How To Write A Novel When You Have No Plot

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Jenny Johnson / Gwen Tolios

  • Slides
  • Have done NaNo 10 years, pantsed all 10, finished 6 of them
  • Stephen King quote
    • In my view, stories and novel consists of
      • narration (moves stories from A to B to C)
      • description (sensory)
      • dialogue (brings character to life)
    • Plot? Doesn't really belong. I distrust it
      • our lives are largely plotless
      • plotting and spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible
    • my basic belief about stories is that they make themselves; the job of the writer is to give them a place to grow and to transcribe them.

Story Drivers

  • Plot
    • solve an external problem
  • Character
    • drives the action, nothing external
  • World
    • based on the world an dhow it works
  • Example: The Croods

Exercise: Collection of Books

  • Some are obvious, some are not
  • The Hate You Give - Character, World
  • The Martian - Plot
  • The Giver
    • Plot
    • World
  • Eat, Pray, Love - Character/World
  • Gentlemen's Guide to Vice or Virtue - Character
  • Game of Thrones - Character? World?
  • Ready Player One - World
    • Plot (finding quest novel)
  • Jungle Book - World
    • plot?
  • Brave New World - World
  • Lord of the Rings - World
  • You can have a story that isn't driven by plot

For this workshop, forget about plot-driven stories

  • NaNo isn't really the place to have a perfect draft, it's about getting words on paper, developing and learning about your story as you go.

Pantsing

  • Flying by the seat of your pants
  • also known as Discovery Writing
    • learning about characters, learning more about my world
    • what might be conflicts between groups
  • To pants successfully
    • lean on tropes
    • answering questions and writing them
    • use random scenes to get the juices to go
    • switch POVs
    • use other media stories as a model (don't read a book in November)
  • Figure out what you have and if you can turn it into something

Character-driven novels

  • Main focus is the transformation the character goes through
    • overcoming fears, shifting opinions, gaining confidence, reversing moralities
    • e.g., Breaking Bad
    • sometimes it is about the character resisting transformation
      • e.g., Jennifer Government (satire about our capitalist society)
        • large cast of characters, some go through growth; others don't
      • succumbing to fatal flaws, being left behind as times change
  • Not focusing on the growth of your character (you might know it yet) but lean on character tropes
  • We consume media; tropes exist because they are
    • recognizable
    • we all know them
    • we're familiar with the functions of them
      • e.g., mentor, teacher, school outcast
    • how does the character I'm thinking of fall into a trope I understand/like and want to flesh out
  • Princess in the tower
    • Rapunzel
  • Smart, ditsy girl
    • Pinky Pie from My Little Pony
    • Elle from Legally Blonde
  • The bad ass woman
    • Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman

Tropes

  • The hero
  • The outlaw
  • Helper
  • Jester
  • Innocent
  • Adventurer
  • The Sage
  • Smart Guy
  • Party Dude
  • Lancer/fighter
  • How do my characters distinctively interact with each other so readers don't get lost
  • Tropes are templates -- you have to make your characters unique
    • Prof. McGonagall and Dumbledoor are the same trope but very different
    • Batman and Ironman are both billionaire heroes
  • Elsa - woman trying to control
  • Avengers/Marvel
    • Starlord and Deadpool are similar character tropes
  • Wonder Woman
  • Evil sorceresses
    • White Queen, Chronicles of Narnia
    • Snow White's stepmom
    • Maleficent
    • Stepmother in Cinderella
  • Make characters unique
    • backstory

Character dynamics

  • Very tropey
  • Confident flirt failing miserably with genuine feelings
  • Expert at not taking the hing
  • Bro we are rivals but I actually admire you
  • Tough on the outside, soft on the inside
  • Bold Optimist, Reclusive pessimist
  • Best friends
  • Pick up the beats of the relationships and use them
  • Groups of people
    • three musketeers
    • 2 smart people and one chaotic dumb person
    • dysfunctional (found) family
    • cinnamon roll protection squad
  • Bookworm nerd and demon
  • Hyper-competent team (battle couple)
  • Adventurous and unheeded voice of reason
  • Big Hero/Figure of Six
    • main character and villain have the same path but went in different directions
    • "foils"
    • putting a mirror to reflect/highlight the different paths
    • Protection squad
  • Villain redemption arcs

Character pantsing tips

  • Write dialogue
  • Reactions (to events or people)
  • First meetings, first kisses, first deaths
  • last meetings, last kisses, final deaths
  • dynamics/trope scenes or plots
    • write scenes that are specific to the character dynamics or tropes
    • "I think the character will do this next"
  • Pivotal moments for your character

Plot and Story

  • Plot is what you are scripting
    • story mechanic
    • how things are happening that I as a writer have dictated
    • this has to happen for this to happen
    • a structured plot I've developed
  • Story
    • what is the tale I'm trying to tell
    • The story of Cinderella
      • a girl who has been forced to work for her family members, she has an out and is now high above them
    • Plot: dad dies; step mother puts her in the attic; and she is oppressed by her stepsister
  • readers want to see the story arc
  • If you don't have the beats and dedicated scenes, don't worry about it; your character will find the story eventually.
  • How a character reacts to the kiss will spark a story for you.
  • You can turn a story into overcoming it and having a coming out party; or if the kiss was amazing, write a romance.
  • Sarah: One year in Nano, I took my character and threw them into a cooking show. Didn't end up within the story, but helped me explore the character.
  • Stephen King's On Writing
    • what if scenario: not plotted out, it naturally comes about as he discovers what his characters are going to do
  • Lean on what you know
  • Helpful to have a story but not necessary; you're only writing your first draft
    • you will edit it later
    • if your story isn't clear, it's okay.
    • you should have an inkling of your story by the end of the first draft.
    • you might have a number of stories (like a trilogy)
  • There are separate writing markets that sell based on tropes
    • people will look for books about second chance romance
    • or doctor and patient
    • it will help you explain your story and market it later
  • Character arcs happen step by step in real life and aren't plotted out.

World driven story

  • They are on the way out
  • Purely world driven stories have not been a thing (replaced by character driven ones)
  • When a lot of the world wasn't known, world driven stories were more popular.
  • Showcases a world not ours, wonder at it
  • Often we compare it to our own, ironically/satirically/metaphorically
  • Many are SFF
  • Examples
    • Star Trek is a world-driven story
      • many worlds were driven off of our own
    • E.g., Crazy Rich Asians
    • Historical fiction is super immersed in the world/time setting
      • Very different to our current, modern world.
    • Travelogues
    • Modern travel guides
  • Study and the Living History of Dragons is very travelogu-y
  • Historical Mysteries
    • might be that way

Use favorite settings

  • If you like SF, space ships, space stations
  • Victorian London
  • WW II
  • Boarding school stories

Purple Prose x1000

  • Drives world stories
  • Purple prose = really over-the-top verbatious description
  • Tolkien does this
  • In a world-based story, this is what it is about; immersing the reader in the world
  • Write someone walking into the room and give me all five sentences
  • You will trim this down in edits but until you know the details of the world and what is important, you will need it all.
  • Easy to get into (if you don't know what the plot is)

Ask why

  • It has to be very visual, you have to be aware of it, it has to be very structured
  • Why are the wizarding and muggle communities very different?
    • Statute of Secrecy, a government decision to separate them
    • Why?
      • Wizards and witches abused those without magic
  • If the answer isn't in the book, you're missing an opportunity to develop your story.
  • Go two or three levels of why
  • Also ask HOW

Things to write

  • The history of a world, habits of people
  • Describe cities, food, clothes
  • Tensions between groups of people
  • Name oceans and mountains
    • differences in how people name common elements
  • Create creatures
  • Explain the difference between this world and ours
  • Ask WHY
  • Think about how things CONNECT in your world
  • I want to see something that is unique, to be immersed completely in it

World building

  • Government
  • Geography
  • Culture
  • History
  • Science
  • You should have some inkling of all five, good understanding of perhaps two of them.
  • Give your reader something to grab onto

Exercise: Build a Culture

  • Culture is secluded and private
  • Why?
    • Secret powers
    • Why?
      • A disease
      • How?
        • Government experiment gone wrong
  • How to build a story
    • write out the rules, people breaking them
  • Surround it with logical understanding of why things are the way they are

Worldbuilding pantsing tips

  • History of a world, connecting past to present to future events
  • Cultural/.geographical tensions
  • Shifts in the world, upheavals
  • How things work, be it the religion, a doo-dad, or a magical system
  • These approaches can apply to characters
  • World driven novels now have to have strong characters or strong plots
  • YA books today vs. books for teens published 20 years ago
    • prose and styles are very different; reading habits change
  • Once you go through the Why's gives you the setting for sticking in the character
  • E.g.,
    • Character is really career focused
      • her father achieved the American dream and she wants to surpass it
    • you will discover characters as you write (only have to go one level deep)
  • YA books existed 20-30 years ago: Silhouettes first love
  • Tamora Pierce
  • Considered YA today
    • Little Women
    • Hobbit but released as a children's book

Plot driven stories

  • Some people need a little more structure
  • It's called having a plan b but you don't know what it is
  • Plots will often naturally develop as you write things.
  • Plot should be built around the world you're discovering. Will your plot fix conflicting cultures or make it worse and worse? Will your plot rip apart a relationship? Or will characters grow apart naturally?
  • Michael Crichton thrillers, crime/mystery shows
  • You can use a classic plot
    • there are tons of these
    • star crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet)
    • rags to riches (Cinderella)
    • hero's journey (Star Wars)
    • another thing you can lean on and customize
    • fairy tales or biopics
    • save the world
    • win a thing (competition, job, award)
    • King Arthur

MICE Quotient

  • MILIEU: A milieu story concerns the world surrounding the characters you create.
  • IDEA: An idea story concerns the information you intend the reader to uncover or learn as they read your story.
  • CHARACTER: A character story concerns the nature of at least one of the characters in your story. Specifically, what this character does and why they do it.
  • EVENT: An event story concerns what happens and why it happens.

Writing Excuses podcast

  • Has its own website
  • A variety of materials
  • Mary Robinnette Kowal won a Hugo recently

Shipping and Handling podcast

  • By two agents about industry trends, querying a novel

Chat books

  • Very new
  • Story being told through private messaging dialogue
  • Usually suspense/drama
  • Character or plot; entirely written in dialogue
  • Very good distinctive character voices
  • Plot through dialogue

Summary

  • Lean into what you know
  • Use character tropes, character dynamics, settings and worlds you know
  • Instinctively you are familiar with stories
  • Use that to write what you're imagining