Yesterday, we talked about fueling the muse to go the distance. For the professional writer, every month is NaNoWriMo, so there is NO BETTER indoctrination into this business. NaNo shapes us from hobbyists to pros, but we need to do some preparation if we want to be successful—finish 50,000 words and actually have something that can be revised into a real novel that others might part with money to read. Genre obviously will dictate the fuel required, but today we’ll explore one of my favorites.
Feel free to watch movies similar to your genre for some immersion, but this really isn’t what I’d encourage you to study.
Study plot points. Sit with a notebook and write out in one to three sentences:
What was the character’s life like before it was interrupted by the BBT’s (CORE ANTAGONIST’S) agenda? I will use two divergent examples—World War Z and Steel Magnolias— to make my point and hopefully not spoil the more recent of the two. As far as Steel Magnolias? Y’all have had since 1989 to see it. Tough :P.
In World War Z, we meet a guy making breakfast for his family. He’s hung up some mysterious “old bad@$$ life” in order to be with his wife and kids.
In Steel Magnolias, we meet M’Lynn taking care of all the little details of her daughter’s wedding. She’s a Hover-Mother who takes care of the broken glasses, finds the right shade of pink nail polish, and stops Dad from shooting birds out of the trees. She’s a fixer and she’s in control.
This is the first hint of the BBT’s (Big Boss Troublemaker’s) agenda, the first tangible place it intersects with the protagonist’s life and causes disruption.
In World War Z, Jack and his family are in the car. He and his wife are on their way to take the kids to school when all hell breaks loose. It’s the first glimpse the protagonist sees of the looming threat, but aside from escaping with his family, he’s made no vested decision to get involved.
In Steel Magnolias the Inciting Incident happens in the beauty shop when Shelby’s blood sugars drop dangerously low and she goes into convulsions. Mom tries to help and Shelby swats her away (a hint at her future defiance). This is the first time the audience has met the BBT (Death/Diabetes manifested in the proxy Shelby).
Look for the major turning points in the movie. According to one of my FAVORITE craft books (Story Engineering) in Act One, the protagonist is running. He or she doesn’t know where exactly the conflict is coming from or precisely what IT is. Act Two, the protagonist is a Warrior. He or she has glimpsed the face of the BBT and fights back.
For instance, in World War Z, Jack knows it’s a virus creating “zombies” and he decides to return to the old job and fight. He agrees to search for Patient Zero in hopes they can find a cure.
In Steel Magnolias, M’Lynn shifts from Running (Here’s your orange juice. Have you checked your blood sugar?) to Warrior. Her daughter defies her and decides to get pregnant even though it could (and will) cost her life. Momma puts on full battle gear, determined to “control” her daughter’s fate. Diabetes has shifted from looming “controllable” threat to a ticking time bomb Mom still believes she can diffuse if she just tries hard enough.
Act Three, the protagonist shifts from Warrior to Hero.
This is right before the turning point to Act Three. This is where EVERYTHING is stripped away from the protagonist and it seems all is lost. The DM is the catalyst that shifts our protagonist from Warrior to Hero. Anyone else would give up the “fight” and go home, but not our protagonist.
In World War Z the protagonist is critically injured, he’s lost his family, outside help, and he’s faced with a crushing setback. There is no Patient Zero, at least no “clear” Patient Zero. It’s a dead end and it looks like time has just about run out for humankind.
In Steel Magnolias Shelby dies despite all of M’Lynn’s tireless efforts to control. She realizes she has no power. She never was in control and now she’s utterly lost.
Act Three/ Character Arc
How does the protagonist mentally shift over the course of the story? What was the critical flaw that would have held them back in the beginning, that would have made the protagonist “lose” if pitted against the BBT.
For Jack, he has to be willing to give up his family to save his family.
For M’Lynn, she has to admit she can’t control life or death in order to embrace the messiness of living.
How is the story problem resolved?
Pay attention to the Big Boss Battle. How has the protagonist changed? What decisions do they make (or not make)?
What is the outcome? How is the world set “right”?
In World War Z, Jack’s sacrifice gives humanity a fighting chance. In Steele Magnolias we see little Jackson (biological grandson) running and picking up Easter eggs (there is NO mistake that this story is bookended by Easter). Resurrection through Jackson is what ultimately defeats Death. Shelby lives on through her little boy.
Great movies have great dialogue. Study it. How do characters talk? When I get submissions, one of the major problems I see is in dialogue. Coaching the reader, brain-holding, and people simply talking in ways that are unrealistic. For instance, most of us, when having a conversation, don’t sit and call each other by name.
“But, Bob, if Fifi goes base-jumping she could die.”
“Yes, Joe, but it’s Fifi’s life and if she want’s to be stuff on a rock, it’s her decision, not ours.”
“I agree, Bob, but I love Fifi.”
“Joe, then tell her. Fifi’s craving attention.”
If you’re writing a military book, watch a pal play Call of Duty or Modern Warfare. Game designers use folks from Special Operations as consultants. They use DELTA Force, Green Berets, SEALS, etc for all the world-building, so why reinvent the wheel? Hollywood is notorious for getting this stuff dead WRONG, so if you want accurate military dialogue, games are better. Or, watch movies who’ve done their homework, not shoot-em-up brain candy flicks.
And for any military folks out there, I could NOT resist. No drinking fluids near keyboard while watching…
Movies are great for getting an idea of setting. Pay attention to the terrain and make notes.
Fill that muse to bursting and NaNo will be a LOT easier.
Another HUGE help for NaNo is a solid core story problem. I strongly recommend my antagonist class TONIGHT.
What are your thoughts? What are some things you do to prepare to write a novel? What movies have the best dialogue? Setting? Yes, I know I have ruined all movies for you. You will thank me later :P.
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Another great article. Thanks, Kristen!
I am just about to join a writer’s group in my area for some Nano planning. I wasn’t sure how to approach the whole ordeal as this is my first true shot at doing NaNoWriMo so this post is well timed and much needed.
I like to list out the main plot points, and develop the setting and characters a little before I sit down to write.
Love your idea about movie dialogue!
Another genius post, Kristen!
Hey, great blog. You’ve really inspired me to write.
Great tips, Kristen. Thanks.
It seems many people jump into Nano without a full concept in mind and end up with no cohesion in their stories. Your articles pushes for clarity and planning. Helpful and encouraging! And appreciated since I’ve decided to participate in Nano this year. I’ve taken the time to storyboard an idea I’ve had for a while and assign the 50k words in advance. I hope this helps me push through. Thanks for the article.
This sounds all so interesting – but with me going to school and working a full time job – and writing at this moment it’s just impossible to participate. 🙁
Kristen, apropos of nothing…
I want you to know that I’ve moved your blog posts, which I receive via email, to my ‘primary’ inbox on gmail. That way I’ll never miss one.
I’m going to use NanoWrimo to complete the first draft of a novel that is half-finished.
This is probably the easiest way I have read on how to frame a novel. You have a way of taking something that can be incredibly complex, and phrasing it in a way that anyone can understand. You are truly gifted, Kristen. Thank you for your great posts. 🙂
Awww, thanks. I banged my head against a wall for YEARS. I HAD to make it simple or no way I’d ever write a book, LOL. THANK YOU!
I never would have thought of studying video games to learn to write military fiction. Not that I’m trying to write military fiction, but that’s a great idea!
Love the summary of all of these points to pin down before writing a novel. I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo and definitely need to get ready. This will be a great help. I’ve always pantsed it before this and know how painful that makes the editing process.
Thanks for this post. Dissecting a movie is a great exercise and you’ve reminded me to do a session before NaNo. Your tip of going outside ‘home’ genre is spot on; I find Disney/Pixar features useful.
I was put off ‘Story Engineering’ by a few of the reviews but it sounds to be worth checking out for a comparison against character arc/structure guides I’ve previously found useful (Dara Marks/Vogler etc.) Thanks.
Excellent post Kristen. You really put all the nuts and bolts of writing a compelling story into one concise summary. I’m a pantser but I think knowing all theses things in advance would really help give the story structure and momentum. Thank you.
Omg, who would play that game? XD Cleaning stuff? omg.
Videogames is also a great way to understand how ATMOSPHERE is created, because the unique thing about video games is that you ARE the main character. In Portal I was freaked out all the time 😛
I heard you can suspend reality in ONE way and get away with it, but not TWO. Where a bad movie often goes wrong is in having two unbelievable things happen instead of one.
Reblogged this on Echoshadow and commented:
watching Alice on wonderland
Concise and easy to digest. Thanks, Kristen.
Reblogged this on late nights and coffee stains.
Loved that video! While funny, it also shows that not everything has to be action-oriented. Sometimes, there is just life happening and it’s good to include that as well. Building character can be done through dialogue and routine. Thanks for another great post!
So, I was at the library today and browsed for some movies to watch; both ones I’ve seen (and love) and ones I’ve always wanted to see. I remembered this blog post, and I wanted to put the movies to the test. I chose to watch Whip It, and as I watched, I analyzed for the key moments as the movie went along. A few interesting things happened as I used your questions and key points.
1) I realized that Whip It was a great movie – it had all the key components. It was also just a GOOD movie.
2) I found myself better able to predict possible endings, as I could see what direction the protagonist was heading. I could see the clues in Act I that would serve as the points of conflict and tension in Act II. On one hand it might seem dull to be able to predict where the movie is going, but I didn’t mind because I appreciated that the writers put in the appropriate clues for the keen observer. It shows that scenes were not wasted.
3) I noticed two other key moments – A) What I am going to call “The First Signs of Trouble” – the point in Act II where the protagonist is met with a slightly uncomfortable situation. The problem is by no means the end of the world, and they even think they can deal with this problem, but it introduces doubt. Up until this point the protagonist was doing nothing but climbing.
B) The pedestal – the point right before the crash. The protagonist thinks they have it all, and are at the top of their game. The fall immediately follows.
4) I felt I better understood and better appreciated the movie as a whole.
So thank you Kristen for another great post, for helping me better enjoy movies, and to be a better (smarter) writer!
Your post really makes it clear how I might be capable of outlining a story to tell for NaNo. Thank you so much for sharing!
i think you’re the first person to ever suggest research through video games. my husband will be thrilled.
It’s the first time I’ve read your blog, and I really liked it! It was very easy to read and engaging. I want to start a blog too now!
After four NaNos as a pantser, this will be my first year starting the month with a plot outline. I’ve been taking notes about story structure from books and articles for weeks, and I am inspired by your description of plot points. Your examples show that having a template makes a story stronger.
Writing a good novel is hard. If it were easy, we’d all be writing to become a good writer and for a prize-winning fiction. There are hundred different methods to write a novel. The best one is the one that works for us. Obviously, good novel doesn’t just happen, it is designed. No doubt, NanoWrimo give us a powerful metaphor to guide our design work. Credit goes to Kristen for introducing such a good technique. I am awaited for part-two 🙂
Obviously, good novel doesn’t just happen, it is designed. No doubt, NanoWrimo give us a powerful metaphor to guide our design work. Credit goes to Kristen for introducing such a good technique. I am waiting for part-two 🙂
Writing a good novel is hard. If it were easy, we’d all be writing to become a good writer and for a prize-winning fiction. There are hundred different methods to write a novel. The best one is the one that works for us. Obviously, good novel doesn’t just happen, it is designed. No doubt, NanoWrimo give us a powerful metaphor to guide our design work. Credit goes to Kristen for introducing such a good technique. I am waiting for part-two.
Good novel doesn’t just happen, it is designed and Nano give us a powerful metaphor to guide our design work. Credit goes to Kristen for introducing such a good technique.
NanoWrimo give us a powerful metaphor. Credit goes to Kristen!
Sorry viewers for five relevant comments. That is the blessing of Moderator 🙂
Hey, I had no idea which to approve. Have a sick toddler and three brain cells left. I loved the enthusiasm! 😀
NaNo planning will not produce required results unless you have good writing skills. You know, every good mechanic has a toolbox full of tools. Some tools are used more than others, but every one has a specific purpose. In much the same way, writers have a “toolbox.” This “toolbox” is constantly growing and is mostly based upon vocabulary which can be used in a number of ways. Let me share with you a site where you can find a very interesting concept. Everyone must visit it… http://www.favoritewords.com . Anyways, thanks to Kristen for a great and amazing article.
Are you the same one that posted a pimento cheese recipe that uses Velveeta and Karo Syrup? It was from a 93 year old grandma. Help!!