How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success

Learning how to plot a novel means first understanding the elements of great plots. Here are 7 tips for plotting a story that will engage readers from the first chapter:

Learning how to plot a novel means first understanding the elements of great plots. Here are 7 tips for plotting a story that will engage readers from the first chapter:

First: What do we mean when we talk about ‘plot’?

Let’s look at plot vs. story. The British author E.M. Forster described story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in … sequence’. Plot is the way story events are arranged sequentially to show cause and effect. In Forster’s words:

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Forster in Colin Bulman, Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing, p. 165

A plot is thus the ‘what’ plus the ‘why’ of a story, and how multiple whats and whys fit together in a larger chain.

plot vs story definition - EM Forster quote

Here are 7 ways to make sure you plot your novel well:

1. Understand the hallmarks of a great plot

When you’re focused on a particular element of a story, whether it’s mood and atmosphere or plot, it’s helpful to write a list of things to keep in mind as you write.

To remind yourself what your story needs, you can make a list of the elements of a winning plot:

Effective structure and story plots:

  1. Create curiosity and raise questions  readers want answered. Why did the man hide that gun? Why did the woman in the bridal gown get out of the car at that stop street and sprint away?
  2. Show cohesion: Different parts of the story relate to or illuminate each other enough (subject-wise, thematically, or in other ways) to sit within the same storytelling frame.
  3. Obey their own internal logic. In a fictional world where a powerful government is always watching (as in Orwell’s 1984), public demonstrations against the government will be quashed. If you give a tyrant complete power in your fictional universe, they have a reason for wanting said power and should try to use it.
  4. Avoid cliche and create surprise . Some genres use clichés by nature (e.g. the character of the ‘chosen one’ in fantasy fiction). Give common tropes such as these your own personal stamp so that the reader forgets they’re reading a particularly common story type.
  5. Give readers something worth the investment of time and effort it takes to read. Give readers an entertaining, exhilarating adventure, a mind-expanding introduction to an interesting or controversial subject, or an emotional journey with unforgettable characters.

Finishing our workbook How to Plot a Story: Plotting, plans and arcs is another good step to understanding how to plot stories well.

2. Create structured plot outlines

Not every writer plots by default. If you prefer to invent as you go (‘pantsing’), that might be what works for you. Yet if you tend to get stuck at some point during drafting, create a plot outline.

 Creating a plot outline and character outline helps because it lets you step back and get a broader view of your narrative. You start to see clearer how it all might fit together.

To start thinking about the cause and effect that drives your story, you can simply extend your story idea. We could expand E.M. Forster’s ‘the queen is dead’ plot example:

The king dies under suspicious circumstances. The queen dies of grief shortly thereafter. Because their only son is still an infant, this creates a power vacuum and a struggle for succession between the queen’s two elder sisters. The one sees the son as an obstacle between herself and the throne, the other has vowed to protect him.

The example evokes curiosity: How will this conflict triangle play out between the squabbling sisters and the heir to the throne? What will happen to the prince?

There is already promise of plot cohesion – the action of the story relates to the opening premise. The story obeys its internal logic – a power vacuum is created and this attracts power-seeking characters.

If you are not sure where to begin with plotting, consider taking a look at Freytag’s Pyramid. Simply put the popular Freytag’s Pyramid has a structure that looks like this:

  1. Exposition: Here the author introduces important background information
  2. Rising action: A series of events builds towards an event of great interest, setting up the story’s climax
  3. Climax: A turning point, where the main character’s fate has a reversal. In a comedy (e.g. a farce) this is where things start to get better. In a tragedy, where they get worse beyond any possible return.
  4. Falling action: This is where conflicts – whether external (between a main character and antagonist) or internal (a character’s own internal struggle) is resolved further.
  5. Dénouement/Resolution: This is where the story’s complexities or open questions are finally resolved

For a detailed look at this plotting method read our post on rising action and how to create intriguing plots.

There are many different ways to outline plot points. Try the ‘Central Plot’ section of our Story Dashboard for step-by-step plot development prompts.

Infographic sharing 7 tips on how to plot a novel showing person storboarding

3. Plan illustrative, interesting subplots

The main plot in the expanded example above is clear.  In a monarchy, the ruler’s death occurs and this brings the central plot question, ‘Who will ascend the throne?’

Yet secondary plots or subplots are useful too and key to understanding how to plot a novel of a little greater complexity. They help to create a more detailed story.

Subplots often extend, complicate, or give different insights into the main themes and events of the story.


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Example of a relevant subplot

In a subplot, the queen could have had a close confidant whose future is thrown into uncertainty when the queen dies. The attendant’s future is uncertain because the queen’s eldest sister envied their closeness. So the confidant assists the other sister vying for the throne.

This subplot would illustrate the complexity of deep ties of friendship alongside the ties and petty struggles that exist between family members. The subplot could show how the competing sisters’ poisonous personalities rope all around them into continuous conflict.

To condense, subplots should always:

  • Help to explain or develop crucial plot points, heighten tensions and complications, or deepen our understanding of central characters
  • Be relevant to the main narrative, avoiding unnecessary confusion or distraction

Subplots also arise out of characters having individual motivations:

4. Make every character in your novel want something and pursue it

As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, every character in your novel should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.

Character motivation is an important part of plotting a book. If your characters have clear motivations, they will inevitably lead to major story events and lesser subplots.

If two characters are driven by a burning desire to hold power and occupy the same throne, for example, they will face off at some point.

Similarly, character development is another important part of your plot. You need to answer as to how your characters will develop and change through your story. Understand their characters arcs through your story. You also need to know their back stories, what events have shaped them, think about if they have unresolved conflicts that may relate to the plot. At one point in their lives does your story begin? To aid you in understanding your characters, you could create character profiles or bibles or dossiers on them, or interview them, and see what they have to say. 

To plot your novel well, make sure whenever you introduce a character that you have an idea of what their main purpose is in the story. This will help you to create concrete, bold characters as opposed to characters who waft in and out of your narrative and seem to lack purpose.

5. Plot each scene’s purpose before you start

When you write a novel, you’re working at multiple scales. You need to plot both the broader story arcs – what happens from chapter to chapter – and the smaller ones (the courses of individual scenes and chapters).

Identify each scene’s purpose before you start. This is a key step in the Scene Builder tool in the Now Novel dashboard for a reason. Knowing why you’re including a scene helps you to find it’s purpose, focus and narrative drive.

You don’t necessarily need to outline precisely what will happen in full during the scene. Jot down a rough idea. Write down:

  • What your scene will show in terms of why it is relevant to the wider story
  • What the scene should achieve for your main story arc (e.g. ‘This scene brings my protagonist a step closer to their goal’)

When you plot each scene with purpose, you’ll have fewer sections of your book that meander down non-productive avenues. This makes rewriting and revising at a later stage easier, too.

6. Plot characters, story events and settings with equal care

Often as writers we are stronger in some areas than others.

We might love creating characters but hate trying to describe their homes. We might love writing the fast-paced action scenes but abhor dialogue.

Learning how to plot a novel means learning how to pay equal attention to each element of novel-writing, though. Make sure, as you plan your story, that each element is clear. Ask yourself:

  • Is it clear to my reader who my characters are and what motivates them?
  • Can the reader make an educated guess where my plot could be heading? (towards specific core conflicts or growing friendships or romances, for example)
  • Do my characters or settings change in a way that logically fits unfolding events?

Change and the unexpected are two core elements of plot and a major part of what makes a great story gripping. People change, and places, too.

7. Use your plot outline as a guide, not an iron grid.

Creating a plot outline is crucial if you want to have an idea where the story is going. It helps you avoid getting stuck. That’s why we developed Now Novel’s Story Builder (try it now). It’s a guided step-by-step process for fleshing out the central idea, core plot, setting, characters, scenes and world of your book.

How to Plot a Novel Use Now Novel's Story Outlining Tool | Now Novel
Use the outlining tool on a desktop or mobile device.

Although a plot outline is helpful for structuring your story and staying on track, remember that it is a flexible blueprint rather than a rigid structure each element of your novel must bend to fit.

You could find, for example, that you expected characters A and B to become romantically involved in the course of your story. As you write, though, you discover there’s more romantic chemistry between characters B and C.

Go with what feels right as you write, and go back and alter your outline accordingly. Note down what you have to change in your outline and your reason for changing it, as this will help you to keep the scaffolding of your story clear in your mind and avoid having to repeatedly read through the details.

What is the best advice about plotting novels you’ve ever read or received? Start writing now using our easy, step-by-step outlining process.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

27 replies on “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success”

The #4 tip was the most useful to me because I haven’t considered what each character wants. Talk about handy! Thanks for sharing!

Hi J – really glad we could help, it’s a pleasure! Often problems in plot direction can be solved by returning to core characters’ primary goals and motivations.

Excellent article. I have so many Pantsing friend who struggle because they never plot anything out beforehand, lol. I actually just published a book for writers on plotting (though Pantsers can use it, too) called “Pen the Sword: the universal plot skeleton of every story ever told” that breaks down how to plot an entire novel in easy detail. It’s free with Kindle Unlimited. I’d be more than happy to send you a free copy, Bridget, if you’d like. Send me a Facebook message with your shipping address and I’ll happily send you a free copy 🙂

Hi Adron,

Thank you for sharing your book on plotting (and my apologies for the tardy reply – I hope you’ve had many new readers in the interim!) I’ll look it up. My inner skeptic isn’t sure about every story having a universal skeleton, but I’m open to being convinced!

I have a tendency to outline a plot, see a different angle, throw away the original plot, and just write. This doesn’t work very well, and I’ve hit dozens of dead ends. A friend of mine told me to write an outline for every single angle or plot twist I can think of. This seems like a good idea, but it would take forever, and potentially give me hundreds of plot outlines. Do you have a better way to deal with this, or am I out of luck??

Hi Talia, thank you for sharing that. That’s an interesting conundrum. It’s firstly a matter of commitment , maybe – of telling yourself you’re going to see the plot you’ve chosen through to the story’s end, no matter how messy the draft 🙂 I think we often tend to throw away creative work out of perfectionist tendencies, but things often only really come together in a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) draft.

I’d suggest creating an outline but keeping it as a flexible guide and allowing yourself to depart where necessary. Perhaps outlining just key points (such as chapter ideas but not details of how characters get from A to B) would give you a good compromise between forward planning and creative freedom? This blog post should help:

Thank you for sharing this. I completed my novel a few months ago. It has been put away and I am just about to go back to it to edit it with more of a dispassionate eye. This read has been very timely because although plotting isn’t my weakness, plenty of other stuff is, this has been really helpful to read through so thank you for sharing.

It’s a pleasure, Teresa – thank you for reading! That sounds wise, dispassionate (or rather, fresh) eyes will definitely help with revision. Good luck with it! I hope it’s a productive process for you.

Perhaps I’m the only one that took actual notes while reading this article, *shrugs shoulders* but I most certainly did!! Thanks for these tips, Jordan! I’m an absolute beginner in all sense of the word, and I already feel more organized after devouring your points.

Safe to say I’m going to be a plot seeking writer. The advice to use plot as guide and not iron grid is encouraging. Equally motivating is your point of planning characters, events, and setting with equal care.

Gah….I actually want to label all of these points uber important.
Thank you, again, for lending your writing expertise!!

Hi Melbit, Happy New Year! Thank you for your kind feedback, and for reading our blog. It’s a pleasure. Wishing you a great 2021 full of creativity from all of us at Now Novel.

Thank you for sharing this.
Writing a good novel takes time, concentration, and dedication. However, although it may not seem like it, it is more of a mathematical problem to be solved than anything else. Schemes, individual ideas, the lives of the characters who decide for you … These contributions are really good. Thank you very much.

Very informative, thank you so much, suddenly the process of putting everything together is not so intimidating anymore.Thanks

Hi Dineo, I’m glad to hear that! You’ve got this ?. Thank you for reading our blog and for your feedback.

Loved this content Jordan,very well-written!
Have you ever dreamt of becoming a best-selling author? Well, you indeed got a long way to go! Don’t back down, though. This blog The Golden Rules to Generate an Interesting Plot will help you with that. Writing a book can be the most rewarding work or habit you can have. However, developing a story can take effort and time. However, if you practice and read books in different genres, you can surely learn.


Thanks, this is great for getting focused. As well, I teach book study groups for older children and this is handy for talking to them about character arcs and such. Would you say that the word “scaffolding” is generally used to describe the necessary exposition which sets the plot in motion?

Hi Lona, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad to hear this is helpful to you in your teaching. I wouldn’t say it is a standardized term necessarily, no, but I use it here as a metaphor for the way pre-planning or plotting can support both your process and the development of a more robustly directed/intentional story. Thanks for reading our blog and all the best for your teaching.

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