Friday, January 14, 2011

Just Go With It: Planning Your Novel With Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Recently we've talked about planning your novel by looking at the setting, and by looking at your characters. Today, it's all about starting with the plot.

Plot is what happens in your novel. Character arcs are why they happen. Which is why I like to start a novel with plot, because until I know what's going on, I can't really figure out the why. I'll have general ideas of course, but the real stuff happens later.

What your protagonist wants is key to any good plot, since that's what's going to be driving them the entire story. She'll have several goals, both internal and external, because you want conflicting goals to play off of. They'll also likely relate to your theme, as you'll want your plot to help illustrate a larger idea. So as you brainstorm, you'll look for things like...

What is the one major thing your protagonist wants to accomplish?
This will be your core conflict. The whole reason the book exists. It's that one line that pops to mind when folks ask you what your book is about. It'll probably be one of two things: What the protagonist has to do, or how the protagonist has to grow or feel.

  • It's about a girl who has to stop a terrorist cell from blowing up the Pentagon.
  • It's about a girl who finds love after a devastating loss.

The first idea is all plot. You know exactly what your protagonist will be doing the whole book. Plotting from there will be fairly easy, since both sides of this conflict will be acting to bring about and stop this event. The second idea is all character growth. There's no plot there yet. To find plot, you'd have to think about what the girl is going to do to bring about that growth and find love again.

One thing to think about here, is that the core conflict often isn't discovered until a few chapters in. So the protagonist doesn't start the story trying to do X. I did a guest post during the blog tour that can be helpful in understanding inciting events.

What is your theme?
Themes are great ways to help determine what types of plot to use. Look at your theme and see what kinds of situations show that theme in action. Then look to see how they might lead up to or connect to your core conflict.

Who are your bad guys?
There will be an antagonist for sure. Maybe a person, maybe a thing. But something is keeping the protagonist from getting what they want. What they do is going to affect what your protagonist does. Sometimes it'll be a thing that happens early on (like a kidnapping) and the protagonist is working toward one goal (rescuing the person kidnapped). Other times the antagonist is doing lots of little things and playing cat and mouse with the protagonist (like a serial killer taunting the police). Knowing a few things your protagonist is going to do can help a lot in seeing what your protagonist will do about it.

What is your protagonist's character growth arc?
Even though this is about plot, it's helpful to have a general idea of where you want your protagonist to end up emotionally by the end of the book. This helps you decide what kinds of things to throw at her to bring about that change. So if your protagonist needs to "figure out who she really is" you might create situations where who she is is challenged throughout the novel. You'll force her to make choices that make her question her beliefs. Make her act in ways that go against what she's been told to do. Put her in situations where being herself is what will save her, while being what she's supposed to be will doom her.

What steps need to happen between page one and the climax?
You don't need to know exact details, but if you know the book has to end with the protagonist unmasking the real bad guy and saving the day, then certain things will have to happen to get there. She'll need to first discover there is a bad guy with a plan. She'll also have to find out what that plan is. Then she'll need to find clues to their identity. She'll do something to try and stop or reveal them. That will fail and probably make things worse, possibly by alerting the bad guy that she's on to them, putting her at risk. Now she'll have to protect herself and prevent whatever plan is in the works. Look for ways in which the plot can move forward, and the stakes can escalate, even if you aren't 100% sure what those stakes are yet. You'll see how vague this outline is, but it'll be vital to figuring out the overall plot.

As you think about the plot and what you want to have happen, you can use these very general concepts as guides. Mix and match and ask, What can I have happen that lets my protagonist discover there's a bad guy, but also makes her question who she is? Now you have a direction to go in during your brainstorming sessions. You can fit that into you world and premise and think about ways for those two things to coexist. As these events take shape, more connections will occur and subplots will form. Before long, you'll have a basic plot that not only lets you start your story, but helped you develop it as well.

How do you plot?


  1. Wow, You've given me a lot of helpful tips for my writing! Thank you so very much! :D

  2. Plotting is a weak point for me, so this is helpful.

  3. Great post. Loved how you spelled it out, especially the internal and external conflict and how they should play off each other. I'm taking another look at my notes after reading this. Thanks!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  4. This is really helpful for me as I am plotting out a new idea. Your examples really help. Sounds like a cool story.

  5. Love this. I typicall sart wit an idea and then I absolutely plot - at least part of it. I can never seem to start otherwise.

  6. You know I love it when you post about plotting...and this is another great one. Thanks Janice!

  7. W.B.: Most welcome!

    Jaleh: Thanks! I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep this column going, but so far so good. Plotting is tough to talk about since it depends so much on the details.

    Raquel: Internal and external conflicts help so much for a plot. It lets you mix things up and keep the story unpredictable.

    Natalie: Thanks! It was tough not talking about the details of the plot, but I don't want to give the whole book away before I even write it. (grin) One day I'll have to write something online to show the whole process.

    Christine: That's how I work, too. :)

    Sierra: Thanks! So do as, as long as I can think up a topic, LOL.

  8. I like to use index cards to brainstorm ideas for a plot. Just jot down various things that could happen. Then you can shuffle them around on a table to see what starts to come together, choose the best, and toss the rest.

    Chris Eboch
    Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop:

  9. Chris: I used index card for a lot of years myself. It was very helpful, especially since it was a multiple POV story with tons of subplots.