Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Hello authors, and welcome to the third article in our month-long National Novel Writing Month coverage. If you’re still with us, you’re doing great – yes, even if you’re lagging behind a little. This week, we’ll be looking at how to avoid being dispirited at the halfway point, as well as antagonists, changes in tone, and major events.
As ever, remember that NaNoWriMo is there to help you put words on paper. This is nowhere close to the final draft of your book, but it’s the raw material you’ll need to edit, rewrite, and reimagine the ideal form of your story.
Keep on keeping on
Approaching the halfway point of NaNoWriMo can be daunting for authors. Part of that’s the work you’ve put in so far, and the implication of how much work is left, but part of it’s about story structure. The beginnings and endings of stories are easiest to write because their function is simple. You’re trying to fulfill concrete, definite goals as you write them, and that makes them easier to envision beforehand and to write with confidence.
The middle of your story is much harder because it doesn’t have as clear of a purpose. You’re heading for the ending, but you’re not truly building to it yet. Yes, you’ve got events and characters to work with, but there’s no obvious blueprint for when to do what. Should you ramp up the romantic subplot before the first big set piece or after? When’s the best time to fit in some character work? Is this a good point to seed some hints so the big twist makes sense?
It can be disorientating, and there is good advice for dealing with it, but first and foremost remember that it genuinely doesn’t matter at this point. You’re going to edit this first draft heavily, which means you’ll be totally free to move events around and rework them in a hundred different ways. Of course, that’s only the case if you get them down on paper (or the screen, at least), so that needs to be your priority.
Still can’t decide where everything should go? Just write down what you want to cover and hit them one chapter after another. Change your mind in the next chapter and decide you actually want events the other way around? Then write as if they are, just so long as you forge on (in fact, go ahead and cut and paste the former event so it happens after the chapter you’re writing. You will be ironing out all inconsistencies later, I promise.)
That’s the best advice you can have for this week of NaNoWriMo, but it’s not all there is. Often, writing gets a lot easier when you can move from waypoint to waypoint, and there’s a big one near the middle of your story.
The volta and a change in tone
Most, though not all, stories benefit from a volta in their telling. In short, the volta is a point where the story turns – if your story was a sentence, the volta is the ‘but’. There’s a lot more about the volta and how it works in the recommended reading below, but the main thing you should know is that it’s generally when a story really gets serious. Wherever your story is going in its final moments, the volta is a clear shift in tone that makes that possible.Authors can feel marooned in the middle of their stories, but waypoints do exist.Click To Tweet
Sometimes, the volta turns on a death. It’s an easy way to say ‘things just got serious’, and while it can be clichéd, it’s effective and can be handled well by writers who put the work in. Sometimes, the volta involves a loss of allies or resources, and sometimes it goes the other way and the protagonist scores a big victory – perhaps they are capable of winning out, after all.
The volta is most powerful when your story involves someone entering a world or situation with which they’re unfamiliar. In these cases, the volta acts as transition from protagonist as spectator to protagonist as participant. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a troll attacks the school and the three protagonists fend it off. Up until this point, the world has been theoretically dangerous and the characters have been theoretically capable. After this point, the world is dangerous and the characters are capable.
As you write towards the halfway point, consider whether your story suits a volta and where it might go (somewhere around the middle is usually best, sometimes skewing earlier if there are a lot of plot points). This may help you position other elements of the story; if your volta takes the story darker, some moments of character building may fit better before it, or if it highlights the stakes, some moments may only be appropriate afterwards, when they carry more weight.
Remember all those stories where two love-interest characters have a moment during a fight for their lives? That’s why – the author has chosen that moment to make the stakes real.
Your volta might be a death or a battle or a kiss, but it’s really a clear shift from one set of rules to another. Again, don’t beat yourself up too much about nailing this structural detail. You’ll have the time to really get it right. For now, it’s worth considering the volta as a natural step. Most stories pivot from one tone or mood to another, even though some do it quicker than others. Usually, it’s not so much a case of creating a volta as recognizing where it naturally occurs. Doing so will give you some useful structural insight and a marker to help you keep writing.
- Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver
- How (And When) To Kill A Character
- Here’s How To Write A Damn Good Fight Scene
- How To Write An Epic Battle Scene
One final thing to note about the volta is that it’s often when things get tense. That’s not surprising; you just made the stakes real, which means risk has taken on a new meaning. Writing tension and risk well depends on understanding the reader’s relationship with possibilities and potential outcomes, which means that, if you’re deliberately trying to write a tense section or passage, you need to be thinking further ahead than you might think.
Tension depends on what can and can’t happen. Imagine a scene in which the protagonist walks slowly down a hallway, unaware that a crazed killer is waiting around the corner to stab them. Now, imagine one version where the protagonist is a normal person and one version where they’re immortal. The former is tense, the second isn’t, because in the first version, we understand the stakes – the protagonist could be killed. You could make the second version tense, but you’d have to deliberately communicate what’s at risk.Tension depends on potential consequences, so think (and plot) ahead.Click To Tweet
As you shift towards tension, be sure that your reader has some idea of what both success and failure look like. They need something to hope for and something to fear in order for each new event to mean something. Many authors rely on the ‘something to fear’ angle a little too heavily. Yes, the reader gets that it would be bad for your soldier character to die in battle, but if they know he’s fighting to get home to his sweetheart, they’ve got a far more palpable sense of what’s at risk.
For this reason, it’s worth taking a moment to think about where your story is going to end. You should have some working knowledge of what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ outcomes are, regardless of which you’re actually going to choose.
- 10 Facts That Tell You How To Use Tension In Your Story
- 7 Hitchcockian Secrets To Writing Amazing Suspense
- Avoid A Boring Thriller With This One Simple Trick
- Want To Disturb Your Readers? Mastering The Uncanny Is The Answer
Exploring the antagonist
Since the later sections of your book are likely to involve some kind of clash – ideological or physical, public or personal – it’s at this point that you should be making your reader familiar with whatever antagonistic force exists in your story.
That force may not be embodied in a person or event (maybe your character just lacks confidence or wants to make a romantic connection), but this is the ideal moment in the story to hammer home exactly what conflict is animating your story.
If your antagonist is a person, it makes sense for the reader to get to know them a little, whether or not that’s through the protagonist. Leaving their entry too late can make them feel like an afterthought rather than a present threat, while introducing them too early can draw focus from your protagonist. If you want your antagonist around from the start, that’s fine, but leave a real excavation of who they are for later in the story. The reader needs time to latch onto the protagonist before their big challenge comes along.Give the reader time with your protagonist before the antagonist shows up.Click To Tweet
As with tension, be sure to make it clear what success and defeat look like in relation to the antagonist. What (or who) does your protagonist want to avoid becoming? ‘Dead’ is the simplest answer, but often it’s more complex than that. Consider using a minor character to really hammer home what defeat looks like. Did the journalist who tipped your hero off about the big conspiracy meet a grisly end? Does the hero of your romance story want to avoid ending up like a lonely relative? Does your rebel without a cause want to avoid becoming her nine-to-five mother at all costs?
Finally, take a moment to appreciate that a flesh-and-blood antagonist isn’t a necessary ingredient for a great story. That might mean you don’t need one, but it might also reconfigure how you use your villain. ‘Person pursues goal and is hindered by opponent’ is a lot more interesting than ‘person tries to beat opponent’. Allow your antagonist to detach from your goal, even theoretically, and see if it gives you more options in your storytelling.
- Here’s How To Give Your Antagonist A Little Oomph
- The Two Secrets To Writing A First Rate Villain
- How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story
- How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain
NaNoWriMo stops for no man (or woman)
However close you are to your word count, if you’re still in the running, you’re doing great. Setting goals is an excellent way to get the best out of yourself, but if things are getting hard, remember that your only point of comparison is the version of yourself that didn’t give NaNoWriMo a try. Every word you write is one more word than them, and there’s still time to write a lot, lot more than that.
As in previous weeks, feel free to ask any questions or share your NaNoWriMo experiences in the comments. We’ll be posting our usual great articles on Wednesday and Friday, and I’ll be back on Monday with our Week 4 primer, where I’ll talk about drawing the story to a close. Until then, you’ve got a bunch of time to keep creating, so use it well.