Friday, August 27, 2010

Parts is Parts: Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every story starts with an idea. It can be a premise, a character, a line of dialog, something that makes you stop and think, "Hey, that would make a cool story." Sometimes you get a developed plot in your head right away, other times it takes some work to figure out how to illustrate that great idea.

There are usually a half dozen or so major moments in your story called set pieces. The events the reader waits for and the turning points of the story.Those fall out like this:

Opening scene
Inciting event
Act one crisis
Act two revelation
Midpoint reversal
Act three disaster
Wrap up

To start plotting, jot down some ideas about each of these major events. They can be as detailed or as vague as you want at this point. Just get your brain thinking about them.

Opening Scene:
The opening scene is, of course, the way the book opens. It introduces the protagonist and the world and gives the reader a taste why this person is different or special enough to ask someone to read about them. An opening scene needs to grab the reader, and to do that, something needs to be going on. In many cases, the plot hasn't officially started yet because you need some set up before the protagonist is set on the path of the main story.

The trick here is to find an event or problem that leads to, or connects with, and plot point later in the story. You'll need a interesting goal, stakes, and some intriguing story question to keep readers turning the page.

The Inciting Event
The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion. It's usually the thing the query hook is based on, and what you'd find in the back cover copy. Sometimes this is the opening scene, other times it's in the first 30-50 pages of the book. But wherever it occurs, it's the one thing that if it didn't happen, the rest of the novel wouldn't have happened either.

Act One Crisis
This is when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your protagonist has just discovered she has a big problem and needs to solve it or else. Typically, this is what happened when she tried to deal with whatever she encountered in the inciting event.

Act Two Revelation
The protagonist has done some digging and found out things are not what they seem. A secret is revealed that makes it clear she's a bit in over her head, but she has no choice but to go on. Or else. (Never forget the or else.) This can also lead to or be a crisis like act one, but plots that dangle secrets to be revealed in the quieter (action-wise) moments usually hook the reader better, so it's helpful to plan a few from the start.

Midpoint Reversal
I like to send the story sideways in the middle and give readers something they weren't expecting. The reader thinks they know where the story is going, but wait! Suddenly it all changes. A word of caution here: Don't sent it sideways just for the sake of sending it sideways. The twist needs to be something that works with your story and fits the overall plot.

Act Three Disaster
This is the race to the climax, so things are usually pretty bad by now. The protagonist has a big plan to save the day, and of course, she fails miserably. It was one of those all or nothing plans, so she's way worse off now than she's been the entire story. This is often referred to as the "all is lost" or "dark night of the soul" moment.

The final showdown with the big bad guy. The protagonist has to face off with whomever or whatever has been making their lives miserable for 300 pages, and because they've learned XYZ over the course of the book, they win by a truly stunning and surprising ploy.

Wrap Up
The happily ever after. Or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing. What the protagonist is going to do now that they've saved the day.

I've found that taking some time to figure out even a few of these helps create structural guidelines for the story, and that makes it easier to plot the entire book. Like street signs to follow so you know how to craft scenes to get readers where you want them to go.


  1. "or the burning apocalypse if that's your thing."

    :-) It's like you read my mind.

    BTW, I'm giving away a new copy of The Shifter and a preorder of Blue Fire (among other things) on my blog right now:

  2. Great explanation of this way of plotting. You always make it sound so easy.

  3. Your "mid point reversal" has changed the way I plot and plan my books. Thanks for being so willing to share your writing secrets!

  4. Another one for "the folder" I love this post. Reading your blog always inspires me, especially when I'm in a funk. Thanks so much!

  5. Cool Sarah! Thanks for that. (And I really need to write a burning apocalypse story one day since I love them so)

    And thanks all. Elle, when I first learned of the mid-point reversal I felt the same way. I used to suffer from a severe case of boggy middle syndrome and that was my cure.

  6. Thanks for the timely post (for me at least). I am struggling with my WIP and this post has given me lots to think about and work with.

  7. This is a great post on plotting, very helpful! Thanks so much for posting!

  8. Janice, can I site this post in my Nano pep talk and on my blog? There will be links sending them to you.


  9. I love how simple you make this stuff, Janice. It's so easy to see how stories are built when reading your posts.

    My big fear at the moment is that my Act Three Disaster pretty much takes place in the middle of the climax, and I'm worried there might be too much of a sense that things are going right for the heroes beforehand.

  10. Paul, aw, thanks! Hmmm, is there anything you can do to throw a wrench in the plan before that? Maybe something that affects the character arc vs the plot arc? Even better if it adds to the stakes or consequences if that TA disaster. Or what if you moved it up? How might that change the climax?

  11. Hmm, moving it up would be tricky. Part of the set-up for the climax depends on the heroes not knowing that they're playing into the villain's plan.

    It's kind of like in Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor reveals it was all a trap to wipe out the Rebellion.

    There are definitely things that go wrong beforehand. Pretty much all of Book 3 is Nathan being beaten down again and again. One of the themes of the book is rebirth, and essentially, Nathan is broken down to nothing and the latter half of the book is his rebirth as he recovers from his defeat.

  12. That sounds more like the "high tower surprise" than a third act disaster. When's the low point? The moment when he thinks all is lost and there's no hope at all? That moment when he's at his lowest is your TAD. Then he'll pick himself up and go face the climax. And get hit with the surprise, lol.

  13. Ah, well in that case... Wow it's actually quite a ways before then. I'm coming up to it now over the course of the next few chapters.

    Is it okay for there to be a few chapters of rallying the forces and preparing for the showdown after the TAD?

  14. Absoulutely. The Third act is the last 20-25% of the book. Typically unfolds like: Third act disaster: Dark Night of the Soul - Break into Act Three (Climax) -Step 1: storm the castle - Step 2: The plan begins - Step 3: the high tower surprise - Step 4: come up with a new plan - Step 5: the "use the force moment" to dig deep and find what's needed to win.

    Lots of things happen in the third act. It's probably most realistic to say Act Two Disaster, as it's the end of the second act, though it does kick off the third act.

  15. Ah, cool. In that case I think I'm well on track, since this sequence of events does close out the Second Act, and leads to a literal "storm the castle" scene (thought it's not really a castle) to start the heroes on the path to the climax.

  16. It's metaphorical anyway :) So that's good! You *are* all set and on track.

  17. Hi Janice! I love the blog! I am a
    little confused as to whether or not
    to use this in a series as well?
    I feel if I follow this it might become predictable or
    expected for there to be a twist in
    the middle etc, any advice on how to
    liven it up? Also, how long do
    you have between the Act one
    crisis and the act two revelation?
    Thank you so much! :)

  18. Sandi, thanks! It works for a series as well. This format is the basic structure of almost all stories, but you can adapt and vary it all you want. And when done well, you don't even notice the structure. Most of what you read(and watch in movies) follows this same format.

    For example, the middle is where novels typically bog down, so anything that shakes things up or keeps the story moving forward is good. What you decide to do there is up to you. If a twist doesn't work for your story, maybe a reveal will, or the introduction of a new mystery. What makes the mid-point important, is that the first half of act two leads up to it, and the second half is a reaction to it that leads toward the third act.

    Act one crisis and act two revelation are usually within 10-15% of the total story size. (Act one is typically 25% total, Act two is 50%) So if you have 40 chapters, act one will be around 10 chapters, so the crisis will likely take place around chapters 4-5, with the revelation about 8-10.

    The crisis is typically what sets up the revelation and makes the hero decide to act, which moves the story into act two (where the bulk of the plot happens) around chapter 11. (in a 40 chapter story)

    As I said, these are guidelines, not rules. What matters most is that the novel's pacing is strong and keeps the story moving, the stakes continue to escalate, and new information continues to be revealed. It's really just a beginning, middle, and ending format.

  19. Thank you so much!
    I always find your blog so informative and helpful!
    You're the best writer blog out there and i can always count on you for reliable and helpful information!
    You're posts have helped me become more
    confident in my writing and I can't thank you enough! :)

  20. Sandi, aw, thanks so much! That means a lot to me.

  21. I just watched Dan Well's 7 point structure videos on youtube and was wondering what you thought about it. I found it very interesting when he suggested to start with your ending and then make your set up the complete opposite.

    1. I haven't seen that, but working backward is a common tip for plotting. Makes total sense since you need to know where you're going to know where to start. I need to know my ending before I can write a book. The more I know about it, the easier the first draft is.

    2. i was thinking about how useful it could be for the character arc. he used the harry potter example of how at the end, harry was this powerful character but in the beginning, he's a nobody (i think i got that right lol) so if you know how you're character is going to be in the end, make her the exact opposite in the beginning. i think i'll try it for both my character & story arc's. i'll let you know how it turns out :)

    3. Absolutely. I actually use my first drafts to find my characters and their arcs. I'll have a basic sense of them, but I learn who they are by putting them through the gauntlet of plot (evil laugh). Character development through trial by fire. I'd say try it for sure and see how it works. I find it very useful because it forces me to think about what that character will do in every scene and then I figure out who they are.