NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Eight: Writing a Synopsis

Step 8: Writing a Synopsis

While you might be tempted to write your story just from your scene list, it’s a good idea to take one more final step and make sure everything is in place before you begin the process of turning your story into something people are going to love to read.

That final step is turning the collection of scenes you’ve made into a synopsis of the whole story.


Basically, what you’re doing is writing a short version of your story using the information from your scenes and adding whatever details you think need to be added to make the story work. It’s a final pass through your story to double check that it’s going to work the way it is, and that everything will flow smoothly before you commit to writing the whole thing out.

If you’re doing it on paper, you should take a fresh sheet of paper and write everything on that, and if you’re doing it on computer you can start by editing together the bullet point versions of the scenes into full scenes. Since you’re doing a synopsis, don’t be afraid to leave out some details that are already understood between scenes (like turning names into “he” and “they”) and look for ways you can add transitions between the scenes to make things flow together.

What you will end up with will look something like this:

On a morning in late October, Sam and Bob arrive in the sleepy town of Springville. Pulling over to a gas station, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant flirts with Bob and offers to let him know the details if he buys her lunch, something he happily agrees to do since she’s very attractive.

Later on outside the Diner where Bob is having lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird shaggy homeless kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so he gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls with delight and runs away. Sam shakes his head at the sight and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits, checking his phone to see their messages.

During lunch, the attendant is curious and asks Bob about what he does. He tells her that he and Sam are Monster Vloggers who investigate strange events for their YouTube channel, which has over two million subscribers. She’s excited by the idea of meeting someone famous and asks to be on camera, so he takes out his phone and begins interviewing her about the local events. He finds out from the attendant that every full moon there’s been disappearances for the past year, and that the local farmers have been so scared they’re moving away and half the farms around the city are now empty. He also learns that a girl went missing just two days before while out delivering mail in the west of town.

After lunch, Sam finishes watching the interview Bob did and decides that since this is the last night of the full moon for this month, this will be their only chance to learn the truth. The two plan to go to where the girl disappeared and look around. 

Later that night, the pair are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a giant werewolf eating a deer. When they try to film it, it charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse. As the two are trying to get into the locked farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him as Sam desperately hits it with a shovel. The werewolf ignores the shovel, but then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid instead.

As Sam and Bob watch, the werewolf catches the weird kid, but before it can hurt him two other werewolves appear and attack it. It’s two against one, and the killer werewolf goes down quickly as the boys film the event, gushing over the ratings they’re going to get. Then, after the fight is done, the two new werewolves turn to advance on Sam and Bob but the weird boy stops them by nuzzling Sam. At this, the two werewolves transform into a man and woman and tell the boys that they were here to stop the rogue werewolf from causing trouble for their kind, then demand Bob hand over his phone and make them promise not to reveal what they’ve seen. In the end, the pair are left driving home with a story they can’t tell and it turns out the boy peed on Sam’s pants.

The End.

Some ideas have been made clearer, and the whole story has been tightened up with transitions. This is one of the advantages of writing a synopsis first, since it lets you have a clear picture of the events so that you can just focus on describing the scenes and dialog as you’re writing.

Also, if you’re writing a comic book or movie script, this synopsis lets you start to break the whole story down into scenes and locations so that you can think about page counts or costs before you commit to writing the whole thing. You can also use it to get feedback from others about what works and what doesn’t work about the story, and make easy changes before the whole story is written.


With this, you’re ready to write that story you wanted to bring to life! You’ve gone from having a vague idea and picking a genre, to brainstorming characters and core premises and turning ideas into characters and scenes. This is a method you can use again and again to develop the stories you want to tell and express your unique vision to the world.  Over time, you might start to skips steps, or develop your own methods of doing things, and that’s great too! The whole point of this book is to help you get started and give you a framework you can use or change as you tell the stories you want to tell.

Of course, this is just a starting point in learning the writing process, and like any great art, there is always more to learn. In the following extra chapters, we’ll look at a few Techniques to take what you’ve learned so far and make it even better!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Seven: Organize Your Ideas Into Scenes

Step 7: Organize Your Ideas Into Scenes

The next step is also simple and fun – you take your big collection of scenes and try to see if you can arrange them into a rough version of a story. In the paper version, this involves putting them into a box (or a random pile) and then drawing each one out randomly and arranging them in front of you in ways that make sense. In the Word Processor version, you’ll want to copy-paste them into a blank document one at a time, or just re-arrange them where they are on the page.

In either case, you’ll end up with several Scenes which roughly go together, and a few that probably won’t fit. At this point, discard the ones that don’t fit (although don’t trash them, just set them aside for later possible use) and then make sure you’re happy with the order in front of you.

Here’s a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does this order of scenes make logical sense?
  2. Is this order of scenes interesting?
  3. Do the scenes which happen get more interesting as they go? Is there a constant feeling of rising tension or building drama?
  4. Are there scenes which are missing that need to be here?
  5. Will this story appeal to my audience the way it is?
  6. Is there a starting scene and an ending scene which match each other?

Using the sample scenes from Step 6, we’d end up with something that looks like this:

  • The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  • While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.
  • Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  • As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him as Sam hits it with a shovel. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.

Like in this example, it’s very possible you will either be missing a Starting Scene or Ending Scene, and that’s fine, because now you know what your story will be, so you can start writing the missing scenes and figuring out the transitions between the different scenes.

  1. The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute female gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  2. While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.
  3. During lunch, the attendant asks Bob about what he does, and he tells her that he and Sam are Monster Vloggers who investigate strange events for their YouTube channel. She’s excited and asks to be on camera, so he takes out his phone and begins interviewing her.
  4. Bob finds out from the attendant that every full moon there’s been disappearances for the past year, and that the local farmers have been so scared they’re moving away. In the end, he learns that a girl went missing just two days before while out delivering mail to the west of town.
  5. After lunch, Bob and Sam decide that since this is the last night of the full moon, this will be their only chance to learn the truth, so they plan to go to where the girl disappeared and look around.
  6. Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a giant werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  7. As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to bite him as Sam hits it with a shovel. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.
  8. As Sam and Bob watch, the werewolf catches the weird kid, but before it can hurt him two other werewolves appear and attack it. After the fight is done, the two new werewolves threaten to attack Sam and Bob but the weird boy stops them and nuzzles Sam.
  9. The two werewolves transform into a man and woman and tell the monster hunters that they were here to stop a rogue werewolf from causing trouble, then make the men promise not to reveal what they’ve seen. In the end, the pair are left with a story they can’t tell and the boy peed on Sam’s pants.

 

Now that the new scenes have been added the story is complete and flows much better. You might notice it doesn’t start with a introduction of why the characters are there right from the beginning. This is to make the reader curious about what these two men are doing in the small town, and helps to start the story moving from the very beginning.

Once you’ve got all the scenes planned out, there’s just one more step to go, and you’ll be ready to write!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Six: Brainstorm Situations and Scenes

Step 6: Brainstorm Situations and Scenes

Once you have your cast, it’s time to figure out what’s going to happen to them.

This is where the fun really begins, as all you have to do is start to write down ideas about situations that could happen in your story. Right from Step 2 and 3, you probably had images of different important scenes in your head, and now it’s time to get those on paper in rough form.

You can do this as two steps or just skip the first step and go right to the second one, but it’s recommended doing both steps as it allows for more creative planning.

Step One

Create a point form list of all the different possible scenes and situations you can imagine happening in this story. Each point is going to be a single sentence that starts with who is involved and tells roughly what happens, and that’s it. The goal here is to get as many of these down as possible, so set a timer for ten minutes (or more) and in that time write down as many possibilities as you can think of. As usual, don’t be afraid to get silly or weird, because those might free up some more interesting ideas. Also, refer back to your brainstorming list from Step 2 and your characters’ profiles from step 5 to help give you inspiration and ideas.

When you’re done, you’ll have a list that looks like this:

  • Bob and Sam see a werewolf and run away.
  • The werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him.
  • Bob talks to a cute girl in town about the strange disappearances.
  • Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin.
  • Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away.
  • And so on…

The scenes and situations don’t need to be in any particular order, they just have to be there on the page in front of you so that you have something to work with. Try to have at least ten of them, but the more the better, which is why the timer method is the best. Now you have a list of possible scenes and situations, and can probably already see a story forming among the ideas. Evaluate the scenes using the questions below and circle the ones you think are useful from the list.

Questions:

  • Does this scene idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  • Is this scene idea going to make your readers feel something?
  • Is this scene idea going to interest your target audience?

Once you have 4-6 scenes ideas you think you can work with, then move on to Step 2. If you don’t have at least 4 you can work with, you probably want to do another brainstorming session with the timer and see if you can think of some more ideas. Obviously, the longer you want your story to be the more scene ideas you’re going to need.

Step Two

Now it’s time to turn those ideas into Scenes. A Scene is the things that happen to a character or characters at a particular place and time, and can easily be defined using the 5WH method. All you need to do is fill in the blanks!

  1. Who is involved?
  2. When does the Scene take place?
  3. Where does the Scene happen?
  4. What happens? What goes wrong (or right)?
  5. Why do the characters do what they do?
  6. How does it all turn out?

Example:

Bob and Sam (who) are walking in the forest at night (where, when) trying to find a missing girl (why) and see a werewolf that charges at them (what happens) so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse. (How it turns out.)

That’s all there is to it.

Your job is to take your character(s) and situations then write down as many Scenes as you can think of for those characters to experience. Traditionally this would be done on paper with each Scene on a separate cue card, piece of paper, or post-it note, but you can do a version of it on a Word Processor with each Scene being a separate paragraph. (It just isn’t as fun.)

And using this technique, you can create as many interesting scenes as you want. The key here is being aware of which character’s goals are driving the scene, and giving the basic details of what happens. Think of these as the scenes of a movie or the chapters of a book, and you’ll have the right idea. They’re what happens at a single time and place in the life of that character (or characters).

Your goal is again to write more scenes than you can possibly use (maybe twice as many if possible) and which are linked together by your characters, themes, or ideas. This is an exercise in brainstorming, so don’t be afraid to write down every crazy idea which come to you, after all, nobody but you will read these cards, and crazy ideas sometimes lead to brilliant ones.

So based on the above list, we might end up with scenes that look like this:

  • Bob and Sam are walking in the forest trying to find a missing girl and see a werewolf that charges at them so they run away and the wolf chases them to a nearby farmhouse.
  • As the two are trying to get into the farmhouse to escape, the werewolf catches Bob and tries to eat him. Then the weird kid Sam gave the chocolate bar to earlier appears and starts to howl, making the werewolf drop Bob and chase the kid.
  • The morning the boys arrive in town, Sam gets gas while Bob talks to a cute girl gas attendant and asks about the strange disappearances that have been reported here. The attendant offers to let him know over lunch after she gets off work, and he makes a date with her.
  • While waiting for Bob to have lunch with the gas attendant, Sam buys a chocolate bar and sees a weird kid eating from a garbage bin. Sam feels bad seeing this, so Sam gives his chocolate bar to the weird kid, who howls and runs away. Sam shakes his head and buys a new chocolate to eat while he waits.

As you can see, some of the above ideas were combined into single scenes because they worked better that way. Also, using this method, we have now turned simple idea points into full scenes which are almost ready to be used, we just have to organize them.

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Five: Pick Your Main Characters

Step 5: Pick your Main Characters

It might seem strange that it took so long to talk about the characters, after all, you already thought up rough characters when you came up with your Core Premise for your story. However, until everything from Genre to Theme was in place, you weren’t ready to actually sit down and make your lead characters because the characters of a story are influenced by all of the things that we’ve covered so far, and each step has made the characters you will create more focused and solid in your imagination. This is important because characters aren’t real people but are parts of the story which are guided by the premise, ideas and theme like everything else.

Let’s look at the four types of characters you find in every story.


Main Characters

The most important character in your story is your main character (sometimes also called the hero or protagonist), who is going to be the heart of your story. They’re the viewpoint from which the story is being told, and the reader’s guide to the events which play out.

Main characters are also the trickiest part of the story to create, because they have to achieve the right balance of being unique while still being relatable to the audience. If the main character is too unique, the audience won’t be able to connect and empathize with them because they’re too different, but if the main character isn’t at least a little unique they won’t stand out in the minds of the reader.

The simplest solution to this is not to detail your main character too much, but instead make them special in a few important ways while leaving the rest unknown or vague so the audience’s own imaginations can fill in the details and make them their own. This is one of the key skills of storytelling- giving the audience just enough to make a picture in their minds, but not filling in the details so that each person can make their own mental picture.

With this in mind, here’s the top ten things to know about your story’s main character:

  1. Basic biographical information– age, sex, height, weight, hair color(s), job, family members, close friends, education, skills, work history, hobbies.
  2. Which of the Big Five Personality Traits is their weakest and which one is their strongest? Are they an Extrovert who likes spending time with other people? Do they care about other people? Are they well organized? Are they emotional? Are they open to new experiences and ideas?
  3. What are they best at and what are they worst at? Characters are often defined by their flaws more than their strengths, so make sure your character is bad at something for everything they’re good at.
  4. What are the first things people notice about this character when they meet them? Appearance, style of dress, style of grooming, manner of speech, body language, etc.
  5. What are two Paradoxes about them? This is a fast way to make characters unique in the minds of readers- give them two things that seem to contradict each other in the minds of the reader. This is an easy way to add depth and interest to the character. For example, they’re big and strong but very timid, they’re a leader who is afraid of talking to people, they dress very conservatively but wear a brightly colored watch, or their personality changes when they’re in a different environment. (Home/work/school.)
  6. What is going to make the audience like or dislike this character? What about this character is going to make the audience connect with and care about the character? Or, on the other hand, what will make them dislike and reject the character? How will you make that connection with the audience?
  7. What is their overall life goal? What, if anything, do they want to achieve in their life? What would be a perfect life for this character? What would they be willing to do to get it?
  8. What is their goal in this story? A character’s story goals generally come down to one of three things: attain, maintain, or lose. They want to get something they don’t have. They want to keep something they’ve got. Or, they want to get rid of something they have. This isn’t just physical things, it can be anything- objects, people, habits, money, knowledge, love, courage, safety, security, freedom, spirituality, and so on.
  9. What is their motivation in this story? Why are they trying to achieve the goal in the story? What reasons are getting them off the couch and keeping them from running away? Why do they endure or try to escape? What keeps them from giving up and just being a victim?
  10. How does this character connect with the main theme of the story? This is last, but one of the most important things to know- how does the main character reflect the theme of the story? Are they a weak person who learns to be strong? Are they a strong person who inspires others to be strong? Are they are trying to change the world or restore the peace? How does the character represent the life lesson the writer wants the reader to know?

You should be able to fit the above on one or two pages of notes at most, anything more and the character is probably getting too detailed and may be harder for the audience to connect to. If you’re an artist, feel free to sketch the character as well and think about their emotions and how they’d react to things. Other details will probably appear as you tell the character’s story, and that’s fine, just add them to the list as they come up.

One final thought on main characters- like all characters in a story, the main character is a reflection of the writer, but only a reflection. They are not you, and you shouldn’t think of them as being you, but more like your children who you are going to horribly abuse to teach a lesson to. Don’t be afraid to let them grow and become different and unique people if that’s what the story calls for, and let them have their own ways of doing things. When you first start writing, it’s fine for your main characters to act and think like you do, but it’s important over time to learn to separate yourself from them and let them have their own voice. It’s something that will usually happen naturally as you write, but it’s important to be aware of because some people have trouble separating themselves from their characters, and this can lead to making Mary-Sues if you’re not careful.


Opponents

The second most important character in a story is the opponent, also called the antagonist, the rival, or sometimes the villain. In many ways, the term Opponent is better than those terms, however, because almost all of them make you think of a character who is evil or hates the main character. While this is often true, this isn’t true all of the time, and in fact you can have an Opponent who has no feelings about the main character at all, or is actually the main character’s best friend or even lover. The single thing that makes an Opponent an Opponent is that they’re standing in the way of the main character trying to achieve their goal. As long as a thinking character is preventing the main character from reaching their goal for whatever reason, they’re an opponent.

So, for example, if a young child wants their mother to buy them a toy, the mother is the child’s opponent. If a character is trying to survive a night in a haunted house, the resident ghosts or monsters trying to kill him are his opponents. If a woman is trying to convince a politician to give up a proposed new law, the politician is the woman’s opponent. If a man is trying to convince a reluctant girlfriend to marry him, she is his opponent.

A story can also have different kinds of Opponents- usually there is a Main Opponent, who is the one that the character must overcome to achieve their main story goal. However, there can also be Minor Opponents, who stand in the way of the character achieving their story goal, but affect the character’s story in less important ways. For example, if a teen character was trying to sneak out of school, the school security guard might be their main opponent, but they’d also have to convince their teacher to let them out of class (minor opponent) and bribe a rival student not to turn them in (minor opponent). The story ends when they get past the security guard and achieve their goal of escaping the school, but they had to deal with the other opponents too.

The other important thing to know about Opponents is that they too reflect the theme of the story, and often represent the opposing ideas that someone who doesn’t agree with the theme would say. So, for example, if a story was about a character learning to be brave, their opponents would all represent reasons for the character not to be brave and the character’s own fears. If a story is about how slavery is bad and corrupts people, the main opponent will be someone who thinks slavery is the natural order of things and important to society. By taking the opposite position on the theme of the story, the opponent is naturally drawn into conflict with the main character and vice-versa, creating at battle which reflects the theme of the story.

With this in mind, creating a main opponent follows the same process as creating the main character. Use the above list of the top 10 things you need to know about the main character to build the main opponent as well. For Minor Opponents, you might not want to use the full list, but just focus on numbers 1,4,5,6,8,10. You really just need to know how they connect with theme, how they look, and what they’re trying to do in the story.

Also remember that if you want the audience to hate or dislike the opponent, make sure as quickly as possible after the opponent is introduced you have them do or say something that the audience won’t like. It’s very common for movie villains to kill someone or do something bad in their first scene for this reason- it tells the audience that this person is evil and a threat to the hero. If you want the audience to be more sympathetic toward the opponent, have them do something disagreeable, but understandable in their first appearance. In other words, show them doing the right thing in the wrong way, or do both right and wrong things, which makes the audience curious about them as a person as it shows there is complexity or depth there. In any case, always introduce your main opponent in the story as early as possible so the audience knows what kind of situation the main character is facing.

One final note- There can be stories where there are no opponents of any kind, and the character is trying to overcome something to reach their goal instead of trying to overcome someone. For example, a story where a character is trying to survive in the arctic, or earn money to pay for a gift. In these stories, usually the actual opponent is the setting or world the character lives in, or some part of it. Sometimes the character themselves can even be their own opponent, in which case the character must overcome some personal weakness or flaw to achieve their goal. As a rule, the easiest stories to write, however, are the ones where there is a thinking opponent as it gives the main character someone else to interact with and creates more drama.


Supporting Characters

Supporting characters are made much the same as minor antagonists, whether they’re the mentors, friends, parents, lovers, co-workers, or any other kind of character that round out the main character’s life. You just need to tell the audience their names, what they look like, give them a distinctive feature and something to do in the story, and you’re good to go.

Generally supporting characters tend to play one or more of six roles in a story:

  1. Ally– This is usually the “best friend” character who is there to cheer the character on and keep them in the story. They get the character to talk so that the audience can hear the character’s thoughts and they often help to direct the character to think in ways connected to the story by asking questions.
  2. Motivator– This is a character who helps to keep the story going by motivating the character to act and pursue their goal. Sometimes this character IS the goal, in the case of the Love Interest, and sometimes they’re a boss who tells the character what to do, or a child who gets kidnapped by a monster the character has to rescue. Whoever they are, they help to make the story move and keep the main character from sitting on their butt.
  3. Resource– This is the character that provides the main character (and audience) with the information they need to understand what’s happening and keep the main character in play. It can also be the character that provides the main character with the things they need in the story to do what they need to do. This can be the teacher or mentor, the brainy best friend, the starship’s science officer, the gunsmith, the gadgeteer or the mysterious supplier of magical spells. Someone has to supply the character with what they need and need to know.
  4. Innocent– This is a character that the main character needs to teach something to, or help to develop in some way. Most often this type of character pops up in stories where the main character is a larger than life figure who changes the world by showing the right way to live and exemplifying the theme of the story. In those stories, the Innocent is the one learning the truth of the story’s theme from the main character, who already knows and lives that truth every day. Sometimes this character acts as a motivator, but they’re more than that, they’re often the audience’s surrogate when the main character is too unique to be relatable.
  5. Catalyst– This character serves to change the main character’s life by becoming part of it. This can be the new kid in class, a new love, a person in need of help or anyone else who transforms the main character’s life just by walking in the door. They’re the cause of the character’s world turning upside down, and usually enter the story right at the beginning to kick the whole thing off. Sometimes they are the motivator of the story, but sometimes they’re the spark that sets off an inferno, either way, they’re bringers of change.
  6. Comic Relief– If a story is dark or tense, sometimes there needs to be a little sunshine and lighter moments to help balance things out. In that case, someone has to be there to make the jokes that lets the tension drop a bit or make the characters (and audience) chuckle. Serious main characters need someone who isn’t so serious to balance them out and keep the tone lighter, and sometimes the funny character delivers the lessons of the story in the most entertaining ways.

Often supporting characters play more than one of these roles, and one person can even be all six of the roles in a story! These roles can also shift around between stories as characters change and develop between multiple stories or books, but whatever roles the characters play they should stick with those roles within a single story once they’re introduced to the audience as playing that role. If they do change roles, there should be a good reason for it within the story and it shouldn’t happen out of the blue. (The best friend shouldn’t suddenly turn out to be rich at the end of the story when the character needs money unless it was hinted at or established earlier in the story.)


Background Characters

These are the characters that fill out the rest of the story but who don’t play any of the above roles except maybe for a scene or two at most. These the nameless family members and classmates, the redshirts, the merchants, the tavern servers, the fellow pilots and the collateral damage victims. The people who might have a few colorful lines, or are there to give a limited viewpoint or perspective on a scene or event that can’t be given another way. The Extras, the NPCs, the… well, you get the point.

Generally, there’s not much to say about these folks, except that the writer should remember that they serve as representatives of the setting. They are the living embodiments of the world the character lives in, and so every one of them tells the audience lots of information about the world and the major characters’ place in it. They will often set the tone of the story, act as minor foils to let us know more about the main characters As someone once said, “your true nature comes out when you’re with the people you don’t have to be nice to.”), and add color to the world they inhabit.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s generally best to limit these characters to archetypes and not to spend too much time of them. If they’re a police officer, then have them act like a typical police officer for their situation, and don’t slow the story down telling the audience their life story. That is, unless they’re a corrupt police officer and are there to show that the police in that setting are corrupt, in which case they should act like a corrupt police officer to show the audience the current nature of the organization they represent. Only give them the detail they need to fill their roles, and then let them do their jobs.


Cast Size

As a general rule of thumb, you should have the minimum number of characters in a story that you can get away with for the story you want to tell. Every character should be there for a reason, and look for opportunities to combine two or more characters into a single person to avoid larger casts. There are two very good reasons for this: 1) the more names, the more chances there are for the audience to get confused, and 2) the more active characters with goals, the longer the story is going to need to be to develop them as characters and tell their stories.

Try to keep all supporting casts under five characters (including opponents) per main character per story, not including characters who only appear in a single scene or are background characters. This will keep you from having too many characters to deal with and running into trouble trying to keep track of them all. It is generally recommended that most short stories have at least a main character, a single ally (for the main character to talk to), and a single opponent.

 

Your Task

So, with all this in mind, fill out the worksheet profile for your main character, main opponent, and then any other characters that are important to the story in as much detail as needed. Now let’s brainstorm some scenes and situations!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Four: Picking a Theme

Step 4: Picking a Theme

While an interesting main plot or idea for the story is going to make it interesting to read, the truth is if you want your story to really have any depth, or be meaningful to readers, you’re going to need to find a theme for it as well. The theme, as your English teacher probably told your class more than once, is the message or lesson about life that the author is trying to communicate to the reader. It’s the “point” of the story, and works hand in hand with the Core Premise to guide the story toward a natural ending. This is another area where you are customizing a story and making it your own, and is an important one which shouldn’t be skipped.

As your teacher might also have taught you, there are two parts to theme: Thematic Idea and Thematic Statement. Simply put, the Thematic Idea is the general theme of the story (War, Love, Greed, etc) and the Thematic Statement is the actual point the writer is trying to make about the Thematic Idea. (War is bad, Love is bittersweet, Greed drives civilization, etc)

Your job, then, is to match your Core Premise up with a Thematic Statement that will bring out the best in your story and characters while still reflecting your own ideas.

So, first, take a look at your Core Premise again and think about possible themes it naturally suggests. If you can’t think of any, then take a look at this list of common themes and see if any of them will fit the story you’re trying to tell.

For example, let’s look at one of the Core Premises from the previous step:

A mousy college student working in a used bookstore must find a mysterious book when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits that will escape the store at nightfall.

What are the possible themes that could work with this story?

  • Finding confidence in yourself.
  • The power of love.
  • The power of knowledge.
  • The power of friendship.
  • Not giving up.
  • Sins of the past returning.

Now, a story can have more than one theme, but it really should only have one main theme (thematic statement), which is the theme which truly drives the story forward. This idea is the lesson the writer is trying to teach the reader, and it will have a big influence on both the beginning of the story and its ending. Thus, in most stories, the character will start the story with their life in a bad place because they haven’t accepted the truth which is behind theme of the story.

For example, if the main theme of the above story is “you need to have confidence to succeed,” then the main character will start the story with no confidence and her life will be hard because of it. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then the main character’s secret love for her co-worker will be making her miserable and causing problems in her life and relationships. Or, if the story is about “the sins of the past”, the bookstore will be a gloomy place with few customers because a strange dark feeling hangs over the place which is preventing the people there from being truly happy.

Then, the theme of a story will also tell you how it should end because the end of the story has to be one which reinforces that theme or idea and proves it’s the right one. This gives the lesson the writer is trying to prove, and only by accepting that “truth” can the main character solve the problem established in the beginning and find a happy new life.

Thus, if the main theme of the story is “you need to have confidence to succeed”, then it will be about a character who is forced to find confidence to save the day and win. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then it will be about how the main character’s secret love for her co-worker is the key to defeating the evil spirits and her confession of love solves the problem (and her own life issues). Or, if the story is about the “sins of the past,” then the story might play as a mystery where the main character needs to learn whose misdeeds caused this situation, and finding justice will stop the curse and leave the bookstore a happier place.

So, as you can see, the theme of a story can have a strong influence over its plot, setting, characters, presentation, tone and so much more. In fact, it is often the glue which holds the story together, and should be carefully considered. However, if you find yourself getting stuck on trying to come up with a theme (a common problem for writers) then the most likely reason is you’re making your life harder than you need to. Most genres (and subgenres) have classic themes that are already attached to them and commonly used, and all you need to do is go look carefully back at the themes of some of your favorite stories to find one which interests you or moves you. Then, if you want to be a little different, try making a small twist on that usual theme.

For example, in a Romance story, a common theme is “A woman needs a strong man, and a man needs a smart woman.” But, you might take that theme and play with it, making it into something like “Man needs a strong woman, and a woman needs a smart man.” This could produce a different story than the usual, and could provide the audience with something they don’t see very often.

The important part is taking a general thematic idea (like friendship, peace, revenge) and then turning it into a clear thematic statement which gives your story a direction and goal. Just leaving it as a general idea is asking for trouble and a lot of rewriting down the line as you try to find a theme from a direction-less story.

Once you have your story’s clear main theme, write it down on your worksheet and let’s start developing some characters!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Three: Picking a Core Premise

Step 3: Picking a Core Premise

Your next task is to pick a Core Premise for your story based on the pile of ideas you’ve just put together in the previous step. This step is extremely important and shouldn’t be skipped, because your Core Premise is the central idea of your story and the seed from which the rest of the story will grow. Without it, you’ll quickly run into problems because you won’t know the story you’re trying to tell, and with it, you have a guiding star leading the way to the end!

For finding your Core Premise, you’re going to use a very basic technique that writers of movies have been using for a long time. In the movie business, writers often approach producers and directors with ideas for films, but they use a very simple structured version of their idea to get maximum effect and make the producers interested. If they can use it to sell a movie, you can use it to sell a book to yourself- so let’s get started!

A great Core Premise needs to describe most of the following things:

  1. The main character’s role or job. (Don’t use a name, just their role for now.)
  2. One or two adjectives about the main character. (to give them personality)
  3. Anything that’s important to know about the setting or setup for the story.
  4. What the main character’s clear goal is.
  5. The antagonist, opposition or challenge they face. (Also no names, use roles instead.)
  6. One or two adjectives about the antagonist. (to make them interesting)
  7. A hint of what will happen if the protagonist loses, or the stakes involved. (to add drama)

These can be presented in any order, but usually go in the above order, and will produce one or two sentences that look like this:

A mousy college student (adjective, who) working in a used bookstore (setting) must find a mysterious book (goal) when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits (adjective, opposition) that will escape the store at nightfall. (stakes)

An overworked executive assistant (adjective, who) at a large corporation (setting) must choose between her work and her family (goal) when a long-time rival (adjective, opposition) threatens to steal a big project (stakes) during a family crisis.

A high school student (adjective, who) must find a way to tell her long-time crush her true feelings (adjective, challenge) before she moves to a new city and they lose touch forever. (stakes)

It’s actually pretty easy and fun once you get the hang of it!

Try using the ideas you brainstormed in Step 2 to come up with a Core Premise that follows the rules above. You don’t need to use all the information you came up with, just the main ideas. Also, don’t be afraid to try different versions of the premise with different details until you get one that you like.

Once you’ve turned at least two of your story ideas into Core Premises, then you should look at each one of them and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does this story idea grab you and make you want to write it?
  2. Is this story going to make your readers feel something?
  3. Is this story going to be one you think will interest your target audience?

If one of them gets three answers of “yes!”, then that’s the story you need to write. If more than one gets a “yes”, then you’ll need to decide which one gets the stronger responses and write that one first. If none of them get a “yes” for all three questions, then you need to go back to Step 2 and brainstorm some new ideas and turn those into Premises that will work for you.

Assuming you have at least one core premise you’re now excited to write, it’s time to move on to Picking the Theme of the story!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part Two: Brainstorming Ideas

Step 2: Brainstorming Ideas

Once you’ve picked your genre, the next step is customizing this story so it’s yours.

How do you do this? It’s pretty simple- the same way every single writer before you made their stories original to them- they drew from their own life experience.

Now, you might be thinking, “Life experience? My life is boring! Nobody wants to read about me!”

But, the truth is, everyone’s life is unique and interesting to someone else. The more different their life is from yours, the more interesting yours becomes. Yes, your life might seem boring to you, or your siblings, but how many of your friends have different lives than you? Have you ever thought your friends’ lives were more interesting than yours? Of course you have! And they live near you! What about someone who lives far away? What will they think of your life?

So, you definitely have something unique to offer- your own life perspective. Nobody else is you, and nobody has had quite the experiences you have had. The trick is, you just need to combine those experiences with your genre of choice.

Let’s do it.


There are many brainstorming techniques you can use to add some of your own originality to your story, however one of the best is the The Paradox Technique (first suggested by UK Fantasy writer Michael Moorcock). It’s a great technique that will work for almost any genre, and will really loosen up your creative juices.

Here’s how it works.

Take out a piece of paper (or open up a word processing document) and set a timer for ten minutes (or more, depends on you). Then, with your genre in mind, start to write down as many paradoxes (things that don’t fit together) as you can in that time. The key here is to write down descriptive adjectives and then pair them with nouns (people, places, things) and verbs (action words) that they don’t normally go with.

So, let’s say you were writing a office romance story, you might end up with some entries that look like this:

  • Basement penthouse.
  • Dry coffee pot.
  • Pageless book.
  • Useless computer.
  • Tasty policeman.
  • Ink Pencil.
  • Blind glasses.
  • Pickle wine.
  • Wheel-less car.
  • Singing plant.
  • Hole filled cups.
  • And so on…

Keep going until the time is up, and push the ideas as far as you can go, no matter how strange they may seem. The idea here is to tap into your subconscious and creative side. Then, when you’re done, look back at the list and the circle the ones which strike you as interesting or give you other ideas. Often a bunch of these seemingly strange ideas can be combined to produce scenes or story elements which make a different and unique story. While “pickle wine” might not factor into an office romance story well, if we combine “wheel-less car” and “tasty policeman” we might get an office worker who comes out to find her car’s wheels have been stolen and ends up in a romance with the police officer who comes to investigate. Or maybe there’s a practical joke war going on in the office, and some of the contradictions like “singing plants”, “pageless books”, and that weird “pickle wine” might start to make sense!

You can probably start to see now how useful and creative this technique can be, so try it yourself! Don’t forget to include things like people, jobs, machines, and other things that you’d find in the environment of your chosen genre story. And, if you don’t know the environment, then add those to the list too! (“Dry swamp”, “Bending skyscraper”, “Sweet Street”, etc.)

One other method, if the Paradox Technique doesn’t work for you, is to create three columns on a sheet of paper. The first one is descriptive adjectives and adverbs, the second one is nouns, and the third one is verbs. Then take five to ten minutes to fill the three lists with as many words as you can that you associate with your chosen genre or story idea (if you have one already). After you’ve filled them out, go back and try combining the words you’ve listed in different ways, and see if any of those combinations spark ideas that you can develop into a story or parts of a story.

So, it might look something like this for a Space Opera story:

Adjectives

  • Cold
  • Burning
  • Steely
  • Sweet
  • Rough
  • Wooden
  • Alien

Nouns

  • Space Station
  • Starship
  • Gun
  • Tentacle
  • Plastic
  • Goggles
  • Flying Belt

Verbs

  • Fight
  • Punch
  • Shoot
  • Kick
  • Jump
  • Toss
  • Embrace
  • Lose

Then you would start combining the words in different ways (they look better side by side) and seeing if any interesting combinations jumped out at you like “Alien Gun”, “Steely Goggles”, “Wooden Starship”, or “Burning Flying Belt”. From those we could get a story about a space ranger whose trademark is wearing steely mirrorshade goggles and who finds a strange gun aboard an alien starship made of wood and must fight against raiders wearing flying belts who are after the alien ship. Or something like that! Maybe you see a different story in those words, and that’s fine, the key is to just dump anything that comes to your head out onto the page and start playing with the lists to see what interesting combinations strike your fancy!

Whatever technique you use, your goal is to come up with at least two different ideas for stories you can write based on your genre and add them to the worksheet. If you can come up with more, that’s even better, because now you need to figure out what your story’s Core Premise is!

NaNoWriMo Quickstart Guide – Part One: Pick A Genre

The following multi-part series will offer a step-by-step quick-start guide to putting together a story. Even if you have little to no experience with writing, this guide will give you the basic structure and core ideas you need to tell the story you want. Of course, you will still need to be able to write proper sentences and use grammar on your own to make this work, but if you can, then you can tell a story. It will only take practice, time, and not giving up.

In the words of Robert Heinlein- “You must write, and you must finish what you write.”

If you do these two things, you will be a writer.

So let’s get you ready to write!


Once upon a time, there were no genres. There were just stories and ideas, but over time storytellers figured out worked and what didn’t work. Audiences too, decided what they liked and didn’t like in their stories. When these two things met, the concept of “genres” was born.

Genres are basically pre-set collections of ideas about a story with a particular goal- make the audience feel something. In a comedy, the audience wants to laugh, in a horror movie they want to be scared, in an adventure movie they want to feel a sense of wonder. Of course, they are more than that too, because over time standard ways of telling these stories that the audiences liked appeared. These ways of telling stories became so specific they became sub-genres (under genres) which not only follow the rules of the main genre, but also have another set of rules that go with them.

You might unhappily think, “Great! So I’ve got to go learn all these rules now?” But actually, it’s not a bad thing at all! This is really is great for you as a writer because it means once you pick your genre and sub-genre, a lot of your work is already done for you! You know what emotion you want the audience to feel, and you know what the audience is going to expect from you in the story. Your job is really only customizing this story so it’s your original take on what’s already laid out. It’s a little bit like buying a car from the lot, and then customizing it to make it your own. It saves you building the whole car, and you can just focus on the bits that you feel like changing.

In any case, Step 1 of putting together your story is to pick your genre and (if you choose) subgenre. You can find a list of all the different genres and subgenres here and here. There are quite a few of them, so here are a few rules to help you decide which one to pick for your story:

  • Always pick from the ones you are most familiar with, especially if you’re a beginning writer. It saves you a lot of time doing research (ie reading and watching) because you already know most of the main ideas and even the genres and sub-genres. Trying new genres is a sure way to get yourself into trouble, because you won’t know what cliches to stick with and which ones to avoid. There is an old writer’s saying: “Write what you know.” And that applies double here!
  • Pick from the ones that excite you the most. If you’re passionate about your topic, it will show, and it will get you thinking of new ideas faster than anything.
  • Make sure you understand what your audience wants from that genre and sub-genre.Pick a genre where you understand what your audience enjoys about that genre, and what they want to get from it. If you give them strawberry flavor when they ordered chocolate, they won’t be happy customers.
  • Don’t mix genres unless you know both of them well. It can be tempting to try to create new genre mashups, but unless you know the “rules” of both genres well, it can also turn into a mess.
  • Sub-genres are your friend. The main genres are pretty broad, so narrowing things down to a particular sub-genre and using the rules of that sub-genre can make your life a lot easier. If you want to explore a sub-genre, it also narrows your research materials down to just those particular stories.

When you’ve picked your genre and sub-genre, add them to your worksheet and move on to the next step: Brainstorming Ideas!