Monday, February 03, 2020

Author, We Have a Problem: 4 Tips on Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I ask writers what they struggle with the most, plot is often at the top of the list. Here are some tips to make plotting easier.

Despite their challenges, plots are really simple things to create (no, really,). A plot is just the events that make up your story. It's what happens in the novel, and what the characters do.

Now the hard part, and the part writers often struggle with, is crafting a good plot. Because plotting is easy, but plotting in a way that best serves your story is much harder. You can't just have "stuff" happening--all that "stuff" has to have a point and tell the story you want to tell, in the way you want to tell it.

This is why the same story can be told a million different ways, because the plot can always be different.

This is an important distinction, because it allows you the freedom to change your plot without feeling like you're losing your story. 

For example, I re-wrote my novel Blue Fire five times before I was happy with the plot. The plot changed constantly, the story never did. To use my house analogy: You build a house once, but you redecorate it every year.

The house is story. Decorating is plot. If you don't like the decor, change it. It's still your house.

Some key things to remember when plotting:

1. The goal of plot is to illustrate your story

If your story is about a soldier trying to save his king, then the plot is going to be the steps in which that soldier takes to save his king. Subplots will naturally arise, but even they will illustrate some aspect that ties back to that main storyline.

The plot resolved the core conflict or story problem.

I often suggest writing down that one sentence that says what your story is about and taping it to your monitor to remind yourself what the end goal is. When you think up a scene, look at that sentence and ask yourself how it connects to your story. It can be subtle, it can be an intermediate step to a bigger goal, but it'll be something that has to happen in order for the core conflict to be resolved. If there's no connection to the main goal, odds are the scene can go. It's not advancing your story.

It doesn't have to be a direct line connection, though. 

If the story goal is to break the king out of prison, all kinds of additional problems might pop up while trying to break him out. Those smaller obstacles create plot, because they all make it harder for the protagonist to achieve his goal. The end goal is still the same and that end goal (freeing the king) is what's critical to the story.

(Here's more on Why Your Plot Isn’t Working)

2. Never let the plot dictate your story

It can guide it, influence it, enhance it, but it's easy to write a scene that's really cool, but not right for the story. And since you love that scene, you bend over backward to try to make it fit. If you're forcing it, it's probably not working, no matter how cool or how well written the scene may be.

Cut it, save it in another file, but don't let it waylay your story.

Say, for example, while trying to free the king, the protagonist discovers the warden is corrupt and planning to kill a slew of wrongly imprisoned political prisoners captured when the king was captured. This is a bad thing, but it has nothing to do with the story goal of saving the king.

It might work as a nice inner conflict (the protagonist has to choose between abandoning the prisoner and saving his king), but to go and actually try to save those prisoners is very likely going to waylay your story and send the plot off on a tangent. Will that scene be cool? Probably. Will it have stakes and goals and everything it needs? Sure. Does it advance the story? Probably not.

Why? Because if the stakes don't escalate, and it's basically the same goal with smaller stakes. 

Saving prisoners the protagonist (and reader) doesn't know or care about is a lot less important that saving the king he adores who is needed by the people.

And that's the tricky part, because it really seems like it should be a great subplot, right? But those prisoners aren't keeping the protagonist from anything. They're a sad situation to be sure, but leaving them there isn't going to affect his goal of saving the king at all. He doesn't have to free them to free the king. He might want to, might be haunted by it because he didn't, but it's not a plot-advancing goal. It's a delaying goal. It's plot fluff to delay your protagonist from achieving his goal instead of something designed to make it harder and raise the stakes of that goal.

However, when you find yourself in a situation where you write something unexpected that looks cool, you can start thinking about ways in which saving those prisoners does directly affect saving the king or a bigger story goal. 

Maybe the king needs to be the one to save them to gain supporters. Maybe it turns out later one of those prisoners is important to the cause or the king in some way. Instead of sending your protagonist right at it, it might be a nifty seed to plant that will later be exactly the right problem for the plot.

(Here's more on Don't Let Your Plot Hijack Your Story)

3. Characters create the plot

Since stories are about characters, characters act and create plot, which in turn illustrate a story. So, characters and their choices in the story are where your plot is going to come from. Their actions drive the story. They're going to want things, want to avoid thing, want to cover things up. They're not just going to sit there and do nothing. They're going to act in some way.

This is a biggie, so I'm going to go into more detail on this over the next few days. It deserves its own post.

4. Plot needs stakes

It's probably more accurate to say characters need stakes, but if there's nothing to lose, the plot won't matter. Something to lose is probably more important that something to gain, crazy as that sounds. It's the struggle that makes the story compelling, the risk that things might go wrong and the protagonist will fail and face terrible consequences.

Why someone acts is a huge driving force behind plot, and stakes are a big part of that. 

It's what turns a bunch of scenes into a story, because the events suddenly matter and aren't just characters acting out a script.

This also deserves its own post, since characters and stakes are key to a good plot.

Plotting can be challenging because there really is no limit to what you can do. But if you keep your core conflict in mind, it makes it a lot easier to identify what advances your story and what's just more plot.

How do you like to plot your novel? Do you plan in advance or figure it out as you go?

*Originally published May 2010. Last update February 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great advice! I especially like the idea of writing down a one-sentence description of what your story is about to help keep you on track.

  2. I just wrote my own post about plotting, and was also surprised by how difficult it was to explain something that felt intuitive. Nice job - and thank you.

  3. This is a FANTASTIC post. I really like points one and two - I've never thought about it quite like that before.

    P.S. I just started reading THE SHIFTER (after remembering that I'd read about it on Kristin Nelson's blog last year), and it's really sucked me in:) I love the story world (especially that it's more Agrabah than Camelot), and Nya is such a readable, relatable narrator. Looking forward to the rest of it, and looking forward to BLUE FIRE.

  4. I loved this post. I've already made the 1-liner about my story and have now taped it to my desk. Great piece of advice. Thanks!

  5. House = story. Decorating = plot.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  6. Yes, I'm with Ronda. Using the house, decorating analogy makes it all so clear. I especially found the bit on sub plot helpful. I often go off on tangents, then wonder why I get stuck in a corner. This advice will help me no end. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for the great post. I am looking forward to the areas you are going to expand on. No matter how much I read about plot - it's still so tricky for me to balance out all the components.

  8. Some great advice and thanks for pointing out those great scenes that are fun to write, look brilliant but actively derail us from advancing our plot.

  9. Ah yes, the lovely scenes that don't help the story. So hard to let go. Sigh. Good things to remember.

  10. Thanks all! (and thanks Kristia V, glad you liked it) It's been interesting trying to think up ways to help plot, and has certainly made me look at my own techniques more closely.

  11. Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing that you re-wrote Blue Fire 5 times. For me, plot is a tricky thing to get right, and it feels like a set back every time I need to revamp.

    It is encouraging to know that even pubbed authors may need to do some plot-tweaking from time to time.

  12. I practiced a twitter pitch today since I saw another blog host a twitter pitch challenge, and I realized I'd been focusing on the wrong details as my plot. Cramming the goal of a story into a twitter length blurb really forces you to get to the point! I'll take your advice and keep my twitter pitch close by when I'm writing.

  13. "The goal of plot is to illustrate your story"

    I love that. I kind of lost sight of that for a while.

    A problem I was having whenever I outlined was that I kept creating a reactive protagonist, and the story wasn't strong enough.

    Now I look for where my characters can collide with plot and setting, and place them at the center of that conflict, not on the outskirts reacting to it.

    This was a big thing for me to finally understand.

    Speaking of plotting. I'm outlining my Epic Fantasy novel, which I want to be a standalone,one where I leave room for there to be sequels. But I don't really know how to go about it.
    Any tips Janice?

  14. It's a tricky thing plotting, expecially when you have scenes that are great within themselves but don't move the story forward. I just read a whole book full of them. Most of the reviewers didn't seem to notice, but I couldn't finish the book because each scene was a different version of the same thing and it got really boring. Also the character motivations were very unclear.
    I find the screenplay approach to plotting works well to get the overall shape. I wrote a post on it that people may find helpful

  15. I might have to try that one-sentence tip during June for BuNoWriMo :)

  16. CherylAnne, most welcome. I tell folks about BF for that reason. Some books are rough and take a lot of work before we get them right. Happens to all of us and it's all part of writing :)

    Stephsco, grats! Pitches and queries are amazing plotting tools. They force you to cut away all the fluff.

    Sam, it's easy to, especially if you're not sure what that core conflict is. For the fantasy, think about how the events of book one might trigger or cause other issues that will have to be solved. Whatever the main goal is in book one gets solved, but it might create another problem they don't know about until later. Then that can be the plot for book two.

    You can also look/create enough inherent conflict in your world so there are more problems that can come up later. Small skirmishes between border cities that might turn into full scale wars or whatever. Things that can be part of the world building, but might develop into more when you need it.

    Also look at your characters and what they want. If they don't have strong goals and solid motivations for going after those goals, you'll get reactive protagonists again. (very common if you have ideas, but no real goals or stakes).

    In the series I'm working on now, the plot wraps up for book one, but solving the story problem creates a situation that I can tell future stories from. Each book will deal with a problem, solve it, and in the process, uncover something else that has to be dealt with.

    One thing to be wary about, is having the goal be the same thing book after book. If it feels like the same thing with different details, you'll likely bore your readers and it'll feel repetitious. So you'll want to focus on different aspects and give your characters new problems to overcome and new ways to grow. Working out their inner conflicts through the external goals can help here. Figure out how you want them to grow and what kinds of problems will help facilitate that.

  17. Hi Janice! Another great post; your thoughts on plotting if the struggle is internal, vs. an external goal? Do you think it makes subplots harder to define wrt achieving goal? With an internal plot, is the key to making it specific? E.g., "Tom wants to find himself."

    OH boy.

  18. Janice,
    I can't tell you how much your post are helping me right now. I am going back and rethinking so much. I had come to a stand still, and your posts have given me a new perspective. Thanks.

  19. "think about how the events of book one might trigger or cause other issues that will have to be solved. Whatever the main goal is in book one gets solved, but it might create another problem they don't know about until later. Then that can be the plot for book two."

    For example, two sides are at war for control of a certain region. A native to the land, the protagonists, picks a side to fight with and the war ends with the protagonists side victorious. Solving their goal for book one.

    Then a plot for book two could be. The side that the protagonist choose controls the region, but they turn out to be so oppressive that the protagonists leads an army in revolution against them.
    A basic and cliched plot, but is this what you mean?

  20. Staceylee, I do think internal struggles are harder to write because they often are the "to find himself" type, which gives you too broad a goal to work with plotwise. It's a great character arc, and even a good internal struggle, but it's what he DOES to find himself that actually creates your plot.

    You might try looking at it from more of a "to find himself, Tom does X" and work from there. Also remember that people need a reason to act, so odds are something triggered Tom's need to suddenly go find himself. Good chance that's central to his goal and what's actually driving him. It's by resolving that need/goal that he actually finds himself.

    Even though the motivations are internal, and the struggle is internal, plot is all about the external events and actions. It's what the character does to resolve that struggle that creates the plot.

    Sheila, aw, thanks, I'm glad it's helping you with your writing. That's the whole point of the blog :)

    Sam, yeppers, you got it.

  21. Staceylee, duh, I meant to add links for you with more info and forgot :) Here they are:

    On internal and external core conflicts:

    On character and story arcs

  22. Thank you for such excellent and precise advice :-)

  23. nice answer janice, am looking forward to reading your other plot articles!

  24. GREAT post - I look forward to reading more! :) e