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Monday, September 15

Plot Your Novel With Mini Arcs

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

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. asker12/11/14, 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,