NaNoWriMo is a week in. Has your story taken any unexpected turns yet? Mine has. But I’ve developed strategies for this.
Part of the fun of being a Pantser is never knowing where the story will take you. The appeal of being a Plotter is in knowing what’s coming next at all times so you don’t have to think too much, just write.
As a writer, like I’ve said before, I’m somewhere in the middle. I know my beginning and end, the major characters, and the most important scenes in the story. My goal is to take the characters from one important scene to the next. So in that regard, I’m a plotter. For everything else I’m a pantser, and that makes me a Plantser.
But those spaces in-between are mostly blank. I don’t know exactly what will happen outside of a few little ideas that I keep in my back pocket to help generate a new scene.
My story takes place at a summer camp, so this wasn’t too difficult for me. Summer camp comes with lots of activities—both indoor and outdoor. It’s also a place where unfamiliar people meet and clash and fall in love and, if your characters are teenagers like mine, hormones run rampant. Basically, I have no shortage of things for the characters to do.
But sometimes, the characters do things I don’t expect them to do. My main character tends to push people away, and I expected that to continue through the first quarter-ish of the story. But she might have made a friend already. It’s not quite an “I’m comfortable with you entering my personal bubble” kind of friendship yet, but there’s potential there.
I didn’t see this coming. It created the need for a new scene before I could go onto some of the planned stuff. Luckily, I had to establish something about my main character for a little bit of set-up, and I expected her to get caught or almost caught doing something she shouldn’t be doing. I hate being vague about this topic, but you can imagine whatever you like. Smoking, vandalizing the bathroom, Googling how to pick a lock, whatever. She does that, and is almost caught, but gets away with it (for now).
I very much believe that there’s a certain ratio to hit in a novel. The first quarter is the first act, the last quarter is the third act, and everything else is the middle where things build toward a climax. Then there’s that very important middle scene which boils down the essence of what the story’s all about. Thanks for that last one, James Scott Bell.
So for the end of my first act, I have a very important scene planned, and I want it to take place at around the 20,000 word mark. Maybe 25,000 at the latest. However, it’s supposed to happen on day seven of summer camp. Where my novel stands as of this writing, I’m 10,000 words in on the morning of the third day.
Having established most of the major characters and the tension between them, I’ve also added in a little bit of mystery. Someone snuck into their cabin in the middle of the night, and a boy who she doesn’t know is about to send her some messages.
One of the best practices I’ve found in general is writing down anything and everything that comes to mind as a potential scene. Even if it’s just a detail of a scene. If you need to establish something, I believe that there should be some conflict in that scene. So that detail can be revealed through an argument or disagreement.
Whenever I have to write in an unplanned scene, I dig through these notes and see what I can use. Then, based on whatever’s happening in the story at that time, I’ll make sure to create a scene with multiple characters (no navel-gazing!) where some kind of tension arises.
As long as I have all those ingredients, I’m ready to write the scene. Sometimes I’ll have a hard time beginning the scene, then by the end I’ll look up and be surprised by how much I’d just written.
But a caveat. With all first drafts and NaNoWriMo especially, forward momentum is key. If you can’t think of anything worthwhile to fill the gap between your current place in the story and the next important thing to happen, it’s usually best to just move on to that important scene. In my experience, once you get deeper into the story, you discover story threads you could begin planting earlier. This is fodder for new scenes in the edit. I’ve had no problem turning a 60,000-word first draft into a 90,000-word second draft this way, and the story was all the better for it.
If you try to force new scenes into a story, you run the risk of either creating a stretch of time that’s completely bland, or maybe even too chaotic.
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. – Terry Pratchett.
The first draft is going to be a little chaotic and jumbled up no matter what precautions you take. The important part is to get words on paper, because you can’t edit what you don’t write. And if push comes to shove, I’ll take bland and chaotic over blank.