How to Survive NaNoWriMo When You Don’t Know What to Write
NaNoWriMo is about getting as much done in as little time as possible.
With a 50,000 word goal and only 30 days to finish, NaNoWriMo can be intimidating. However, having done NaNoWriMo myself and seen many others do it over the years I can confirm that, while difficult, it is in fact achievable!
Of course, that’s only true if you never get stuck. With such a restricted amount of time, each hour you write needs to be used to the fullest. Maximizing your writing time is key. So what do you do when you’re stuck thinking: “What should I write next?”
Well, you’ll probably start by worrying. You don’t have time to get lost, to wonder about character motivations, to walk away and contemplate future scenes. And it’s true to some extent—you probably don’t have a wealth of time to spend waiting for inspiration to strike, especially while juggling all the other responsibilities that come with November.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a moment to reflect on the core elements of your story, and it definitely doesn’t mean you’re going to fail NaNoWriMo! You may be surprised to find that a few careful questions are often all you need to find your footing.
What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write
Think About Your Premise:
Oftentimes, after you’ve spent days writing, you’ll find yourself distracted by side plots and new characters.
Over time you’ll end up drifting away from your core story entirely.
Now it’s important to remember that that’s OK! Exploration is one of the most fun parts of the writing process. However, if you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you’ve hit a wall. You’ve wandered so far from the path that you aren’t sure where to go anymore.
For many writers this as a chance to step away, to take a few days off and contemplate the direction their story is going in. During NaNoWriMo, that’s harder to do, for obvious reasons!
Instead of giving up or getting frustrated, you’ll want to start by looking at your premise.
In short, your premise is a 2-3 sentence description that encompasses the core elements of your story and represents the kernel of inspiration that pulled you to this idea in the first place. In short, it acts as a guiding star for your writing process.
So, when you get stuck, use your premise as a reminder of the core of your story, the vibes you’re trying to create, and the purpose of your story’s adventure. You may be surprised to find that, more often than not, this reminder is all you need to reorient yourself and continue writing!
Think About Your Character’s Goals:
Of course, sometimes your premise won’t be enough to jump-start your inspiration. Perhaps you never wandered too far from your premise at all. Perhaps your problem is instead with your characters!
When it comes to storytelling, characters are what it’s all about. They drive your story forward and it’s their interactions that create conflict, meaning, and intrigue in your novel. Knowing your characters makes a huge difference in your ability to know your story.
If you’re stuck on a scene, ask yourself a few questions:
- What does each character want in this scene? What is their goal?
- Do any of these goals conflict with other characters?
- Is there any new information or skills your character needs to be learning?
- How can you challenge your character?
Based on your answers, you should have good idea of what happens next in your story.
If two characters want conflicting outcomes, let them fight with one another. Better yet, let their argument spill over and involve other members of your cast. If it’s a solo scene (often the hardest to write) focus on the last two questions. Find ways for the scene to teach that character a lesson, or reveal important information to them. Look at ways you can grow them as a character by pushing them along on their arc.
These not only move the immediate scene forward but have ripple effects throughout your story, helping you create a cascading progression of conflict that will hopefully sustain your inspiration for quite a few writing sessions to come!
Think About Your Plot:
Finally, if you’re in line with your premise and your characters are being used to their full potential, you may be a looking at a problem with your plot. While characters define how the conflict unfolds in each scene, your plot dictates where that scene needs to go.
This is one reason outlining is so important, because it helps you establish your Climax, before you begin writing. Everything you write needs to build to this final scene and, as a result, you should always be aware of the end point you’re writing to!
So ask yourself—what’s your story’s Climax, and what needs to happen to get there?
To answer this it may be helpful to sketch out a brief outline—if you don’t already have one. This can be an elaborate process involving all the aspects of the Three Act Structure or the Hero’s Journey, or it can be as simple as writing a beginning, middle, and end for your story.
Whether or not you choose to make it complex, remember that each scene needs to move the conflict of your story forward as you approach the Climax. Look carefully at the scene you’re stuck on and ask yourself how it can add to your plot. Do you need to set up an event for later in the story? Or perhaps you can up the tension by reminding your audience and characters of the conflict!
Turning Your Ideas Into Words
You may be surprised what ideas arise from these questions, so don’t despair! Despite the time crunch NaNoWriMo brings, it’s still possible to succeed and reach 50,000.
When you get stuck on a scene, just take proactive steps to keep yourself moving forward. Remind yourself of your premise, find ways for your characters to create conflict, and make sure all of its building towards your story’s end point.
That way, you’ll always be making progress! 🙂