First Steps in Plotting a Novel

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Sterlin writes:

My girlfriend says plots are “a dime a dozen,” but I feel different. I am trying to write my story and I am loaded with themes, but no plot, nothing to drive the themes or story. Can you offer any tips or techniques for devising a plot?

In one sense the girlfriend is correct. The writing section of any library houses dozens of books offering ready-made plots.

One plot seems to be enough for many action stories: The hero is attempting to stop an assassination or foil plans to destroy the world. Reversals and disasters occur at predictable intervals before the action-packed climax and spectacular successful outcome.

There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. We all enjoy them, especially as movies, but they’re not especially memorable. If your ambition is to write a novel that will linger in the reader’s mind after the last page, plotting requires a less mechanical approach.

Many writing teachers describe plot as the “skeleton” of the novel, but I don’t think that’s quite the right metaphor.

Picturing plot as skeleton suggests that the other elements of the novel can be hung on it or peeled off. I think that creating the right plot involves combining character and story in such a way that the result is a fused whole. Plot, character, story, theme and setting should bond with one another like the molecules in vulcanized rubber.

What tips or techniques have I to offer? Only what I’m doing myself as I begin my newest fiction project:

1. Read one of the many books about plot, for example 20 Master Plots and how to build them by Ronald B. Tobias.You can also try online articles, like this one describing the snowflake plot method.

2. Describe the story you plan to write in one sentence. If you can’t say what your book is about in one sentence, you don’t have a clear enough idea of what you’re trying to do.

3. Decide what the main character wants more than anything else in life. The plot will grow out of this desire.

3. Write a character description of the protagonist that includes appearance, likes, dislikes, fears, childhood trauma, occupation, etc. Plot is behavior. The kind of experiences your character has had in the past will determine how he behaves in the future. What he fears will affect his actions. Plot grows from character.

4. Make a timeline for the events of the novel. This will give your plot anchor points.

5. Make a map that shows where all the action will take place. This will help you gauge distances and figure the length of time necessary to move your characters from one place to another.

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11 thoughts on “First Steps in Plotting a Novel”

  1. I’m currently reading The Time Traveler’s Wife. Talk about having to structure/plot a novel: the author had to take some time with this one!

  2. The plot is absolutely essential in a larger sense, because it involves the structure, or format, of what happens and how Story unfolds. It involves value changes, character arcs and how characters interact. The plot moves from point A to point Z, with all the twists, turns, highs, lows and successes built in. Further, the plot determines whether characters or actions are necessary, dependent on how they influence the overall story. I try to imagine what I write as a real story, even if fictional. Truly, nonfictional plots must be structured to be interesting, with added elements of drama, arcs and turning points. Writing is writing. If it is going to be interesting, it has to be calculated and move along. A plot isn’t as simple as just knowing what happens in a story, but is rather similar to the director’s storyboards.

  3. I am a copyeditor/proofreader – not a writer. But because of my relationship to the publishing industry, people (friends and friends of friends) often ask me about writing a book. Mostly, they’re thinking about writing their own life stories.

    While the blog post doesn’t specifically address autobiographies, memoirs, or nonfiction, I appreciate Vic’s comment about “nonfictional plots [being] structured to be interesting, with added elements of drama, arcs and turning points.” And I can see how “plotting” must apply to biographical nonfiction as well as fiction.

    Thanks all. I’m going to share this info with my writer-wannabe-friends! 🙂

  4. I’ve recently started a book called Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham. One thing he writes early on tweaked my previously bland assessment of Maeve’s points two and three.

    He discusses developing the character’s self-concept, who _they_ think they are. Thwarting their perception. Then defining their goals at that point. Rinse and repeat. This angle on ‘the bio’ or this retreat to instruction zero so to speak helped me immediately see possibilities in plotting where before I’d only seen vapor.

    I agree that 20 Master Plots is an excellent resource for understanding categories of plots. I had a harder time gleaning the “and how to build them” part, but hope with this new found resource will do better in the future.

  5. Great advice. I rely on #3, “Decide what the main character wants more than anything else in life.” Characters who are willing to kill or be killed for a goal are interesting and (usually) end up in interesting situations. Of course, as a horror writer I usually take what the character wants and turn it into something mean with sharp fangs… heh heh heh…

    Thank you for sharing your journey. I appreciate it. Writers need more resources like this.

  6. I love writing, but I can’t seem to get a story to go somewhere after I’ve started. This is the hardest thing for me, because I have plots in mind, I just can’t go anywhere. My father recently had his book published w/ Random House, so I want to be good enough to follow after him if he goes anywhere.

  7. Yes, thats a gret tip. When a writer has a clear descriptions about the protagonist and antagonist and setting ( backdrop ), the plot unveils and scenes can be constructed quite quickly as a writer can see a lot of opportunities for conflict. Sometimes, there is no antagonist, the protagonist is up and againest the setting. In either case having a clear picture or map of these main elements can help us to write better.

  8. Great advice! “Pen the Sword: the universal plot skeleton of every story ever told” by Adron J. Smitley is also a fantastic book on how to plot your story. Got it free with kindle unlimited. Works for Plotters and Pantsers. Blew my mind how easy it makes writing my novels. I highly recommend 🙂

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