One week left before NaNoWriMo begins. You know what that means. A flurry of NaNoPrep, an extra helping of excitement and a dollop of freaking out.
Do you have a story outline yet? If you haven’t the faintest idea what will happen in your NaNo novel yet, don’t panic. There’s still time and I have just the speedy technique to help you. It’s name: the plot card method. Here’s how it goes…
1. Grab a stack of index cards.
Slips of paper or Post-It Notes work just as well if you don’t have index cards on hand. These are your ‘plot cards’. Got yours ready? Great. On we go.
2. Put your scene summaries on your plot cards.
Write down any ideas for scenes you have in 1-2 sentences, one scene to a plot card. It doesn’t matter if you don’t yet know how these scenes will fit together or where they’ll go in the story. Let your muse take charge and dump any scene ideas you have on the cards.
Done that? Now it’s time to straighten out that timeline.
3. Place your milestone plot cards first.
There are five major milestones I try to pin down before I do anything else. They are the Hook, the First Plot Point, the Midpoint, the Third Plot Point and the Climax.
Before I start using these terms willy-nilly, let’s define them. I use K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel system to plot out my stories, so it’s her definitions I’ll be using for each of these milestones.
The Hook is what reels in your readers, the opening scene that piques their curiosity and asks a question. It happens right at the start of the story and, if it does its job right, it’ll keep your readers reading on to find out the answer.
The First Plot Point falls around the 25% mark and is the point in the story that changes everything. The characters react in a way that is irrevocable and leaves them unable to continue the way they had before. This is their personal turning point and, by the writing gods, it’s going to be exciting.
The Midpoint falls (surprise, surprise) at the middle of your story. Think of it as the point around which the whole story hangs, a centrepiece and pivotal moment in which the tides begin to turn. Your characters stop reacting and start acting.
The Third Plot Point, which falls around the 75% mark, is the moment that sets your protagonist racing along the path to the Climax. They hit their lowest point in the story and it’s from this bleak place that they must rise in order to reach the Climax.
Pretty much all writers are familiar with what the Climax of the story is—the point that has readers on the edge of their seats as the protagonist comes to a life-changing epiphany. The Climax usually begins around the 90% mark and covers the final part of the story.
So now that you know what the five major milestones are, let’s start positioning those plot cards. I recommend grabbing a clear patch of floor to build your timeline on, so that space isn’t an issue.
Where to begin? Here’s the order I position my plot cards in:
I almost always have an idea of my Hook and Climax scenes from the beginning so I start by putting the plot cards containing those milestones at opposite ends of my timeline. If you don’t know exactly what your Hook and Climax scenes are yet but have plot cards that describe scenes near those points, place those instead.
Next, if I know what scene I want at the Midpoint, I place that in the middle, between the Hook and Climax cards (make sure you leave plenty of space between your milestones). Again, if you don’t know exactly what will happen at the Midpoint, position plot cards that you know occur near that point.
Now it’s time to will in the First and Third Plot Points. If I have plot cards that describe these scenes, I place them at the quarter and three-quarter marks of the timeline respectively.
If you have enough plot cards to chart out the five major milestones, your timeline should be looking a lot more structured by now. If you don’t, don’t worry—as you’re filling in the rest of the timeline with your other plot cards, you’ll start to bridge the gaps between the scenes you already have planned.
Speaking of, it’s time to position the rest of your scenes.
4. Fill in the gaps between the milestones with your remaining plot cards.
A lot will happen between the Hook and the First Plot Point, between that and the Midpoint, and so on. Take your remaining plot cards and position them on your timeline where they’d logically fall in the story.
For example, if your characters are in a café in Paris at the First Plot Point, then at a bazaar in Cairo at the Midpoint, you need scenes between that get them from one to the other. This is a good way to brainstorm scene ideas if you have any gaps between plot cards—what could happen between the plot cards you do have to get them from A to B?
Once you’ve placed all the plot cards you can on the timeline, take a step back and admire your hard work. Congratulations. You’ve just created the outline for your NaNo novel. Write down a permanent copy of the order of your scenes, give yourself a pat on the back, and prepare yourself—NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. Good luck!
Have you plotted out your NaNo novel yet?