Planning as You go Along in Nanowrimo

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*Waves* So. It’s nanowrimo, and that means that sometime this month, in between exams and trying to sort out professional registration in another country, I’m going to be writing. A lot. I’m not officially participating, because I’ll be working on something I started a while ago, chucked out and started again on. But I’ll still be trying to get my 1.5k or so a day.

The thing is, when you write that fast, you run into difficulties you might not run into otherwise. I like to pants. This basically means that if I can get away without writing a plan, I will. I like the feeling of not knowing what happens next, of going “well, this could be cool.” I like not knowing the end when I start a piece. If I knew the end, why would I write out the story?

You can get into a colossal mess following this path though. That’s why those who make their stuff up as they go along tend to have several drafts – their first one is too riddled with random side trips and plot holes to use. But this problem, of having random things happen, and not making sense when you don’t have a plan, becomes magnified when you’re writing quickly.

Most pantsers think about their story a lot. Especially while they’re writing it. This helps with the process – you come up with a subconscious line of thought which influences where your story goes and the decisions you make. As such, you end up with still what most would class as a mess of a first draft, but there’s still quite a bit to work with. It’s manageable. You can see where you’re going.

If you take that time away? Pantsing becomes a lot harder, IMO.

So how does one pants when there’s no time to actually pants? When you can’t run your character into a corner and then spend a week figuring out how you’re going to get him or her out?

Well, you bring that subconsious train of thought forwards.

The easiest way to avoid an un-salvagable mess of a first draft is to create causation. If every scene is caused by what happened before it it, the story starts to make a lot more sense. It has to. One thing logically follows the other. It’s like dominoes falling in a row. Maybe the overall pattern is still a bit chaotic, but at least everything is *there*.

So how do you go about this?

Well, first start with a character. Put them in a situation where they want something (I’m thirsty), and they have to make a decision. It could be the most basic of decisions (do I pick up the glass of water?). Have them make a decision (I’ll pick up this water and drink it).

There are three things that can happen now:

  1. They can get what they want. That ends this particular story (I was thirsty, I decided to pick up the glass of water and drink it, and now I’m not thirsty).
  2. They can not get what they want (I was thirsty, I decided to pick up the glass of water and drink it, but I’m still thirsty/the glass exploded before I could drink it/someone interrupted me before I could drink it.)
  3. They can get what they want, but there is consequences (I was thirsty, I decided to pick up the water and drink it, I’m no longer thirsty but I’ve got stomach cramps/feeling dizzy).

The first one is only useful if you’re ending a story line for the moment. Eg: you have your MC and their love interest get together at last, after a hundred pages of other stuff happening. Yay, moment achieved, it feels cathartic. Have something from a different story line happen straight after – so have a bomb go off in the house afterwards, or something like that. That will add more implications to the changed relationship, turn the relationship story line in another direction, and it drops us into another storyline (say someone has been trying to kill one or both of them for a while) where the characters aren’t getting what they want.

The second and third options lead to what I like to call a reaction/reflection. If the character doesn’t get what they want, or they do and there is consequences to that, then they will assess what has just happened, make a decision, and proceed with that new information in mind.

Let’s take option 2.

I was thirsty, went to drink the water, drank it, but I’m still thirsty.

The first thing the character is going to do is go “Oh, I haven’t had enough.” Cue drinking more water. That’s the decision they’ve made, and there’s nothing to stop them from making the simplest decision available. However, if after two days of this, they’re still thirsty, they’re having issues with tremors and confusion because no matter how much water they drink, they’re still thirsty? They won’t keep drinking the water. Because they won’t be thinking “Oh, I haven’t had enough.” They’ll be thinking “Something is seriously wrong with me.”

As such, their goal now, will be different. Their main concern is still their thirst, but the goal will change from “I want water” to “I want to find out what’s wrong so I can get water.” They will then make a decision to go achieve this goal. In a logical world, the character would then go off to hospital.

Once at hospital, the whole thing plays out again. Their goal is to fix themselves. They can either achieve that goal, not achieve that goal for a particular reason, or achieve that goal and have it come with consequences attached. Once they have made a decision, and that decision has played out, they will take what they learnt from that decision, and what they currently know about the world around them, form a new goal, and move in a new direction to try and get that goal.

Same thing happens with option three:

I’m thirsty, I want a drink, I’ll drink this water, I’m no longer thirsty, but I now have stomach cramps, confusion, going in and out of consciousness.

Any rational human being is going to make the connection between what they just drank, and their symptoms. Depending on the type of person they character is, and the information they already have about the world, they will then assess what is going on, process it, create a new goal, and make a new decision.

If the person is a relatively normal human being, they might ring an ambulance. If they’re a spy or being hunted by the local government they might crawl away to hole up somewhere they can’t be found, ring a friend, and hope to hell that that friend shows up. They might try to create an antidote if they know what’s going on, and have the tools. If the drug acts to quickly for them to make a decision, and they wake up in captivity, they’ll take that information in, and make a decision on what to do next.

This decision will then lead to another action. The consequences of that action are again: They succeed, they fail, or they succeed but there are consequences which have to dealt with.

As such, this will then prompt the character to take in this result of their action, what they know about the world, and make a decision. This will propel them onto the next set of consequences, their next reaction/change in goal, their next decision.

And that is how you create a story that makes sense as you go. You don’t need to know what happens 50 pages on – you just need to know your main character, their world, and either give them what they want, refuse them what they want, or attach consequences to them getting what they want. Human nature, and a new decision, creates the next scene for you.

Your story is done when they succeed in getting what they want on every level, and every story line, or they become resolved to not getting what they want, and it no longer matters to them. Or they don’t get what they want so badly that they die.

Image courtesy of Matt Cavanagh, Creative Commons via Flickr

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