NaNoWriMo: What a Novel Needs

It’s the end of November, which means lots of people have been taking the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

Familiarly known as NaNoWriMo, the challenge is simply this: write 50,000 words in 30 days. It works out to a little over 1,650 words a day.

Many people want to write a book. They have a great idea, but they can never seem to get the thing on paper or screen. They start, but it doesn’t sound right, or they feel like they aren’t a “real” writer, or they don’t know how to get through the middle slog, or can’t figure out a satisfying ending, and they stop. The book is never finished. Sometimes it’s never started.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get you out of your own way. If your goal is not “a perfect novel in 30 days” but “fifty thousand words,” then you have the freedom to just sit at your keyboard or notebook and write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It matters if it’s done. The saying in writing is “you can’t edit a blank page.” NaNoWriMo helps you fill the page.

So you get to December 1 — or let’s say December 2, because you take a damn day off — and now you have this file with fifty-thousand-odd words, and you still don’t know if it’s any good, or how to end it, or what the middle is supposed to be.

This week, let’s talk about what a novel needs to have. Next week, I’ll show you how to examine your manuscript and figure out what’s missing.

The main things a standard novel (well, any story) needs are characters, a conflict, and a resolution.

Character

The first thing your story needs is at least one character. They don’t have to be humans. They just have to have agency (can think, communicate, and interact, regardless of sentience level). They can be magical creatures, deities, monsters, aliens, robots, androids, AIs, talking animals, non-talking animals, or even plants if they have brains and can interact. It’s your story! For the purposes of this discussion, any character who has agency will be called a person.

The main person in your story — the character the story happens to, and is about — is called your protagonist. This does not necessarily mean “good.” It just means “main.” If your story is about a lost girl meeting up with magical companions who help her find her way home, then the girl is the protagonist. If you’re writing a story about an evil overlord who gleefully destroys a verdant planet of innocents, and the story is from the evil overlord’s viewpoint, the evil overlord is your protagonist — your main character.

A protagonist can be one person or multiple people, individually or together. (I’ll talk about narrative point of view in a future blog post.)

Whatever is opposed to your protagonist is called the antagonist. Similarly, this doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” If the wicked witch is trying to kill the little girl, the witch is the antagonist. If Captain Murgatroyd is trying to stop Evil Overlord from destroying the planet, the captain is the opposition to the main character. The good captain trying to save everyone on the planet is the antagonist.

An antagonist can be one person, multiple people, or, in a twist, forces of nature. I’ll get to that next. Also, both your protagonist and antagonist can be “good guys.” Both of them can have valid points. Having two people or groups who are both “right” can create some of the most compelling drama, because the reader can sympathize with both sides of the conflict.

Conflict

When two people want opposite things, that creates conflict. Conflict is what makes story — or a plot.

The simplest way to describe conflict is:

  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What will the protagonist do to get it?
  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

Conflicts can be classified into four rough groups:

  1. Person vs. person
  2. Person vs. society
  3. Person vs. self
  4. Person vs. nature

Group 1 is the bog-standard “people fight,” where people can be humans, monsters, zombies, aliens, killer robots, or anything else sentient.

Group 2 is where many dystopias fall (1984, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale), but “society” can also be a non-authoritarian culture where the protagonist just doesn’t fit in (How to Train Your Dragon). Another variant of “person vs. person,” on a larger scale.

Group 3 is about battling your own flaws, like poor self-esteem (Rudolph’s Shiny New Year), bad dating habits, or addiction (Clean and Sober). The protagonist and antagonist are the same character.

Group 4 is different. In this case, the antagonist isn’t a character who wants something, but a force of nature which is threatening the protagonist’s life and/or limb in some way. Examples include The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, or San Andreas. What the protagonist wants is to survive unharmed, and “nature” could injure or kill the protagonist with whatever disaster is imminent, whether that’s earthquakes, fire, water, meteors, or a blizzard.

Any “unstoppable, mindless force” not created by people and used as a deliberate weapon can be loosely associated with this category, such as plagues or technology which is out of control (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). I would classify animals behaving like normal animals here too, so if your protagonist is running from a bear, a hippo, or wasps, that’s nature. Jurassic Park is on the edge depending on how smart you think the dinosaurs are.

So, our questions combined with our groups:

1. Person vs. person

  • What does the protagonist want?

This is what most books are about. The protagonist wants to do something: capture a bad guy, rob a bank, cast a spell, get to Mars, marry a duke, train a dragon, retire.

  • What will the protagonist do to get it?

This is the main part of your plot. A detective has to hunt for clues. A bank robber has to get around security. A sorcerer has to study magic and gather spell components. An astronaut has to train to go to space (and possibly build the rocket). A commoner has to get an invitation to the ball where the Duke will be attending. A Viking has to figure out what methods of training a sentient, fire-breathing dragon will work. A worker has to figure out how to survive without a salary.

The answers to this question are also where you can explore how badly your character does (or does not) want something. How desperate is your protagonist? Will he steal? Will she commit murder? Will he use blood magic? Are they afraid of enclosed spaces? Will she claim to be pregnant, or actually get pregnant? Will he defy his father and choose exile? Will they move to a smaller house and reduce their living expenses? (Hey, not every book has to be about massive dramatic stuff.)

  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

This is the other half of your plot. This is why your reader will read your story.

What will the bad guy do to cover up his tracks or silence witnesses? What will bank security do to keep the robbers out? How will the local hedge witch keep the critical spell component to herself? What senator doesn’t want to allocate money to space exploration? What if the ball’s host blocks the commoner at the door? What if the Viking chief tears the dragon away from his trainer and throws them both into separate jail cells? What if the boss begs the worker to come back for one last job?

2. Person vs. society

Some of this overlaps with “person vs. person” because society is made up of people. You can have elements of both in your story.

  • What does the protagonist want?

“Freedom” is often the answer here. In The Hunger Games, Katniss wants food, and to protect her sister, and also to live. In 1984, Winston wants to act freely and be with his lover Julia, and criticize the government. Hiccup wants to be allowed to be an inventor, and to fly with Toothless, rather than to kill dragons and be a warrior.

  • What will the protagonist do to get it?

In these stories, the protagonist is almost always more desperate. The life of the protagonist, and sometimes a huge chunk of society itself, is at risk. So your protagonist may be willing to face exile, imprisonment, torture, or even death.

  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

Since the protagonist is more desperate, the antagonist will often be as well. “Society” may be represented by a figurehead (Big Brother, President Snow) or a military/police force (like the stormtroopers in Star Wars). It could also be encapsulated in a single person who stands for all that society values (Hiccup’s father Stoick the Vast) or a group of people who reinforce the rules (Commanders’ Wives, Aunts). These antagonists can overwhelm the protagonist with physical force, superior numbers, weapons, general authority, or peer pressure.

3. Person vs. self

This is harder to balance, because the theme here can be “You are your own worst enemy.”

  • What does the protagonist want?

This is usually a more personal goal: to go to college, to improve their self-esteem, to conquer an addiction. A story about mental or physical illness, or overcoming an injury, could fit here too.

  • What will the protagonist do to get it?

Depends on your story and what you want to achieve. If it’s a happy ending, then the protagonist finds the inner strength to overcome the problem. The person learns to “get out of their own way.” If it’s a downer or ambiguous ending, they don’t.

  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

Since the protagonist is fighting… the protagonist, some of the things blocking the person from succeeding could be inertia, hopelessness, a fear of disappointing others, a fear of success, a fear of change, or an inability to stay sober.

4. Person vs. nature

  • What does the protagonist want?

Much more straightforward: to live, unharmed. Since these stories almost always have multiple characters, the protagonist wants to protect other people too.

  • What will the antagonist do to stop the protagonist?

I’m taking these out of order because the conflict with Nature comes on early in the story: the volcano erupts, the fire starts, the storm breaks. The antagonist is not a sentient being which can be reasoned with. It’s water, it’s gravity, it’s the cold, it’s a tiger.

  • What will the protagonist do to get it?

This is the real challenge: what can be done? Can the protagonist do it? Do some characters have to die to save others?

Resolution

A conflict is resolved when the protagonist and/or antagonist stops. Whether that means that one of them got what they wanted, one of them is defeated or dead, or they came to an understanding, one or both of them is no longer striving for a goal.

Your protagonist can succeed or fail. Resolutions don’t have to be happy endings, and your book can end without a resolution to the conflict (although unless it’s a cliffhanger and you’re resolving the conflict in the next book, I don’t recommend this, because it can really tick the reader off, or be depressing).

1. Person vs. person

The detective (or someone else) could catch the bad guy, the bad guy could get killed (by the detective, another LEO, another bad guy), the bad guy could surrender, the bad guy could commit suicide. If the bad guy gets away and there’s no implication that the person will be caught, your plot conflict is unresolved, but perhaps the character conflict could be that this antagonist becomes your detective’s white whale, or maybe the detective quits. The robber could rob the bank or get caught. The sorcerer could cast the spell or be stopped. The astronaut could get to Mars, or could decide that he’ll run for the senator’s seat so his daughter can go to Mars. Romances, by genre convention, are always Happily Ever After or at least Happy For Now, so the commoner gets the Duke. The Vikings make peace with the dragons and learn to live with them. The worker finds a small house and retires happily.

2. Person vs. society

Dystopias have unhappy endings more often than other genres, where Society defeats the brave struggle of the protagonist, but not always. Sometimes the story ends with the cycle broken and the evil Society ended. Sometimes the battle will just continue, and the battle (the journey, the refusal to surrender) is the point.

3. Person vs. self

A happy ending means the protagonist overcame their problem and got what they wanted (the college acceptance, so many years of sobriety, a healthy self-image, mental health). A sad ending leaves the protagonist worse off than the beginning of the story, or even dead.

4. Person vs. nature

Everybody lives! Or at least some people do. Sometimes one of the secondary main characters has to die or sacrifice themselves to save the protagonist, which gives you a bittersweet ending. Having a Person vs. Nature story where Nature kills everybody is pretty depressing.

Just a Template

These are general ideas, not immutable laws — they are meant to give you a place to start thinking about your story. Having a recognizable structure will help you to organize your book into something coherent and interesting to your reader. NaNoWriMo is about getting words onto the page, which can mean that your narrative meanders, there are continuity errors, your character is informed rather than organic, or you don’t have an ending yet. That’s okay! All these things are fixable, because you have words to edit. You don’t have a blank page. Sherlock Holmes says ”I cannot make bricks without clay” — well, now you have a great big pile of clay to make bricks out of. Exciting!

Next week, we’ll look at how to examine your novel to figure out what kind of conflict you have and what parts might be missing from your story.

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Logo courtesy of NaNoWriMo. Images from DC, Marvel, Luther, Dreamworks Dragons, The Hunger Games, San Andreas, Always Be My Maybe, Doctor Who

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