If you’re not the type of writer who likes to plot out an entire book before you start writing, but you’re also not the type of writer who can just wing it and have it turn out well, try breaking your novel into story arcs and plotting those one at a time.
This is a technique I use for revisions, but it’s just as useful a tool for those who fall in the middle of the outliner/pantser spectrum.
Step One: Pick Your Arcs
Look at each section of your novel. Maybe you prefer the Three Act Structure, or Hague’s Six Part Plotting Structure, or even Snyder’s Save the Cat format. Decide what parts fit your natural writing style (Do you like figuring out three chapters at a time, or one full story arc, or an entire act?). Then treat that as a mini arc, with a beginning, middle and ending just like a full-sized novel.
The beauty of a novel is that the smallest pieces are structured the same as the entire novel. It all follows the same beginning-middle-ending structure, from a sentence to a chapter to a story arc. A good mini arc will have conflict, raise the stakes, and offer an intriguing reveal (and new questions) to move the story forward.
Step Two: Create Your Arcs
Treat each arc as if it were the entire novel. Look at the goal for that section or arc and pretend that’s the ending you’re shooting for. Maybe your beginning is all about getting your protagonist to discover she has a secret power. The discovery of that power is the climax of that arc. Within that arc will be all the same things as the full novel, just on a smaller scale. That piece will fit into that larger plot like a puzzle piece until the full “image” of the story appears.
Look at that arc and ask:
- How does this arc begin?
- What is the protagonist’s goal? (what is she trying to do for that arc?)
- What is the choice the protagonist makes to drive the story forward?
- What is keeping the protagonist from getting her goal? (the conflict)
- What is the midpoint reversal? (what’s learned or discovered in this arc?)
- What are the stakes? (what does she want to avoid by doing this?)
- What is the end crisis? (what escalates the stakes or goes wrong?)
- How is it resolved?
Then move on to the next piece and plot the next arc, or dive right in and write that arc if need to write (and understand) more about the story before you can move on.
What makes this smaller focus work is that an entire book can be overwhelming to plot—especially if you’re not sure what happens. But mini arcs are more manageable and allow you to work with the immediate scenes and problems without worrying about what comes next and trying to force the plot to head in that direction.
The down side here is that it could work too well and lead you off your plot entirely, so it’s not a bad idea to keep your story’s end goal in mind as you plot or write your mini arcs. If you know the end goal of the novel is to get Dorothy back to Kansas, a plot that leads her to find a life of happiness with a munchkin isn’t going to get you there no matter how well the writing (and plotting) is going. But if you decide that plot is way better—by all means go for it.
Plotting with mini arcs can be a handy tool to break your novel into smaller, more manageable pieces that keep the story moving and the ideas coming.
Do you look at your novel in pieces or as a whole? Or a mix of both depending what stage you’re at?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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