Monday, January 11, 2010

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together, Plotting a Novel: Part One

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My plotting process has been pieced together from a bunch of different sources over many years. Most notably, the books Plot, by Ansen Dibble, Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham, and the structure musings of Alexandra Sokoloff. Other bits and pieces have found their way in from various blogs, conferences and simple trial and error. I found that following any of these verbatim never worked for me, but when I found gems that fit with my style, it made the whole process easier. And that process is definitely evolutionary.

My first step is to create a general outline. I'm a structure gal, so I like to know the major events that make up my story before I write it. I don't always know the specifics at this point, but certain things need to happen at certain times. Those steps are:

Act One End
Mid-Point Reversal
Act Two End
Act Three End

I also use a basic size template, so I know roughly how many words my first draft will be, and where these events will fall. This changes by the final draft (usually another 10K words and a chapter or two), but it gives me guidelines to work with and helps me stay on track. My YA/MG template aims for 60K words, 24 chapters, and 2500 words per chapter. (This word count breakdown is especially helpful if you have a tendency to write long. You can easily and immediately see when you've gone over and are getting off on a tangent.)

So this puts these events around here:

Opening - Chapter One
Act One End - Chapter Six
Mid-Point Reversal - Chapter Twelve
Act Two End - Chapter Eighteen
Act Three Starts- Chapter Nineteen
Climax Starts - Chapter Twenty-Two

If I find I need more or fewer chapters, I just adjust. If one of these events happens sooner or later, no problem. The goal isn't to follow this exactly and make it fit, it's to guide me so the story unfolds at the pace I've found gives me the best story for my style.

My first pass at outlining will look something like this (but with the details of the actual story of course):

Opening - Intro of protag getting into trouble
Act One End - First major problem that throws a wrench into protag's plans and forces them to act outside of their comfort zone.
Mid-Point Reversal - Unexpected event that sends the entire story sideways.
Act Two End - Protagonist's actions have led them to a point where they can't back down, but they'll need to sacrifice something to continue.
Act Three Starts - Protagonist has acted in ways to bring them in direct conflict with the antagonist, it's do or die, all or nothing time.
Climax Starts - Showdown with the antagonist.

Now, some of you might be thinking, "but that's so formulaic!" But I don't find it restrictive because anything can happen at these moments in any way. It can be quiet, loud, action-packed, subtle. It can be emotional or external, personal or grand scale. Most stories have a basic formula and yet every one turns out differently. This breakdown helps me think up scenes that escalate my stakes and keeps the story moving, because it gives me general parameters.

Once I have this basic frame, I start thinking up how each chapter will go. I write a loose paragraph (sometimes more) per chapter, keeping the next event signpost in mind to guide me. It's mostly a goal-action-result set up, where I list what my protag is after, what she does to get it, what happens, and where the results of that action send her.


Chapters One - Five

I like to start off my books with a traditional "show the protagonist living their daily life" scene. Let the reader see what's normal for them, so when I start tearing their lives to shreds, the reader can understand what those changes mean and what the protagonist loses. But this doesn't mean just show any old day in their life. You still need to do all the things a good opening does to hook the reader. Give them a character they can identify with (or be fascinated by), make them care about this character, and give them a problem they want to see solved so they keep reading. It also needs to introduce the reader to the world and give them a general sense of what they're about to get themselves into.

I like to use opening scenes that show a common problem my protagonist has. Ideally, this problem will somehow transition them into whatever the story problem for the novel is. It shows off the best traits of my protagonist so readers can get to know them a little and like them. It also shows some of their faults so the reader can see how they might screw up their own lives in the near future. Basically capture the essence of the character for good and bad.

Then, I let the story unfold as the protagonist makes her decisions and gets herself into trouble. I free write at this point, using any notes I've taken and thinking of things that might get in the way of this opening moment, and how Act One ends. Typically, this is when the protagonist starts discovering there's a big problem and what that means, and she acts in ways to fix it. Those actions make things worse (or they uncover things to show that things are worse than she thought) and eventually, something happens that turns it into a whole new ballgame. This is around Chapter Five. Often, this is the inciting event you hear people talk about all the time, though that can happen earlier (a lot of mine happen in Chapter One). Stakes are raised here in a significant way, but no too high so you can't go higher later. It's a delicate balance.

Act One End (and Act Two Starts) 

Chapters Six through Eleven

This is where the protagonist is trying to solve her problems, the antagonist keeps getting in her way, the stakes keep escalating and everything leads to the Mid-Point Reversal. At the end of Act One, the protagonist has just learned something major, did something that ended badly, or is put in an impossible situation and forced to act outside her comfort zone, and this propels the action forward. Events are often the consequences of whatever was done or learned in the opening chapters.

I like to use my middles to ramp up the emotional punch of a story, so the things I choose to do here will often make my protagonist examine aspects of her life or beliefs. Conflict is your ally here, so think about things that will make your protagonist's life harder and cause her to really struggle to get whatever goal you created for her at the end of Act One. One trap you can find yourself in is crafting scenes that are exciting, but don't actually go anywhere. Middles are notorious for sagging and loss of focus is a common reason why. Action that doesn't advance a story is just as bad as boring scenes that don't advance the story, but they're just sneakier so you don't always notice them.

I like to keep my story moving by having something important happen every chapter. To avoid being repetitive, I mix the type of event up. One chapter might reveal a major weakness that will come into play later, another might reveal a secret or important piece of information, one might show key steps that upset or advance inner character growth, or end with cliffhangers that advance plot. Some of these things will be subtle and mixed in with other aspects, like a major plot point that results not only in the next goal, but in a character revelation or step of growth. Layers are great ways to add depth and keep the story from becoming a "this chapter does this, that chapter does that" and making it feel like a series of steps. You want a sense of unfolding story, not a series of things to wade through to find out how it ends.

Mid-Point Reversal 

Chapter Twelve

This is like my mini-climax. I like it to be something unexpected that really surprises the reader and hopefully not something they saw coming. Often it gives the protagonist an opportunity to demonstrate what she's willing to do to win (mirroring the climax in some way, literal or thematic), or what's important to her at the most basic level. It can also challenge everything she thought she knew and force her to change her world view. Or do both at the same time. After this moment, things usually can't continue as always, because too much has changed, either internally, externally or both.

One of the things I like about the Mid-Point Reversal, is that it helps combat the boggy middle syndrome. It gives you something major to work toward the first half of the book, so the story always feels like it's building toward something. Then, it shakes things up enough so that you have new things to advance the story with for the back half. And of course, it'll up the stakes again in a pretty big way. It's like that old movie trailer joke: "This time it's personal!"

Be wary of shoving the story too far, though. Unexpected is good, but don't turn it into a whole different story. The surprise is a great way to deepen the meaning of the story and create a much more personal sense of stakes and conflict.

(Here's part two)


  1. Wow! I am so impressed with how well thought out your vision of your story is. This is a great post for the new year. And yes, I'm starting something new too-book 2 in my series. Maybe sometime you can do a post about how, when you're writing a series, how much back story & explanation is necessary to share in the first chapter or so to bring the reader who may not have started with book 1 up to speed. I think this is most of an issue in book 2. Thanks for the great post.

  2. This is an excellent post, Janice, thank you!

  3. Oh... wow. I'm usually a pantser, but I certainly internalize this and do it as I write. This is a brilliant post. I'm going to go add a link to it!!

    (PS: your interview is up!)

  4. I'm definitely a pantser.. but I secretly long to be more structured. This was a great post. Who, by the way - is your agent? I linked to your post today.. cheers :)

  5. I came over from Beth's blog (and so glad I did). Excellent post. I'll actually be printing it out. :)

  6. This was a terrific post. I will soon be starting my outline for book 2 of my WIP and I will keep this guide handy. Thanks!

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this. We study character and plot development so much but rarely consider structure, which is the skeleton it's all hung on.

  8. I found you through Beth's blog and am in awe of your structure and organization! I am definitely not an outliner or planner -- but my book ended up at 60K w/ 24 chapters -- so I'll have to see if the rest fits too. Thanks.

  9. Wow, this does help put things in perspective. Thanks,

  10. Wonderful post, Janice! And so timely, too, as I'm working on revisions for my MG novel. Your organization amazes me! THANKS SO MUCH for breaking down your outline like this! I'm definitely posting a link to this on my blog. :)

  11. Awesome! That's one thing we have in common, Janice - I'm structural! Though my style is different from yours, but no matter; I've learned a great deal from this post.

    Shifter 3? Already? Does that mean you're done with 2? If so, then, can we see like a snippet? Pls? :D

  12. Are a lot of young adult books written with this three-act structure? And what about science fiction? Who are the most notable formulaic writers?

  13. Excellent post! I'm going to bookmark this one. I'm having trouble with the middle of my WIP now, and I believe this will help me sort things out. Thank you!

  14. Thanks for this Janice! I'm also getting ready to tackle that sticky middle section, and this post will be very helpful.

  15. Thanks all, glad I could help. Welcome new folks to the blog, and thanks Beth for the interview and review!

    Glen, there's a sneak peek of the opening over at The Healing Wars blog. Probably more will appear as the year progresses and we get closer to release date. Shifter 2 is done, though it's still going through the final copy edits and whatnot.

    Actless, I talked some about your questions in Tuesday's post, but a lot of books use the Three-Act Structure, not just YA. It'll work just fine for sci fi. Mickey Spillane used to say his formula was so fixed that when he needed money he'd just bang out a new book. Took him like a week or something ridiculous. (I'm paraphrasing of course). A good "formula" is one that gives a book and a writer a solid foundation, but is transparent to the reader. And that's probably a good topic for a future post!

  16. This is excellent! I usually get cowed with words like "mid-point reversal" but your explanations made it clear for me.


  17. Interesting to see how my draft fits into your basic structure. Not everything lines up. My first major upheaval is in chapter 2. But I have a couple chapters designated for the midway point that resemble the mid-point reversal. Now to just fill in everything in between and beyond.

  18. Oh, stuff doesn't always line up in mine either, LOL.It fluctuates as I write, but it's a great starting point.

  19. Thanks for a great post. I'm analyzing the plot structure of a novel before my next rewrite. I've read and used Jack Bickham's ideas but I really like the way you've laid things out. Structured but flexible.

  20. I know you wrote this post a long time ago, but I'm hoping you'll still respond. I like how you breakdown the chapters and where each event should take place. So, let's say my novels were 10,000, 10 chapters, where would these events fall?

    1. Act one, around 2500, midpoint at 5000, act three at 7500. 10K is more of a long short story than an novel, but the breakdown is similar.

      For chapters (harder to break this down with so few chapter):

      Opening - Chapter One
      Act One End - Chapter Two/Three
      Mid-Point Reversal - Chapter Five/Six
      Act Two End - Chapter Eight
      Act Three Starts- Chapter Nine
      Climax Starts - Chapter Ten

    2. I do plan to write short stories so this will help. Thanks so much!

    3. Can you tell me what it would look like at 50,000 words, 20 chapters? And can you tell me how you figured it out (I know there's a formula) so I can change it up if I need to? Thanks

    4. It's a rough percentage, and you can use either words or chapters. 25% for act one (Opening scene is naturally the beginning, and the act one end is at the 25% mark), 50% for the middle or act two (midpoint is at 50%, act two end at 75%) and the last 25% is act three (act three starts at the 75% mark, climax around the 90% mark).

      I start with the midpoint and work from there. So for 50K and 20 chapters, the midpoint would be around 25K and the end of chapter ten or eleven. Act one ends around 12,500 words or chapter 5. Act two ends at 62,500 words or chapter 15. Act three start at 62,500 and chapter sixteen. Climax starts a few chapters before the end.

      There's wiggle room of course, and these don't always fall exactly, but it's a good general structure to lay your plot over.

      This post breaks things down further and might be helpful as well:

      It also has some other structure options that might appeal to you.

    5. I want to do it by chapters, so how do you know where everything falls by chapters? For instance, you said that the midpoint would end around Chapter 10 or 11. How did you figure that part out? Sorry for all the questions. :/ I'm probably making this more difficult for myself than it really needs to be. And I was NEVER good at math. LOL

    6. hehe, it's not that complicated :) If your book was 50K and 20 chapters, then half of that (50%) is 25K and 10 chapters. The middle would be 25K and 10 chapters. But since the middle usually is at the end of the chapter, you could have it in chapter 10 or 11 depending how the plot unfolded. Those two chapters are "the middle" more or less.

      I look to see what chapters fall at those word count or page count percentages. It's harder to do with chapters because they can vary. If one chapter is 20 pages and another is 3, the balance is off. But if your chapters are all roughly the same size you could do that.

      The basic percentage break down is 25% - 50% - 25%. Or, you could think of it in 25% chunks. The first half of act two is the ramp up to the midpoint, the second half is the ramp down to the climax. That way you have four quarter and you break the novel up that way.