If you don't know what to run, shed a tear and run whatever argument that is closest to the tear.
What is a counterplan?
A counterplan (CP) is an alternative course of action to the affirmative's plan. For example, if the plan is for the State of Utah to give cookies to Victoria as a means to eradicate her hunger, a counterplan could be for the State of Utah to give ice cream to Victoria instead, which would be good because then Victoria wouldn't get crumbs on her clothes. Ultimately, the purpose of the counterplan is to replace the affirmative team's plan by providing a benefit that the affirmative's plan fails to provide.
The counterplan absolutely must be presented in the 1NC, or the first negative constructive speech, because due to fairness, the affirmative team must have at least one constructive speech to counter those arguments.
Common Types of Counterplans
Plan Inclusive CPs (PICs) -- These are counterplans that include the all of part of the plan and argues that the parts of the plan that are left out of the counterplan are bad. For example, if the plan is to give Victoria an ice cream cone, a possible PIC would be to give Victoria an ice cream bowl because cones leave crumbs. This type of counterplan can also encompass the other types of counterplans (for example, an agent CP just changes who does the plan, which means the plan is still included in the counterplan).
Agent CPs -- These are plans that change the agent who does the plan, whether that be a person, a government, an agency, etc. If the plan is done by the State of Utah, an agent CP would suggest that the United States Federal Government do it instead.
Advantage CPs -- These counterplans focus on solving for just one of the affirmative team's advantages without doing the plan (which makes it distinct from a PIC). This forces the affirmative team to pick advantages that only the plan can solve. For example, if the plan is to give cookies to Victoria and one advantage is that it makes her happy, an advantage counterplan would be to give her ice cream, because that would make her equally as happy, if not more.
Process CPs -- This is a counterplan that changes the process in which the plan will be passed. Common process CPs include asking other countries if they like the plan before doing it or having the president issue an executive order to do the plan.
Counterplans MUST be competitive.
If the negative team presents a counterplan, they have a burden to make it competitive with the plan. This means that the counterplan either physically cannot or functionally should not co-exist. There are two ways a counterplan can be competitive:
1. Mutual Exclusivity By definition, it means that if one is in existence, the other cannot exist with it. For example, the affirmative's plan might be to increase the amount of cookies in the cookie jar. The counterplan could be to destroy the cookie jar. You can't add cookies to a cookie jar and destroy that cookie jar at the same time.
2. Net Benefits The gist of this method is that the plan triggers something bad to happen and the counterplan avoids that bad thing from happening. But if you do both, since the plan is happening, it's still going to trigger that bad thing, which is a reason why the two actions should not functionally co-exist. Let's go back to the example of giving cookies to Victoria as a plan versus giving ice cream to Victoria as a counterplan. If we gave her both ice cream and cookies, she'd still get crumbs on her clothes. Therefore though it may be possible to do both, it is undesirable to do both. (Because of this, counterplans are often accompanied by a disadvantage that the counterplan can solve.)
Under normal means of plan passage, we operate under the idea of fiat. Taken from the Latin meaning, "let it be done," fiat is (roughly) another word for guarantee. We guarantee that the plan will pass through Congress in this hypothetical debate world, so that we can debate about the effects of the plan rather than its causes. (Otherwise, if we were to focus on what causes the plan to pass, we would be stuck debating the same stuff and aff teams could never win, because there's obviously a reason why their plan hasn't passed in real life.)
How to Answer Counterplans
First, you should attack the counterplan's ability to solve your advantages presented in the 1AC. If they don't solve your 1AC, you can weigh those advantages' impacts against the counterplan's impacts through impact calculus.
Second, you should test a counterplan's competitiveness through perms.
A perm is an argument that tests the competitiveness of the plan by claiming that the counterplan and plan can co-exist. There are many different types of perms, and odds are you can make at least ONE. You should try to make more than one perm, so that teams are more likely to drop one and you'll have conceded perms. ANY perm that is conceded means that the negative team loses their counterplan argument, because they've conceded that their counterplan isn't competitive.
There are four types of perms:
1. Legitimate Perms (Perm Do All of the 1AC/Plan and All of Part of the CP) -- This is basically saying do both. Give Victoria an ice cream cookie sandwich. That way, we can get all the benefits from the plan and the counterplan, and Victoria is very happy.
2. Timeframe Perms (Perm Do One, then the Other) -- This argues that the order in which these actions are passed matter. For example, the counterplan might be to buy more cookies for the cookie jar, while the plan is to eat all the cookies in the cookie jar. In this case, perm do the plan then the counterplan would solve, because buying more cookies would replenish those that were eaten up in the plan.
3. Intrinsic Perms (Perm Do the Plan + Part/s of the CP + Something Not Included in the CP or Plan) -- If the plan is to give cookies to Victoria, and the counterplan is to ask her mom before you give cookies to Victoria as a means to improve family relations, a possible perm would be to give Victoria the cookies anyways and then ask her mom something else. You still have the entirety of the plan (giving cookies to Victoria), part of the CP (asking her mother), and something that wasn't included in either proposal (the "something else" you're supposed to ask her mom).
4. Severance Perms (Perm Do the CP and Part or None of the Plan OR Perm Do the Plan Minus Something) -- This basically cuts off, or severs, part of the plan that was presented in the 1AC. Let's say the plan is to give Victoria an ice cream cone. The neg presents a counterplan to give Victoria a bowl of ice cream, because cones can leave crumbs. The aff could perm and give ice cream to Victoria WITHOUT a cone. This severs out of the original plan to give her a cone.
Third, present your offense. These would be disadvantages to doing the counterplan. You can also try to make the argument that the counterplan triggers their net benefit. For example, if the counterplan is to give Victoria an ice cream cone instead of doing the plan which gives her cookies, and the net benefit is that this prevents crumbs from getting on her clothes, the aff can argue that the cone from the ice cream will still leave crumbs.
Fourth, present theoretical objections.
John R. Prager wrote this as a response to many of his students when he was coaching at a small school in Michigan. He even specifies a duties of each speaker when they come across a counterplan. It'll probably help you out: http://webpages.charter.net/johnprager/IPD/Chapter12.htm