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The Unofficial Guide On How To Plot A Novel

In my many years of failing to complete a novel, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know where my story went, how it would end, or anything beyond my main character.

There are no one-size-fits-all gloves with the nitty-gritty of storytelling, no matter who says what on the topic.

In my many years of failing to complete a novel, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I just sat down and rambled. I didn’t know where my story went, how it would end, or anything beyond my main character. I know, I know. It took me years to work out what I was doing wrong and began to plot a novel the way I do.

I thought I knew everything. It was my teenage years, the 2010s, and it seemed like everyone had something to say on how to write a novel. I read it all.

None of it helped. I still floundered amidst the sea of advice. None of it was actionable.

It wasn’t until my fourth and final year at university that I finished my latest storytelling project. And it wasn’t until then that I discovered exactly how I work best when turning an idea into a first draft.

What Is My Method on Plotting a Novel?

I’m glad you asked.

My method for plotting is rather in-depth and extreme. I outline everything, scenes, characters, the lot.

And while not everyone will find it useful or necessary to go to this length when plotting a novel, I will share the bare basics of the method. I know it’s helped people in the past to write their novels.

My method has three parts:

  1. Compiling your ideas
  2. Creating an overview of your plot
  3. Establishing scenes and their outlines

I’m firmly in the camp of believing you can’t create a clean draft through winging it alone. I suggest to everyone who asks that they at least create signposts for their stories before they write them.

It’s impossible to produce a perfect draft on the first run. Plotting your novel before you start is one way to get that one step closer to writing your next best novel.

This article is a simplified and versatile method. Use it as you will while plotting your novel.

Step 1: Compiling your ideas.

white ceramic mug on white table

The first stage of any long-haul project is to collate your ideas into one cohesive summary. This ensures you stay on track and relate any new ideas back to the focus of your story.

It doesn’t matter you’re writing an internal struggle against reality, or an epic fantasy relaying the age-old plot device of good triumphing over evil. You need to understand the central conflict at the root of your story. If you don’t know these first elements, your story won’t hit your readers with emotion when completing your novel.

We begin our plot with a premise sentence.

We can sum this central conflict up with six elements, or two sentences, known as the premise sentence. This compiles the core of your story into an actionable snippet you can refer to later to keep on track with where you want your story to go.

It’s quite simple to create a premise sentence. All you need are the six elements below and a way to piece them together until they make sense.

A premise could be as simple as filling in this template:

A [situation] [occupation] wants nothing more than to [do something]. But when [disaster] happens, they must [do something else] to defeat the [villain].

The six elements of a premise sentence, for you to answer are as follows:

  1. The hero. Also known as the protagonist. This is the character who has the most influence over the plot, and about whom the story is about.
  2. What the hero wants, which isn’t to defeat the villain. At the beginning of the story, your hero wants something mundane, the plot impedes it.
  3. The situation the hero is in at the beginning of the story. From where does your hero begin their journey?
  4. An initial disaster to kick-start the plot. Something happens which sends the hero out from their everyday lives and into an extraordinary undertaking.
  5. A continuing conflict. This is the thread which leads your hero from A to B. These are the dominoes to knock over before we reach the end of the hero’s journey.
  6. A villain. The principal reason your hero can’t get what they initially want. They can be as mundane as a rather strict boss, or larger than life as an evil overlord ruling a fictional empire with an iron fist.

Once you’ve got your premise, you’re ready to plot in earnest.

A story has more than a hero and a villain.

Now you know what your story entails, you can consider who else appears in your novel. This won’t be an exhaustive list, nor will you detail every scrap of information about them. This is just simply noting down a few things about the major characters who drive the plot forward.

There are four archetypal characters your story must have, if only to move the story along.

1. A hero

Your Protagonist, or hero, is the character your story is about. As with The Great Gatsby, the protagonist doesn’t have to be your narrator, but it usually always is. The protagonist drives the story, their actions dictate what happens and what the consequences are that follow.

2. A villain

The Big Bad Villain is, by contrast, the entity which stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. They could be a force of nature, an entire government, or a single person. The antagonist’s actions (or inactions) are what cause the protagonist to set off on their Plot Goal. In most cases, the Big Bad is in clear opposition to the Protagonist. But there are a few instances where the real antagonist has been revealed to have been close to the Protagonist in the final quarter of the story.

3. A sidekick

While everyone knows the Sidekick is a loyal supporter of the protagonist, while differing in certain ways to show the protagonist’s growth. The Sidekick might also be the fundamentally Emotional character who influences the protagonist’s choices.

4. A mentor

And on that note, the Mentor is the character who acts as the moral standard. They guide the protagonist down whatever path it is they need to take. I’ve combined this with the Reason as that character is fundamentally logical and influences the protagonist in that respect.

While plotting your novel, we’re not focusing on all the erroneous details. At this stage, we’re just creating a general gist of basic information to add depth to our story’s conflict. As such, the only information we’re after is your characters’ wants, motivations, and secrets.

Consider your protagonist, your antagonist, your sidekick, and your mentor. What does each of them want? Why do they want this? How will they go about getting it?

turned on desk lamp beside pile of books

If your story has a genre, it has needs.

The type of story you want to tell will require specific conventions your readers will expect to find. There’s nothing you can do about it. They need to be in the story, and here’s a good a place as any to add them all in. You can research them later.

Romantic comedies need a “meet-cute”, where the two characters have some embarrassing yet endearingly funny meeting somewhere public.

Horror stories need an isolated setting, so the monster can trap the hero and limit their movements.

Historical fiction calls for more accuracy than most authors delve into, and a decent working knowledge of the time. Or at least just enough knowledge in how it relates to the story you’re telling and two “truths” for every “lie” you want your readers to believe. Your heroine wouldn’t wear a crinoline to Mr Bingley’s ball, for example.

Fantasy settings require more work; urban fantasies still need non-human species and magic, epic fantasies need entire worlds. Low fantasies and dark fantasies aren’t quite as “epic” as their big sibling but no less require preparation.

Step 2: Creating an overview of your plot.

selective focus photography of pen

The problem with a lot of resistance to writing stories is the whole debate over whether to outline, and how far you need to outline.

And what the hell is the structure of the plot for different genres of novels?

I’m a total weirdo who outlines every scene after I’ve outlined a character arc and plot arc. For one unpublished book, this took just over two months because I had four points of view characters who each had their own stories to tell within the wider scope of the plot. This was all handwritten, because I’m old-fashioned and like to see how thick I can make the folder and how many index cards I can use (It was 184 scenes total, by the way).

If we’re making the point, I’ll get right down to it and suggest we combine quite a few of the plot structures floating around into one.

The Hero’s Journey (or whatever we’re calling it these days) is a circle. We begin and end almost where we began. If we’re not in the same setting as before, it’s because we’re comparing and contrasting our characters from where they began and where they’ve ended. (K.M. Weiland has done a fantastic job here, I’ve just condensed it and put my spin on it.)

The Circle Plot of Novel Structure

The structure I use is quite simple, versatile, and intrinsically linked to the theme of the story I’m telling.

The Hook & Resolution

The hook is the first scene that draws the reader into the plot, and the resolution is the last scene which acts as a sort of closing credits after the “final battle”. These bookends should hint at both a beginning and an ending. Add some element of symmetry for maximum effect on your readers.

Hooks hook readers into continuing with your story, they’re the first and last chance you have for readers to stick with you. They also set up the first act, the first domino leading to the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Incident. This is introducing us to your hero and their current situation before the story really gets going.

Resolutions show us your character after conflict has ended. This is where we tie up any loose threads of plot, answer questions with minor characters and subplots, and show how the world itself might have changed.

Inciting Incident & Climax

The Inciting Incident is the halfway mark in the First Act, this is the Call to Adventure the hero initially refuses. The Climax is the halfway mark in the Fourth Act and is the ultimate confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist.

For your Inciting Incident, something causes the hero to refuse the adventure. Maybe it’s a terrible idea. Perhaps someone else refuses on the hero’s behalf.

But for the sake of pacing and ramping up the tension, whatever the event is, it asks a thematic question and engages the hero in the major conflict of the story. This is what the Hook has built up to.

The Climax resolves the major conflict we introduced in the Inciting Event; it answers the thematic question we raised on whether the hero reached the plot goal we set. This is the final few dominos of plot we’ve been knocking over since the Hook.

1st & 3rd Plot Points

The First Plot Point is the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. The first quarter of your story is where your character definitively leaves behind their Normal World and enters the conflict introduced at the Inciting Incident. The Third Plot Point is the end of the Third Act and the beginning of the Fourth Act. The three-quarter mark is where your character faces their biggest defeat and a symbolic death.

The First Plot Point is often where you leave one setting and enter another, or change the setting. This is the end of the character’s old life and the start of a new one, a more symbolic death to foreshadow the larger death later.

The Third Plot Point forces your character into one last confrontation with the antagonist. It’s where your character decides what they really want out of the conflict. If you’re killing off someone for real, this is probably where you’ll do that (oh, hello, These Kind of Knaves).

Both plot points are a “Door of No Return”, they’re turning points that aren’t easily undone. Once your character has taken that step, there’s no turning back.

Pinch Points

There are two Pinch Points, and they’re just as important as the rest. They’re the halfway mark of the Second and Third Acts. Simply, they remind the character of what’s at stake should they fail their quest.

The First Pinch Point is where the hero realises their reactive phase isn’t quite working out for them. We’re foreshadowing the realisations of the Midpoint with some sort of attack from the antagonist.

The Second Pinch Point foreshadows the Third Plot Point with yet another attack from the antagonist. It sets the hero up for the Fourth Act. What we have at the Second Pinch Point prepares the hero for the last push towards the Third Plot Point.

Midpoint

The Midpoint removes the dreaded “saggy middle”. It’s the halfway mark of the entire story, where everything before it has led up to a “Moment of Truth” realisation about the conflict and can either embrace a new belief system, or reject it entirely. What your character decides here determines what sort of character arc your character is on.

This is your story’s centrepiece, it needs to be impactful and force the character into confronting themselves. The inner journey here sets the stage for the battling beliefs of the second half of the story.

How the character deals with the truths faced in this scene.

What the character learns at the Midpoint, swivels the plot from reaction to action. After this moment, the character will begin chasing down the antagonist on their own.

There needs to be something here the character learns which changes their perception of the conflict.

opened book

The Canvas Tent to Plot a Novel

If you have your main structural points, then you have an arc to take your character on.

But unless you can write marvellous stories by the seat of your pants, you might want a bit more guidance in where to take your story.

Okay, so your story is mostly vague at this point. There’s not a lot of solid action. And while you can write your book at this stage, you still might end up with the dreaded “saggy middle syndrome” because you don’t have a direct path to the finish line.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll waffle on and get nowhere without a plan, a proper outline. And all the minuscule details to keep on track when it comes time to write.

To avoid your canvas tent sagging between the poles, take your tent poles and place them at each eight of your story.

I call this a “segment”.

Between each plot point, we have a specific type of action our hero takes before they get to the next tent pole. Working in segments allows you to tighten your character’s action and remove any sagginess before you waffle away while drafting.

There are two segments to an act, mostly (Act Four is special), with one at the start, and one in the middle.

In Act One, we begin our story with the Hook. Before the plot kicks off at the Inciting Incident, we need to Set-Up our characters and their situation in the first segment. We’re learning about what’s at stake should the hero fail. Once we’ve introduced a taste of our story halfway through the act, we need to Build Up the tension. Our character should have no choice but to engage the conflict around a quarter of the way through the story.

Act Two begins with a Reaction to the events of the 1st Plot Point. The hero is trying to understand all the obstacles the villain is throwing their way. This culminates at the 1st Pinch Point, and the resulting segment is the hero’s Realisation of the conflict as their actions become more informed.

Then we come to the half-way mark.

With Act Three, the Midpoint leads the character into a new understanding. This segment has the hero take informed Action towards their plot goal and possibly the defeat of the villain. At least, until the 2nd Pinch Point reminds the character of the stakes. The hero gives a Renewed Push in their assault against the villain and reaches a seeming victory.

The final Act gives the hero a low moment with the 3rd Plot Point, and the rest of the segment is their Recovery from this defeat. The hero will question their goals, commitment, and ability to reach the end. The middle of the Act is where the Climax Begins, where the hero and villain finally meet face-to-face. The segment is their Confrontation, and it needs to be clear only one of them will walk away. This defining moment is the Climactic Moment, the hero has met (or failed to meet) the plot goal, and the conflict cannot possibly continue any further. The final two per cent is the Resolution of this, the final emotion and tying up loose ends.

Plot a Novel by Filling In The Blanks

The first thing to consider when turning your chiastic plot into a workable outline and reference guide, is to see if there are any sequence-type events that can come after them.

The second is to check any notes you’ve made previously and add this to your list of potential scenes.

The primary aim of this exercise is to establish the events which build towards the next milestone in your story. Each of your chiastic plot points should, ideally, be bigger than the last until they climax at the Climactic Moment. The bits in between are the building blocks of your plot. They’re the dominos you knock over until everything concludes and leaves your reader feeling satisfied that they’ve read a decent book.

If we take the idea of each eighth of the story building up to the next plot point, we can establish from our character arc a rough guide. And if you have some idea of certain scenes you want to include, now’s the time to work out where they’d best fit.

If the chiastic plot is the tent poles of a marquee, we need the canvas covering to create a recognisable tent. This is the problem most writers face when they only outline as far as the major structural points. Everything between them turns into mini saggy middles.

There are a few ways you can fill in the blanks of your plot.

You could create a full list of every scene which appears in your novel. And then outlining each of those scenes.

You could also establish how many chapters you want your story to include. And use the plot structure to create a summary for each to ensure there’s a moment of action happening with each chapter.

Take the time to establish how you want your plot arc to play out, there is no One-Size-Fits-All with plotting. The point of filling in the blanks now, rather than creating a “Draft 0”, is for you to remain on track while drafting and as a reference later for editing. An excellent motto to use while you fill in the blanks is to “make it make sense.” Actions have consequences, something cannot come from nothing. If your character wants something, have them work to get it with a miniature side quest.

I’m Here Helping You to Plot Your Next Best Novel.

I don’t believe in clichés, so everything here is something you can take away and use right away in your own stories.

If you want a more in-depth look at plotting a novel, check out my three-hour masterclass, “The Plotting Procession.” It’s expanding on this three-step plan of crafting a plot so you can write your next best novel.

By buying the masterclass, you receive for free a 74-page companion textbook complete with prompt questions and worksheets, a checklist entitled Things to Do Before You Draft Your Novel, and a 3-page worksheet I called Quick And Dirty Story Details.