How to Plot a Novel: The Complete Guide

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how to plot a novel

Plotting a novel isn’t an easy task, but you need to know how to develop a plotline and plan your novel beforehand as a professional writer.

You could choose to write your work without creating an outline for your plot and get away with it. However, if you want to be a serious writer and intend on publishing multiple bestsellers, you need to plot your novels.

Is plot an important part of your novel writing? Definitely. You’re not even supposed to be asking that question, the question should be:

How do you plot a novel?

This is the question that this post will answer. Learning how to plot a novel involves learning a couple of skills and among other things, I have prepared a step-by-step guide.

What Is Plot?

Plot is what happens in the story―the sequence of events that constitute the story. A plot is like a pump room of your novel.

A good plot has the potential of guiding your story making it more limpid. When you come up with a very exciting plot, your readers find it fun and easy to read your novel.

But a plot is not immutable; you can change it during the prewriting stage or when writing the first draft. However, if you change it a lot, you may end up destroying it. So although you’re free to change it however you want, do it with a lot of caution.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

There are two types of writers when it comes to planning novels: pantsers and plotters. Which of the two writers are you?

plotters vs panters

If you’re a pantser, then you’re the type that ‘freestyles’ their work and writes without an outline or guideline for their plot. Pantsers don’t bother themselves with what writing methods they’re going to use or which story structure they should employ. Pantsers like Stephen King just want to jump straight into the writing process and cut the literally red tape.

Most newbie writers are pantsers, and it’s okay to be one but take some time to learn plotting; as you never know, it might be the method that makes you more productive.

A plotter, on the other hand, is a writer who plans and outlines their story before they start writing it. If you’re a serious plotter, you regard outlining as a persnickety task and invest a lot of time in creating plotlines, building characters, world-building, and other nuances of the planning stage of novel writing.

A lot of the established writers are plotters, but I also know a lot of published writers who are also gung-ho pantsers. If you’re just starting on your writing journey, you should give plotting a try.

What Makes a Good Plot?

Usually, a strong plot is a combination of imagination and organization. Imagination can be natural or invoked with the aid of things like using writing prompts.

Organization, on the other hand, is characterized by design, patterns, and hard work. The plotting and outlining elements of organizing require investing time, doing research, and expending a lot of thought.

When you expertly blend your imagination and organizational skills, the end product is a cohesive plot.

How Do You Plot a Book?

Before I get into the actual plotting steps, I would like to cover how and why writers plot novels. Plus the reasons for plotting and also the basic tasks that must be completed during plotting.

First, when plotting, we seek to work out the structure of our story and give it a harmonized arc. If a story lacks structure, it becomes hard for the writer to look at the initial plot idea and determine if all the fundamentals are where they ought to be.

When plotting a novel, we also seek to draw a roadmap for the story―the outline. It gives direction to the writer so when things get thicker and hazy, you know where you’re supposed to be heading to.

What is an outline?

An outline is the roadmap of the story. The outline gives a visual representation of your story’s structure.

While a bare-bone outline gives the arrangement of chapters and scenes, thicker outlines go deeper into the story’s scene and offer a brief but vivid picture of what scenes look like.

The depth and shape of the outline are totally up to you (the writer).

How do you outline a book?

As I said, the way you outline your novel is up to you but here are some examples of common outlines.

4 common ways to outline a book

1. The simple method. This is a basic outline. Everything is neat and easy and doesn’t include things like subplots or backstories.

2. The detailed method. This outline is knottier than the first one. It is arranged according to scenes, settings, characters, et cetera.

3. The mind mapping method. Mind mapping adds a creative edge to plotting. Writers use real index cards or virtual index cards found in software tools like Scrivener. Plus, there are dedicated mind mapping software tools available for free.

4. The Snowflake Method. The snowflake method of writing―created by Randy Ingermanson― encourages writers to begin with a simple idea and build outward just like drawing a snowflake. Using the snowflake outlining method, you start with a simplistic deep theme and build your story around this theme up to a point where the basic idea matures into a novel.

There are many more ways you can outline your novel, but these are the most talked-about methods. You can experiment to see what works for you.

The Plotting and Outlining Process: Step-by-Step Guide

Plotting your novel involves several steps, all important in their own way. And, there are a couple of different approaches to plotting a novel.

I have prepared a thorough step-by-step guide but you can add or subtract some steps to suit your writing process.

Here’s the step-by-step guide to plotting a novel:

1. Coming up with ideas. The very first thing you have to do is come up with story ideas. Come up with ideas that you think will give the story an easy-to-work-with plot. You can work with spontaneous ideas, or you can get yourself some writing prompts to help you with the process.

2. Developing a story premise. Now that you have a story idea, you can start developing a simple but powerful story premise. There are so many ways you can approach this stage and this creative writing, you can be ingenious with your methods.

3. Deciding on a Plot structure. There are also many ways to structure your plot. The most common technique is the three-act structure, which digs deep into the three basic parts of your story―the beginning, middle, and end.

4. Building a storyline and slotting in subplots. This step involves putting a storyline together. You can revolve about the process around act-length story arcs or start sketching important scenes. After that, you can start slotting in subplots and you have to make sure that these subplots thread in the main story without causing unnecessary inconsistencies.

5. Ensuring logical order. You have to stitch together a detailed plot outline that lays out a clean and comprehensible main story and its subplots. The different parts of the story and plot should have cause and effect links within them. A plot has to weave in a logical progression so that what happens next has to have been triggered by events or actions that precede it.

6. Developing Characters. Having a polished storyline in place, it’s time to give your characters another dimension. You have to develop detailed character arcs backed with backstories.  This is the part of your plotting that produces believable, refined, and strong characters.

7. Patching Up. Now, you have to fill in any plot holes and smoothen any bumps. The plot can change throughout the writing process so patching up isn’t a one-time thing, you’d have to do it over and over.

Basic Plot Types

Story ideas are measureless but there are just a handful of basic plots. These ‘handful’ types are:

basic plot types

1. Romance. Naturally, there are two lovers, and then something springs up to disturb the status quo. There are issues like jealousy, loyalty, and misunderstandings in the lovers’ pursuit of happiness.

2. Adventure. The mc usually enjoys a new experience, they’re introduced to a new world, experience foreign things, and have to endure some obstacles.

3. Race. The MC or a group of main characters are in pursuit of a higher or better stage in their lives. They must overcome the prevailing circumstances to become what they aspire and attain the things they want.

4. Lure. A character is faced with a luring scenario: revenge, temptation, rage, etc. They have to settle on whether they will fight the temptation or rise above the challenge.

5. Mistake. An expected situation arises, and the character has to come through that unanticipated ordeal.

6. Change. A character has to go through a spectacular transformation and has to acclimatize to the new state or environment.

7. Gift. A somewhat undistinguished character makes an involuntary forfeiture to help another character. The character doesn’t necessarily have to play the hero in the entire story, just when the need arises.

Plot Development Insights

Here are some pointers for writing a good plot:

1. Tie all loose ends. The scenes should follow a progressive arc that pours into a plot resolution. Don’t let any scene turn out to be a flat end. Be creative and come up with mini-plots that are resolved within chapters or sections.

2. Don’t defer the end of your story. The end must come fresh after the climax. Don’t end long after the reader’s excitement has died down because that doesn’t take advantage of their aroused state.

3. Hook the Reader, fast! Forget using the first page for marshaling in a boring introduction, today’s readers just don’t have the time attention span for that. You need to use the first page to hook them in.

4. Your characters should be naturalistic. Your readers aren’t looking forward to reading about a perfect hero. They want an Achilles with a vulnerable heel or a superman who can be weakened by kryptonite. 

They want a protagonist with some imperfections.

The villains should also have three-dimensional with a convincing backstory, not just archetypal.  

A Plot in Nature: Mutable, Not Carved in Stone

The question that troubles a lot of new writers is whether they can change the plot as they write their first draft.

Writing is a flexible process and plotting isn’t restricted to the prewriting stage. When you get a better idea, the best thing is to go back to the plot and see if you can weave it into the plot.

One of the advantages of using software plotting tools is that they help you track the changes made to the plot and manuscript so that you can revert to the initial plot if things don’t work out.

You can change the plot as many times as you want, but some changes do not represent improvement and if you’re not careful, the plot can crumble.

Wrapping up

There are limitless ways to go about plotting your novel. However, there are a couple of proven ways that help you plot and write faster on top of guiding you towards the completion of a well-structured novel.

It’s just a matter of choosing the methods that work well for you. Besides that, you could write better as a pantser, not a plotter. There have been lots of pantsers who’ve churned out best sellers and as you’re reading this, there’s a pantser cooking some delicious fiction.

The advantages of plotting a book are countless, but it’s all up to you.

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Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories. She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.