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 your book has a winning, memorable plot:
Develop your story in 10 simple steps:
- Study effective examples of plot development
- Use a plotting process to shape your story
- Create a timeline of your novel’s plot events
- Make characters develop in intriguing ways
- Make each of the ‘5 W’s’ change
- Outline scenes to create a storyboard
- Learn how to develop a story using subplots
- Use character-driven and action-driven arcs
- Ask yourself key questions about story development
- Get helpful feedback on your story arc
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 craft right.
When you read your next novel, ask:
- How do the characters in the novel change over time?
- What is the main sequence of events (what happens in the novel and when?)
- Where does the story take place? 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, noted for his spy novel plots
- J.R.R. Tolkien (whose Lord of the Rings has been voted the best single plot arc in a multi-novel series)
- Sir Terry Pratchett
- Stephen King, whose horror and supernatural thriller books are frequently adapted for film due (in part) to their tight plots
You can read the work of contemporary bestselling authors for insights (particularly regarding what is marketable).
Yet many classic authors (e.g. Charles Dickens) are read to this day for their brilliantly paced, well-structured stories.
Use a plotting process to 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 quick story ideas and grow them from start to finish.
Developing a detailed summary is a useful exercise for letting your ideas for characters and plot points grow and settle. You might depart from your outline substantially while you draft. Even so, it will help you start thinking about your book as a connected whole.
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 don’t intend 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. It’ll make it easier to recall 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 necessary macro process of seeing the greater picture.
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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.
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?
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:
Outline scenes to create a storyboard
Whether you use index cards, software or a cloud-based story planner for writers, 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.
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.
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.
Use character-driven and action-driven arcs
‘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:
Ask yourself key 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.
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. Start outlining and develop a story now using Now Novel’s easy story outlining tools.