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How to Plot a Novel: The Definitive Guide

Learning how to plot a novel isn’t quick. But it’s a one-time task. The skills you’ll learn in this definitive guide will empower your storytelling forever.

Is plot important? Yup, it’s critical, no matter what type of novel you intend to write.

Actually, that’s not quite true. If you’re more interested in critical acclaim than having lots of readers (and making a living from your writing), you can get away with little or no plot.

You could write experimental literary fiction, for example, or character studies in which very little happens.

For the rest of us, plot is the thing that keeps readers turning the pages. It’s the thing that makes a novel entertaining.

There are probably countless reasons why you decided to write a novel. High on many people’s lists, though, is a need to release all those thoughts and feelings that we all have churning around inside us.

Plot is the thing that allows you to pour your heart and soul into a novel without sending your readers to sleep.

How do you plot a novel?

You do it by breaking down the plotting process into smaller steps. A plot as a whole may be complicated (enough to make your head spin). But there’s nothing difficult about the individual parts.

This series of articles walks you through the entire process. So long as you go about it logically and build your plot one small piece at a time, you’ll be fine.

The information on this page is a quick overview of everything we’ll cover. It won’t show you how to plot a novel by itself, but it will give you a good idea of where we’re heading in the definitive guide as a whole.

Click on the links to jump ahead if you wish. But it’s best to keep scrolling down and read everything in order.

I’ve split the plotting process into three parts…

Part 1: The Big Picture of Plot

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of how to plot a novel (in Part 2), here are a few articles looking at plot from 30,000 feet…

What Is a Plot?

Stupid question, right? A “plot” is everything that happens in a novel, from the first scene to the last. Right?

Well, yes. But take a look at my definition of plot…

A plot is a series of linked events concerning a character who urgently wants something concrete and important that won’t be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfying conclusion.

There’s a lot of detail contained within those two sentences. And understanding those details will ensure that you lay a rock-solid foundation for the plot in your own novel.

How Does Your Character Change?

We’re talking about your leading man or woman here. And we’re talking about how the events of your novel (the “plot”) transform them.

They can change in a large or a small way. They can change for the better or the worse. All that matters is that they change in some way.

How come? Because if the hero is precisely the same person at the end of the story, both in terms of their life circumstances and their inner make-up, you have to ask what was the point of telling the story at all.

Three Act Structure

Finally in our high-level look at plot, an article on the three phases of your plot: the beginning, the middle and the ending.

We look at the characteristics of each phase. We ask what separates beginnings from middles, and middles from endings. And we take our first look at the 10 specific steps you’ll use to plot your novel.

Three act structure doesn’t tell you how to actually plot a novel (at least not in any detail). What it does do is allow you to take your initial plot idea and make sure that it has all the fundamentals in place.

Part 2: How to Plot a Novel in 10 Steps

Once you’ve read the articles above, your plot will begin to take shape in your imagination…

You’ll have a rough idea of what your leading character wants. You’ll know how the events of the novel will change him or her. And you’ll be able to split your story into three acts (the beginning, the middle and the ending).

Now it’s time to dive into the all-important details. We’ll begin, unsurprisingly, with…

Plotting the Beginning

Broadly speaking, the beginning of a plot is about dumping a problem on the main character’s shoulders, then making them commit to solving it. It involves these three steps…

  1. Start With the Status Quo. We first meet the character in their ordinary world living their ordinary life. Nothing has happened yet.
  2. And Then Something Happens. The plot kicks in for real when something disruptive comes along to turn the character’s ordinary world on its head.
  3. The Hero Makes a Decision to Act. Before this, there may be a period of hesitation (such as the cop who doesn’t want to come out of retirement to solve the case). Eventually, though, they’ll commit to their goal.

Beginning a Novel “In Medias Res”

Before we turn to the middle section of your plot, here’s an article looking at a possible variation to the three steps above.

Beginning a plot when “nothing is happening” can be dull. One solution is to begin with the disruptive event in Step 2, and then go back to show how things were in Step 1.

Beginning “in the middle of things” is definitely one to consider if you want an effective way to hook your readers from the very first page.

Plotting the Middle

If the beginning of a plot is all about making a character take action, the middle deals with the action itself. More precisely, it deals with a whole series of “mini” actions.

The best way to achieve anything complicated in real life is to break it down into a series of steps. And that’s what the hero of your novel does…

  1. The First Mini Plot. This is the first small thing the character must achieve to succeed in their overall, novel-length goal. Needless to say, it goes horribly wrong and probably leaves them in a worse position. They’re committed now, though, so there’s no backing out.
  2. More Mini Plots. The character keeps pushing forward, experiencing more setbacks and the occasional small victory as they go. The tension rises and rises as they move closer to the object of their overall quest.
  3. Rock Bottom. The middle ends at a moment of disaster. This is the most intense point of the entire plot, when the hero has seemingly failed and everything looks hopeless.

Plotting the Ending

The final phase of the plot deals with the consequences of the action. And on the basis that fiction is so much neater than real life, it’s also about tidying up the loose ends.

Here’s how it pans out step by step…

  1. Reaction. The character reacts emotionally to the devastating blow they’ve just experienced. Right now, they’re emotionally dead.
  2. Rebirth. But they then undergo a sort of epiphany. Something happens to make them realize where they’ve gone wrong all this time and what they must now do to put things right. (Incidentally, this is the point at which the character changes.)
  3. Seizing the Prize (or Not). Strengthened by their epiphany, the leading man or woman goes on to fight the final battle. And they win! (In a twist on this, they may decide that they no longer want what they thought they wanted. But that newfound wisdom is a kind of victory in itself.)
  4. 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 of the plot and the ending.

Part 3: Finishing Touches

By the time you’ve read and absorbed the detailed articles above, you’ll feel like you know everything there is to know about plotting fiction. And you’ll be right – almost.

There’s just one more area to master before you can call yourself a plotting pro…

How to Add Subplots to your Story

The bad news is that very few novels contain just one plot. There are usually all sorts of intersecting storylines running through the novel. Those are your subplots.

The good news is that subplots are simple to handle. They’re often much shorter than the main plot in a novel (more like short stories). So compared to the detailed work above, building subplots and weaving them into the main story is a breeze.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it, your not-so-brief guide to how to plot a novel in 10 steps. Well, it’s “it” for the overview anyway.

Now it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don’t feel daunted by what lays ahead. What may seem impossibly complicated right now will soon be second nature to you.

Click here to go to the first article: What Is a Plot?

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