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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Writing a Skeletal Plot

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Writing a Skeletal Plot for a NaNoWriMo Novel – by Benjamin Collier

November is approaching faster than I thought! I had listed the last half of October as my time to finalize a skeleton plot with minor details for each scene, (as well as finer details for the opening scene, or whichever scene I plan to write first). I don’t always write my scenes in order, and this is definitely a story where certain later scenes are playing out in my mind in more vivid detail than the earlier ones. (I like having a sense of where the story is going!)

As far as outlying the plot though, I’m finding it a bit trickier this time around, and I think it has something to do with the zombie genre. I’ll explain.

My standard approach to NaNo prepping involves having solid ideas of characters, motives, individual roles and overall plot direction. As I research the zombie genre though, what I’m finding is that a key classic feature of these stories is to turn such things on their head. Deliver what’s unexpected. Change character roles on the fly. As they say – people show who they really are when the S#%! hits the fan, and one of the biggest traditions in a zombie apocalypse is events and characters taking unexpected turns.

It is supposed to feel chaotic to the audience. Of course, however, the one telling story should have an idea of what’s going on. I believe I’m there. But I should be open to taking new avenues with this tale if I get inspired mid-journey.

zombies walking through city

photo by Ahmadreza Heidaripoor

My previous two NaNo novels were 10 chapters each, and that seemed to just happen naturally. I’d like to take a more laid back approach to chapter counting with this one too, but I’ve had the idea of beginning each chapter with a flashback scene, and in order make sure each flashback idea actually gets used I of course need to make sure I’ve got the right number of chapters.

Things can get moved around during editing, I suppose, and that may be the approach I have to take to be open to plans changing along the way. Just to keep the current plot straight in my head I’ve even had to outline a rough map of where all the different settlements are and how each outbreak is likely to spread. This is the first time I’ve had to do that for a NaNo project. Although this is also the first one set deep underground. For my past two NaNo novels I mostly consulted already existing maps to get a sense of location and proximity.

Another shift from the last two NaNo novels is the battle outlines. Vampires Vs. Dragons and Orcs Vs. Wolves used pretty much the same 5-Big Battle system – an Introductory Battle – an Ambush – the First Mission with the New Group – the Pre-Final Battle Set-Up Battle – and then the Super Giant Final Battle with other smaller/individual battles going on simultaneously within it. This was not planned out – they just both naturally flowed that way.

Thus far, this next novel does seem to have the same number of big battles, more or less, but with different roles and orders. That alone is tripping me up a bit as far as trying to establish the story structure based on what is familiar to me and what I already know works. But maybe I need to be embracing that – embracing the chaotic feel of a zombie apocalypse which – by nature – creates a sense of the established order being turned upside down and the survivors having to improvise with what they can find. This could turn out to be me this November. A survivor. That’s assuming I do manage to make it to the 50,000-word count and finish the story. I haven’t failed yet, but wish me luck. I may need it!

What about you? Have you got a skeleton plot worked out yet? Do you use plot outlines prior to writing, or are you more of a ‘pantser’? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you.

~ Ben

*originally posted on

*previous posts about writing a novel for NaNoWriMo:

“Back to Roots”

“What If?”