How to Use Plot Generators for NaNoWriMo (Story Ideas & Tips)
What Is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It's a project that's held every November (and there's spinoffs, some sanctioned and some not, for almost every month of the year if November is too busy for you), with the goal of writing a whole novel in one month. In their definition, a novel is anything over 50,000 words, and they make no claims at all about whether that finishes it, whether any of it makes sense, or whether it's ever going to see the light of day again. If you write every day of November, that comes to between 1600 and 1700 words a day, about eight pages typed and double spaced, or handwritten, if your handwriting is of a comparable words-on-a-page size to typing.
The general definition of a novel is probably longer than 50k these days, and involves things like plot and a clear beginning, middle, and end, but since none of that really matters in the official NaNo definition, it's really very freeing. It's literally just pushing words through your brain.
You can just start writing on November 1st and see what happens, but you're much more likely to reach the end of the month with your word goals and no burn out if you do some planning stuff before then. The problem is, coming up with an idea is the hardest part until you actually get down to the brass tacks of actually writing that much every day.
That's where plot generators come in!
Embrace Plot Generators for Your Prompts
See, NaNo is about just sitting down and doing it. It's a hard deadline to force you to work without worrying about whether it really makes sense, whether it'll sell, whether it needs editing, who will read it, or any of the other things that can make you stall out when you're writing on your own.
And that means it's a heady sort of anything-goes atmosphere that is perfectly suited for the amazing craziness that random generators spit out when you click those buttons! I've found that NaNo works best if you're prepared, but you haven't thought about it too much so that your subconscious can do it's thing, and if you're starting from scratch with a new idea that you haven't made any preconceived ideas about. Since generators have nothing to do with your own idea-making, they spark new connections inside your brain as you try to make sense of them in this sort of a plan.
This tactic, however, works best if you just click the generator of choice once for each point and just run with it so that you don't wind up with so much stuff that it's worse than going into NaNo with nothing!
Here's what I'd do:
For each point, click once and write down in a notebook or copy into a file that one result, and build a list of character, world, and plot details, and then figure out how they all fit together with a good deep brainstorming session.
Step 1: Pick a Genre
First, pick a genre (and maybe a subgenre, if you feel fancy). You can google "random genre generator" and find several, but here's the one I like, and here's the top three things it gave me:
If you want to start something new, try this genre generator: Be warned, though, that it tends to spit out NSFW genre ideas. Here's the first three for polite company that it gave me:
- rage-fueled vehicular angst
- zesty intergalactic shenanigans
- awkward recovery angst
This one is really good for the subgenre--say you got Action/Mystery/Sci-fi; you could narrow that down with Zesty Intergalactic Shenanigans, and then you've already got a feel and a set of general guidelines for your new story!
Step 2: Pick Some Characters
I like to have at least two characters (and often more) because it's much easier to tell a story from multiple points of view than it is from one, and it's especially helpful when you're writing a lot, quickly, and don't have the luxury of being blocked--just switch to the next character and continue!
Pick some names: In this link, there's generators for more ordinary names and for more Scifi or Fantasy names, and I'm going to use that one for the example.
Two main characters:
- Droni Nelsaneda
- Cliokdeshai Mayimoff
These tend to be sort of unpronounceable; pick ones you and your readers can say!
Age: young adult
Likes: birds, mathematics, and chicken
Dislikes: entertaining people, pork, and mechanics
Best skill: singing
Worst skill: fighting
Personality: patient, very optimistic, not very neat
Your outfit is done in red and light purple. You are wearing a short wrap dress with strap sleeves, as well as a pair of loafers.
For the second, using the same generators:
Likes: horseback riding, rock-climbing, and spiders
Dislikes: being alone, singing, and romance novels
Best skill: mechanics
Worst skill: swimming
Personality: calm, very smart, not very optimistic
Your outfit is done in black and gray. You are wearing an outdated suit, as well as a pair of knee-high lace-up boots with heels. Your accessories include a pair of stud earrings and a pork-pie hat.
You can also use this stage to do the same for side and support characters.
Then pick your villain or antagonist:
This big bad is a calculating woman. She has taken over the world with careful political manipulation. She has strong influence over many important people and sometimes doesn't know when to quit.
If you want a one-shot way to generate two people and what they're fighting against, there's always the classic They Fight Crime generator!
- He's an underprivileged skateboarding rock star with nothing left to lose. She's a vivacious Bolivian museum curator living homeless in New York's sewers. They fight crime!
- He's a jaded ninja gangster who hangs with the wrong crowd. She's a man-hating kleptomaniac museum curator on the trail of a serial killer. They fight crime!
- He's an old-fashioned playboy matador gone bad. She's a warm-hearted gold-digging pearl diver looking for love in all the wrong places. They fight crime!
Or! Use the Character Buildinator!
- Ice Skater/Carpenter/Dog Lover/Programmer
- Superhero/Police Officer/Werewolf
Step 3: Pick a Plot (And Some Sub-Plots)
What are these weird characters going to be doing? Enter the Plot-o-tron! The first three options I was given:
- A giant dentist disguises as an army of monsters and swallows a computer game.
- An angry bird cheesifies the world under the bed and finds a stuffed toy.
- A persecuted dancer decides to destroy a starship with nothing but the world.
There's also several genre-specific generators on this page here. And a series of genre-specific generators here. TV Tropes has a generator that builds a story out of it's tropes, with links to let you know what they mean.
This one builds a story by clicking elements:
- The story begins on a balcony. A 30-year old murder case is resurrected. It's a story about loss of innocence. Your character needs a good plan in order to survive.
- The story begins in a bar. Someone is kidnapped. It's a story about the effects of war. Your character has some questions to answer.
- The story begins in an alley. A wedding anniversary is forgotten. It's a story about escape. Your character approaches the situation extremely carefully.
This one does it all as one summary:
- After a stalkerish lawyer steals a car wash they are pursued by a class of trainee cops.
- A celebrity fireman discovers a conspiracy. The situation is worsened by a ticking bomb.
- An unkempt conman uses extortion to obtain the name of the double agent.
This one will give you anywhere from 1-10 ideas at a time, depending on which you click on the drop-down menu:
- The story is about a guild of park rangers. It takes place in a car dealership in a village. The role of technology in society is a major element of the story.
- The story is about a student and a worldwise performance artist. It takes place in a large city in Ethiopia. The story begins with a failure and ends with a surgery.
- The story is about an unheroic biologist, a wild mercenary, and a prostitute. It takes place in an ancient fiefdom. The crux of the story involves a party.
This one also has lots of generators for stuff to put into your story.
And finally, here's one that generates advice from the Evil Overlord Advice lists for your story, which is really good for setting your story up with creative ways to avoid cliches!
Step 4: Do Some Worldbuilding
Now that you've got characters and plot points and ideas and a genre, where should you set your story? That's where worldbuilding comes in, and there's so very many generators for that!
A great list including a map-generator and a calendar-generator, and PILES of Dungeons&Dragons type adventure and site generators. If you use something specifically meant for something that's copyrighted, make sure you alter those elements enough that you're not plagiarizing, if you intend to publish!
A HUGE set of generators, mostly world and character based.
A really neat map-generator using Adobe flash.
You'll need to generatre, as a basic starting point:
- Some idea of the terrain, weather, and location of things
- Some idea of the level of tech or magic or related, and some concept of the social structure
- An idea of the sorts of peoples your characters would be likely to encounter or be from
- Basic ideas of things like arts, architecture, history, religion or lack thereof, and the sorts of clothes and tools and foods people might have
All of these can be generated in some sense by these generators!
And, once your story gets going, you can generate more things to fill the gaps when your story shows you where they are!
Step 5: Do Some Character Work
To flesh out your characters, sometimes you need more information.
Between these two sites, you can decide what sorts of talents your characters might have, what sorts of moods, and big chunks of their backstories! Back to our two characters, here's some fleshing out:
- Your character is short-tempered and allergic to a common foodstuff.
- Your character's interests include birdwatching, glassware, and umbrellas.
- Your character's skills include remembering details and inventing.
- It would be devastating if anyone learned that your character cannot drive.
Your character is annoyed by people prone to rearranging things. Your character is prone to fidgeting when bored. Your character is annoyed by people prone to pulling faces.
- Your character is emotionally fragile and afraid of a common animal.
- Your character's interests include bad movies, herbalism, alternative music, and fantasy movies.
- Your character's skills include skating and identifying plants.
- Few know that your character is the parent of a major protagonist.
Your character prefers typewriters to computers. Your character is prone to nail picking when anxious. Your character is prone to sniffing when agitated.
Step 6: Set Up Some Contingency Plans
There's always going to be times when you need some new option of what to do. Maybe you've written yourself into a corner, or maybe you've hit a wall and you're not sure what comes next. That's when you need the generators that give you options!
You can either generate up a list of ones you like before you start writing, and use them as you find places for them, or you can click on these babies when you need them and get something totally new.
There's piles of plot-y things here:
- They met in an MMO.
- They met at the laundromat.
- They met on a social networking site.
- Strange shadows have been seen over an old restaurant.
- Someone from a power station appeared in an old movie theater sporadically.
- Strange shadows have been seen over the woods sporadically.
The princess of evil will wed the prince of the moon. The planet of the sun foretells serenity. The dog of the traitor of the moon will restore the castle.
The Plot Punter, for when you need to throw in some new detail to keep things going! (there's also genre-specific ones in that first link in this section)
- The villain's boss suddenly appears!
- An ordinary scientist announces a groundbreaking discovery!
- The main villain is being stalked by an ordinary sailor.
- Cause of death was blood loss resulting from a severed foot.
- The ionic tachyon compensator has destabilized, resulting in total shutdown in the ionic flux torpedo launcher array.
A neat plot-twist generator:
- Due to a reaction to a recreational drug the lead has to get physical therapy.
- The protagonist suddenly reveals a greedy side - which someone uses to their advantage
- The protagonist's believes their life has changed for the horrific - this turns out to be this is due to brainwashing
- The decorator accidentally shreds the testimony, believing it to be the forgery.
Step 7: Take a Look at What You've Got
Now that you've got all this wild abundance of stuff, it's time to start making sense of it.
Arrange it in piles or lists by type--character, setting, history, culture, whatever.
Arrange the plot points in some sort of order you can think of to make them make sense.
Decide what works and what doesn't, and toss or save for later projects what doesn't; this would be a good time to brainstorm missing information, or go back to the various generators for another click.
The point of this stage is to start tying it all together into a cohesive whole. Switch the words that don't apply with ones that do--like, for instance, change "drive" to "ride" or "pilot" or whatever mode of transport your people in your story have. Line up all these raw bits and see which ones can be the causes and effects of others, which ones can be useful for informing the story you're forming, which ones need to be changed and which ones can't be used at all--or need a lot of embroidering to work.
This is the stage where you organize and brainstorm all this raw data into a feasible idea.
Step 8: Plan the Way You Most Like to Plan
If you're not a planner, you can stop here, because you've got all the stuff to work with now!
If you are a planner, this is when you start deciding when plot points happen and which ideas go in which order.
I like to make a graph with a square for each day of November, and just put one or two points on each day so that when I sit down in the morning, I know what I'm aiming at--but I haven't planned it so thoroughly that there's no room for creativity and inspiration anymore. Some people like to plan every scene before starting. Some don't plan at all, but at least when you're working at this pace, many people find it easier to know what you're going to be writing before you start!
Step 9: Tackle That Crazy New Book!
You've now set yourself up for a crazy story full of random bits! It's your challenge to turn them into a fun, original story that makes sense and that you probably never would have thought of before this exercise! You've got thirty days--good luck!