Monday, July 31

Birth of a Book: The Development Stage: Figuring Out the Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Early Stages of a Novel Series


This series has been discussing the early stages of writing a novel. We started with the Stage One: the Idea Stage, beginning with the Inspirational Spark, moving on to Brainstorming the Idea, Clarifying the Idea, and wrapping it up with Testing the idea. Next, we entered Stage Two: Development, which got us looking at ways to create characters, and then further develop those characters. Last week, we shifted to setting and world building, and today, we’ll focus on figuring out the plot.

This step is going to vary widely, since every writer has their own process. My goal is to show the thought process and general ways to approach this rather than specific structures or templates, as that will change depending on the writer—although I will mention some things to try.

For me, this step is about focusing all of the work I’ve done so far and pointing it in a direction. I know the pieces of my story (protagonist, antagonist, characters, problem, setting) and a basic feel for how the story is going to unfold. I know what my protagonist is trying to do and why.

Figuring Out the Beginning


At this stage, I want to create an opening scene and a beginning that will hook readers and make them care about reading my book. Openings are a big deal for me, and until I come up with the right opening line, I can’t write the scene. This is quite different from writers who write a first chapter knowing they’ll trash it once they see how the story ends. Both processes are valid, and some writers might not even write the opening scene first.

I like to start with the beginning and ask a few questions that cover the basics:

1. How do I want to introduce readers to my protagonist?

2. How do I want to introduce readers to my world?

3. How do I want to introduce readers to the story?

4. How does the beginning lead to the middle?

Figuring out the beginning (and this can mean the entire first act, or first major chunk of the novel) is mostly about introductions. It’s where you setup the story and all the important things of the book. This can include:
  • The protagonist
  • The antagonist
  • The main supporting characters
  • The setting
  • The problem (both the external plot and internal character issues)
  • The theme
  • The conflicts
  • The mystery (the story questions you want readers to wonder about)
How you address or include these elements is up to each writer, but you typically find most if not all of these in the beginning of a novel. It’s everything a reader needs to know to understand and care about the story they’re about to read.

(Here’s more on the difference between setup and set up)

Getting to the Middle


The beginning is useless if it doesn’t get my story to the middle, so as I’m brainstorming and plotting (or writing for you pantsers out there), I think about how the goals and actions are going to lead me to the middle. This provides the necessary narrative drive to keep the plot moving. If all the setup is just backstory, there won’t be any forward drive and the novel will stall, because it’ll have nowhere to go.

Whatever is happening in your beginning should lead the protagonist (and plot) to some problem that has to be pursued in the middle.

“Pursuing the problem” is what the middle is all about. Maybe it’s running from trouble, or running into trouble, or trying to solve trouble or stop trouble from happening. “Pursue” just means “protagonist trying to deal with the story problem.”

(Here’s more on 5 common problems with beginnings)

Figuring Out the Middle


The middle of the story is where the fun stuff happens, which is why it’s often one of the harder things to write. Setup and resolution are easy, but the middle is where the real work happens. It’s twice as long as the rest of the novel (around 50% of the book), and shows the protagonist trying to solve a problem and running into all kinds of trouble doing it. The repetitious nature of that can be challenging, as we have to create multiple ways to solve the same basic issues without the story feeling redundant.

This is why I use a midpoint reversal when plotting my novels. Even if you hate plotting with the heat of a thousand suns, I still recommend figuring out your midpoint ahead of time. Knowing where the first half of your story is going and how that surprise, twist, or reveal is going to affect the second half makes writing that middle so much easier. You don’t even need to know how it will affect the second half—just knowing something shakes up the story in the middle is enough to keep things going when the middle starts to bog down (and they almost always do).

For me, the general questions I ask to get me through my middle are:

1. What problem has to be dealt with in the middle?

2. What mistakes are my protagonist going to make?

3. What secrets or information is my protagonist going to discover?

4. What’s the midpoint surprise?

5. What changes because of this surprise?

6. How does this lead to disaster and the ending?

Story structure varies, but in most of them, the end of the middle (act two) is a disaster or emotionally dark moment. Something horrible has happened, which is why the protagonist has to face the antagonist in the ending (act three). “Horrible” and “disaster” will vary in scope depending on the type of story, but the worst moment of the book tends to happen right around the end of the middle.

(Here’s more on what makes a good middle)

Getting to the Ending


This middle is all about figuring out what the problem is and how to potential resolve it (however that unfolds in the story). It’s the protagonist trying to accomplishing something or learn something, and things not going the way they expect it to. It’s where the protagonist basically solves the problem and figures out what they need to do to fix whatever problem they’ve been facing all book.

Whatever happens in your middle should prepare the protagonist to face and deal with the ending and the final showdown with the antagonist.

“Showdown” is a general term. A thriller will have a very different ending than a romance novel, but both protagonists will have to face what’s been keeping them from their goal all book. For the thriller, that might be a madman with a nuclear bomb, while the romance might be a fear of vulnerability and saying how one truly feels. Whatever the ending is, the middle will get the protagonist there in the right mind frame to handle it—even if that’s barely holding on and about to give up.

(Here’s more on 5 common problems in middles)

Figuring Out the Ending


If you know how the story ends, ending are fairly easy. It’s where the protagonist solves the problems and wins (or loses horrifically if it’s that kind of book). It’s getting past one or two final hurdles, but the protagonist usually knows what the main problem is and who is behind it at this point. The problem and resolution are usually known, and it’s just a matter of seeing how the protagonist will use that information to win.

If you don’t know, it can be more complicated, since resolving this problem is the whole point of the novel. If your process allows it, I recommend spending as much time as you can on the ending before you start writing, because the better you know where you’re going, the easier it’ll be to get there. If you’ve struggled with finishing a novel in the past, this could be one reason why.

At this stage, it’s common to have only a general idea of the ending, so my questions lean toward figuring that out:

1. What problem has to be solved?

2. How might my protagonist solve it?

3. What constitutes a win for my protagonist?

4. What are the various issues and plot threads that will need to be tied up?

I’ll be honest—I’m lucky if I can answer most of these on a first pass of my plotting brainstorming. I usually know the problem and what a win might be, but the how is almost always a mystery. I can usually answer most of the issues and threads at the end of my plotting sessions after summarizing my story (more on that next week), but sometimes, how my protagonist solves that final battle doesn’t happen until I’m actually writing it.

I’ve found that the more I know about my ending beforehand, the less time I have to spend revising it. But I’ve also found that no matter how much I try, I can only figure out so much during the planning stage. My process just wants me to go into it a little blind and find my way, just like my protagonist.

Writing the Ending


Getting to the ending is only half the battle, because the ending in the last chunk of the book. It’s about that final march to the antagonist, facing off against a problem or foe that has thwarted or troubled the protagonist all book. It’s seeing how the protagonist has grown, or evolved, or just figured out (since not all protagonist have a character arc) how to deal with the issue readers have wanted to see resolved since page one. It’s the payoff for all that patience.

What happens in the ending should show how your protagonist has used the events and lessons of the story to win against this antagonist and problem.

Readers want to know spending time on this book was worth it. They want to be surprised, they want to see if they guessed right, they want to see a clever way the protagonist wins.

(Here's more on what makes a great ending)

One big mistake a lot of writers make is that the ending is just “how the protagonist solves the problem.” On one hand, that is what endings are, but it’s not all they are. Most satisfying endings have one last surprise—maybe it’s a twist, or a new piece of information, or seeing the protagonist do or become something we hoped they’d do or become. A great ending elevates the story a bit and offers more than the expected in some way. If there are no surprises in your ending, that’s a red flag the ending might be a bit weak and feel predictable to readers.

(Here’s more on 5 common problems with endings)


If you’re the type of writer who prefers some structure, here are some options to try:
Figuring out your plot is mostly just a matter of thinking, “my protagonist has X goal and Y problem. What do they do about it?” and keep asking that until the problem is solved. It’s deceptively simple, but when you get stuck, it’ll help you get moving again.

That’s it for figuring out your plot. Next week, I’ll move onto the final step of summarizing and organizing your story, unless anyone would like me to delve deeper into anything I’ve talked about today.

How do you like to figure out your plots?

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 bestselling Skill Builders Series, 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, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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