How to Plot a Novel

Plotting a novel is no small task. Not only do you have a lot of events to dream up, you also have to make the readers keep turning the pages.

And that is what plot is all about at the end of the day - entertainment.

There are probably countless reasons why you decided to write a novel in the first place. But high on many people's lists is a need to release all the thoughts and feelings churning around inside them.

Plot is the thing that allows you to pour your soul out on paper without sending the rest of the world to sleep.

Plot will play a big part in your novel, then, which is why it's kind of on the complicated side. Don't worry, though...

So long as you go about it logically and build the plot one small piece at a time, you'll be fine.

Let's start with the most basic of questions...

What Is a Plot?

Yes, I know that sounds like a stupid question, but I've always been a great believer in beginning right at the grassroots. Here's my definition...

  • A plot is a series of linked events. When Event A doesn't cause Event B, you're not creating a plot but a series of unrelated events.
  • The central character wants something important. And the more they have to lose if they fail, the higher the stakes are.
  • Whatever they want, it's not easy to get. In fact, you've got to throw everything that you've got at them.
  • The events should reach a satisfactory conclusion. You don't need a happy ending or an unambiguous one, but there needs to be a sense of closure.

If all of that is clear – great! If not, I've written about it in more detail here.

Three Act Structure

Three is the magic number of plot - not just novel plots, but short story, movie and stage play plots.

Every story - every good story, anyway - has a beginning, a middle and an ending, or three distinct and entirely separate phases.

  • In a play, they are often called Act I, Act II and Act III, and the curtain usually comes down between each one.
  • In a novel, a plot is divided into chapters, not acts, though it is usually possible to pinpoint the precise moment when the beginning gives way to the middle, and then the middle becomes the ending.

The classic "Three Act Structure" is neat like that, once you know what you're looking for.

In more human terms, the beginning, middle and end of a novel (or the three acts in a play) look like this...

  1. Beginning: The main character makes a decision to act.
  2. Middle: The action itself.
  3. Ending: The consequences of the action.

In a "boy meets girl" plot, for example, the 3 steps look something like this...

  1. The boy meets the girl and falls hopelessly in love with her. He makes the decision that he must either win her heart or die trying.
  2. So he sets out on his quest. This being a novel, though, nothing comes easy. He takes several steps forward but even more steps back, and he eventually loses her. (In an opera, this would be the point where the curtain comes crashing down at the tragic end to Act II.)
  3. Actions have consequences in fiction, and in a novel this usually takes the form of the central character changing. In other words, the boy recognizes his flaws, changes his ways and wins the girl. Big sloppy kiss, stirring music, the end.

From the briefest short story to a 1,000-page novel; from a night at the opera to an afternoon at the multiplex; classic three act structure is what unites all stories - including your novel.

Of course, it doesn't tell you much about how to actually plot a novel (but don't worry about that because we'll be getting to that soon enough).

What it does do, though, is enable you to take your initial idea for a plot and make sure that, in its crudest form, it has all the fundamentals in place.

How for the next piece of the jigsaw...

How to Hook Readers

Hooking your audience on the very first page and keeping them hooked is very simple to do once you understand the key to page-turning fiction.

Here it is...

Fill the plot with compelling questions.

Where do these questions come from? From your characters' goals. As soon as you give the central character something they want, you provide the readers with a question they want answered...

  • Will the boy win the girl and live happily ever after with her?
  • Will the detective solve the crime and bring the guilty to justice?
  • Will the super-hero save the planet from certain destruction?

And it's not just those big, novel-length questions that help to make a novel a page-turner.

The central character will have a mini goal in every scene - one of the many small things they must accomplish if they want to reach their overall goal.

Yes, the audience wants to know if the boy eventually wins the girl. But...

  • In Chapter One, will he will pick up the courage to ask the girl out on a date?
  • In Chapter Two, with the girl having rejected him, will he give up? If not, what will he do next?
  • And so it continues throughout the novel, with each "mini question" forming another hook in the overall plot.

Don't forget, too, that characters other than the protagonist will have goals of their own - both longer-term, overall goals and shorter-term mini ones.

And to make matters even more interesting, these goals will probably be at odds with those of the central character.

The goal of the boy's rival, for example, will be to win the girl for himself - and the readers will want to stick around to see that he doesn't succeed!

Bottom line?

Here, in a nutshell, is how to write a gripping tale that keeps the readers turning the pages...

  1. Make sure the story is full of compelling questions - both long-term and short-term questions concerning a variety of characters.
  2. Ideally, have several story-questions on the go at once (like a juggler keeping several balls in the air.
  3. Delay providing the readers with answers for as long as you can.

Result? The readers won't stop reading because they will want to know the answer to the best storytelling question of all: What happens next?

"A predominance of long-term promises will cause a reader to skip. Its effect is to make him impatient to discover 'how things come out.' A predominance of shorter promises will cause the reader to focus too much interest on the immediate scene. Its effects may be seen in the kind of book the reader does not finish."
- Vincent McHugh

Okay, now for the nitty-gritty details...

How to Plot a Novel in 10 Steps

First up, a question: Do you like your instructions simple or comprehensive?

If you're not afraid of reading (several thousand words), check out my detailed guide to plotting a novel.

Still here?

Then here's the shorter version. It may make everything clear for you or it may not. If not, there's probably no escaping the long article. But we'll give it a shot...

The Beginning

Broadly speaking, the beginning of a plot concerns dumping a problem on the leading character's shoulders and making them decide to take action to solve it. Although it is a little more complicated than that, of course. It involves these three steps...

  • Step 1: Start With the Status Quo. We first meet the character in their ordinary world. Nothing has happened yet.
  • Step 2: And Then Something Happens. The action kicks in when the status quo is disrupted (the boy meets the girl, the airplane develops engine trouble, etc.)
  • Step 3: The Character Makes a Decision to Act. Before this, there may be a period of hesitation (e.g., the retired cop doesn't want to take on the new case. But eventually, they'll commit.

The Tricky Middle

If the start of a plot is all about making a character take action to solve a problem, the middle deals with the action itself - or, more precisely, a whole series of mini actions.

  • Step 4: The First Mini Plot. Or the first small thing the character must achieve to succeed in their overall goal. Needless to say, it goes horribly wrong and leaves them in a worse position!
  • Step 5: More Mini Plots. The character keeps pushing forward and experiences small victories and small setbacks. Overall, the tension rises as they get closer to the object of their quest.
  • Step 6: Rock Bottom. The middle ends at a moment of disaster, when all is seemingly lost. This is the most intense point of the novel.

The Ending

The ending deals with the consequences of the action. And on the basis that fiction is so much neater than real life, it is also about tidying up the loose ends and leaving the audience satisfied.

  • Step 7: Reaction. The character reacts emotionally to the devastating blow they have just received and the apparent death of their dream.
  • Step 8: Rebirth. But they then experience a sort of epiphany, or a realization of where they have been going wrong and what they must now do to put it right. This is the point at which the character changes.
  • Step 9: Seizing the Prize. Strengthened by their epiphany, the characters goes on to fight the final battle... and win. Or in a twist on this, they can decide that they no longer want what they they thought they did.
  • Step 10: The New Status Quo. The conflict is over and all is well in the jungle again. Take this opportunity to tie any loose ends and highlight what has changed between the beginning and the end.

And that's it. Simple!

I've also created this plot diagram to help explain it...

plot diagram

Still unclear? Read the plotting steps in full here.

Big Caveat: Write Your Plot Your Own Way

Never be afraid to break the rules. Plotting a novel is like many things in life...

  • First you must understand.
  • Then you must take this knowledge and adapt it in a way that makes sense to you.

Don't get me wrong: the step-by-step guide above works. It's based on storytelling techniques that have worked for hundreds of years. But it can only tell you how to write a "typical" novel - and such a thing does not exist, of course.

If you take every work of fiction ever written and distil how they are constructed into a blueprint, you come up with a universal guide to how to plot fiction, exactly like the one above.

It can tell you how to construct stories in general, but it takes no account of the quirks and idiosyncrasies and broken rules found in every story. So...

You must use this material as a guide to plot, not a set of commandments...

  • If one of the 10 steps of the plotting process doesn't make sense for your particular novel, twist it into a shape that fits - or perhaps even leave it out altogether.
  • Similarly, feel free to add steps of your own. For example, if it feels right that the central character should experience not one but two moments of "rebirth", do it. Or if you want the character's "epiphany" to be a more gradual process of awakening than a sudden moment of revelation, fine. If it works, it works!

So long as you understand the rules - and are not merely skipping steps because you don't quite "get" them - you'll have the confidence to adapt the rules to your own unique requirements.

Also, you don't have to start at the beginning and end at the end. The novelist John Irving plots backwards – and he's done okay!

"There is a temptation with such a structuralist approach to think that a novelist is a sort of intellectual engineer: assemble enough parts, follow a blueprint, and there you have it: a mechanism capable of flight, a literature machine. But a novel is not a machine, it is an infinitely complex relationship between author and page, page and reader."
- Nigel Watts

"...fiction can be cheapened by the heaping-on of plot. A novel may possess more verisimilitude if it contains some disorder, and it may be better to sacrifice formal niceties of structure in order to gain the quality of lifelikeness we look for in serious fiction... The makers-of-rules for fiction must fall back on the global disclaimer, that what works, works."
- Oakley Hall

Taking Your Plot to the Next Level

And that is that - your not-so-brief guide to how to plot a novel in 10 steps. If it all seems like a lot to take in right now, don't be daunted because it will very soon become second nature to you.

Once you have mastered everything in this section so far, there will be two more things to do...

  1. Add One or More Subplots & Mix Well. Don't worry, this is a lot simpler than you might think. Once you have mastered how to plot a novel (and you have done that above), working in extra strands of story is a breeze!
  2. Add Structure. This basically involves playing around with time: Looking ahead, looking back, speeding up and slowing down, and so on. It is this sort of attention to detail that will raise your plot above the ordinary and make it a lot more publishable.