Learning how to plot a novel means first understanding the hallmarks of great plots. Secondly, you need to be able to incorporate these elements in your own writing. Here are 7 tips for plotting your book successfully so it makes structural sense, displays a strong sense of cause and effect and captures readers’ interest:
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 event, 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. List 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:
The best plots
- Create curiosity and raise lingering questions. 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: The connective parts of the story are related to each other enough to warrant being part of the same narrative
- 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 an entity complete power in your fictional universe, they have a reason for wanting said power and should 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.
2. Create plot outlines that feature the hallmarks of great plots
Not every writer plots by default. If you prefer to invent as you go, that might be what works for you. But if you tend to get stuck at some point during drafting, create a plot outline. Creating a plot outline helps because it lets you step back and get a macro view of your narrative. You start to see clearer how all the whys and whats fit together.
Create a plot outline that evokes curiosity and establishes cohesion. To start, you can simply extend your story idea. To expand E.M. Forster’s ‘the queen is dead’ plotline:
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 the conflict play out between the squabbling sisters? What will happen to the monarchs’ infant heir? There is cohesion – the action of the story relates to the opening premise. The story obeys the internal logic – a power vacuum is created and attracts the power-seeking.
There are many different ways to plot a book. If you are still learning how to plot a novel, try using one of these 7 methods.
3. Plan illustrative, interesting sub-plots
The main plot in the example above concerns the death of the king and queen and the question of who will ascend the throne. In learning how to plot a novel, it’s important to master writing subplots, too.
In the example story, royal attendants could make interesting secondary characters. 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 one sister has a personal grudge against her. So the confidant aids the rival. This subplot would illustrate how dangerous it could be for the unmerciful sister to become the reigning queen. It would thus raise the stakes in the struggle for the throne.
To condense, subplots should always:
- Help to explain or heighten the tension of crucial plot points 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 competing, varying motivations:
4. Make sure every character in your novel wants something and actively works towards 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 identifiable 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. Use this element of inevitability to set up – and thwart (if it makes story sense) – readers’ expectations.
To plot your novel well, make sure whenever you introduce a character that you have an idea of what their singular 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 macro structure – what happens from chapter to chapter – and the micro (the courses of individual scenes and chapters).
Identify each scene’s purpose before you start. You don’t necessarily need to outline precisely what will happen in full during the scene before you draft it. You might only know loosely where the scene takes place and who it involves. All the same, write this down. Write down what you are hoping to show about the characters featuring in the scene, and what part the scene plays in your main story arc.
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 who my characters are and what motivates them?
- Can the reader make an educated guess where my plot is headed? (towards specific core conflicts or growing friendships or romances, for example)
- Do my characters and settings change in a way that logically fits unfolding events?
Make character, event and setting clear and well-developed because you’ll give readers a sense of a fictional world that is alive with cause and effect; change plus explanation for change. These are core elements that make stories interesting.
7. Use your plot outline as a guide, not as an iron grid.
Creating a plot outline is crucial if you want to write a book and have an idea where the story is going. This approach truly helps you avoid getting stuck. That’s why we developed Now Novel’s Story Builder, a guided process for fleshing out the central idea, mood, characters, settings and other elements of your novel.
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 see and remember what wasn’t working and why an alternative option worked better.
Ready to create an effective, page-turning plot? Try the Now Novel process.
What is the best advice about plotting novels you’ve ever read or received?