NaNoWriMo Prompts for Plot

My previous post was to encourage you to let your imagination soar during NaNoWriMo. My prompts for the month will help you with this task. First I have NaNoWriMo prompts for plot. Below are suggestions to bring propulsion to your plot if you find it bogging down.

  • Your main character makes a new friend.
  • Your main character makes a new enemy.
  • The antagonist makes a new friend or enemy.
  • Your main character loses something critical.
  • Your main character finds something unexpected, either helpful or harmful.
  • A friend reveals an unexpected trait. (This can be tricky because you want to surprise your reader, not shock them.)
  • Your main character discovers a new virtue or flaw. (This is especially believable if you write YA.)
  • Your main character does something he thinks is good but it turns out to be bad and vice versa.
  • The antagonist does something he thinks will hurt someone and it turns out to be good for that character.

Since I write mysteries, I’ll list some prompts to help you if you find difficulties with your mystery plot.

  • Your main character loses an important clue.
  • The first main suspect becomes a victim of a crime.
  • Your main character begins to suspect a friend or relative of the crime.
  • A friend or relative of your main character comes under a threat.
  • Officials make an arrest, and your main character thinks they have the wrong person.
  • If your main character has an ally, the two characters fight and go their separate ways, at least for a while.
  • A key witness changes her story.
  • People in authority pressure your main character to drop the investigation. Or to solve it quickly.
  • Your main character is injured. (Be careful with this one. If your main character is too seriously hurt, the focus of the story shifts to the injury and slows the pace. I read a mystery where the main character suffered so much from a concussion throughout the book that pretty soon I had a headache.)
  • A chase of some kind, to rescue someone or gain a clue.
  • Your main character tails someone, which can turn into a chase.

For more NaNoWriMo prompts, click here. What suggestions do you have for kick-starting a stalling plot?

Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly

Last week, I gave some examples from movies and books of what I considered plotting elegantly. This week, I list six tips for plotting elegantly–three for how to recognize when you’re not plotting elegantly and three for how to fix the problems.

Three Clues to When You Aren’t Plotting Elegantly

Too Much Explanation. If I find myself writing pages and pages, trying to explain a plot point, something is wrong. This is a particular pitfall for mystery writers. We have to explain the mystery at the end, but we should be as concise as possible. After sending the manuscript for A Shadow on the Snow to my publisher, I didn’t look at it for several weeks. When I went back to work on the edits I received, I was shocked at how chatty my characters were in the last chapter, over-explaining the solution to the mystery.

Your Guts Say No, But Your Brain Says Yes. When it comes to my writing, I go with my gut. If I reread something and my gut gets sick. I know something is wrong. When I reread the climax for Shadow, I cringed . Nothing technically wrong with it, except that I’d seen or read something like it about a thousand times before. And it felt mean. I could do better, write something original that flowed elegantly from the traits of the characters.

No One Will Notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a section, toward the end of an editing session, and thought, “This isn’t great, but no one will notice.” I’m tired of editing, my creativity is ebbing, and so I want to skip the mediocre section. It’s much better to flag it, let it sit awhile, and come back to it when I’m fresh.

Three Tips to Help You Plot Elegantly

Let Your Characters Act Naturally. If you know your characters like you know your relatives, they can help you when the plotting turns clunky. Often when my plot limps along, I realize I’m forcing my characters to act contrary to the way I’ve designed them. If I’m forcing an introverted character to act extroverted, and haven’t given any reason for this change in behavior, I’m in trouble. If a certain behavior is essential to the plot, I need to find the character most suitable for it.

Examine Your Setting. In a previous post, I write about how to “Maximize a Setting”. Are you taking advantage of everything a particular setting has to offer? My main character Rae Riley works as a check-out clerk in a library. One advantage of this setting is that it’s public, so I can have just about any character walk through the doors. It’s also a place where Rae learns to conduct research because she interacts with librarians. This fact gives my nineteen-year-old MC a plausible reason for knowing what a microfim machine is and how to use it to look up old newspaper article.

What Would the Reader Like? Until I tackled Shadow, I didn’t understand how critical keeping future readers in mind is. In the middle of my novel, Rae has a personal breakthrough. I got all warm and fuzzy writing it. After polishing it, I realized I couldn’t let all these cuddly emotions continue. Readers might overdose on the sweetness or grow bored. I had to let something bad happen. Even mean. I forced myself to give my main character a major setback. That setback led to more clues and hugely helped the plotting of the mystery.

Writers, what do you do when your plot starts to sputter and clank? Readers, what’s one of your favorite plot?

Plotting Elegantly

My husband, a nuclear engineer, once mentioned to me that mathematicians try to create elegant formulas. A longer, clunkier one might get the job done, but a simpler, elegant formula is the goal. I realized that should be the goal of writers too–plotting elegantly.

The Bourne Identity

The best way I know to explain plotting elegantly is to use the storyline of the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity. By the way, it’s a terrific international thriller, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read on.

Jason Bourne is pulled out of the ocean by fishermen without any idea of who he is. As he slowly uncovers his past, he believes he’s an assassin for the CIA, a conclusion that sickens him. His handlers are searching for him, thinking he’s gone rogue or turned traitor. Bit by bit, Jason remembers what finally drove him to escape from his life as a government killer and prompted his amnesia.

The writers could have created any number of backstories to explain why Jason rebelled against his handlers. He could have been an angry young man, taking revenge on the world, until that revenge proved worse than his rage. Or he could have been so empty and purposeless that joining the CIA gave him a chance to feel important, like he was making a difference. Then he falls in love with a woman, maybe a doctor, who shows him that all life is sacred.

Those scenarios and others would have worked. But the screenwriters came up with something elegant. Jason finally remembers his last government hit. He was assigned to sneak onboard a yacht and kill the dictator of an African country. Jason slips into the main cabin, puts the gun to the dictator’s head, and stops. The man’s children, ages five to thirteen, have fallen asleep while watching TV with their father. Jason bolts from the cabin. He can’t bring himself to kill a man in front of his children. Or worse, have to kill the children along with their father so there are no witnesses.

The reason for his amnesia is simple and compelling, so elegant. The writers lay some groundwork. While Jason and the woman, who is helping him evade the police, stay a night with her brother, we see Jason hanging around the brother’s children as they play outside in the twilight. That night, the woman finds Jason checking on the children. These scenes have much more meaning after the single, flashback scene at the end when Jason is on the yacht.

Too Many Clients by Rex Stout

Plotting elegantly doesn’t just mean for the overall story. Each plot point can be given an elegant polish. In Too Many Clients, the body of a wealthy, powerful man is found wrapped and left at an excavation site. Detective Archie Goodwin discovers that the man kept an apartment in a nearby building for his many affairs.

When Archie questions the building’s superintendent and his wife, they confess that they found the body in the apartment and moved it so no one would know about the clandestine rooms. Since they’ve admitted to moving the body, maybe they had some role in the man’s death. Archie asks why they covered the body when they left it at the excavation site. The superintendent replies that the man was dead.

From the way the superintendent says it, as if that was the only decent thing they could do, Archie believes he and his wife are innocent of the crime. It’s a small point in the entire novel, but it’s elegantly done.

For more tips on writing plots, click here.

Your turn. What plots have you read or watched that are elegant?

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