More than a decade ago a friend gave me a copy of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. We had been toying with the idea of writing a novel. A few years later I took some of the ideas we had and applied them during my first nanowrimo. Though the novel soon spiraled out of control (and off script according to the “marshall Plan”,) I felt the structure offered in the book helped me to “win” (writing at least 50,000 words in the month of November.)
Better than simply containing 50,000 words, however, my November novel actually read like something resembling a novel someone might want to read. It suffered from a number of deficiencies (dull beginning, repetitious plot “twists” and lame dialog, among others.) Nevertheless my modest success pleased me. Reading The Marshall Plan again, and comparing the structure offered by Marshall to what I had produced, I had to conclude that following his advice more closely would have prevented me from making those mistakes. Inspired by this discovery I put together a quick reference page for myself to use in the next year’s nanowrimo, which I also completed, and with a much better novel to show for it. The third time I did nanowrimo I used Marshall’s planning process and produced a pretty interesting story as a result.
My notes will be of most use to those familiar with the book (which I recommend,) but anyone participating in nanowrimo may find them helpful. The cognitive / energy load of simply producing 50,000 words in one month is pretty high and you shouldn’t expect to be able to simultaneously apply Marshall’s narrative and plot structure to your writing and complete your novel. You may be able to take parts of the structure as inspiration for filling in gaps or improving scenes, or completing the ending. Look at what you have and see if you’re missing an important element according to Marshall. Maybe that missing piece is just what your story needs to make it feel more well rounded.
Marshall recommends planning out your novel according to his structure and developing your characters all before you begin the actual writing. If one were to do this, one could plausibly complete a pretty well organized first draft in one month.
Elements of a novel
- Structure: Beginning, middle, end, each consisting of many action and reaction sections that structure the plot and character interactions
- Plot: Crisis, story goal, surprises, resolution
- Characters: Lead, Opposition, Confidant, Romantic Interest
Most important characters will fall into these categories. The non-lead characters are defined in relation to the lead.
- Lead: Has a crisis and a goal to solve the crisis
- Opposition: Opposes the lead’s goal
- Confidant: Helps the lead, helps the lead explain his or her goal
- Romantic Interest: Provides the lead with a secondary goal and opportunities for subplots
You can write with as few as two or as many as five or six view point characters, probably depending on the length of the novel. You switch between viewpoints, keeping viewpoints separated into sections. Viewpoints can be in first or third person, but third person is typically easier.
- The crisis : At very start of the story, must turn the lead’s life upside down.
- Story goal: Established immediately following the crisis, to solve the crisis
The story goal should have the following qualities
- Possession or relief: Solving the crisis involves gaining possession of an object or relief from a condition.
- Terrible consequences (if not achieved)
- Worthy motivation
- Tremendous odds against success
Surprises : Add three surprises, one near the end of the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end. These are in addition to the crisis. A surprise may result in alteration of the story goal.
Resolution : Takes place in the end third of the novel.
The resolution should have these elements:
- Narrowing story options
- Ending story lines
- The Worst Failure
- The Point of Hopelessness
- The Saving Act
- The Wrap-Up
Organize the novel into sections within each third (beginning, middle, end.) Sections will be action or reaction sections. Reaction sections follow logically but not necessarily sequentially from action sections, and not every action section needs its own reaction section, though most do. A sequence of action and reaction sections would follow one character’s story and with many characters you will typically interleave the sequences, and the sequences may merge and separate again as characters interact.
Action sections take place with a viewpoint character in opposition to something, often another character. Most sections include the presence of more than one viewpoint character (the lead, main opposing character, for instance.) There should be only one viewpoint written per section – only one character “owns” the section.
Action sections conclude with failure for the lead and / or success for the opposition. An action may appear successful on its own terms for the lead, but by the end of the section will turn out to have revealed a larger problem or have created a larger problem in achieving the story goal.
Actions result in escalating failures for the lead, or building successes for the opposition. This is in contrast to patterns in some novels where the opposition is incompetent as a means of prolonging the story to novel length. This pattern provides for a weak and therefore less compelling opposition.
In the following outline you fill in the ends of the section headings with the situation / characters for “against” and “with”.
- Section 1: Action / Lead, against ? , introduce crisis
- Section 2: Reaction / Lead, with ?. React to failure in section 1, define story goal.
- Section 3: Action / Lead, against ?
- Section 4: Action / Lead [subplot / romantic involvement] against ?. Carry over emotion from section 3.
- Section 5: Action / Lead against ?, main storyline.
- Section 6: Action / viewpoint 2, against
- Section 7: Action / Lead [subplot / romantic involvement] from #4
- Section 8: Action / viewpoint #3
- Section 9: Action / Lead [main storyline] against ? (insert surprise)
- Section 10: Action / viewpoint #4
- Section 11: Action / Lead’s subplot, introduce surprise #1
Switch between different viewpoints and main and subplot. Use around 20 sections
Insert surprise #2 at section20, in the middle of the middle. Insert surprise #3 at section 30, at the end of the middle. Around twenty sections.
- Section 11: Reaction / Lead (react to surprise #1)
- Section 12: Action / Lead
- Section 20: Action / Lead (surprise #2)
- Section 21: Reaction / Lead
- Section 30: Action / Lead
Start the end with
- Section 41: Reaction / Lead … Use the remaining sections to write the story resolution.