Plotting a Novel in 10 Steps

Plotting a novel is a long and not entirely straightforward business. Out of all the tasks that you have to perform during the planning stage, writing a plot is by far the largest.

So long as you tackle it step by step, though, and don't try to rush, you will be fine.

To make life easier, I have split the entire process into three broad stages. No prizes for guessing what they are...

  • Plotting the Beginning - in which the novel's principal character makes a decision to act.
  • Plotting the Middle - which shows the action itself.
  • Plotting the Ending - which deals with the consequences of the action.

And to make life easier still, I have sub-divided beginnings into three steps. I will be looking at these in just a moment, but first I want to talk more generally about a novel's beginning.

Openings in Novels: The Big Picture

The most important job that the opening of a story has to perform is to hook the reader. Other than writing a great opening line, there are two ways to do this...

  1. Introduce the readers to a compelling character.
  2. Promise them a gripping story ahead.

What makes a character compelling? The answer to that lies not here but in the section on Creating Characters. Broadly speaking, though, you simply have to make the reader care about the character.

Achieve that and the readers will be happy to stick by the character's side for the long journey ahead.

But having a great leading character isn't enough by itself to hook the audience. Something needs to happen, or be about to happen soon, if you want to ensure they keep turning the pages. Oh, and not just any old thing, but something of consequence - something, in short, that will disrupt the character's status quo and force them to act.

I will talk about precisely how to achieve these things in just a moment, but if you remember that plotting the beginning is essentially about introducing the readers to a compelling character who has a concrete goal to achieve, you won't go far wrong.

Before moving on, a few more general points...

  1. Keep the opening of the novel simple, especially the first few pages. Don't introduce too many named characters (ideally, keep it to one or two), and don't launch into a lot of unnecessary explanation.
  2. It is best to begin with a self-explanatory situation, one which is able to speak for itself and doesn't require a lot of explaining to make it clear what is going on.
  3. Even if it isn't immediately clear what is going on, don't worry about it. Planting questions in the readers' minds and not immediately answering them is a good thing. There will be plenty of time later on to explain who this character is, or what their relationship with that character is, and so on.
  4. Talk and action is preferable to wordy description and explanation in the opening pages.
  5. Make the beginning of the novel true to what is to come. If you are writing a gentle drama, don't begin with an explosion in a fireworks' factory.
  6. Don't begin with a situation that isn't central to the novel's main plot. If the plot revolves around an extra-marital affair, for example, begin with the cheating couple interacting in some way, not with the man saving his best friend's son on a hunting trip (or something equally non-central).
  7. This last one is more to do with writing than plotting a novel, but it is still worth mentioning here: devote more care and attention to the opening chapter/page/paragraph/sentence than to anything else. For the book-buying public, and for editors in publishing houses, these opening words will make or break your novel.

Anyway, enough talk. Here are the three steps of a novel's beginning...

  1. Start with the status quo
  2. And then something happens
  3. The character makes a decision to act.

Collectively, these opening steps of a plot can be thought of as the "rising action" phase. In other words, a novel's beginning starts with a static situation in which nothing interesting is happening but rapidly escalates to a point where the action is about to kick in big time.

"Don't be alarmed if the beginning seems particularly difficult to write. You are getting to know your characters by hearing them speak and seeing them in action. It is bound to take time. Once you are launched and have reached a better understanding of your characters, you will find you can work more quickly and easily."
- Dianne Doubtfire

Step 1: Start With the Status Quo

This first step is all about introducing your central character living their ordinary life. This is the status quo, the way things are before the story starts. Nothing has happened yet...

  • The murder victim is still very much alive and the detective is heading home for a quiet night in with her husband.
  • The lonely boy has yet to meet the new girl in town.

In short, it is just a normal day, and your first job when plotting a novel is to describe your leading man or woman going about their everyday business.

Why bother?

Because for the rising action of a novel's opening to have its full impact, you need to start from a place where there is no action to speak of.

When something does eventually happen and the character's status quo is disrupted by whatever the triggering event might be, the reader can compare...

  • the ordinary with the not-so-ordinary
  • the then with the now
  • the before with the after

...and thereby better appreciate the troubles that the character now faces.

Or to put it another way, when the storm does eventually hit, the "rising action" will seem all the more dramatic after the calm that came before it.

Note that at this early stage of the plot, life won't necessarily be all wine and roses for the protagonist. But their situation will be stable. Fiction is just like real life in this sense...

  • The character will have their fair share of problems at the start of the novel, just like we all do - bills to pay, the car playing up again, the usual things.
  • They will have dreams of a better life in the future, too, just like we do - dreams of a better job, of that Caribbean cruise they can't afford, of managing to quit smoking at last.
  • But none of these problems or dreams will demand their immediate attention.

For the plot to kick in, and for the action to start rising, something needs to happen to disrupt their status quo - to such an extent that they have to act and they have to act now.

That is what the second step is all about...

Step 2: And Then Something Happens

Remember the detective who was heading home for a quiet night in with her husband? Well, guess what? She is barely through the front door when her phone rings and she is called to the scene of the murder.

The boy, too, is settling down for another evening alone in his bedroom when he sees the new girl in town for the first time (she's moving into the house right opposite!) It is love at first sight and his pulse starts racing.

It is these events - the murder, the boy seeing the girl - which trigger the rising action.

And the result of this "something happening" (other than making the readers sit up and take notice - never a bad thing when you're plotting a novel) is that the character now has a goal...

  • The detective's goal is to solve the crime - not merely for the sake of justice, but for the sake of her career and reputation.
  • The boy's goal, of course, is to win the girl's heart and make her his own - thereby ending his loneliness.

Note that, at this stage, the central character hasn't necessarily committed themselves to achieving their goal. (In some novels, the character might not be consciously aware that they even have a goal yet.) All that has happened so far is that something has happened to disrupt their ordinary lives and, whether they are aware of it or not, furnished them with a goal.

Step 3: The Character Makes a Decision to Act

The result of the previous step is that we now have rising action. There still might not be a lot happening, but something is - and there is also the promise of more momentous events to come.

And what that means, of course, is that we have hooked the reader...

  • Not only have we introduced them to a character that they care about.
  • But we have disrupted that character's life, and the reader will want to stick around to find out how things work out.

In more specific terms, the result of the previous step is that the central character now has a goal, or something they must achieve in order to make their life stable again...

  • Sometimes it is obvious to the character what they must do. When the detective is called to the murder scene, for example, the fact that her goal is to solve the case goes without saying.
  • But sometimes it is not obvious. In the case of the boy, it might not even occur to him when he first sees the girl that he might one day be her boyfriend. He's just gawping at a cute girl! The notion of actually talking to her and asking her out on a date might not enter his mind until later.

Once your character is aware of their goal - whether it happens at the time of the "something happening" or later - they still might hesitate before making the decision to act. It is your call as a novel writer whether to include this period of hesitation or not.

There is nothing wrong with a character deciding to act without a second thought...

  • The detective, arriving at the crime scene, could get straight down to business without a moment's hesitation.
  • The boy could decide, there and then, to knock on the girl's door first thing in the morning.

But it might be more interesting, depending on the specifics of your novel, to have the central character shy away from the challenge at first...

  • Maybe the detective has been recently promoted and this is her first murder. What if she isn't up to the job? She seriously considers telling her boss that she isn't ready for this.
  • The boy, too, is full of doubts (which boy in love for the first time isn't?) Is the girl out of his league? Will she be interested in a loser like him? What if she already has a boyfriend?

They will come around in the end, of course. (Your novel will be a little on the brief side if they don't.) Sometimes the central character just needs a little time by themselves to work up the nerve to do what they must do. Sometimes another character in the novel - someone close to them, someone they trust and respect - will convince them that deciding not to act simply isn't an option.

Whatever happens to make them change their mind, they are now ready to set off on the quest to achieve their goal - a quest which will keep them busy for the remainder of the novel. And this decision to act, whether it happens quickly of after a period of hesitation, marks the precise point when the beginning of a novel ends and the middle begins.

"...the beginning of a novel is a threshold, separating the real world we inhabit from the world the novelist has imagined. It should therefore, as the phrase goes, 'draw us in'."
- David Lodge

Note: If you like, you can shake up the opening 3 steps and present them in a different order. I explain how to do that here.

Plotting the Tricky Middle

Plotting the beginning is all about introducing the central character living in their ordinary world, giving them a goal, then making them act on it.

You have now reached the exciting part of the story, the part where the action kicks in for real. Your job as a writer is to now keep hold of the audience's attention.

In the main article on plot, I talked about fiction having three parts (or three "acts"). The first part is the beginning, when the character decides to act. The middle phase of a novel then deals with the action itself.

It is useful to think of Act II as the start of the character's "journey" (whether they are making a physical journey or not).

For the whole of the first act, they remain at "home" - or in a world which is familiar to them. At the start of the novel's second act (the middle), they set out on their journey and enter a world which is NOT familiar and NOT safe.

  • In some novels, this will be a literal departure - the ship leaving the harbor, the explorer setting out for the South Pole, the young man leaving home to find his place in the world.
  • In other novels, it will be more metaphorical - the boy entering the wonderful but terrifying world of dating girls, the idealistic woman entering the murky world of politics.
  • Or it might, of course, be a combination of the two.

Once in this strange new world, the character doesn't immediately set out to achieve their ultimate goal. Instead, they go through a process of...

  • Learning the "rules" of this new world.
  • Making allies and enemies.
  • Discovering new things about themselves - not least, how far their courage stretches.

The journey isn't simple by any means. It is frequently a case of one step forward and two steps back. But little by little, despite all the setbacks, they will gradually edge closer to the object of their quest.

That's great, I can hear you say, but it doesn't tell me how to go about plotting the middle of a novel in a practical, step-by-step way.

No, it doesn't. But the following steps should hopefully make things clearer. Remember, we have already dealt with the three steps in the novel's beginning. They were...

  1. Start With the Status Quo
  2. Something Happens to Disrupt the Status Quo
  3. The Character Makes a Decision to Act

Now for the novel's middle...

Step 4: The First Mini Plot

Okay, I guess I'd better start by explaining just what the heck a "mini plot" is...

Most things that we do in life, we do by breaking down into smaller steps. Even something simple like buying the morning paper involves...

  • Finding some money.
  • Crossing the road to the shop without getting hit by a car.
  • Finding the correct newspaper on the shelf.
  • And so on...

And it is exactly the same thing with a character in a novel. The way they achieve their overall goal (the one they came up with during the novel's opening) is to break it down into a series of mini goals.

But a mini "goal" is only one element of an entire mini "plot". In all, there are five of them...

  1. The Character Decides to Act on a Goal. This isn't their overall, novel-sized goal, remember, but one of the smaller steps towards it.
  2. They Encounter Conflict. Whatever it is they want, it isn't easy to get (because novels in which everything works out just fine are not very exciting).
  3. The Scene Reaches a Resolution. This usually (but not always) means that the character fails to reach their goal.
  4. The Character Reacts Emotionally. Because when we have suffered a setback, that is what we all do.
  5. They Come Up With a New Goal. They are the leading character in a novel, after all, and leading men or women don't quit at the first sign of trouble!

Actually, there are only four elements to a mini plot, because the fifth step - deciding on a new goal - is also the first step of the next mini plot. That's what makes them so great for plotting the novel's middle - they simply snap together like building blocks.

Back to Step 4 of the Overall Plot: the first "mini plot"...

What you have to do here is give your central character their first mini goal - or the first small thing they must achieve to take them one step closer to achieving their overall, novel-length goal.

So in a crime novel, for example, the detective's first mini-goal will be to find clues at the scene of the murder. The remainder of this first mini plot then plays out in sequence...

First, she encounters conflict. Let's give her a fear of blood, which makes it difficult to do her job. Oh, and there's a storm rumbling ever closer, threatening to wash the evidence clean away.

Next, the scene reaches a resolution: Yes, the detective manages to find plenty of clues, including the murder weapon. But it turns out to be her gun and she is arrested.

Next, she reacts emotionally to what has just happens (she spends a very bleak night alone in a cold cell).

But sooner rather than later, she comes up with a new plan, a new mini goal...

She remembers some of the other clues she found at the crime scene - clues, she now realizes, which point towards her having been framed. Her next goal, with the help of her sidekick, is to prove her innocence.

And so, armed with a new mini goal, the character is ready for the next mini plot.

Step 5: More Mini Plots

If you are working out your own novel in your mind as you read this, you will now have the novel's first major mini plot under your belt.

The way to prevent a sagging middle, and keep the readers on the edge of their seats, is simply to string together a whole series of such mini plots.

  • Your central character will enter each one with a new mini goal - something they need to achieve to bring them one step closer to their overall, novel-length goal.
  • And they will usually end the scene in a worse position.
  • They will lay low for a while and lick their wounds. But they will always pick themselves up again and arrive at a new plan of action, or new mini goal.

Just remember the importance of cause and effect that I talked about in the article defining plot.

Each mini plot should be the cause of the next one and an effect of the preceding one. If not, your novel will be "episodic" in nature.

Step 6: Rock Bottom

If you have fully grasped the notion of a novel's middle section comprising a whole string of mini plots, you are probably wondering when the sequence comes to an end.

And the answer is this: the final mini plot is the one in which the character's mini goal is to finally achieve their overall, novel-length goal.

Needless to say, they don't succeed!

Plot development is about being mean to your central character. And this is the place to kick them harder than ever.

Despite all the setbacks they have suffered along the way, your central character now believes they are on the very cusp of victory, or of seizing the prize they have had their eyes on all this time.

But they are wrong.

Something terrible happens and they hit rock bottom. Their hopes of achieving their overall goal (the one they came up with right at the start of the novel) seem as good as dead.

The next step is to begin to turn things around for them at last...

Plotting the Ending

Let's be honest: so far you have taken a perfectly decent human being and made their life hell. You will be pleased to know that it is time to start turning things around for them at last.

The beginning was all about providing the central character with an overall goal and making them decide to act on it.

The middle then showed them taking the action - or, more correctly, a whole series of mini actions.

The ending, broadly speaking, deals with the consequences of these actions.

A good ending should satisfy the readers - reward them, if you like, for sticking with the story. A satisfying conclusion to a novel happens when...

  1. The ending is fitting. In other words, the characters should get what they deserve - the good should be rewarded and the bad made to pay for their ill deeds.
  2. The ending is definitive. This means that the question asked at the start of the novel - "will the hero succeed in achieving their overall goal?" - should be answered.

(Oh, and a perfect closing line is the cherry on the cake!)

Of course, there are degrees of fittingness and definitiveness. The good should be rewarded, yes, but that doesn't mean to say that their experiences won't also leave them with scars.

The ending should be clear and definitive, yes, but that doesn't mean that you have to spell out everything for the readers. Leaving something to their imaginations and their curiosity, or even ending with a touch of ambiguity, is not a bad thing.

Okay, now for the final four steps...

Step 7: Reaction

Reaction to what? Well, the end of the middle section of the plot was marked by the main character hitting rock bottom - this is what they must now react to.

Things looked about as bad as they could get for the protagonist, and their hopes of achieving their novel-length goal were as good as finished.

What happens next? Just like in all the "mini plots" earlier, the protagonist goes away to lick their wounds, so to speak.

They have been experiencing these moments of emotional reaction all through the middle section of the novel - every time that they failed to achieve a mini goal and found themselves in a worse position.

The "worse position" that they now find themselves in is much greater than any they have found themselves in before.

Before, they had merely failed to achieve one of those minor, intermediate goals. Now, they have failed to reach their overall goal - meaning the game is up for them and they are as miserable as they have ever been.

They are metaphorically dead right now, and this reaction phase should reflect this.

One option here is to have them cry, take to the bottle, react violently - something like that.

More often, though, this final emotional reaction is marked by a kind of quiet resignation and spiritual emptiness. The character gave everything they had to give, and they lost. They have nothing left inside, not even the energy to bemoan their fate.

Step 8: Rebirth

If the character hitting rock bottom was about them dying a spiritual death, and the reaction phase was about them acting spiritually dead, this is where they are reborn. What triggers this change?

An epiphany.

Earlier in this guide to plotting a novel (when I was talking about "mini plots") I said that a character often comes up with a new plan of action based on something he or she has learned from their previous mistakes?

Well, an epiphany in fiction is essentially a realization of all their past mistakes throughout the novel. It is a moment of understanding in which the character finally realizes where they have been going wrong all this time and, as a result, what they must now do to succeed.

The only thing to beware of here is making this moment of realization and change appear right out of the blue.

Ideally, whatever it is that they now come to understand, it should have been staring them in the face all along (and you, the writer, should have hinted at it in the form of "clues").

Step 9: Seizing the Prize (Or Not)

Right at the very beginning of the novel, your central character committed themselves to achieving an overall, novel-length goal. And finally, right here, they seize the prize.

How does it happen? Simple. When they experienced their epiphany just now, they realized where they had been going wrong all this time and what they now needed to do to win.

So now they just go ahead and take whatever action is required!

But there is an alternative way in which this penultimate step can work out. It certainly isn't a common way for novels (or movies) to end, but it is worth mentioning as an option.

In a nutshell, novels in which the prize is not seized at the end look like this:

  • In the beginning, the character comes up with an overall goal.
  • Through the middle, they struggle to reach this goal and ultimately fail.
  • In the epiphany, they realize that, actually, they don't want what they thought they wanted (or they do want it but must nevertheless turn their back on it for the sake of the greater good).

Needless to say, plot endings of this variety will not be happy ones (unless the thing they wanted was a dumb thing to want in the first place). Such endings might even be tragic. But, still, bad outcomes are just as artistically relevant as good ones.

Here are a couple of movie examples...

  • In Casablanca, one of the most iconic scenes is at the airfield at the end, when Bogart says he won't be getting on the plane with the girl. You know he wants to. But he is realistic enough to know that she would regret it - "maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life." Still, they will "always have Paris."
  • Another film with an ending in which the prize is not seized is Brief Encounter - another black and white classic. You know that Celia Johnson wants to leave her marriage to start a new life with Trevor Howard. You know that she cannot be happy unless she does. But in the end she "does the right thing" and stays with her husband.

Step 10: The New Status Quo

The most important thing to understand here is that this final step of a novel's plot is not obligatory.

Why not? Because you have actually already given the readers a glimpse of the new status quo (i.e. the way things will be from now on) at the end of the previous scene.

  • The boy has won the girl.
  • The murderer has been arrested.
  • The captain has safely landed the doomed airliner.

It is perfectly acceptable, therefore, to end the plot at this point. But you might choose to write a final chapter - a kind of bookend to Chapter 1 - in which you demonstrate the new status quo and perhaps tie up any remaining loose ends.

The choice is yours.

If you need the space to tie up any loose ends you couldn't deal with earlier and to hit the right "note" to finish on, include this final brief chapter.

If you said all you wanted to say at the close of the previous scene, end your novel there. It is never a bad idea to leave the readers wanting more.

More On Plotting the Ending

Whatever you do, avoid a "Deus Ex Machina" ending. That is, one that stretches the bounds of credibility and seems all too convenient to be true.

More on that here.

Second, understand that happy endings are NOT obligatory in fiction. It is your novel and you can end it in any way you like.

This will no doubt come as good news if you are naturally drawn to the downbeat. But before you dismiss writing a happy ending for your novel out of hand, consider the options...

  • One extreme is what might be called a "Hollywood" happy ending. You know the kind I mean - these endings aren't just happy, they leave you with tears spoiling your shirt and a lump in your throat it takes until morning to shift. (You know the whole thing is kind of syrupy, but you just can't help yourself!)
  • At the other end of the scale is the ending that is so bleak it is empty of all hope. This variety of plot resolution might leave you in tears, too, but more likely you'll just feel miserable.

Now, there is nothing wrong with either of these endings. Your genre or subject matter or sensibilities as an artist might demand that you choose one or the other.

But if you want me to make a recommendation, I would suggest you avoid either of these extremes in your novel writing career...

  • If you plan to give your plot a Hollywood-type ending, try to temper it with a touch of something not quite so happy - a price the character has had to pay on their journey towards achieving their goal.
  • And if your novel demands a somewhat downbeat ending (or even an outright depressing one), then at least try to provide your readers with a crumb or two of hope - the possibility, perhaps, that although things aren't great for the central character right now, there is the promise of better days ahead.

The best kind of stories, in my opinion, are natural and credible ones, not artificial ones. Ending them in one of the two ways suggested above - happiness tempered by loss, or sadness with hope on the horizon - will ensure that they are natural.

"I dislike the conventional 'happy ending' with all the pink bows neatly tied, but I think the reader should feel there is the hope of something better in the future and that the main character has gained something of value from his experiences."
- Dianne Doubtfire