Saturday Writing: Quick, What’s Your NaNo Story About?

Guys, I’m super excited about NaNo this year. My book Sole Possession started out as a NaNo project! I had to throw big chunks of my first draft away, though, because I didn’t plan enough up front. In this writing challenge and the ones in the next two weeks, I am going to try to save us all from that fate!

The National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, logo
© 2012 The Office of Letters and Light

OK, so when someone (an editor, an agent, your grandma, whoever) asks you what your NaNoWriMo novel is about, it’s good to have a short, clear answer rather than a vague and rambly one. It’s especially good to have a short answer to that question before you start writing, or at least soon after. If you can distill your story idea into a short description, this can keep you focused as you write. And if you can’t boil it down, this may be a clue that you don’t quite have a story yet.

So your writing challenge for this week is to describe your story in just a sentence or two.

You will probably want to say who it’s aboutwhat they are doing or trying to do, when and where it takes place if you think that’s important, and what the conflict is. Fair warning: if you have a story idea with little or no conflict, it may be very hard for you or a reader to stick with it for 50,000 words or more.

These short descriptions of movies I’ve taken from the imdb site are decent examples of how to distill a plot. I’ve corrected some atrocious punctuation.


In small-town Iowa, an adopted girl discovers her talent for butter carving and finds herself pitted against an ambitious local woman in their town’s annual contest.


A man awakens from a coma to discover that someone has taken on his identity and that no one, not even his wife, believes him. With the help of a young woman, he sets out to prove who he is.

The Artist

A silent movie star meets a young dancer, but the arrival of talking pictures sends their careers in opposite directions.

It’s great if you can get the mood of your story across in this short description. As a bad example, here’s a description of Hope Springs, a romantic comedy that starred Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones:

After thirty years of marriage, a middle-aged couple attends an intense, week-long counseling session to work on their relationship.

Nothing in that description suggests it’s going to be a funny movie, or even a fun one. It could just as easily be some Lars Von Trier mess. Just replacing “intense” with “hilarious” would have fixed this.

OK, but what if your story isn’t a straightforward narrative? What if it’s experimental, meditative, impressionistic? Fantastic! Just see if you can describe your project. For instance, here’s the description for the movie based on the novel Cloud Atlas. (By the way, is that a good book? Does anyone know?)

CLOUD ATLAS is an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

If you want to do NaNo this year and have no clue what you’re going to write about, even better. Brainstorm and try writing several of these, and then see which one works the best for you. You might want to ask yourself: what kinds of stories do I always enjoy?

Share your assignment with the class in the comments if you’re so inclined, and ask for feedback if you want it. Don’t give constructive criticism unless it’s requested, though. I’ll be doing one of these, too!

Editorial note: Bryn’s prepping for NaNo series originally ran last year, but the advice was so good, we’re running it again this year. 

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

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