8 Elements to NAILING Your Plot & Owning NaNo

Attack of the Killer Plot Bunny. That rabbit is DYNAMITE!

Attack of the Killer Plot Bunny. That rabbit is DYNAMITE!

I promised not to leave you guys hanging with my last post. Now that I have a lot of you beating your shields ready for NaNo, I’m going to give you battle tactics to come out victorious (or maybe at least alive).

Sure, NaNo is great to just learn to turn off the Inner Editor and get those 50,000 words DOWN. But, if in the end, all we have is a gelatinous ooze that eats people and attacks the city? They call in the National Guard to take out our WIP, because no revision can tame it.

What to do? This post is incredibly redacted, but it’s a blog. So roll with it 😉 .

These tips will work for any novel, but they are SUPER important in NaNo, lest we write ourselves into the Corner of NO Escape by November 10th. These tips will ward off plot bunnies, keep the muse cooking, and hopefully help you finish.

Last I checked, finished books sell the best.


Active Goals

Our WIP can feel a little like THIS...

NaNo can feel a little like THIS…

A lot of time when I’m called in to repair critically injured plots, the main problem is…well, the problem. It’s passive. If your story involves “protecting” something, “escaping” something, “avoiding” something? Not going to work.

Think of it this way. I want to write a story about protecting the princess or the world will be robbed of all glitter and chocolate and all the people will be super sad. Oh-kay. What’s the plot? Stick her in a giant human-sized hamster ball and make sure it’s heavily guarded? Guarding is not ACTIVE.

A teenage boy inherits the power to time-travel but he will rip the space-time continuum if he does. He must never learn he can time-travel or use his powers.

Again, oh-kay. So does the book involve distracting him with video games for 65,000 words?

I call this The Containing Communism Conundrum. Didn’t work in the Cold War, likely will be equally ineffective/frustrating in a novel.

And yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I will get a bunch of comments with, “But Such-and-Such did this and it was a TOTAL HIT in 1875.” Have fun storming the castle. I won’t stop you.

I will, however, wager that the stories one might be tempted to cite, really DO have an active goal.

Core Story PROBLEM


Novels are simple. Solving a PROBLEM. Why do we dig reading novels? Because of life. Life is just one problem after another and it never ends…EVER. Don’t believe me? Come check out my laundry room or peek at your e-mail. We like it when characters go up against something seemingly insurmountable and WIN. It FINISHES.

Maybe it takes 20 books to finish, but it does eventually END. As a caveat, within the series, the problem of that episode book will be SOLVED.

Lately we’ve been watching the series Grimm. And yes, I’m slow to series namely because I like to binge and also, if I watch something in the first season and LIKE it? Surefire way to kill it. Still sorry about Firefly.

Anyway, for those who’ve not watched Grimm, it’s a take off the old Grimm’s Fairy Tails and the Grimms are humans with special abilities to spot and stop the beasties living among humans and causing problems. Granted, there is a BIG problem involving seven keys and world domination, but this is obviously not solved in ONE episode.

Now, the werewolf that robs the convenience store in the opening scene? He’s apprehended or killed by the end of 50 minutes.

ACTIVE: Wow, who/what ate the poor QT clerk and took all the Snicker’s bars and stole the Slurpee machine? This person/thing needs to be stopped.

Interesting Problem



And Grumpy Cat

What will happen if your protagonist fails? The bigger the stakes the better the story. These can be outward or inward stakes but there must be stakes. Oh, and inward stakes need an outward manifestation. They also need to be BIG or…who cares?

For the literary folks, I like to cite The Road. Man and Boy have an ACTIVE goal. Reach the ocean. No idea what’s there, but seems like a good idea. Here’s the kicker. Humans somehow did something that killed every living thing on the planet, except people (and I’m really ticked McCarthy never divulged what that was). Thus, humans have devolved to cannibalism.

The point of the book is less about making it to the ocean and more HOW they make it. If they stop to snack on some fellow travelers? They fail. The stakes are Would you die (stave to death) to protect what it truly means to be human, OR would you resort to the animal state?


Screen Shot 2013-11-24 at 8.19.39 PM

Perfect characters are boring. Good story problems force the protagonist to do what he or she would NEVER have done in a GAZILLION years had the problem never surfaced. The inciting incident rattles the character’s cage and the first turning point is when the protagonist steps out of the comfort zone. The comfort zone is also a coping mechanism that has worked great up until said story problem.

For instance, in The Labyrinth Sarah is doing just peachy hiding in her room with her toys and costumes and refusing to grow up. It’s easier to resent her parents and baby brother. She calls on the Goblin King to take the baby away and WHOA! He shows up, takes the a baby and offers her all her dreams.

And any preteen girl who saw this movie took another 20 years to figure out why she didn’t take the deal.

But, since that would have made for a seriously short movie, Sarah has to go face the Labyrinth lest she be grounded FOREVER for selling little bro to the Goblin King. She must leave the safety of her carefully constructed world and see her flaws. Life isn’t fair and love is about sacrifice, not control.

Blind Spot

Oh, Scarlett

Oh, Scarlett

Every strength has a counterpoint. The very thing that makes ANY character good at what he or she does is also the Achilles Heel. Most characters are not evolved enough to know what their blind spot is and that’s okay because that would make them boring. Heck, it takes years of expensive therapy for most of us to pony up to what we always knew our biggest problem was/is.

I HIGHLY recommend the Positive and Negative Trait Thesauri for help. If a character is funny and charismatic, they can also be flaky and undependable. Show me a great leader and I’ll show you a control freak. Give me a loyal person, I’ll show you a sucker. Scarlett might have been a spoiled brat and a pit-bull, but she had what it took to keep it together when $#@! got REAL.

The plot serves to help the character see, then face, then overcome the blind spot/weakness and harness the counterpoint (the strength).


RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN. You may need to know why such-and-such is a certain way as WRITER-GOD, but that might not be good for the story and the reader. Keep secrets. Reveal slowly. Ever been on a date with someone who told you every intimate detail of their lives and the waitress had yet to bring the Bloomin’ Onion? Don’t be THAT date writer.

The Force was better before it was EXPLAINED. Metachlorians?


Secrets drive great fiction, and for more on that, check out this post on being a great secret-keeper so that THIS post isn’t uber-long.


Photo courtesy of JM Powers WANA Commons

Photo courtesy of JM Powers WANA Commons

Books must eventually end or they are called Days of Our Lives. Is Stephano still around?

When we create an ACTIVE goal for our character(s), our ending should be far clearer. I’m not a plotter. More of a plotser (I know my main story points and riff from there). But, though I don’t do outlines, I will tell you that it seriously helps to at least have an idea where you’re going.

In The Labyrinth we KNOW the ending. Sarah solves the Labyrinth and has baby bro home before she’s hauled away by police yelling, “The dingo Goblin King got the baby!”

The Death Star is blowed up. The Ring of Power is melted. Buffalo Bill is stopped from making more human-skin-lady-suits and senator’s daughter rescued (and has to have even MORE therapy about being a size 14). The Deadites have to be defeated, the portal closed, curse broken, disease cured, wedding stopped, Voldemort destroyed, Amway stopped, etc. etc.

These are the broad strokes that should help tremendously. They’re simple, but NOT easy. Despite what others may very mistakenly believe, writing a novel is HARD. Most people cannot do it. And just remember that the same folks who are telling you writing books is “easy” are the same people who were willing to pay you a hundred bucks to write a 500 word paper for them in college 😉 .

What are your thoughts? Do these tips help? Make you want to go run in traffic? Have you skipped one or all of these steps and ended up with a plot so complicated you didn’t even understand it? Hey, I’ve been there.

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).

September’s Winner: Taylor Grace. Please send your 20 pages (10,000 word WORD doc to kristen at wan a intl dot com). You an also choose to instead send a one page query or synopsis. Congratulations!

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


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  1. Another wisdom-packed post. Thanks for sharing your insights in a way that makes sense – and makes me laugh?
    I’m really starting to regret not being in a place where I am ready to start a new novel for NaNo. But, I have two manuscripts in need of rewrite, revise and edit help. It’s not enough just to finish a first draft. I need to finish something marketable so I can do the evil marketing thing?Even though I’d rather stay in my imaginary world and keep making up new stories. Those agents and editors scare me!

      • Melissa Lewicki on October 15, 2014 at 11:23 am
      • Reply

      Sharon–I’m in the same place. I have two first drafts done, but have gotten very discouraged in the revision process. So much so that I really wasn’t doing much work at all. However, when I started thinking about NaNo, I did get excited about writing again. So, I’m going for it.

  2. Hmm…
    active goals… – checked!
    Core story problem?… – no werewolf, but checked!
    interesting problem and stakes?… *grins* – yep, checked!
    Weakness… – oh this… I can feel it in my own chest…
    Blind spots, secrets and restoration? … – okay, I´ll make a list and pin it to my screen… 😉
    NaNo here I come, and I´m willing to survive!
    Thanks Kristen!
    oh… and I LMAO at the Febreeze commercial… LOL!

  3. Thank you Kristen! I love your no-nonsense, over-a-cup-of-coffee-at-the-breakfast-table style of writing. It puts me right there in my own thoughts on the matter, no matter what the post is about.

    To Sharon Hughson: No one said you couldn’t finish, re-write or expand on a previous NaNo title. With my very 1st go around, the story evolved way past 50,000 words. So, instead of dreaming up a new fiction, I ended “Broken Wind” with a cliff-hanger and launched the Sequel: “Air Biscuit”.
    (and, yeah. Still not finished. Sometimes a Writers mind takes on a “mind of it’s own”)

  4. Great post! The only thing I would have added is: Know when to stop writing and Type ‘The End’. Too many writers seem to keep going as if the only thing a reader wants is yet another doorstop, when they really want a satisfactory conclusion.

    1. My prob exactly.

  5. Reblogged this on Entertaining Stories and commented:
    I don’t do a lot of re-blogs, but Kristen is on fire today. Everyone who writes, or wants to, should look at this today. She makes a hard issue so simple.

  6. Amazing post, Kristen! Thank you for these tips. This will be a post I continually reference to make sure my novel is staying on track. I am inspired!

    • robin witt on October 15, 2014 at 10:50 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for another great (and funny) post!

    (I think we are ALL still sorry about Firefly…)

  7. Thanks so much for the tips Kristen. Great fundamentals to help build my story for NaNo all in one place. This is a very valuable post, and I’ll be referring back to it on the first of next month.

  8. I’m not doing NaNo this year because I started a JuNoWriMo that has bled into October and I pray I can finish it before Christmas, but this article helps me a lot because I’m getting to the end of a three part series where I have to wrap everything up. Talk about pressure! I think I rather just keep writing a neverending story.

    I’m going to revise the whole series together (maybe a NaNoReviseMo). You’ve put the key points I need here in easily digestible format with great examples and your unique dose of humor.

    This will be my cheat sheet! Thanks, Kristen. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  9. Hi Kristen. When I first discovered your blog, I must have come on the day you recommended a list of how-to-write-books books. And it changed my life: Save The Cat, Story Engineering, Hooked, and the Ackerman / Puglisi Thesaurusesesesese. Thank you so much. If I were preparing for Nano, I would read Save The Cat.


  10. So it wasn’t MY fault Firefly went away? Phew! Now if I can just get JD to buy that. 🙂

    Thanks Kristen, these are great tips and I’m going to print this out so I have it in hand as I do some prep work. Excitement is starting to outweigh the fear and butterflies.

  11. You don’t say so in so many words, but underlying your comments is the notion that we ought to spend some time thinking through key elements of our stories before we start writing. I find I do my best story thinking while doing a relatively mindless activity, such as talking a long walk. i focus on some aspect of the story where I have doubts or where I haven’t figured out how I’m going to get from point A to point B. The more time spent thinking, the easier time I have when I sit down at the keyboard. No how that squares with NoMoetc., I’m not sure.

    1. I do that too, and it works! Going for a walk and focusing on the problem areas usually gives me new ideas to work with. Getting the main points figured out in my head is the only outline I need. I did it with my first novel and I’m doing it with this one too. Hopefully, in time for November 1st. 🙂

  12. I had to get used to your style, which was tough for me to follow since I don’t know any of the references but I moved through it to find what I know is lots of wisdom and a new way to look at my book.

  13. Awesome post, tons of food for thought!

  14. Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News and commented:
    KMGN: As always, another great article.

  15. I love the bit about every strength has a counterpoint. I just came up with an Achilles Heel for my character that I love – oh he’s in trouble now! You’re awesomesauce. Another great post – thank you!

  16. Thanks, Kristen, this is exactly what I (and I think most writers) struggle with. It’s so easy to fall into writing a story where the main character is protecting, escaping or avoiding. I’ve printed out your post to pin next to my computer!

  17. I like the term “plotster”–never seen it before I read this article and it sums my style up perfectly.
    Great all-round info as well–thanks for the post!

  18. Thank you for this. I am agonizing over these plot and stakes details (I swear, I am only dramatic when it comes to writing). I’ve been revising my 2013 Nano only to repeatedly discover my story stakes are just not high enough. Even quiet, contemplative stories need problem big enough for readers to care about. I really thought I had those elements. What I had was lots of tension and things going wrong, but not so much true conflict, and not so much anything that the character risked by a decision she had to make.

    Sigh. So, either I’m re-doing my Nano 2013 in 2014 (though I think that’s technically against the rules to adapt an existing work; though the plot is entirely new), or brainstorm something else. I have several new ideas, and all of them are giving me hives. Are the stakes big enough? What IS enough? (Especially in YA). I feel utterly stunted right now.

    This post helps. It makes me want to dive back in and work out some plots as much as this pantser-leaning writer can manage. I don’t want to end up with another full draft of a nice story that doesn’t have enough stakes.

    • Marilyn Quigley on October 15, 2014 at 6:28 pm
    • Reply

    I just finished my third (as yet unpublished) novel, and, oh how I wish I had known all these things before even the last one. Lots of detours, dead ends, renovations. You are so right on (or write on) and FUNNY too. How can anyone beat that? Love your blog!!!

  19. Great post. I never thought about protecting….

  20. Great stuff, I think many writers over-complicate plotting – just stick to simple goals, it’ll be better for everyone!

  21. Gah! This post has ultimately excited and scared the **** out of me to start outlining my Nano Novel. The excited part because… well in the not so accurate quoting of Jason Derulo “Talk writing to me” makes me just want to sit at the keyboard and start creating. On the other hand I just realised how flat and uninteresting my current plot that is floating in my head, is. I just yawned when thinking about it.

    Time to make my protagonists life even more miserable! 😀

    • Harry Heckel on October 15, 2014 at 8:35 pm
    • Reply

    Great post. Your advice seems spot on. As a nano survivor, I appreciate any advice that can help. Plus, you make me feel like I could destory the Death Star. Thank you!

  22. i loved the info! And needed it. And loved your humor. I will be back.

  23. Hadn’t seen the passive goals vs. active goals explained so clearly like this before. Thank you! *avoids that particular pit-trap like the plague, promptly stumbles into another*.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Your endless encouragement is much appreciated, as are your acknowledgements of fact. I’m glad to see such an established writer admit that writing is hard. Sort of puts my struggles into perspective.

  24. Wonderful post – I’m toying with the idea of redoing my last year’s NaNo book this year. I want to essentially start over and rewrite the same book – but do it better this time, with more structure, higher stakes, and a closer knit narrative. More active goals, less background and set up!

  25. Well, not sure if the PLOT on this book qualifies, or if this mess is going to be a series of shorts that have to be hammered into a coherent whole. So far, the story has been a one or two horse show. But, this book is fair onto blowing up into the dog/cat/horse/everything else show. Between the new characters coming in, the change in morality of the main character, the morality conflicts between the new characters and the main character, and having to push through to the next book, this is going to be a wild ride.

    About the only big thing I know is the climax of the book (and series), but I have no idea how the mess is going to wrap. Probably not a good thing to be looking at when going into an intensive situation.

    Thankfully, NaNo only requires 50k words, and my stories have been averaging 100k+. So, I’ll only have to cover up to the blow off. I’m just hoping things clarify enough along the way I can carry through to the end for the month. That would be awesome!

    • Cnawan Fahey on October 16, 2014 at 3:56 am
    • Reply

    One of the best, writing advice articles I’ve ever read…very helpful!

  26. Read SAVE THE CAT and have my homemade board set up. The board showed me why I was having such a hard time: most of my story was taking place in Act II, the story beats were WAY off, and the villain/antagonist was a virtual no-show until the end.

    Now, thanks to you, I have Post-it™ notes all over the board to help flesh-out the story structure. If your next post is as relevant as this one, I’m not going to have enough room left to actually beat out the story.

    BTW, you’re the perfect mentor-figure for us writers, which means you need to be extra-careful during NaNoWriMo. We all know the mentors never make it past the end of the second act. 😉

  27. Yes! It took me ages to get through my thick head, but conflict is everything. Not huge, life-and-death conflict in every scene, but something has to be at stake. And it’s better if those stakes increase as the story builds to a climax. I’ve just re-organized/re-plotted my whole NaNo 2013 novel while muttering “trouble, trouble, trouble” under my breath the whole time. Now I feel confident it’s going to be good.

  28. Thank you for a great post, It was both witty and packed with info.

  29. Reblogged this on J. R. FRONTERA and commented:
    Participating in #NaNoWriMo this year? READ THIS POST!! More great tips for creating a fantastic plot for your NaNo project! GO GO GO!

    • Rose on October 16, 2014 at 1:39 pm
    • Reply

    Very helpful tips … you also have a wonderfully strong voice & you’re freaking funny. (That werewolf in Grimm? Killed the convenient store guy in my hood … ok, it was filmed here in NW Portland but still scary). But seriously, your blog made me want to blow the cobwebs off my memoir and start typing again. More than I could ever ask for. Thanks.

  30. I found your blog on my journey towards this year’s national novel writing month and I’m glad I did. Last year I did it finishing a novel, minus some still needed editing. I look forward to this year’s writing! Hopefully soon I can finish up the first one and make progress on a second one.

  31. I have trouble juggling that. Because to me, the best stories are ones with solid characters. I may have made myself sound boring, but if I want to be around someone who’s complaining about their life because it sucks and they don’t know what to do, I’ll just look around. I want characters I can aspire to be. Does that make sense?

    1. Kristen never mentioned anything about having flat characters. Quite the contrary. Why would you fear not having great characters 😉 Great characters are best in conflict.

    2. And btw if you already have characters you’d love to write but no problem, just ask yoursef what the worst thing you could possibly put those characters through would be. Then do that.

  32. Great ideas, definitely will keep this post in mind when writing my next book

  33. High Five, you managed to use, The Princess Bride, Firefly, Labyrinth, Star wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter in one post, you win Geek of the Week!

  34. Reblogged this on Suzanne Lilly the TeacherWriter and commented:
    With NaNoWriMo 2014 looming in the corner of your calendar, you may want a sweet refresher on plot construction. Kristin Lamb manages to entertain while she teaches. Now that’s talent!

  35. I love how you manage to be funny, entertaining, and dead on target all at the same time. Excellent advice! I reblogged your post at Teacherwriter.net. Thanks!

  36. Lots of terrific advice and love your writing style. Not sure how I found this blog, but it’s a keeper!

  37. I always love your posts; but this one was something special for me. Not only did I have a whole new outlook on a character and story that has been living in my head for this year’s NaNoWriMo, but it sparked a very introspective look at myself (going back a few weeks and looking at your secret keepers post). And you know what, I really needed that. And with both of those “revelations” in the forefront of my head, I am absolutely psyched for November 1.

  38. Amazing post! Happy to post a link from my blog to yours! http://wp.me/P4OkBt-3E

  39. I’m already sold on participating in NaNo but I love your posts and have taken great joy in the encouragement in this one. Many thanks.

  40. I’m so glad I found this blog. You’ve helped me through the mushy middle of my YA novel. Thank you!

  41. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    Ready for NaNoWriMo? Here’s a GREAT post to help you along from Kristen Lamb’s Blog – re-blogging on Archer’s Aim

  42. I think the best books are those that surprise you with their end goal.
    The Liveship Series really surprised me. The first book was good but it was everything you expect. But it set the characters up and then shit got REAL in the next books. Everything was turned completely around so many times that I’ll have to reread it to make sure I got everything. I loved how it ended in a completely different way and the goal we first expected to be fulfilled? Wasn’t. And that’s okay because the moral that came across from that was so beautifully delivered. Was there disappointment? Sure. But only the one life gives you sometimes and that was a great feeling.

  43. Fantastic advice. I can certainly see now why I lost momentum with my WIP! Will be having a think about some of these issues.

  44. Thank you. I found your blog today and I really enjoyed this post. It seems so simple now, having an active plot – but it wasn’t in mind until you said it. I guess most of the ‘simple’ truths are like that.

  45. Reblogged this on …Prepare to Die. and commented:
    Good tips! I’ve been thinking of doing NaNoWriMo this year (finally).

  46. This is great advice, Kristen – and I’ll keep it in mind should I ever get to participate. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  47. Reblogged this on Jo Grafford.

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