Many a writer has had an idea for a great book pop into their heads, only to be unsure how to proceed. It happens more often for those still learning to write, or those attempting their first full-sized novel. The entire process can be intimidating if you've never done it before and aren't sure where to start.
Everyone has their own process, and finding that is part of learning to write. You might be a panster (one who writes "by the seat of their pants" with no clear idea where the story will go) or a plotter (one who plots out what will happen beforehand) and somewhere in between. If you don't where you stand yet, I find it a lot easier to plot when I have a foundation to work with, a template to guide me. Sometimes it's helpful to see the points A and B spelled out to figure out how to connect them.
Step One: Write down your idea in one sentence
The act of boiling your idea down to one sentence forces you to pinpoint what the story is about. The core conflict that will drive your novel and thus help you create the plot for it. The one thing that must be resolved or something bad will happen. If you can't do it in one sentence, then sum it up in two. If you can't do it in two, that's probably your plotting problem. Try taking some time to figure out what the story is about, then come back to this and find your plot. (Two posts to help with that: Start Me Up and Testing, Testing...)
Step Two: Find the problem
Something about this situation has gone wrong in some way. A person is behaving badly, someone is in trouble, a huge threat looms on the horizon. What big thing is about to go terribly wrong? It's going to relate to your one sentence from step one in some way, since that's the core conflict. This is going to be what your plot is trying to resolve. Every scene in your novel is going to connect to this in some way. Write down that problem. Feel free to expand on it if you want.
Step Three: Find the stakes
What is going to happen if this big thing isn't resolved? Something is going to go wrong for someone, and it'll be bad enough to capture a reader's attention for 100K words. This is where a lot of plots stumble because the stakes aren't fleshed out enough yet. The story doesn't have that "why should I care?" factor. You don't know why it all matters so it's harder to know what comes next. Write down why it's important the big thing not happen (or happen if the antag's goal is to stop it). This can be the general stakes or a specific character stakes (or a combination).
Some questions to ask if you aren't sure...
- Who will this hurt?
- Who will it help?
- What will happen if this big thing occurs?
- What will happen if this big thing doesn't occur?
- Why is this big thing a bad thing?
- Why must it be resolved?
Step Four: Find the protagonist
Since stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways, identifying your protagonist is key to making a plot work. They're going to have the most at stake and be the one most personally invested in this problem. I almost put this as step two or three, but often a story problem comes up before we figure out who is the right person to put into that problem. You might know the problem is with an evil wizard and a member of a nomadic tribe, but not know exactly who they are when you first think up the idea. Write down who this protagonist is and as much info about them as you'd like. Length (short or long) doesn't matter.
Some questions to ask...
- Who has the most to lose in the problem? (this will connect back to your stakes)
- Who has the ability to resolve that problem?
- Who is central to the conflict?
- Who has a perspective that no other person has that gives them insight to the problem?
Step Five: Find the antagonist
Someone or something is going to get in the way of the resolution of this big thing. There needs to be obstacles to overcome or the story will be boring. These obstacles will matter, and not simply be stuff in the way. Some stories won't have a person as the antagonist, it might be a natural disaster or a personal self vs self type story. For those stories, think about the specific thing in the way of your protag getting what they want. Write down the things in your protag's way, whomever, whatever and how many they may be.
Some questions to ask...
- Who or what has the ability to stop the protag?
- Why are they trying to stop them?
- Who or what has the ability to make the big thing happen?
- Why do they want to?
Step Six: Find the protagonist's goal
You should have a goal now, and based on your stakes, you should have an idea of why this is important to your protagonist and your antagonist. These are going to be the things that drive your story. These goals are where your plot is going to come from. Your protag (and antagonist) acting on these goals. Look back at step one. See that one sentence? If you don't have it already (some will) rewrite it using the info you just came up with. [Protagonist] is trying to solve [problem] or [stakes] will happen, and [antagonist] is trying to stop them for [these reasons].
This is the core conflict, the story problem, the keystone of your plot. When you get lost or don't know what to do next, you pull this out and it'll remind you what the point is.
Step Seven: Find the motivating factors
Look back at your protagonist, antagonist, the stakes, and the goal. Now think about why this matters to your protagonist and antagonist. Something will be driving them to act. Write those down. Add in the reasons why, the back story, whatever info helps understand why the protagonist and antagonist is acting this way. And do this for the antagonist, too, because the more you flesh him out the better villain he'll make. He'll have reasons for what he does, and that'll make it easier for you to plot how he'll act, which in turns makes the protagonist act, which makes plot.
Some things to ask...
- Why is this important to the protagonist/antagonist?
- What do they personally have to lose if the big thing isn't resolved?
- Why don't they want that to happen?
- What are they willing to risk or do to resolve it?
- What are they not willing to do? (is there a line they won't cross?)
- Who do they have supporting them in this goal?
- Who is against them?
- What weaknesses do they have that will hurt them in this?
- What strengths do they have that will help them?
- What are they afraid of happening?
Some of this may look like character building, and it partially is, but what you want to focus on here are things that will directly affect plot. A fear of snakes probably won't matter one whit unless the story happens to revolve around being trapped on a plane with snakes.
Step Eight: Finding the big moments
By this point, you should have a general idea of how the story will play out, or at least what matters within that story. Now, look for a few key turning points or events that you can frame your plot around. Think of them as story anchors. Write down those moments.
A few common key moments:
- What is the first moment in which your protagonist realizes they have a problem? (this will relate to the core problem)
- What is the moment where the protagonist discovers who or what is in his way?
- What is the moment where they try to act and fail for the first time?
- What is the moment where they feel it's pointless to even go on or they want to give up?
- What is the moment where they decide they're going to risk something to fix this problem?
- What is the moment when they resolve this problem?
You might not be able to answer all of them, and that's okay. Just think about them and how they relate to your story. You might even try to answer them even if it's vague.
Step Nine: Brainstorm
Next, look for any other moments or ideas floating around in your head. Chances are you have some ideas of things you want to have happen or cool scenes in mind. Look to see how those moments can connect to the big problem or any of the things in steps one through eight. Maybe some would make good scenes, others good stakes, maybe a good trigger to launch a problem. Write them down with as much (or as little) detail as you have.
Step Ten: Summarize
Now tell your story. It doesn't have to be good, just start at the beginning and tell it as if you were telling it to a friend. Add back story and flashbacks. Use adverbs. Do all the stuff you're not supposed to if you want, because this is all about getting an idea of the story and plot down on paper. Don't worry if you can't figure out exactly where things fit or how. It's okay at this stage to be vague and say "hero defeats the bad guy and saves the idol" and have no clue how that's going to happen. It's okay to even say "hero makes a tough choice here, and is haunted by that choice" and have no clue what details will go there. It's even good to say "hero fails and the stakes go up." You might not know how yet, but you know that at that point in the story, something needs to happen to escalate the stakes.
The goal is to get a general feel for how the plot unfolds and what key moments go where so you have a guide to write to. For pantsers, this might be enough (or too much) and you jump right in to the book. For plotters, you'll take this and start breaking it down further. You might have one page or thirty pages. Either way, you should have enough information here to identify the goals, stakes, and potential problems facing your characters.
What's holding you back from starting your novel? If you have started it, what's your novel plan?