How to master plot development: 8 steps

How to Master Plot Development | Now Novel

Plot development means ensuring that your novel contains what makes stories enjoyable to read: Action and event, change, wonder and surprise. Here’s how to improve your plot-writing skills:

1. Know the crucial elements: What is plot?

2. Write plot exposition leaving readers hungry for what comes next

3. Make sure each stage of plot development serves its function

4. Play with linear vs non-linear plot

5. Develop your plot and characters through even the simplest actions

6. Use subplots to develop characters and themes

7. Summarize and learn from plot examples in literature

8. Read great authors’ plotting advice for more insight

Let’s delve into each of these steps a bit deeper:

1. Know the crucial elements: What is plot?

‘The main events of a play, novel, film or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ (OED)

Definitions of literary terms such as plot are useful because they remind us to focus on what matters. Plot consists of ‘main events’, whether character-based (trysts, confrontations), society-based (uprisings, coups) or world-based (drought, flood). Plot develops out of the relationship between cause and effect, action and reaction. It is what gives us rich and rewarding ‘interrelated sequence’.

The best plots offer us both the predictable and the unexpected. Reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), we might react to the plot thus:

‘Of course Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s first impressions of each other change, I expected an eventual romantic attraction. But I didn’t see George Wickham’s elopement with Elizabeth’s youngest sister coming.’

Elements of plot

We can divide the plot of a story into 3 broad parts:

  • Exposition: The introductory part. We meet principle characters, themes, setting and more
  • Development: The development consists of both rising action (increasing complications and/or narrative tension) and falling action (decreasing complications and/or narrative tension, as plot arcs resolve)
  • Resolution or Dénouement: The novel or story reaches a conclusion, primary questions are resolved

Although the bulk of the development takes part in the middle part, many stories contain development in every stage of the plot. Your story may develop from exposition to conclusion – you don’t have to restrict when change and expansion happen.

2. Write plot exposition leaving readers hungry for what comes next

Although your plot exposition is not the main developmental part, you can at least hint at how your plot will develop. Read this opening example, from Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides:

‘On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.’ (p. 1)

The exposition leaves us wanting to know and understand more. Who are these ‘Lisbon’ daughters? Is Lisbon the city in Portugal or the sisters’ surname? Why would they all take their lives, and who is narrating? In one paragraph, Eugenides gives his story plenty to develop. The stage is set for more of the Lisbon sisters’ lives and motivations to unfold.

Eugenides’ exposition introduces some characters’ names while leaving others unknown. We read of ‘Therese’ and ‘Mary’. We haven’t met their parents (note Eugenides’ use of the word ‘daughter’ rather than ‘sister’). All these elements make the opening intriguing. Who are the Lisbon parents and why are their daughters this troubled?

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3. Make sure each stage of plot development serves its function

Each stage of plot development serves vital functions. Exposition:

  • Locates a story in time and place (establishes setting)
  • Introduces characters and the main events of the story
  • Gives us some idea of what the primary themes are (for example, for Eugenides’ novel, themes of family (and sisterhood in particular), grief and the darker side of suburban life)

Good plot development:

  • Delves deeper into cause and effect: We know what the tragic fate of the Lisbon sisters is in Eugenides’ novel from the start, but we don’t know why
  • Develops characters and themes: We grow to understand how events and actions shape characters’ choices, and understand more of what the story says about its themes

Good dénouements or plot endings:

  • Draw a story or novel to a satisfying close. They answer our biggest remaining questions
  • Deliver on implicit promises made throughout the story. For example, from the opening of Eugenides’ novel, we expect to learn more about what might have led the Lisbon daughters to their actions

When writing each part of your plot, think about the functions above: Does each stage of your story give the reader what she needs to make sense of (and enjoy) the interrelated whole? Does each stage contribute adequately to building the whole tale?

4. Play with linear vs non-linear plot

The ‘interrelated sequence’ of our plot definition above could create a linear or non-linear sequence. Sure, you can start with Harry’s commute to school, the physical bullying he faces, and the bruise he arrives home with. Yet you could also show Harry arriving home from school sullen with an inexplicable bruise; his parents’ horror followed by a scene showing what happened.

A non-linear structure (like the latter example above) creates extra tension because we see effects before their causes. When these effects are terrifying or unsettling, in particular, or when they have a strong emotional component (as in Eugenides’ non-linear plot opening), our desire to know the cause is that much stronger.

Play with how your plot unfolds. If you do present one or more plot event out of chronological sequence, the resulting deja vu when your narrative time-frame catches up with later events can create satisfying structure.

5. Develop your plot and characters through even the simplest actions

Plot works largely by invisible means. For large-scale plot development, individual parts of your story – character’s actions and conversations – should move it along.

For example, in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) the author tells us a lot about his poor protagonist’s mental state and situation through even the smallest action. These details feed directly into the plot.

On the first page, Dostoyevsky implies Rodion Raskolnikov’s poverty and difficulty paying rent by describing how he tries to avoid his landlady when leaving his lodgings:

‘He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. [Whenever leaving …] he was obliged to pass her kitchen … and each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.’ (p. 1)

The beginning action of avoiding his landlady is developed to show both Raskolnikov’s financial situation and his emotional response to it (his fear and shame). Right from the start, Dostoyevsky gives detail. Starting with ordinary actions such as heading out of doors, he develops his character’s mental state and circumstances.

Similarly, as you draft and revise, think of what even simple actions (such as how a character leaves their place of residence) can reveal, how small details of action and dialogue can make the events of your novel interrelated, effectively.

6. Use subplots to develop characters and themes

Although the grand, main plot of your story might involve a single confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, subplots are where many of the more interesting and surprising plot developments lie.

Take J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example. While the central confrontation will happen between Harry and Lord Voldemort (we know this from Book One), Rowling uses subplots to develop individual primary and secondary characters, often with surprising outcomes.

The truth of Ron’s pet rat, the mystery of Harry’s Godfather, the secret past of potions teacher Severus Snape and other subplots all enrich the primary conflict, giving additional turns of plot that alternate shock, surprise, heartbreak and comic relief.

How do you use subplots to aid overall plot development?

  1. Use subplots to develop your themes. Themes of lust for power and its corrupting effects run throughout Rowling’s series. The cruel substitute teacher Dolores Umbridge (first encountered in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)) abuses her position, inflicting sadistic punishment on her students.
  2. Create subplots that complicate the main arc of your story. In the early chapters of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov meets a drunken man in a bar, who is later trampled to death by a horse and cart. These events fatefully lead Raskolnikov to meeting the man’s widow and her prostitute daughter. This in turn leads to complications. Raskolnikov confides his criminal deed in the dead man’s daughter, unaware there is someone eavesdropping on him from the apartment next door.

Stephen King quote on plot development | Now Novel

7. Summarize and learn from plot examples in literature

Plot examples from famous books give us plenty of insights into how to develop stories.

To actively improve your plotting skills, create plot summaries of your favourite novels as you read. Ask these plot questions:

  • What does the author’s exposition introduce, what settings, characters, major story events?
  • How does the author develop the initial characters, events and themes you encounter? What happens to the characters and why?
  • At what point in the story are there the most number of concurrent unknowns in the plot (e.g. in a murder mystery the identity of the killer and the meaning of unsolved clues)
  • How does the author resolve these unknowns, resolve primary and secondary plot arcs? What questions are answered and how?

Take William Faulkner’s famous short story A Rose for Emily, for example.We could summarize the plot thus:

Exposition: Introduces character Emily Grierson, a recluse, and her death (the main or inciting event of the story).

Development: More of Emily’s strange behaviour detailed, as well as her living arrangements. She is presented as indomitable (‘So she vanqiuished them [the tax collecters], horse and foot, just as she had vanquished their fathers thirty years before the smell).’

Faulkner also introduces the character of Homer Barron. The townspeople speculate about his relationship with Emily Grierson as he takes up residence with her.

Denouement: More details of Emily’s death, including the shocking resolution. The townspeople break down a sealed door on the top level of Emily’s home and find the decaying corpse of Homer Barron on a bed. They also find the still-fresh imprint of Emily’s head on the pillow next to his.

Faulkner develops the plot throughout, introducing secondary characters whose presence adds to the mystery and intrigue of Emily Grierson and her secretive, isolated life. In true Southern Gothic fashion, the story develops to shock us with an eerie, disturbing end.

8. Read great authors’ plot development advice for more insight

Whenever you come across an insightful or practical view on how to plot a novel or plot development, write it down. Some authors’ views:

‘I always write a draft version of the novel in which I try to develop, not the story, not the plot, but the possibilities of the plot. I write without thinking much, trying to overcome all kinds of self-criticism, without stopping, without giving any consideration to the style or structure of the novel, only putting down on paper everything that can be used as raw material, very crude material for later development in the story.’ Mario Vargas Llosa

‘Every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points tend to the development of the intention.’ Edgar Allan Poe

‘You can’t build a plot out of jokes. You need tragic relief. And you need to let people know that when a lot of frightened people are running around with edged weaponry, there are deaths. Stupid deaths, usually. I’m not writing ‘The A-Team’ – if there’s a fight going on, people will get hurt. Not letting this happen would be a betrayal.’ Terry Pratchett

Plan plot and character effectively using Now Novel’s Idea Finder – a structured series of helpful prompts. Create a helpful blueprint for your story or novel now.

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  • Plot is the most frightening part of writing. I just finished teaching a class on plotting and watched students develop good ideas and then struggle with the middle (muddle) as we all do. Keeping tension on every page seems to be the hardest to envision and relay.

    Excellent, more complex than usual, piece on plotting that I am passing on to help “the needy” in all writers.

    • Indeed, structural elements of writing are often challenging. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your teaching experience, Mahala. All the best for your writing and classes!

  • Thanks so much for these helpful points on plotting. I am a newbie attempting to plot my debut novel. I read tons of craft books and they will all suggest to read critically to see how plotting works, yet none have mentioned what to look for when we do this. Perhaps they assume we already know yet if we’ve never done this before we need to know what questions to ask. These questions will help so much. I’ve written them down and will have them right next to my laptop. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Rebecca. I’m glad to hear the suggestions here have helped. It’s true, a lot of practical manuals assume a lot of familiarity with terms and processes. Good luck and enjoy!

  • Priscilla

    Highly interesting. Would a good way to introduce characters be having them do something that ties into the plot later on? Like if growing flowers was a big subplot with meaning, then having them tend flowers in the beginning be a good way to start off?

    • Hi Priscilla. Thanks for the question. Definitely, that’s what we call foreshadowing and (if done well) it can create satisfying connective threads forwards and backwards in the plot arc of your story.

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