Unleash your writing potential with the power of plotting
You don’t have to plot your novel in advance. I’m going to say it louder for the folks at the back: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO PLOT YOUR NOVEL IN ADVANCE. Writing to find the story is a valid process, and if it’s the one that works for you there is no point whatsoever in trying to make yourself write differently. That way madness lies.
With that said – I generally find that most of the writers I work with are non-plotters by default, mostly because they’ve never known how to approach the task of creating a detailed outline for their novel in advance. This step-by-step approach I’m about to take you through isn’t aimed at the inveterate non-plotters who’ve established and refined their process. It’s for the emerging writers still figuring out what works for them.
There are at least as many approaches to plotting as there are plotters writing their novel. This isn’t the only way to do it. It’s a starting point. An introduction. A whistle-stop tour through the elements to consider when structuring your unwritten book. Use the bits that work for you and discard the bits that don’t. Like everything in this craft, learning how you do it is part of the fun.
A note on plotters and pantsers
To vastly oversimplify a complex topic, writers generally fall into one of two categories: pantsers or plotters. I hate those terms. I hate the way “pantsing” refers to flying by the seat of your pants, implying that there’s something slapdash or unprofessional about not knowing how your story ends when you start writing.
This is the last time you’ll see the words “pantser” or “plotter” referred to in this post.
Instead, I prefer to talk about “gardeners” and “architects” – writers who plant a seed and watch it develop organically, and writers who lay out their structure before they begin to build. There’s a lot of variation in style and process among writers in both camps, and neither is right or wrong. Bottom line is, if you’re gardening happily and your story is moving forward, carry on doing that. If, on the other hand, you’re up to your neck in weeds and your story path is completely impassable – maybe see if a little bit of plotting is the way forward for you.
The importance of a well-structured plot
Whether you’re a gardener or an architect, you will, at some stage, have to dig deep into the details of your novel’s plot. The only difference is when. Architects front-load that work, but there’s still plenty to do after the first draft is complete. Gardeners end-load it, but that’s not to say there’s no prep work to do before they start writing.
Ultimately, the more structure and coherence you can bring to your plot, the more engaging your reader will find the story. “Plot,” according to the ever-readable Writing Explained, “is the storyline of a text. An author puts together a series of events to create a story. The sequence of that series of events is the plot. Typically, an author develops a plot in such a way to pique the reader's interest."
Architects will have some kind of blueprint for that development when they start to write. Gardeners will find it along the way. Both will have to check their completed draft carefully to make sure they’ve created a satisfying narrative arc, developed their characters, and effectively explored their themes. Your final story must have a solid plot – otherwise, readers may well find it meandering, lacking in focus, and difficult to follow.
Your final story must have a solid plot – otherwise, readers may well find it meandering, lacking in focus, and difficult to follow.
Understanding narrative structure
If you’re going to make sure your plot is working, you need to have at least a passing familiarity with how narrative structure works.
This is a graphic representation of a three-act structure: exposition, rising action, and resolution. While different approaches to structure break plot down in different ways, they all boil down to this in the end. The three-act structure works like this:
All western fiction either follows this format or – more rarely – actively seeks to disrupt it. Yes, even that one. I know, I know. But “formulaic” doesn’t have to mean “bad.” In this case, it means “satisfying audience expectations.”
Step 1: Developing your story idea
This is a big one, and it applies to both gardeners and architects. There are multiple different ways to approach this, and you’ll almost certainly develop your own as you get more familiar with your writing process, but a couple of good places to start are:
Spider diagram / mind map
Start with the spark that inspired you, however vaguely formed it might be. Write it in the middle of a big piece of blank paper. Circle it, and start surrounding that circle with words, phrases or concepts that it brings to mind. Then do the same with each of those words, phrases or concepts until you hit on something that has potential for your plot.
Similar to a spider diagram, but less structured. Freewriting aims to engage the keyboard (or pen) and switch off any conscious effort to control the words that flow from the brain onto the page. It doesn’t need to be punctuated, coherent, grammatically correct – even written in full sentences. You start with the spark of inspiration and just start writing to see where it goes. (Sometimes, you even end up with usable text that forms part of your first draft, but this is absolutely not the aim of the exercise.)
The W-Plot method falls somewhere between brainstorming and outlining, but it’s a great approach for writers who need a bit more structure than spider diagramming or freewriting allows.
Once your ideas begin to emerge, you can start to evaluate them. Not all of them will be goers. Sometimes you’ll have too much to pack into one well-structured plot, and you can save the excess for the next novel. Sometimes your flights of fancy take you down a path that’s not sustainable for an entire novel-length narrative. It’s also a good idea to look out for opportunities to introduce conflict and tension – these are the bedrock of any story, and can be surprisingly difficult to uncover once you get going with the writing process.
Step 2: Creating compelling characters
This is Step 2 only because it had to go somewhere, and I felt like it was fairer to the gardeners to give them something to go on here (architects, I am one of you, and we generally have more scope when it comes to establishing our plot elements). Either way, know that Steps 2 and 3 are essentially interchangeable and you should approach them in the order that suits you best.
Your characters are your most important storytelling tool. They’re the vehicle through which your reader will experience your plot, and they must be convincing. That’s one reason why the character development step is essential.
The other is that it can give you major clues as to the direction of your narrative.
Again, conflict is key to a compelling plot. And conflict flows from character. You’ll want to know yours inside out and back to front; better than they know themselves. Dig deep – this is not the time to be shy. Find out who they are and what experiences made them that way. Who hurt them. Who supported them. What are their dreams, their hopes, their fears and nightmares. What do they love about other people and what drives them crazy.
Invest time and energy in developing these guys. Not only will you be creating characters that your readers care about and connect with, but your plot will also be stronger for it.
Your characters are your most important storytelling tool. They’re the vehicle through which your reader will experience your plot,
Step 3: Outlining the major plot points
Gardeners, it’s okay not to be able to articulate these before you’ve started writing – but if you can, you’ll give yourself the beginnings of a map to follow. It’s also okay to change the major plot points along the way, so don’t feel like you have to be absolutely wedded to the outline you create at the start.
Essentially, what you’re doing here is to identify the key events and turning points that will keep your story moving forward. And, as always, there are a few ways we can approach this.
A to B to C
This is probably the simplest method, and that’s its strength. Basically, one action causes another action, which causes another action, which causes another action… and so on. So, Jay meets Steve at the park, which causes them to find a purse dropped in the bushes, which causes them to track down the owner, which causes the owner to accuse them of stealing the money that was in the purse, which causes them to be arrested… and so on until the resolution ties up the narrative in a satisfying way. It’s a rough sketch and it’s highly adaptable – it exists to give you a working idea of where the plot might go, and if you find that the plot is losing momentum, you simply re-sketch from that point on.
The W-Plot (again)
The W-Plot provides a little more structure and gives you a framework for organising your story events into a coherent narrative. It’s also very fluid and adaptable, and can respond easily to change if the story starts to move in a different direction than you’d initially anticipated. It tends to work really well for writers who don’t feel comfortable getting into the intricacies of their narrative in advance, but who need enough information about where the plot is going that they don’t get lost in the middle of writing.
Major plot points
This is the most in-depth approach to outlining, as it requires engagement with the mechanisms that drive narrative. You can go really deep here (as in a scene-by-scene breakdown of events) but at a bare minimum you’ll be identifying the following:
This step is about giving yourself an overview of the milestones and turning points that will drive your main character through the story. At its most basic level, this is where you’re identifying the conflicts, obstacles and challenges your character will face and ordering them into an information-flow that carries the reader from the first page to the last.
Step 4: Crafting a captivating opening
While it’s often said – rightly – that you can’t write the opening line until you’ve written the closing line, your novel has to start somewhere. Having a good sense of how the plot will progress helps you pinpoint a promising place to begin, but remember: this is a first draft. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. The important thing is to begin.
With that in mind, you can potentially lighten your ultimate editing workload by giving careful attention to the sorts of things that make an engaging opening to your novel.
An opening line,” says Stephen King (who knows a thing or two about captivating an audience), “should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Since we’re quoting literary heavyweights, Kurt Vonnegut should also get a mention: Rule #5 of his famous Creative Writing 101 states, simply: “Start as close to the end as possible.”
What these two pieces of advice mean in practice is that your opening should contain a hook of some kind: a startling turn of phrase, a vivid image, an implied question, a moment of high tension, an action beat – something that grabs the reader’s attention and entices them to read on. The opening is not the place to deliver the mundane. There’s a reason we’re told never to start a novel with the character waking up.
Your opening should contain a hook of some kind: a startling turn of phrase, a vivid image, an implied question, a moment of high tension, an action beat
Step 6: Navigating the middle of your novel
The middle of a novel is often a struggle. You’ve heard of the Marathon of the Middle? This is where it kicks in, and it can be a dispiriting experience.
This is the longest act of your narrative, and it’s where the bulk of the action takes place. That sounds like it should be easy to write, but the reverse is almost always true. Even if you’ve done no plotting at all up to this point (hi, gardeners!) you may find that adding a bit of structure here can save your sanity.
Your focus here should be twofold:
The two play off each other.
Breadcrumbing, or leaving little hints and clues that foreshadow the end, is a form of information drip. These little data nuggets provide partial answers to the questions underpinning the narrative, and usually do so by revealing other, deeper questions. As the reader’s knowledge increases, so does their understanding of the stakes. This causes the narrative’s internal tension to increase.
Obviously, foreshadowing will be an issue if you have no idea what the climax to your novel is going to involve.
Depending on your process, you might be in the planning phases when you collide with this challenge, or you might be in the middle of writing your novel (hi, gardeners! And, again, there’s nothing wrong with your process).
I’d suggest not worrying too much about information drip when you’re trying to establish the key events of the middle section. Focus on establishing a list of possible scenarios that work to increase the narrative tension. Give yourself more than you think you’re going to need – the Marathon of the Middle takes no prisoners, and it’s good to come prepared.
Then, according to your preference, you can order these sequences into the progression you intend to follow (which is where you can start looking at introducing information drip as a complement to your plot moments). Alternatively, you can use the list as a kind of inspiration board, keeping you on the right track and holding your narrative on course when you find yourself scrambling for ways to keep the action moving upwards.
Ultimately, you want to ensure that each scene and chapter pulls its weight in service of advancing the story – but that’s a second draft concern. For now, it’s a nice-to-have, but it’s not worth agonizing over during the plotting stage.
Step 7: Creating a satisfying climax and resolution
If you don’t know what happens at the climax, you can’t articulate what happens at Plot Point 2. It’s as simple as that. So, gardeners, you’re probably dealing with this as you’re writing it. Architects, you’ll want to give this plenty of consideration in the plotting phase.
Your climax and resolution of a novel must offer a resolution to the conflicts and tensions that have driven the narrative. It doesn’t have to be a positive resolution. It doesn’t have to answer every single question your narrative has posed. But it does need to engage with them all.
Whether you’re writing familial drama or space opera, the climax must be a pivotal moment that tests your characters to the extreme. That can be emotionally, physically, spiritually – the choice is yours, but you must put your guys through their paces here. The stakes are never higher in your novel than at the climax. And any solution you offer must fall in line with what you’ve established as possible in the narrative thus far. Per Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.”
You’ve heard of the Deus ex machina? Don’t do that. Your resolution needs to be believable and your readers will feel cheated if it isn’t.
Step 8: Editing and revising your plot
Architects, this means you too. No first draft of anything, however tightly plotted it may have been, is ready to send out. There will be inconsistencies that slipped through the net, scenes that aren’t pulling their weight, information that arrives too soon or too late – any number of things can misbehave during the writing process.
Gardeners, this is where you’ll be able to evaluate your plot holistically and check that it’s meeting all its milestones. Is the main character’s journey coherent? Is the mid-section pacey and engaging? Have you introduced a plot element that needs a bit more lead-in earlier in the narrative?
It’s a good idea for both gardeners and architects to go back and apply the key plot points here – either to retroactively establish them, or to make sure they’re falling in roughly the right places.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “All writing is rewriting.” The first draft is a skeleton. The drafts that come after that are where the craft emerges.
Whether you’re writing familial drama or space opera, the climax must be a pivotal moment that tests your characters to the extreme.
Conclusion: Find what works; leave what doesn't
There’s no single way to plot a novel. It’s different from writer to writer, and often from book to book. But by following the step-by-step approach outlined in this guide, you can make sure your bases are covered, whatever your process. Gardeners, architects, and everyone in between – embrace the journey, find joy in the craft, and dazzle your readers with your well-rounded, compelling, page-turning plot.
In the words of Neil Gaiman, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It's that easy, and that hard.”
So grab your pen. Open that blank document. Get plotting today – and watch your brand new novel begin to emerge.
Are you a gardener or an architect? Or something in between? Comment below!
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