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How to Come Up with a Romance Novel Idea for NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual challenge to write a novel during the month of November. Its “winning” word count of 50,000 words is particularly well suited to the romance genre, whose submission calls from romance publishers usually start around this length. What’s more, many indie romance authors rapid release novels of around 50,000 words, since this is a sweet spot for writing quickly while still pleasing readers with novel-length stories.

With NaNo fast approaching and Preptober (aka October, when many plan their NaNo projects) well underway, the clock is ticking for those who haven’t decided what they’ll be drafting next month. With those folks in mind, I’ve outlined seven steps for brainstorming and fleshing out a romance story idea for NaNoWriMo.

1. Get inspired with lists.

This close to November 1, you don’t have time to wait around for inspiration to strike. That means you have to go looking for it. My favorite way to do this is by generating lists.

There are numerous lists you can brainstorm that will hold nuggets of inspiration. Here are some I use:

  • Favorite Books
  • Favorite TV Shows
  • Favorite Movies
  • Common Themes, Genres, Tropes, etc. in My Favorite Stories
  • Topics That Interest Me
  • Favorite Pairings
  • Favorite Characters
  • Favorite Romance Books
  • Favorite Romance Tropes
  • Favorite Romance Subgenres
  • TBR (To-Be-Read) Pile
  • Issues I’m Passionate About
  • My Biggest Fears
  • Interesting People I’ve Known
  • Old Story Ideas / Stories I Started But Didn’t Finish
  • Settings I Like

Use these lists to brainstorm story conflicts and situations in step 2.

2. Brainstorm conflicts and situations.

It’s possible to brainstorm story ideas off the top of your head, but that doesn’t work for me personally. I recommend taking your lists from step 1. Pull elements from them that excite you and juxtapose those elements to get your imagination started.

For example, an entry in my Favorite Romance Tropes list is “enemies to lovers,” one under under Topics That Interest Me is “secret societies,” and an element that shows up in a lot of media I like is “vampires.” I could then think about story premises where enemies involved in a secret society of vampires turn to lovers. You can also pull a single element from a list and use it as a starting point for brainstorming story situations. I could start with just “vampires” and riff from there.

For some lists, it’s best to analyze them first. Get to the root of what appeals to you about the items. For instance, one of my favorite pairings from fandom is Murphy/Bellamy from the television show The 100. If I think about what appeals to me about that pairing, I come up with the fact that Murphy is emotionally chaotic, while Bellamy is a self-assured, natural leader. I could take these opposing traits and give them to my own main characters. Maybe those characters are vampires in a secret society. And like Murphy and Bellamy at certain points in The 100, they are at odds.

For what makes a good story idea, or hook, see How to Write a Romance Novel: The Idea.

3. Choose an internal (romantic) conflict.

Every story needs conflict. It’s helpful to think of your story’s overall conflict as having two parts: internal and external. In romance, the internal conflict has to do with the romance plot. What is keeping your main characters apart? What is going on inside their hearts and minds that prevents them from fully committing to their partners? What threatens their romantic connection from an emotional standpoint?

Choose an internal conflict for each of your main characters. For ideas, see 100 Internal Conflicts for Your Romance Story.

4. Choose an external conflict.

External conflict in a romance story comes from the people and events surrounding your main couple (or throuple, etc.). What threatens their romance from outside the relationship?

One way to think of external conflict in romance is to equate it with the secondary genre, or subgenre. Romances must feature a central love story, but what genre would the story be if the romance wasn’t part of it?

With my example from step 1—enemies involved in a secret society of vampires turn to lovers—the subgenre is clearly paranormal fiction. You could start with paranormal fiction as the category of your external conflict and decide from there what will cause problems in the romance. See Romance and Its Subgenres Explained for further examples.

When you’re choosing an external conflict, your lovers may be united against one antagonist, but they could also have external conflicts on an individual level. Make the decisions about what your characters must contend with based on the story idea you’re building.

For more on conflict, see Romance Writing Simplified: Conflict in Romance Stories.

5. Pick a setting.

You may already have a setting in mind at this point. But if you haven’t picked your macro setting—the central time period and location in which your story will take place—now is the time to do so. You may find it helpful to come up with micro settings as well. These are the smaller settings within your larger one that your characters will inhabit. See How to Write a Romance Novel: The Setting for a deeper dive on this story element and a list of questions to guide you in this process.

6. Create characters with goals and motivations.

It’s a good idea to have character details worked out before you begin drafting. Name your main characters and build an idea of who your characters are at the beginning of your story. While you may want to come up with appearance and personality details at this time, what’s most important to solidify are your characters’ goals and motivations. What do each of your main characters want and why? Their desires may change over the course of the story, but knowing what they are after when your readers first meet them will set you up for a smooth start to NaNoWriMo.

It may be helpful to separate your main characters’ goals and motivations when it comes to the internal/romance plot and the external plot. For each central character, ask yourself, What are this character’s desires when it comes to love? What do they want (or want to avoid) in a romantic relationship? Then focus on the external conflict by asking, What does this character want outside of the relationship?

Next, delve into why your characters want those things. Maybe they want to avoid something based on a past experience, or they want something because they’ve seen someone else have it and felt a deep yearning. Maybe in the external plot, they want to accomplish something because it aligns with their values. For more on character motivation, see Romance Writing Simplified: Character Motivation Comes from Backstory, as well as item 3 in Top 10 Things That Are Making Readers Put Down Your Romance Novel.

7. Build an outline of key scenes.

Once you know your story’s main conflicts and the character goals these conflicts will complicate, it’s time to sketch out an outline of key scenes. You may find it helpful to brainstorm a list of possible events to occur in your story and then choose from among those. For descriptions of the key scenes in romance, see Romance Novel Structure. For an alternative look at plot points, see The Plot Embryo for Romance Stories.

Of course, you can outline as much or as little as you’d like ahead of November 1. You don’t need to sketch out any key scenes if you don’t want to. Or you can decide where the story will start, and stop there. Maybe you want to know how the story will end or how the first act will unfold. In the latter case, you would need to add connecting scenes between the key plot points to have all of act I plotted (and the same for acts II and III). The most detailed outlining method I know of involves writing a synopsis of each scene that states everything that happens (aka every story beat). This makes for an outline with a high word count that tells your story from beginning to end minus description, dialogue, and other narrative elements.

If you have trouble figuring out what should happen in your scenes, you might find it helpful to drill down into each one and map out the point-of-view character’s goal, motivation, and conflict in that particular scene. Remember that each scene has its own narrative arc. By the end of the scene, something will have changed, and thus the story will have moved forward.

If you follow the steps in this blog post, you’ll end up with a solid foundation on which to build the meat of your NaNoWriMo project. But there are numerous ways to plan a story. How are you preparing for NaNoWriMo this Preptober?

To those who’ll be embarking on the fast drafting journey next month (along with yours truly), Godspeed!

Hire me to edit your NaNo project.

If you plan to self-publish the book you wrote during NaNoWriMo, you’ll want to do some revision on your own first. But after that, it’s time to hire an editor. I offer a range of romance editorial services for indie authors. Request a free sample edit to get started.

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