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Typewriter with Plot buttons, vintage

How To Plot A Novel

One of the most crucial skills for a new author who wants to write a novel to develop is learning how to plot a novel. A plot is a means of organizing the main points into a sequence of events to form a beginning, middle, and end. This article will explain in detail how to plot a novel.

Now some writers will dive right into the first page with little or no thought to plotting before they write. I would NOT recommend this, especially for beginning authors.

Many writers believe that the plot is the most important component of a novel. The two other central parts of a novel are characterization and setting, both of which authors must also master. Whichever you believe is most important, one thing is certain. You have got to have a plot that includes all the essential elements. 

But how do you go about creating one? What should you include in a plot? That’s what this article is all about.

Here is what we’re going to cover in detail:

  • The Five Major Elements Of A Plot
  • The Seven Types Of Plot
  • The Main Character And The Antagonist And Why You Need To Consider Them As You Plot Your Novel
  • Subplots
  • Story Structure And The Plot
  • How to Plot A Novel Using The Three-Act Structure
  • How to Create A Plot With Multiple Points of View

The Five Major Elements Of A Plot

There are generally five key elements that writers use to slowly reveal the events in a story. Some say seven or eight, but the five elements below are always included. Together they comprise the story’s plot.

  • The exposition: This is the beginning of the novel. The reader is introduced to the major characters, the backstory, and the setting. The main conflict is also sometimes introduced at this point to entice readers and keep them turning the pages.
  • Rising action: At this point, the conflict becomes clear and begins to confront or challenge the main character, often in the form of a crisis that she can no longer ignore or avoid. It becomes front and center, and she is forced to address it, although she generally has varying levels of success in dealing with the conflict at this point.
  • The climax: This is the pivotal point in which the conflict or crisis comes to a head. The main character is forced to make a choice. That choice often leads to a turning point in the main character’s life.
  • Falling action: The action begins to wind down as the main character deals with the consequences, positive or negative, of the choice(s) made earlier.
  • Resolution: By this point, the conflict has been resolved, and we see the main character living with her choice(s). The ending may or may not be a happy one.

We will explore all of this in greater detail in a bit. First, I want to mention several plot types, which might also help you get your arms around the story you want to write and how to plot it.

The Seven Types Of Plot

In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, published in 2004 after thirty-four years in the making, Christopher Booker describes the following basic plot types. He says that one of them appears in every kind of story, whether a novel or screenplay or something else.

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

The Seven Basic Plots got a lot of attention. If you really want to dig deeply into plotting, you may want to consider it.

You can find out more about the book and the seven plot types on the Wikipedia page. The New York Times also wrote a book review that can be found here. 

And here is a link to the title on Amazon.*

The Main Character And The Antagonist

Before you begin to plot your novel, you’ll want to consider important points about the main character that will influence how the novel unfolds, such as motivations, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. 

If you haven’t already done this or you feel that your character needs more work before you begin to plot, see Create and Use a Character Development Worksheet. It includes a lot of helpful information about developing your characters as well as a number of worksheets that will help get you going.

You should also give some thought to the antagonist or villain and how he or she (or it) will challenge the main character. You can use the worksheets linked above.

Subplots

You’ll also want to consider whether to include subplots. A subplot is a plot that is subordinate to the main plot. Most novels have at least one subplot and often they have more. Think of a subplot as a side story. It should be related to the main plot but not as important or consequential.

A subplot can be a clever and useful way of developing your secondary characters. It can help readers develop an interest in and empathy for secondary characters. An example of a subplot used in this way might be the drama taking place in the family of a secondary character in which the main character offers guidance and advice.

A subplot might even involve the main character directly. An example of this would be a story in which the main character is a detective solving a murder mystery but who is also having problems in her marriage due to the demands of the job. 

Such a subplot would have many advantages. It would give the writer a chance to show an additional dimension of the main character, help to round out the main character, and add drama to the story.

Story Structure And The Plot

OK, NOW you are ready to start working on the plot for your novel. There are a number of ways to go about this. One of the most common is to create an outline of sorts, using a predefined story structure. 

Some of you will likely turn your nose up at the mere thought of a “story structure.” It sounds rigid and unyielding and goes against the freedom that allows a writer to be creative. Right?

WRONG. In reality, the story structure frees the writer to be more creative as she writes because she will have worked out a lot of the details of the story beforehand. She can be confident that the important points will be covered and that the story will follow a logical path toward a conclusion. 

Simply put, story structure is a GUIDE for plotting or laying out the beginning, middle, and end of your novel, taking care to follow the plot elements mentioned earlier. That does NOT mean that the story is fixed in stone. The story can and WILL change constantly as you work on it. You are the author and you always remain in control. 

Fiction authors have several types of story structures to choose from to plot a novel. Some you may have heard of are The Hero’s Journey, the Six-Act Structure, and the Three-Act Structure. 

The three-act structure is probably best for beginning writers because it’s relatively simple. Yet it allows the writer to include the five plot elements needed to craft a successful story. 

How to Plot A Novel Using The Three-Act Structure

Three Act Structure Graph

Act One: Exposition, Setup

This is where you introduce the main character, as well as her goals and motivations. Is she trying to find true love? Or maybe she is desperately seeking the job of her dreams as a television sportscaster.

The backstory also begins to unfold in the first act, either in snippets here and there, or perhaps in a flashback scene. 

Plot Point 1: Rising Action
Probably the most important feature of act one is that this where we get a hint of the ultimate conflict to come, the conflict that will dominate throughout the novel. The conflict may stem from something within the main character, such as a flaw, or it may come from without, in the form of something or someone that challenges the main character. 

At this point, the main character is often unaware of the challenge or conflict or chooses to ignore it. But it’s beginning to affect her life, and we, the readers, are aware of it.

Act Two: Conflict

In act two, the conflict introduced in the first act is brought to the forefront and eventually builds up to the point where the main character can no longer ignore or avoid it.  She has to take action to address it. 

She may make progress at times, or seem to, but then she falters and falls back. Think up and down, or two steps forward, one step back. This is how an author creates drama.

Act two, or the middle of the novel, is the lengthiest portion of the novel and is often the most challenging to write.

Plot Point 2: Climax
The protagonist is struggling with the conflict and then BOOM! along comes plot point 2, a huge challenge that knocks her off her feet. Now she must adjust and conquer the challenge or face defeat. This is the climax of the novel, the moment that everything prior has been leading up to. 

Act Three: Resolution

In the third act, the main character is dealing with the choice(s) she made in act two, and readers get a glimpse of how she is handling her new life, or at least her new normal.

Here is a chart that you can use to begin thinking about your plot and subplots. You’ll likely want to expand on this in another format later as you add more detail.

Novel Plotting Chart

How to Create A Plot With Multiple Points Of View

Writing from multiple perspectives can be especially challenging when it comes to plotting–and writing–your novel. I did this for my first novel and would NOT RECOMMEND it for your first novel. 

Why? Because it gets complicated. Each main character will need her own plot or storyline. You’ve seen how involved plotting a novel for one main character can get. More than one main character means more than one plot. It’s basically like writing multiple novels but even harder in some ways, because you have the additional challenge of getting all the plots to work together smoothly.  

I wish someone had explained this to me before I took this on!

Nevertheless, if you’re determined, here are a few tips that I learned the hard way.

  • As I said above, you should create a separate plot or storyline for each main character. That means separate goals and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, conflicts, resolutions, and everything else.
  • You also have to intertwine and harmonize the stories in a way that makes sense. Each character may lead an entirely separate life, but the reader has to understand why you’re telling both or all of their stories in this one book.
  • The timing of events for each character becomes especially important and challenging to coordinate. I created separate worksheets with timelines for each main character with events, dates, and times. I also created a master worksheet that combined the events, dates, and times for all of the main characters.

Finally, take a lot of breaks. I recommend this when writing any novel but especially when you’re tackling more than one main character. It will be important to step back now and then to clear your head.


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