How to develop a story: 10 steps to a winning plot

How to develop a story: 10 steps to a winning plot

Learning how to develop a story so that you take readers on an unforgettable journey is key to becoming a great novelist. Here are 10 steps to ensure that the final draft of your book has a winning, memorable plot:

Step 1: Study effective examples of plot development

Reading is a great way to improve at any stage of the writing process because great writers give us inspiring examples of how to get each element of craft right.

Some writers are particularly noted for their command of plot. Even if their work lies outside of your usual genre interests, read their novels for insights. While you do so, keep a reading journal and note effective elements of their storytelling. Ask, for example:

  • How do the characters in the novel change over time?
  • What is the main sequence of events (what happens in the novel and when?)
  • What are the locations the story takes place in? What benefit does each setting offer to the overall story structure and development?

A few experts of story development you could read: John le Carré, J.R.R. Tolkien (whose Lord of the Rings has been voted the best single plot arc in a multi-novel series), Terry Pratchett, and Stephen King. You can read the work of contemporary bestselling authors for insights (particularly regarding what is marketable). Yet many classic authors (e.g. Charles Dickens and Henry James) are equally good at taking story premises and propelling them through interesting and surprising twists and turns.

Step 2: Use a plotting process that will shape your story

Great plots begin with curiosity and good ideas.

It helps if your story begins with an intriguing hypothetical situation (for example, the premise of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four: A tyrannical political regime has criminalized independent thought as ‘thoughtcrime’). A good story idea should be fleshed out through a focused plotting process that will shape your story, however.

Use Now Novel’s story outlining tool to brainstorm great story ideas and create a detailed outline from start to finish.

Now Novel dashboard - view of writing tool | Now Novel

Developing a detailed summary is a useful exercise for letting ideas for characters and plot points grow and settle. You might depart from your outline substantially while you draft. Even so, the exercise will help you start thinking about your book as a connected whole.

Step 3: Create a timeline of your novel’s plot events

Developing a story is easier when you understand the ‘when’ of your story.

As an exercise, create a timeline of your novel’s plot events. Make each branch in your timeline a chapter, with a summary of the most basic plot details. For example, ‘Main character learns identity of parents, prepares to try find them.’)

If you aren’t intending to plot your entire novel in advance, create a timeline all the same. Fill it out in summary form as you draft so that you have a condensed visual reference for recalling where your story has lead you so far, and what the overarching flow of events looks like.

Having a document such as this helps you to navigate between the detail-oriented process of drafting scenes and chapters, and the structural challenge of seeing the greater picture.

Step 4: Make characters develop in intriguing ways

Once you’ve done all of the above, it’s time to start thinking about how your character(s) will develop.

At the start of writing a novel, identify each primary character’s main goals.

Start brainstorming how these coupled with personality traits could lead them to develop.

A shy college student who wants to become a leading scholar, for example, might encounter a lecturer with whom he establishes an uncommon, lasting friendship. Obstacles to the character reaching his goals could include scholarship woes or false accusations of plagiarism.

You can create detailed ideas for characters simply by following the prompts in the ‘Character’ section of Now Novel’s story dashboard.

Whatever your story idea, make your characters develop in interesting ways. Show how their wants (or fears) affect their choices. Show the consequences that lead from there.

Step 5: Make each of the ‘5 W’s’ change

In novel-writing and journalism alike, a ‘story’ is made up of the ‘5 w’s’ – ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘when’. Who are the important characters in your story? What is the situation they find themselves in and why? Where and when does the story take place?

How to develop plot - example - infographic | Now Novel

A great story doesn’t just contain satisfying answers for these five questions. It also shows some development in each of these areas.

Your main character could be a trainee policewoman living in a rural community, for example. She’s considering giving up her career path because she finds small town life stifling. Suddenly, a local triple homicide ropes her into the most daunting (as well as thrilling) elements of police work.

The ‘who’ can change: Perhaps the trainee toughens up and becomes highly competent in her job as a result.

The ‘what’ (her goal) can shift: She realizes her calling is serving her community, and this could be because of new, meaningful interactions and relationships she forms in the course of doing her police work.

She might eventually leave for the big city, too (a change in ‘where’), wiser and more experienced.

If you make each of these elements of plot change convincingly, you’ll take the reader on a journey and will have developed your story.

One way to make sure this development happens is to storyboard your book:

Step 6: Outline scenes to create a storyboard

Whether you use index cards or other small pieces of paper such as post-its, a storyboard is a useful device for developing your story.

Try to summarize the key events of each scene in as little as two lines, which of your characters it will involve, and what the scene’s purpose is.

You can do all this in the Scene Builder tool in the Now Novel dashboard, and import it to view alongside your working document using our free Google Docs plugin.

Now Novel Scene Builder - Cinderella scene summaries
Example of the Scene Builder showing an outline in progress of scenes and chapters for Cinderella.

As you plot your novel and plan your story development, you can reorder scenes as your story dictates, until you have a sequence of scenes that makes sense to you.

Sometimes you’ll find the order of two or more scenes should be reversed. Other times you might find that an early scene might be better shifted towards the end of the story due to its content or mood. This process will help you make your story flow and develop smoothly.

Step 7: Learn how to develop a story using subplots

A subplot is a secondary or subordinate plot that supports your main story arc.

To use a well-known example,  in Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the children’s fascination with their mysterious, reclusive neighbour Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley (and their eventual encounter with him) is a subplot to the main story (a trial exposing race politics in which the children’s father Atticus is involved).

In Lee’s book, events involving Boo Radley support the main arc. The children receive a practical lesson through their encounters with Boo. They learn that inventing fantastical stories about others and turning them into bogeymen is a dubious alternative to confronting fear of the unknown and getting ‘the whole story’ about a person. In this way, Lee uses her subplot to underscore the issues at heart of the story’s central legal trial.

Step 8: Incorporate character-driven and action-driven story elements

‘Change’ is what propels a story forward. It’s brought about by character-driven and action-driven scenes.

In a thriller novel, for example, character-driven scenes show reader the stakes (the main character’s loving relationship with their child, for example). This makes action-driven sequences such as high-speed chases all the more nail-biting and intense since we are aware of all the personal, cherished things driving the main character’s will to survive.

To develop your story satisfyingly, make sure you balance character-driven scenes with action driven ones.

Even if you are writing something less dramatic and violent such as a regency romance, the same applies. Show scenes where your main characters undertake mainly action-based activities – a carriage or train ride, for example. Use these as points of transition between scenes that deepen and grow your characters.

As you write and near the end of your first draft, it’s useful to ask questions about story development so you can decide whether or not your story shows enough growth and change:

Step 9: Ask yourself important questions about story development

Once you’ve written the bulk of your novel, ask yourself these questions about your story’s development:

  • How have the main characters changed in the course of the story?
  • Why have they changed?
  • What have the characters (and readers) learned about the story’s central situation or premise that they didn’t know at the start?
  • What are the core themes of the story? (For example: ‘Triumph over adversity’, or ‘the danger of obsession’)

Once you have answers to the above, keep them in mind while revising. Is there any point in the story where a small tweak could make these elements more apparent?

Perhaps your main character’s growth isn’t as clear as you would like. Or else there hasn’t been enough change or development to illustrate your central theme. Keeping track of your plot – not just what happens but the reasons for plot events as well as their consequences – will help you create a more satisfying story.

Step 10: Get helpful feedback on your story arc

Once you’ve looked over your plot and are satisfied that your story develops compellingly, share your work with other writers for helpful feedback. Get peer feedback from other writer’s for free in our critique forum, or work with a writing coach who will guide you as you resolve any patches or holes in your plot.

7 Replies to “How to develop a story: 10 steps to a winning plot”

  1. My prompt was to write what does it mean to be a family? But I don’t know how to make it interesting. Can you please give me ideas or suggestions.

    1. Well maybe getting weird situations in front of the family or you can take different families and keeping the same theme use different situation with each
      .. i m a nub myself so don’t judge me

    1. In this case it would be parts (if you’re referring to the episode outline example in the article, Jaquses).

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