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Friday, September 21

What a Concept! Plotting Your Novel Conceptually

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm always looking for better ways to plot my novels. Every time I attend a great workshop on story structure, or see a phenomenal blog post, or read a fantastic book, I incorporate those tips into my process and update my basic plotting template. I just started developing a new novel, and I noticed that I start conceptually and narrow the plot down to specifics.

Thinking about a story conceptually allows me to brainstorm what I want to have happen without worrying about the details. Things like, I know I want a major reveal and surprise at the mid-point. I know I want X to happen in the climax. Whatever the protagonist does at the climax of act one will come back to bite them in the all-is-lost-moment at the end of act two. I can shape the flow of the story even though I don't know exactly how it will go. Conceptually, I know how I want it to turn out.

For examples, let's check in with Bob and the gang.

Imagine I'm starting on book two, and I know after figuring out my one-sentence pitch, that this book is going to be about Bob trying to get the cure for zombification before the love of his life, Jane, succumbs and turns into a zombie. From this I have the inciting event (Jane gets bitten or somehow contracts the zombie virus) and the ending (Bob gets the cure and saves Jane). But there's a whole lot of plot that has to happen between those two points.

After I get the basics down, my first step is to figure out what my major turning points are. How I generally want the book to unfold. A first pass will look like this (for the curious, I'm totally making this zombie book up as I write this post):

Intro and Setup: Bob, Jane, and Sally living in the zombie apocalypse

Inciting Event:
Jane gets infected

Act One Climax: ??

Mid-Point Reversal: ??

Act Two Disaster: ??

Climax: Bob gets the cure and saves Jane

Wrap Up: ??

(More on outline formats here)

You'll notice there's a lot missing. That's because I have no clue yet what's going to happen. So I'll brainstorm, take notes, make lists, talk it over with friends, all the usual stuff that goes into figuring out a novel. When I get more pieces, I drop them in. So the next pass will look like this:

Intro and Setup: Bob, Jane, and Sally living in the zombie apocalypse

Inciting Event: Jane gets attacked by a zombie, but it isn't clear if she's infected or not

Act One Climax: Jane is infected and begins to show signs

Mid-Point Reversal: They discover the government lab Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus

Act Two Disaster: Jane turns into a zombie and tries to eat them

Climax: Bob steals the cure from the government bad guy and saves Jane

Wrap Up: Bob exposes the government secret and the gang goes on the run to spread the word

In the past, I've started novels with nothing more than this loose outline. Some books worked and I figured it out as I reached those turning points. Other books didn't, and I slammed into those vague points like a tomato against a brick wall. Setup turning points are typically easier to write as I get there. Knowing Jane will be attacked means the gang will be where zombies are. They'll be doing something that puts Jane in close contact with them.

Then there's the mid-point reversal.
They discover the government lab Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus.
Conceptually, I know what I want to have happen here. A big shock, a reveal, a discovery that will send the story sideways and blow readers' minds. I have zero idea of what that will be.

(More on mid-point reversals here)

At this point I'll pull back and figure out the easier bits. How does it start? What is going on when I introduce the characters and the world? Knowing more details here might work to shed light on the ambiguous parts. When I reach a point I'm not sure about, I switch to another area and start thinking about that. I'll end up with an outline that looks like this:

Intro and Setup:
Bob, Jane, and Sally are looking for places to restock their supplies. Winter is coming and they need to chose between heading south to a warmer climate or bunking down until spring and waiting it out.

Inciting Event: While searching an abandoned mall, Jane gets attacked by a zombie and falls through a store front window, cutting herself up. She kills the zombie, but with her many injuries, it's not clear if she's been infected or not. The idea of being trapped with a potentially lethal Jane makes Sally vote to keep heading south where they can keep a better eye on her. Bob isn't so sure.

Act One Climax: Bob finds clues about a possible cure in a hidden lab, but going to it will take them north, not south. Jane begins to show signs of infection. It's iffy whether or not they can make it to the cure in time or not.

Mid-Point Reversal: They get to the lab but there's no cure. But they do discover the government company Sally used to work for is hiding a huge secret that totally changes their view on the zombie virus and suggests that Jane might not be lost to them if she does turn.

Act Two Disaster: Jane turns into a zombie and tries to eat them, then vanishes into the ruins of the city. Bob chases after her. Sally wants to leave her, but he won't. As he gets near her, government types appear and snatch her off the street.

Climax: Bob creates an intricate plan to save Jane, steal the cure, and escape from the government bad guys, stopping their nefarious plan.

Wrap Up: Bob cures Jane, exposes the government secret, and the gang goes on the run to spread the word.

More plot, but now there are even more things to figure out. What clues does Bob find? How? Where is the lab and what's it for? What secret do they find? Is that the reason the government types grabbed zombie Jane? Is Sally going to play a role in getting Jane back? Does she know more than she lets on? So many questions to ask and all of them can lead to just the right answer.

The benefits of conceptual thinking, is that I'm not locking onto any one particular detail that might prevent me from coming up with a better idea. It also helps me stay focused on the type of plot event I want, not just a scene that feels cool but might not serve the story I want to tell. By knowing conceptually that I want a major reveal, I'll think about ways to surprise my reader. By knowing that surprise has to tie into why an event happens at the end of act two, I can think about how things might be connected. If X happens, how does that fit with Y?

(More on brainstorming here)

It's usually pretty clear when a piece will only work for one part, not the other. That lets me throw it out or move it to the side while I keep thinking, eliminating all those times when I'd write pages of summary following a plotline that just didn't work. I know right away if it fits into the larger conceptual plan. I'm still free to brainstorm, but now I have a direction. Like looking for the puzzle piece that fits a particular hole.

Next time you're plotting, try looking conceptually at how you want the story to unfold. Think about:
  • The types of events you want to happen at key points
  • When surprises are revealed
  • What plot points you want to connect or build off of
  • What events will raise the stakes and where they'll fall
  • Where you want the reader to feel certain emotions
The big-picture view can really help when it comes time to narrow it down to the specifics of the plot and the story. It also gives you a place to start when you're not really sure where to go after that spark of an idea.

Do you outline? How much or how little? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. That sounds like a lot of work, he whines.

    My process is much simpler.

    I work from what I call plot points...bulleted points representing what you call the inciting event (per chapter)... and don't bother plotting past mid-way...because my characters always hijack the direction of the plot.

    Those pesky characters.


  2. R. Mac, it can be, but I've discovered a little more work on the front end makes the back end tons easier for me. I've had too many novels that needed major revisions because my general bullet points left so much up in the air. That's awesome that such a simple process works for you. :)

  3. Great post, as usual. It's what I need right now, so thanks very much for th food for thought, Janice.

    So when are you going to write the Bob versus Zombies tome? I'd love to read it.

  4. As usual, this is exactly what I needed. Yesterday I was looking at my outline, that was already plotted conceptually, and trying to figure out how to make those vague ideas into concrete scenes I wanted to write.

    The tomato analogy is very apt.

    I'm off to brainstorm! Thanks!

  5. Jo, thanks! Glad it was what you needed :) One day I WILL write Bob's story. I have so much already on the blog, lol. Hmm...if I'm not caught in revisions in Nov, maybe I could do it as a NaNo novel? I've always wanted to do NaNo.

    Elizabeth, happy to help! Hope your brainstorming goes well and you find your missing pieces.

  6. Wow. This is pretty much exactly how my plotting process goes! I never really thought about it in these terms, though, and it's funny how having you spell it out suddenly gives me a lot more ideas for how to plot my newest book. Thanks for another fabulous post!

  7. Shallee, that's great! I tell ya, if you want to figure out your process, blog or journal about it :) I've had so many realizations while looking for things to blog about. It changed how I write and how I look at my process.

  8. These are the major plot points I try to plot out before I start writing too. Great idea to think through what you want to reveal. I'll have to start doing that too.

  9. Thanks for these! I need 'em right NOW. Have 24 pages written in my WIP and a general roadmap, but I need a more precise journey figured out. :)

  10. Okay, now I want to try plotting this way. I'm trying to do more outlining just to see if it helps (I've been trying out different writing methods to see which ones work best for me). This is definitely one to play with. And I have the perfect characters-with-no-plot to go with it, too. :)

  11. My outlining process is pretty similar to this actually. I headed into my first manuscript with a very strong idea of the general plot arc and where I wanted it to go, but not much detail. In fact, in reviewing my first draft, I came up with a few entirely new threads to weave in. It's not efficient, but it is resulting in a pretty rich story (at least I think so). All things considered, I'm going to be spending more time fleshing out plot prior to drafting on my next WIP.

  12. I tend to just sit and write and see what comes out, when I get part way through and the story is starting to take shape then I sometimes make notes on where I think it's headed. But I always think it would be better is I had a plan before hand. I shall remember this and try to use it. :D Thanks for sharing.

  13. This can also be useful if the novel is already written--a good barometer to test existing scenes to see which belong and which don't. Perfect timing, and great post, as always. Thanks, Janice!

  14. Another wonderful post I'm filing under "exceptional writing tips".
    Thanks, Janice. :)

  15. Natalie, it was certainly freeing while I was plotting.

    Carol, hope this helps!

    Chicory, oh cool! Be great if this clicked for you. I really liked how I was able to think about what I wanted to happen on a macro level without getting bogged down in minutia.

    Emily, very cool. I still enjoy a certain amount of spontaneity, but a little more structure and direction seems to be working better for me as well.

    Barmybex, hope it works for you! Sometimes even a little plan can make a big difference and keep you on track.

    Writer Librarian, great idea! Is it hitting all the structure key points.

    Tracy, most welcome!

  16. I quite often get a few major plot points and a loose idea of the end before I start writing, but tend to get a bit lost in the middle. Your clearly described process has given me a concrete way forward. (Much more proactive than hoping for the best).

    Thanks again for another inspiring post!

  17. I'm late to this post, but I *LOVE* it. In fact, I'm using this in my "plotting for pantsers" online workshop I'm doing next week. :)

    This is exactly what I'm trying to get across about how planning in advance doesn't have to equal the kind of outline plotting that kills the muse for pantsers. Instead we can stay at the high-level concepts if we want and only work out the details when we get there. Brilliant!

  18. Raewyn, most welcome. The mid-point reversal saved me from middles, so maybe it'll help you.

    Jami, whee! Glad my weird way of looking at things is helpful. Let me know how the class goes. Love to hear how you apply it.

  19. I know this post is a little over a year old, but I just found it while browsing Yahoo search results for plotting tips. Just wanted to say how much I love it. I've seen a LOT of articles and posts trying to help with story plotting, but most of them just say the same thing and ultimately aren't very helpful. However, this post is the BEST I've ever seen. It's so simple, and yet looks incredibly useful, and I can already see how it would help with the stuff I'm working on. So I just wanted to say thanks for making the clearest, most concise and helpful guide for plotting a novel I've ever seen. :)

    1. No worries, I'm a little late on responding, so it all works out (grin). Glad it was helpful! I started this blog just for that reason--to make some of these things clearer and easier to understand.