NaNoWriMo Prep: How to Plan a Novel without a Story
Before you start writing, when your story idea is in its very earliest stages, if you even have one at all, you should make a list of things you love in the books you read. List all of the story elements that draw you to novels. List the ones that excite you when they appear. Find patterns in the books you enjoy, and list those too.
If you don’t know exactly what you love about books, or how to start a list like this, go to your bookshelves, pick out four or five of your absolute favourite novels, and examine them. If you have time, read a few chapters of each. List what you love about those books specifically.
If you like Harry Potter–and I will always use HP as an example, because who doesn’t like HP?–instead of listing things like “Hermione” or “Hogwarts,” think about what you actually like about those story specifics.
For Hermione: Do you like Hermione because she’s a smart, self-determined female character? Or do you just like that she’s a bit of a know it all? Or are you happy to see characters with unruly, frizzy hair?
For Hogwarts: Do you like the boarding school setting? Or the enchanted castle? Do you like Scotland?
Whatever the answer is, write that down, and steal those story aspects to create something original and amazing.
Look for obvious things like character, plot, and setting, but also take into account how books are narrated and formatted. Think about themes, tropes, and language. Think about mood and tone and structure. The wider the variety of story elements you collect, the more helpful your list will be.
Here are some examples of story features to include in your list:
- Third person narration
- No love interests
- Alliterative names
- Exciting chapter titles
- Diverse characters
- Autumnal settings
- Main characters with unusual interests
- Scenes of friends bonding besides crackling fire places
- Magic but you don’t know if it’s actually magic or not
What to do with your list?
Use it to plan your novel:
Use this list to help you figure out not only what your story is going to be, but how you’re going to tell it. You don’t have to include all of the things in your list in your story, but it will be an amazing source of story elements to have in your back pocket.
Use it as motivation:
While writing, keep track of the story elements you love that you’ve managed to fit into your novel. Keep that list on your desk or wherever you write. When you can’t find any other inspiration, take a look at it. Let it remind you of what you love about your story. Let it motivate you to continue writing it.
Use it when you get stuck:
Do you ever see those random story generators that get shared around the internet? They’ll generate random settings, random plots, random character names, random character traits, random murder methods. The list is long.
I don’t recommend putting random story elements in your book. I may be wrong, but that has never seemed like an intelligent idea to me.
However, if you have a large list of things you personally enjoy in books–if you have your own pile of character traits, settings, plots, etc.–there’s a good chance one of those things will inspire your next direction for the book when you get stuck. You may very well find a plot element, or type of scene, or character quirk that you will be excited to add to your story.
If you’d like, you can even keep a list of things you hate in novels, to remind you of what you should keep out of your book by all means necessary. Knowing what you don’t like can even help you figure out what you like. Simply look to do the opposite of the things on this list.