Plot, as you know, is vital. But writing it can be difficult. This is the guide to help you understand how it works.
As I’m sure, you are familiar with The Three Act Structure, which describes the three basic segments of your novel (the beginning that establishes characters, settings and problems, has an inciting event and ends on your first conflict; the second act raises stakes to a climatic midpoint and the third act that raises action to the climax and ending). But, I offer you the plotting techniques that will in detail help you understand the structure of your novel!
The Expanding Snowflake Method
This is the one I like combining with other methods and it’s very simple to use. Here are the steps:
- Write a one-sentence-summary of your story.
- Then write a paragraph that expands on the sentence summary.
- Write the major characters (their name, their story arc, their goals and obstacles, the conflict).
- Expand every sentence of your summary from step 2 to be a paragraph on its own.
- Write a full page description per every major character, write half a page for minor characters.
- Expand every paragraph from step 4 to a full page.
- Expand every character page into a full story that explains their motives, connections to other characters, journeys and what they learn in the end.
- List all the scenes you want to see in your novel.
- Expand every scene and describe it in great detail.
- Start writing your draft!
This could be a useful exercise even if you don’t want to write a novel with that plot. It’s also useful if you combine it with some other technique.
The Five Point Structure
As its name suggests, this is the structure of a story made out of five points in chronological order. The steps are:
- Exposition is the beginning of your story; this is where we meet your character in their normal surrounding, we are introduced to the setting and presented the main conflict.
- Raising Action is the stage where the story starts to build. A couple of key events occurs here and they ultimately lead your protagonist to the next stage.
- Climax is the moment everything has been leading to. This is the most exciting moment in your story and your protagonist faces the main conflict.
- Falling Action is the stage of tying loose ends in the aftermath of the events that ended.
- Resolution is just another word for conclusion – ending your story.
To be honest, I must say that this method is old and it doesn’t really hold up anymore. There are variations to it and improvements. Such as:
The Eight Point Structure
This is a very detailed plot structure that can serve as a guide to writing your story. To me it seems as if it is a finished book waiting to be filled in. Combined with the expanding snowflake method, this is a winner in plotting. It’s made out of eight steps, and those are:
Stasis is very much like exposition in a way that it introduces the main character in their normal surrounding – it is an everyday setting. Normal world, if you like. This stage should occupy about 10% of your novel.
Trigger/Inciting Incident is an event described in one chapter or less that pushes the whole novel in motion and it should happen at about 10% into your novel. It’s an incident that makes your protagonist think.
The Quest is a direct result of the trigger – your character must decide whether or not to get involved. They usually do (spoiler alert). This segment takes around 15% of your story.
Surprise is a segment that follows your character’s quest in solving the problem, their attempts and failures. All the little setbacks, small victories, new problems. This is also where your subplot emerges (it’s usually a romantic interest, but you be creative and think of something else). This segment takes about 25% of your story.
Critical Choice is a segment that has your character make a decision, this is the point of no return. A major plot point happens here and your character is stuck on their journey. This is also where they have a false victory or a false defeat. This leads to the darkest moment, the lowest point for your character. It takes about 25% of your story.
Climax takes about 10% of your story and it’s the final battle, the final showdown. This is where your character solves the problem. It’s the most intense moment in your novel.
Reversal is the aftermath of the events that occurred. It depicts the change of your character. It’s also the space for you to tie up all the loose ends. It takes up to 10% of your story.
Resolution is the end of your story, the world after the final battle. Everything is back to normal but with consequences. This is where you have a deciding role to determine the tone and impression you want your novel to leave behind. It’s the final 5%.
I use this method of structuring my stories and novels but I also write description of every chapter and every character, expanding it until it feels like the story I want, then I rewrite it so that all the little things fit together nicely.
Additional Plot Writing Methods
Try using brainstorming technique. It’s a nice little mental exercise to get your juices flowing. First time I encountered it was in a workshop when I was a freshman. We plotted a novel/movie/story by adding our wild ideas one after another. It was about a man who was sitting in his dusty apartment during a firework show and he noticed something wrong – he noticed light from the sky – the time had stopped and he was the only one who was moving. So, there’s an idea that hasn’t been used, but for more help check out these ideas for a story!
Try mind-maps! I’ve used them for everything. Write down your characters name or your inciting incident or just the idea that keeps coming back to you. Make it be in the center of your paper. Now, write associations around it, connect them to more associations, follow your story as it develops. Have a couple of main branches such as ‘Past’, ‘Goal’ and ‘Challenges’ for a character. You’ll get the hang of it.
Try drawing your scenes! If you like drawing (you don’t have to be good at it), try drawing your scenes. The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road was made by drawing scenes long before any dialogue was added. So draw your novel scene by scene and it’s bound to inspire you!
Chapter By Chapter
Try chapter-by-chapter description. If you would like to improvise with your plot, try this method. It can get messy when you see you’ve made a mistake, but it’s fun and you’ll surely be productive! Sit down and just write chapter by chapter. That way you’ll have an idea of the word count as well. I’m working on a plot (just for fun) of a fantasy novel and I did most of my plot this way.
Try reverse outline! Start by writing down your resolution. Then see what kind of climax lead to the resolution. Step by step a conflict should appear naturally. It’s easy, it’s fun but if you mess up, you must be ready for a lot of thinking from another perspectives. Once you finish your outline, read it in the right order, sleep on it, read it again and rewrite it if needed. You’ll have a beautiful plot waiting to be written.
Split your novel into parts
You can split it by chapters or just in quarters, however you like – in the end you’ll have described every page of your novel either way. Describe every action that occurs in your novel and describe what caused it and what the reaction was.
Keep the plot short
Try describing events as short as possible. You’ll be tempted to describe the whole novel in a sentence as if you were telling a friend about your idea, but avoid it – just to keep a bit of space to change stuff.
The more times you find something wrong and rewrite it the better the result will be. Don’t be afraid of deleting your sentences. I understand that it can be hard if you had a really clever idea that doesn’t fit in (don’t push it).
Calculate the position of important actions
It wouldn’t be interesting to read a novel that keeps you blind the whole time and everything happens in the last chapter, would it? Or the other way around – even worse! So, try to position your main events at approximately equal distances one from another.
Have a subplot
You can’t keep your readers interested in one story for long, so have a smaller quest that kicks in at about a quarter of your main plot. Usually we see new romantic interest that starts developing at this point, but don’t be like everyone else and think about something new.
Don’t use your first idea
When you are describing your plot and you want something to happen to your protagonist to push them into the next scene, write down your fist three ideas of what that event might be. Now scratch them. Now think of a new one. This way you free yourself from the influences of other authors. Also, your audience will read it and notice it.
Write That Outline
Your outline represents every bit of your novel before it’s written. It’s like having all the pieces of the puzzle in the right order but still not connected.
First things first, try describing your novel in one sentence. After that in a paragraph, then in a full page. That way you’ll be able to expand on your idea. Branch it out and describe all the aspects of it. You’ll notice, this is somewhat the expanding snowflake plotting method. It’s simple and you should use it.
Decide on the length of your novel. It should be between 80,000 and 100,000 words long (but more on that later) as that is the usual length of novels by today’s standards. Still, you should feel free to experiment since in the end it’s about the quality of your words and not about the number.
I would suggest you set your goal straight, be honest about what you can do and schedule it carefully. Find out how many words a day you can write and do that every day. That way you’ll know exactly when your first draft will be complete.
Don’t rely heavily on your deadline, but do your best. If you don’t have a publisher and editor who are waiting for you to finish (and since you’re reading a blog on writing for beginners, I assume you don’t), then no one will mind if you procrastinate a bit. You should be happy when you do the best you can.
Now, writing an outline is just writing down all the pieces of this puzzle. You should have a piece of paper with your goal, descriptions, chapters, characters in front of you. From there, you can make changes to your novel as you go. After all, it’s still just your first draft – you’re free to try anything!
You shouldn’t just follow blindly, and I don’t expect you to, these instructions. Feel free to experiment with them as much as you want!
You should be ready to start plotting right now.
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.