Sunday, January 13, 2013

Plotting Your Novel

Four Steps to Putting Your Plot in Order

I've spent a bit of time on Reddit's writing forum over the last couple of weeks. One of the recurring questions I kept seeing was about plotting (or outlining) a novel before starting to write. To be honest, I was never a big proponent of plotting. Until, that is, it worked for me.

Do you remember the movie How to Train Your Dragon? Well, the morning after seeing that movie with my then 4-year-old son, I woke up with a name in my head and the title of a book on the tip of my tongue. While the title quickly died (for being a bit too similar to an existing series), the character thrived and within 48 hours I had plotted out the first book of a proposed trilogy. Six months later, I had translated that outline into a 55,000 word YA novel (which is still on the proverbial shelf). As soon as I finished that book, I sat down and plotted book #2. I was thrilled at how easy it came to me. But, it doesn't always work that way. Let's take a look at some of the key points to successfully plotting your novel:

1. Know where your story begins

When I sat down to write my suspense thriller, I cranked out 40 pages of writing. It was the least suspenseful pile of drivel ever imagined. I shelved 98% of it. It was back story. I had spent ~10,000 words trying to build up a sense of who my character was, without realizing he had accomplished absolutely nothing in that time. You need to establish your starting point. If you're protagonist is a 24-year-old, the reader doesn't need a detailed description of the 24 years that preceded the story's starting point. These are details that can be infused throughout the rest of the story (y'know, the one you really want to tell?). Don't be afraid to throw your characters immediately into the fray. Whether it's drama, fantasy, suspense, or sci-fi, nothing will tell the reader more about your character than seeing how they react when the pressure is at full tilt. Finally, don't be afraid of being vague at this point. We're not writing yet, we're plotting to write. A sentence will do if it conveys Who, What, Where, and When (Why can wait a while). When you recognize your starting point, give yourself a pat on the back. You've found the starting line. Now, stop the self-congratulations and move on.

2. Know (roughly) where your story will end

This one can be tricky for a number of reasons, but it's possibly the most important part of the whole process. Why? Because knowing the ending allows you, as the author, to seed the path with the kinds of things that readers eat up. Nothing impresses me more as a reader than when I get to the end of a book and find that the author has tied together little bits and pieces of the story that were sprinkled throughout. Plus, as a writer, it gives you a point of focus (we'll talk more about focus in step #3). So, where do you want your characters to be at the end of your novel? Can't see it? Imagine the end of your five favorite movies. Happy endings, sad endings, poignant endings, doesn't really matter. But, the best endings are those that show how life has changed the characters involved, for good or bad. As fiction writers, we're conveying a series of events that happened to people. And, despite what some people may believe, life changes us (if it didn't we'd all be pretty damn boring). So, what are the results of the events in your story? What sort of consequences do your characters have to deal with? This is where you may discover the "Why" of your story. When you find that, you'll have found your finish line.

3. Know where the middle point of your story is

Scranton, home of The Office and... not much else.
Consider this a way point in your plot development. We're trying to get from the start to the finish, and a good plot rarely takes a straight line to get there. If it does, it probably won't be very entertaining. But, there's a difference between a plot detour and a major plot detour. Sure, we could just jump on the Jersey Turnpike to get from Philly to NYC, but it might be more interesting to take a detour through Scranton. Essentially, don't be afraid to take side routes to get to where your going. But, it's important to keep your middle point within shouting distance of your proposed ending. Go to NYC from Philly through Cleveland and you're going to lose readers (and potentially drive yourself insane). Why? You're prolonging the trip. Readers aren't dumb; they can often see where you're going. And, even if they can't, when you do finally get where you're going, you may leave them scratching their heads. Why the heck did he walk around the block to visit the neighbor?! So, what is the middle? Well, in my mind, it's the part of the story that leads right into the climax of the story. Your characters have been introduced and the catalyst of the story has been introduced. The middle is where it all begins to come together and it's a straight shot to the end game.
Your riders (ie, readers) might be a bit ticked at your "short cut."

4. Fill in the gaps of your story

Now, comes the hard part for some folks. You know your beginning, middle, and end, but now how to get from one to another. Well, this is where your ability to build a story shows itself. Here's what I do. Thirty is my magic number. It's the number of chapters I start with. I jot down my starting point at #1, my middle goal around #15, and my finish line at #28 (I like to have some room to let things settle at the end). I then mark out the first 5 chapters, the next 10, and the final 15.

The first 5 chapters are character development and initial action. It's in these chapters that you will capture your audience. Some writers will argue that it has to happen in chapter 1, which is true, but you can't place all of your hope on one chapter. Give the reader 5 strong chapters at the beginning of your novel and they will let you take them on whatever journey you want. Grab their attention and empathy for your character in those chapters and you'll be set. No empathy = no care for what happens to the characters = no reason to read on.

The next ten chapters are entirely a setup for the end game. This is where your characters are challenged, poked, and prodded into their point of no return. The reader should be able to look back at this point of the story and say, "That's where it could have changed." If he had only taken the blue pill!

The final 15 chapters are are where the roller coaster plunges over the precipice and the laws of gravity take over. This is where the novel should run at full speed to the climax of the story. Everything chapter should have a distinct effect on how the story will end. Anything else is just slowing the coaster down.

Now, obviously, 30 is just a number I like. You might have 50 chapters or 20. Either way, you should be sure to balance out the plot so that it makes sense for your story; beginning, middle, and end. End too soon, without enough transition, and you'll leave your readers feeling short-changed. Put too much filler into the "middle" and your readers will get bored before they can get to the end. And, a weak beginning won't stimulate the reader to continue reading about your characters.

Would love to hear your opinions on the subject! Questions? Suggestions? Best practices that have worked for you?


  1. I have wanted to write a novel for a few years now, but I am never able to make it past the planning stage. Endings trip me up, but thinking about writing a novel in terms of a chess match, i.e. setting up your endgame, is a clever strategy.

  2. Endings can be tough, but I wouldn't let it stop you from trying. If you can make it to the halfway point, you may find that a particular ending starts to make sense. If I thought "I can't start until I have an ending," I might never start at all! :)