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Planning for a Graphic Novel - NaNoWriMo 2022

So we're a little over a week into NaNoWriMo, and I thought I'd share a bit on how I developed Daughters of Grimm to prepare for this writing challenge. But first, a quick update on my progress and lessons learned over the first 7 days.

Two Lessons After a Break and a Learning Curve

This past weekend was the first weekend off I've had in three weeks. I didn't even write this weekend, because I realized just how much I needed the downtime. So, between the weekend and the first week learning curve, I'm close to 9.000 words behind schedule. But I have to say, I feel so much more prepared to take on the rest of the month.

That said, my daily goal is now 2,000 words, rather than 1,667, to reach the 50,000 total by the end of the month. In my struggle to up my word count this week, I've learned two big lessons:

  1. Just write. I was using a comic script format for my first week--calculating how many panels might fit on a page, figuring out what moments to include, and trying to spread things out to make for good page turns. But all that calculation cut into my actual writing time. Now, I'm writing more in a screenplay format to cut up later, and it's going SO much faster.

  2. It doesn't have to be perfect. The nice thing about NaNoWriMo versus, say, Inktober, is that your work is absolutely private. No one sees this draft unless you show it to them. So there's no need to push yourself for perfection. A first draft should be anything BUT perfect.

So between those two lessons, I've upped my hourly word count by 200. And with my new burst of energy, I'm able to spend more time on it and still keep my work boundaries. Hopefully I'll catch up in no time.

Planning a Graphic Novel (Or Any Story For That Matter)

So on to the meat and potatoes (or veggie sausage if you'd prefer)…

There's two things I start with when outlining a story. First, I want a logline--a one to two sentence pitch of the story. And second, a theme--the message I want to focus on. Having these two things helps me know the story has potential, and gives me a guideline to work off of when I get to outlining.

The Logline

The things I try to focus on in crafting the logline are genre, character, conflict, and twist. If done well, I'll have a solid idea of the story's vibe, who the protagonist is, and why their story will be interesting.

If you need a jump off point, here's a great formula:

It's a story about (protagonist) , who wants to (goal) , but can't because (conflict) , so they decide to (action) , resulting in (conclusion) .

This formula by itself can be a bit bland as an actual pitch, but will get you thinking about the major parts of the story. I like to go a bit freeform, to capture a bit more of the vibe and intrigue.

For example, this is the logline for Daughters of Grimm's first arc:

Long after the days of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, a young librarian is thrown into her own fairytale when visions of a dark, hungry beast invade her dreams.

I don't have a conclusion in there, but that's ok. I know what it is (and that's important too). This one-liner has all elements I need as a proof of concept--a fairytale genre, a bookish protagonist, a "beast" of a conflict, and the twist of reader turned hero.

The Theme

While the logline gives the who, what, when, and where of the story, the theme gets you clear on the WHY. The theme is important, because when you approach all the infinite possibilities of how your story could go, it gives a framework of what fits and what doesn't.

Some say your theme should be a decisive statement, and that definitely doesn't hurt. But even knowing what general topic you want to explore to start will help.

Daughters of Grimm's theme is "Your identity is yours to define." But when I first started outlining, I was just playing with "Identity" in general. The story will explore all sorts of angles anyway--the idea that everyone has a predetermined role, or that society determine how you best fit... But now that I've defined the theme more clearly, I know what plot twists would and wouldn't fit that message.

Building on the Foundation - Outlining

There may be some other things you want to explore before outlining, like characters and setting lore. If you'd like to dive more into that, leave me a comment and I can queue it up! But today, I wanted to focus on story structure and how you can use it to flesh out your story before committing to the word count.

My personal outlining process is a combination of things I learned from Three Act Structure, The Hero's Journey, and Dan Harmon's Story Circle. I'll link some extra reading at the end of the post if you'd like to dive into those sources yourself, but here's a breakdown of what I use:

Act 1

In this act, there's two main things that happen:

  • The Setup - This is where you introduce the protagonist in their "Ordinary World"--their day to day life. You get to see what they're like, what they care about, and why the reader should care about them. The conflict is also developed--a foreshadowing of what's to come. The call to adventure may happen here as well, but at this point, the hero isn't ready to accept it.

  • The Pivotal Moment - Something happens that spins the hero's entire world on its head. They can't ignore the conflict any longer. They're thrown into adventure, the second act, and the unfamiliar "New World".

Act 2

This is where the real adventure begins, and where a huge chunk of the story happens. There's a lot of steps along the way:

  • The New World - Dorothy's not in Kansas anymore. This "New World" the hero's been thrown into is strange and challenging, and they struggle to adjust and accept the change.

  • The Mini Stories (Trials & Tribulations) - These are steps along the protagonist's journey as they learn skills and gain allies to help them handle the New World. My screenwriting professor suggested using 4 mini stories, which are spread around the next few points, but I'm not sure the number matters. What's important is that the hero's arc develops in each story, and the plot and conflict advance.

  • The Point of No Return - The protagonist is in deep, and there's no turning back now. Alderaan is gone and the Death Star captures the Falcon. Red Riding Hood is staring at the big teeth of her supposed grandma. It's sink or swim.

  • The Acceptance - There's no choice--the hero accepts their new role and attempts to solve the problem at hand. They may get pretty close too. But in the end, they fail.

  • The Dark Moment - With their failure, the protagonist loses the thing they think they need most. This could be a mentor, a friend, a McGuffin... Whatever it is, they lose their confidence and hope with it. They're ready to give up.

  • The 2nd Pivotal Moment - Like the first pivotal moment, the story is once again turned on its head. The protagonist's back is against a wall, and there's nowhere to run.

Act 3

Here lies the climax! Everything's been building to this final act:

  • The Second Wind - The hero regroups and puts in one final effort to succeed. The tension's rising and it's ride or die.

  • The Battle - It's what we've all been waiting for... THE CLIMAX. The final fight against the Big Bad, or whatever the protagonist has been working toward all along. It all comes to a head, and then...

  • The Resolution - SUCCESS! Or failure. The fight is over either way.

  • The Wrap Up - With the outcome clear, it's time to tie the loose ends. What happens after the battle? Does the hero return to the old world? Does a tyrant reign for a thousand years? Is there a teaser for a sequel? Roll the credits.

I love this outline because it gives clear structure to a story, but also leaves room to play depending on what the narrative needs. And it's easy to apply to anything! I highly recommend you watch your favorite movies or read your favorite books/comics, and try to see how this structure fits. I'd give Daughters of Grimm's outline as an example, but spoilers.

Remember, when applying this structure to your stories, always keep in mind your original logline and theme. Do your narrative solutions fit that vision? If you're having a lot of trouble, you might take a look at those ideas again and see if the original vision still works.

Last Thoughts and Extra Reading

So are the gears turning yet? I remember first learning this structure and thinking how it applied to my favorite stories. It got me so hyped to write! What parallels stand out to you? Do you have ideas of how to apply these tools to your projects?

If you want to read more about story planning or structure, here are a list of my favorite books, articles, and videos on the topics:

  • Story by Robert McKee - This is an invaluable look into the process of planning and writing stories. McKee gives endless examples of how each step of a story is applied in cinema, and even gives tips on the later writing part.

  • Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder - I'm actually in the process of reading this one now. It a really fun read, with common sense advice for building a hit story. It talks about loglines, genre, structure, and beating out a story before polishing it.

  • Dan Harmon's Story Circle - This is the most digestible version of story structure I've ever seen. It's just 8 steps: You Need Go Search Find Take Return Change. He walks through the details an article at a time, so you can read through with the links at the end of each page.

  • An Excerpt of Netflix's Myths and Monsters - This video gives a really basic overview of the Hero's Journey, with scenes from Star Wars: Episode IV. If you've seen the movie, it makes a lot of intuitive sense, even if they don't dive into every stage in depth.

And though this one's still on my reading list--I haven't read it personally--I feel I can't talk about story structure and the Hero's Journey without mentioning:

  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell - If you want to dive into the Hero's Journey more thoroughly, this book is the origin of the theory, and has been a huge influence on the world of story. George Lucas based the structure of the original Star Wars entirely on this text.

If any of this proves useful to you, let me know! I'd love to hear about your break throughs. And if you have any questions, or want me to expand on anything, leave a comment too. I'll see what I can do in coming articles.

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