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

10 tips on how to develop a story for a great 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:

  • How the characters in the novel change over time
  • The chronology of events – what happens in the novel and when?
  • What are the locations the story takes place in, in sequence? 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  New York Times bestselling authors for insights, but 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

Good story ideas are an important starting point to great plots. 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 aided by a focused plotting process that will shape your story, however.

Learning how to develop a story means learning how to step outside of a detailed view of the story and get a macro, bird’s eye view. Try a plotting method such as writing each chapter of your novel as a one page synopsis before you draft it in full. Even if you depart from your synopsis substantially while you draft, the exercise will help you start thinking about your book as a a whole rather than a disjointed collection of scenes, conversations and descriptions.

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

Developing a story is easier when you understand the ‘when’ of your story. Knowing precisely where in the story arc specific events happen will help you to work out where additional explanatory events can be inserted, for example.

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 and fill it out as you go so that you have a condensed visual reference for recalling where your story has  lead you so far (as well as where you want it to go still).

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 and 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. The character might develop more confidence through defending himself against the latter.

Whatever your story idea, make your characters develop in interesting ways. Show how their aspirations and fears affect their choices, and what effect these choices have on their futures consequently.

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?

Writing infographic - how to develop a story

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, who is 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 your main character toughens up and becomes highly competent in her job as a result. The ‘what’ (her goal) can shift, as she realises 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 5 elements 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 with index cards:

Step 6: Use index cards to 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.

Take cards and use each to describe an important scene in your novel. Here’s a rough template you could use for each scene:

how to develop a story - a template for scene summary cards

As you plot your novel and plan your story development, you can reorder your cards 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 arch of a trial that is heavily-laden with race and class prejudice.

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 arc.

Learn how to develop a story by finding subplots that can accompany your main story arc. In a story where the main character has to overcome a tyrant and liberate an oppressed kingdom, for example, you can show how the character overcomes their own inner struggles with the help of a new acquaintance. The development of this friendship and its positive results shows how collaboration is sometimes more helpful than individual power (collaboration between the characters trumps the powerful grip the main character’s inner struggle holds).  This subplot example echoes and reinforces the message of the main storyline.

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 is emotionally invested in loved ones, a significant other or their own 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 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. Tolstoy does this expertly when he describes train journeys in the course of Anna Karenina. These smoothly shift the ‘where’ of the story between pivotal locations.

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 from other writers

Once you’ve looked over your plot and are satisfied that your story develops compellingly, share your work with other writers for helpful feedback. You can get writing feedback on Now Novel. Constructive critiques will help you iron out any kinks in your work in progress.

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