Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Plot Your Novel With Mini Arcs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you have trouble plotting an entire novel at once, try plotting it one small arc at a time. 

Trying to keep an entire novel in your head can be challenging for some writers. Trying to plot out an entire novel before you write it can be challenging for other writers. But there's a middle ground that lets you plot out smaller chunks of the story as you write it—sort of a pantsing outline.

Plotting and writing with mini arcs.

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.

For example, you might have a clear sense of where the story is going to go in the next few chapters but it gets fuzzy beyond that. With mini arcs, you can plot out what happens with the next goal and conflict, and once you get to the resolution of that goal and see what happens, you can decide where the story goes next. Maybe you know your protagonist:
  • Has to demand a promotion, but aren't sure how the boss will respond 
  • Has to search a house for clues, but aren't sure what will be found or where it will lead
  • Has to evade an assassin hot on their tail, but aren't sure what their next move is after that
After you know how that mini arc unfolds, odds are you'll know the next piece of the plot puzzle and have the next goal and conflict in place.

(Here's more on The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier)

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.

You just don't want to lose sight of the bigger novel picture and core conflict and wind up writing a lot of episodic chapters.

(Here's more on Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

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, the Plot Clock, 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 book. It all follows a 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.

(Here's more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

Step Two: Create Your Arcs

Treat each arc as if it were the entire novel. Look at the goal for that 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? 
After you answer these questions, either write the arc, or move on to the next piece and plot the next arc. You might find that once you get going, the story starts unfolding on its own. Of course, you might also discover you plot best after you've written up to that point in the story. Whatever works for you.

You can also apply this technique to the various arcs in your novel, such as your subplots, character arcs, theme arcs, etc. Instead of writing in small chunks, you might find it more useful to craft a mini arc of the individual storylines in the book to clearly define their beginnings, middles, and endings.

For example, you might look at how the character arc unfolds, or how the various subplots will work independently of the main plot. Once you're done, you can see where those arcs overlap or work with each other, as well as the main plot of the novel.

(Here's more on Create More Story Depth With Mini Arcs)

Plotting with mini arcs can be a handy tool for breaking 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?

*Originally published September 2014. Last updated March 2020.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. With my WIP, I looked at the manuscript as a whole initially, however, I am going to try this mini arc concept and see what happens. (Once I start writing again that is.)

  2. Great post, Janice, that I'll share with my class. As I'm getting ready to start the 4th draft of my book, I may just try this as I tackle each Act (using Save the Cat). I need a roadmap and breaking it into bits and pieces helps me feel less overwhelmed!

  3. Great post as always. I'm bookmarking this and sharing it. Thanks for such good, crisp explanations of helpful information.

  4. Elizabeth above shared this and I had to come over and read the article. Good post and thanks, Elizabeth!

  5. Abdulaziz A. asker12/11/2014 11:55 AM

    Animes and Mangas are full of those mini arcs (except Death Note?)

    1. That doesn't surprise me. With the shorter formats and serial nature, they always have to have several things going on.

  6. Right now I am trying to figure out a series arc and then the shorter book arcs, so I am working back and forth from big to smaller and back again. Thanks for the extra advice on arcs. Merrie day,

  7. Good evening Janice. I like this approach as I'm revising/replotting after my first draft. In each of the 4 major plot arcs (Larry Brooks), I have several point of view characters.

    Should I be considering the mini arcs for these characters as well, independent of the protagonist? In my first act, for example, I have the protagonist in 9 chapters, and 3 separate chapters for another character. Seems a bit challenging to arc across only 3 chapters. Thoughts on this?

    1. You can arc in one chapter if you really wanted to, so three chapters is fine. An arc is just a story piece that spans three points--beginning, middle, ending.

      So if you have a character attempting a particular goal, and that resolves in three chapters, you can arc it. It might only be the first step to a larger problem, but as long as it has that goal--attempt to resolve--result arc, you're good.

      To clarify: Beginning (the goal), middle (the attempt to resolve that goal), ending (the resolution of that goal).

      If you'e plotting in mini arcs, the resolution would lead to the next arc.

      The other way mini arcs are useful is for short "story" arcs within the larger plot. For example, a small subplot, or a character side story. These arcs might span the whole book, but only have a few steps in the arc because they're not the main plot. But it's useful to see how that story or plot arc unfolds.

    2. Oops missed a piece...

      If your non-protagonist character only has three chapters, and there's no plot arc for them, that's actually a red flag they're not doing anything to drive the plot. They ought to have an arc of some type, because they're doing something.

      Depending on your POV, their arc might be tied to the larger story and be part of the main story arc. For example, if the main story is "stop the asteroid," and you have three chapters that follow an astronomer trying to alert people of the danger, that might be part of the inciting event arc for the protagonist. It's outside their POV, but the "learns an asteroid is headed for Earth" plot point is still part of their general story arc. So the astronomer is part of the larger story arc, because their actions help create the situation the protagonist is in later.

      Just be wary of those chapters being nothing but infodumps. If all they do is explain things the protagonist isn't witness to, it might be a problem.

      Does that make sense?

    3. Yes. And as I reread the three chapters for the other character in the First Act, I suspect they are info dumps, a vehicle to inform the reader. Thanks for the catch.

  8. Quick follow up question Janice. This bullet:

    "What is the choice the protagonist makes to drive the story forward?"

    I assume this choice is after contemplating the conflict/result after their goal is knocked sideways, whether at the scene level or Act level. Correct? I know these questions are all in order, but I'm a bit thrown by placement of the conflict question that follows it. Thanks.

    1. Yes, though the goal might not be knocked sideways (that's more the middle). Act One typically ends with the protagonist being faced with the first real big problem of the core conflict, and they make a decision to "solve" it. They get onboard with whatever the issue is. It can be a subtle thing--it doesn't have to be a big dramatic moment.

      For example, in Armageddon, Bruce Willis has to decide if he's going to help NASA train the astronauts to drill. "Will you help us save the world?" is the choice he has to make, and his answer is "Yes, but...(we need to go, too)" and that launches Act Two.

      Protagonists make choices all through the book (that's what drives the plot), but some choices happen at critical pinch points or turning points in the plot.

  9. Update: This approach to thinking through Acts (I am trying 4), small sets of chapters/scenes and scenes themselves has been profound for me. Here's how I set up the Acts for going forward:


    I throw SaveTheCat across this and it's really working well for restructuring my first draft, and also planning out the next idea (which I'm having fun using your Idea to Novel Workshop).

    Thanks so much for being a continued inspiration.

    Stay safe, stay healthy, stay generous...


    1. I like! Nice way to merge different approaches into something that works for your style. So happy for you!

      Stay safe and healthy yourself