flat tire when they’re so close to achieving their goal, but there is still a chance to have some calm moments. While the two bank robbers are waiting for Triple A to arrive, they can have an in-depth conversation. One can reveal that he’s trying to pay off a loan shark, while the other can admit he’s never changed a flat tire before. Either way, that slow moment on the highway can be a chance to work on backstory and characterization. 

Don’t think that a story’s action needs to be all rise all the time in order to create tension. You can get the same effect from a few falls. Tension works best when you have a rise and a fall. Another great idea for tension is these false senses of security. When your character thinks they’ve accomplished their task and they’re home free, that is a fine time to reveal that there’s still a little ways to go. Again, drawing back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell. Everything seems chill. Those scenes are very calm for Frodo who thinks he’s soon going home. But then the council happens. The “oh my goodness” moment when Frodo offers to carry the ring to Mordor wouldn’t be so powerful if you didn’t have those calming moments before. While Frodo is in his false sense of security you’re able to digest all that he just went through to get to Rivendell. You feel for him. Which brings me to my next point…

Make Your Reader Emotional:

You can create the most intense plot with the perfect rise and fall pacing, but it won’t mean anything if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in what your character is experiencing. I will admit that a good portion of making your reader like your character, is to create a likeable character (I wrote a blog post on that if you want to read it). But another way to get your readers to like your character is using the plot. Even if your main plot of your book is something big like dismantling the ruling system, it’s a good idea to start small in terms of your character’s desire.

One example of this The Hunger Games. Across the three novels Katniss ends up creating a revolution and bringing down the corrupt government. She’s hailed as a hero. But that wasn’t her initial goal. Her initial goal was quite simple and quite relatable: She wanted to protect her sister. Even if we don’t have siblings, we all have at least one person we’d be willing to volunteer for if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. Therefore, as readers we are more willing to emotionally invest in a character that wants to protect her loved one from death, rather than a character who right off the bat is ready to take down the government. While something small, like a character wanting to return a library book before the library closes or getting a the last bag of jelly donuts for their sick family member can be what is needed to set a bigger plot in motion, it can also serve to make a character relatable to the reader. We’ve all needed to get somewhere before it closes just like we’ve all rushed to the end of the aisle to pick up the last something because it’s for someone we care about, and it’s these small, universal actions that readers relate to that help them become emotionally invested in your character’s conflict. 

Bring the Tension from Various Points:

When we think of tension between characters we tend to think of heroes and villains. And yes, the tension between your hero and your villain is important. But that doesn’t mean that we can overlook the side characters. Some of these side characters can actually help to create tension for your main characters. In fact, some side characters can be integral to subplots that create tension in the story. Never under-estimate the power of secondary conflict. For example, Batman. You have the main conflict of a superhero trying to clean up Gotham’s streets, but at the same, you also have the tension from his personal life as Bruce Wayne to factor in as well. Of course, while you want to bring in tension from all angles, you also don’t want to overcomplicate your plot either. It’s a fine balance.

Show, Don’t Tell

When I was home in California last Christmas, I was clearing out a box of my things at my parents’ house. As a writer, sometimes it’s fun to look back at your earliest work and see how far you’ve come. I got to go over some of my earliest hits, like the very first short story I ever wrote: a ten page fantasy from fourth grade about the world’s richest rabbit. I also came upon my first manuscript ever: the historical novel I’d penned in high school. Reading through that was tragic.

It was very tough reading through my early works because I noticed I did a lot of showing, rather than telling. As you foray deeper into the world of writing, you’ll probably come upon this critique more and more from professors, peers, or just other writers in general.

So, what does that mean exactly?

If you struggle to differentiate between showing versus telling, don’t worry because you aren’t alone. Plenty of writers struggle with it. It all refers to the actions in your story. When you “tell,” you’re basically just informing the reader of what is going on rather than letting them deduce it for themselves. In other words, you’re just supplying them the information by stating it. Think of it as being the Captain Obvious of your own story. Examples of this would be telling the reader that the character is “upset,” “hungry,” or “cold.”

Instead, showing is basically painting a word picture for the reader to see in their mind’s eye. Rather than tell the reader the character is “angry,” “hungry,” or “cold,” you describe it to them with action. So your character can “slam a door so hard a picture falls off the wall,” or they can “take a sip of water to try and quell the feeling of acid burning in their stomach,” or they can “reach for an extra blanket.”

Instead of telling your reader what is going on, try to make them an interactive part of the experience – make them be able to close their eyes and see it as if they’re reliving a memory. I mean, we’re all readers ourselves so we know there is nothing better than being a reader with an active role in the narrative.

If you need more concrete examples, I’ve written some below:

Tell: When she hugged him, she could tell he’d been smoking.

Show: As he wrapped his arms around her, the faint waft of stale tobacco hit her nose.

Tell: Emily was blind.

Show: Emily’s white cane struck the side of the curb.

Tell: It was late fall.

Show: The orange leaves crunched beneath our feet.

Tell: The man was a plumber and he asked where the kitchen was.

Show: His coveralls were stained with white paint on the left leg. Wrenches of various sizes hung down from the leather belt around his waist. “Point me towards the leak,” he said.

Tell: The date was going well and Tom let his food go cold listening to Lisa’s stories.

Show: Tom’s baked potato had lost its halo of steam as he smiled and asked, “Please tell me the end of that German hostel story.”

Now, you may be wondering if telling is ever acceptable? And yes, it is. However, keep in mind that telling is just summary narrative. It doesn’t add any value to your plot/conflict/character/tension arc, but it can be used when you have to include the mundane but necessary information. In short, you want to do a majority of showing, but sometimes you have to tell some of the smaller, less important things. It’s a writing yin and yang – showing and telling both balance each other out. You just need to figure out the balance that works for the story.