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’?
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.
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 story plots:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.