Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Plotting a Novel: The Big Picture vs. Single Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Plotting a novel (or a short story) seems like it ought to be an easy thing to do, because you’re just describing what happens in the book. But “How do I plot a novel?” is also the number one question I get asked, so clearly, plotting is harder than it looks.

When I first started writing, I too struggled with plotting. I didn’t fully understand what it was, so I wound up explaining how my characters explored whatever cool idea I’d come up with. I had no actual plots, even though I’d thought I did. All my novels sounded like this (and yes, these are manuscripts I’ve written):
  • A fantasy novel about a group of pirates who get caught up in an ancient prophecy and have to fight an evil god
  • A science fiction novel about a group of teens who get stranded on a new colony world and have to survive until help comes
  • A middle grade novel about a group of outcasts at a school for monsters

Are these bad ideas? I don’t think so. But notice the similarities here:
  • They’re all about a group of people—there’s no protagonist
  • They’re all about a general problem—there’s no clear conflict
  • They’re all about the premise—there’s no point to the story

Now, if these one-sentence descriptions were the spark of the idea, and I plotted the novel using these sparks, then I would have gotten somewhere with them. But these describe the actual finished manuscript. And you can see there’s not a lot there that shows a plot.

Knowing what I know now about plotting, I can see that I wrote a slew of premise novels that focused on the ideas, not a character with a problem that had to be resolved or else. I had stories, but no plots.

(Here’s more on going from premise to plot)

These days, I plot in two stages: big picture and single scene.
The big picture is the overall framework of the novel, and the single scenes are, well, the individual scenes that make up the novel. Let’s look at each a little closer.

Plotting the Big Picture

The details will vary by the type of writer, but big picture plotting focuses on the major turning points and events of the novel. These are the events that you’d put in your query or synopsis. These are the moments where big things happen, such as:

No matter what structure you use and what you call them, there are defined moments in every story. Identify these moments, and you create a big picture plot for your novel.

This is why I’m such a huge fan of story structure, because it does half the work for you. You still have as much freedom as you’d like to fill in these moments, and you can adapt and tweak as you see fit for your own story, but the general outline is there.

(Here’s more on using story structure to your advantage)

Plotting the Single Scene

I suspect when writers say they have trouble plotting, this is what they mean—which is why all the big picture plotting advice in the world isn’t helping them. Plotting those major turning points is different from plotting out an individual scene. Here’s the most important thing I can tell you about plotting scenes:

It’s about what the character physically does in response to something.

It’s that last part that gets tricky, because everything past the opening scene is a reaction to something in the story. Something happens, and the protagonist reacts to it and does something.

(Here’s more on scene structure and how to write a scene)

Now, this doesn’t mean the protagonist sits around and waits for thing to happen to them (that’s bad, and creates a reactive protagonist vs. a good proactive protagonist). “React” in this context means the protagonist acts based on events and information available to them at the moment of that decision. For example:
  • A detective doesn’t decide to hunt for a killer until somebody is killed.
  • A wife doesn’t decide to snoop on her husband until she finds evidence he might be cheating on her.
  • A farm boy doesn’t set off for the big city until his family is eaten by orcs.

Every action your protagonist has is in reaction to something. It’s a choice based on whatever is going on at that moment, and whatever information and beliefs they have—even if it’s wrong.

A scene is specific. It has a point, and it has a place to go.

This is where a lot of writers trip up when plotting. Their scenes might have a point, but it’s about showing or revealing that point, not moving the plot. For example, the point of the scene is to:
  • Show the protagonist has a bad relationship with her mother
  • Reveal the love interest has been lying this whole time
  • Explain why the king refuses to visit the south garden

None of these are inherently bad, but they also don’t give the plot any place to go.
  • What happens because of the bad relationship?
  • What does the protagonist do about the lying?
  • What’s happening that makes the south garden relevant?

And if we step back, what are these scenes a reaction to?
  • What happened to trigger showing the bad relationship?
  • What happened to cause the revelation of the lie?
  • What happened to make someone explain why the king won’t go into the south garden?

See how action and reaction work to take the plot from scene to scene? Scenes don’t exist by themselves, they build on each other to get from major turning point (those big picture plot points) to major turning point. So a plot with one of these scenes might look like:
The babysitter cancels at the last minute, forcing a woman to ask her mother for help so she can go to a critical job interview. The mother says no, they fight, elements of the bad relationship are slipped in, and the woman is forced to take the children with her on the interview, where they cause trouble and she doesn’t get the job.
The job interview is the goal. The canceled babysitter is the problem. Asking Mom for help is the conflict. The job itself is the stakes.

The scene allows you to show the bad relationship with Mom, but now there’s plot making that relevant to the overall story. Something happens, the protagonist reacts and makes a decision, she faces the results and consequences of that decision, she reacts again and makes a new decision, and so on and so on…

And that’s plotting.

This hits the basics, but we’ll talk more about plotting scenes next week. I’ve done so much on the big picture, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty for a while.

What are your thoughts on plotting? Do you have any specific things you’d like me to discuss? 

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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. 

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 her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. THIS! This is the problem that I have. I know the big points but it's the little scenes that I have trouble figuring out. I know where I need to be but I can't figure out how to get there.

    I need to have my character react to something, to provoke them into acting.

    THANK YOU!!!

  2. Excellent post, Janice. I'm sharing the link to our SCBWI Queensland Fb page so others will learn from it. One of the biggest worries for many writers I know is plotting and structure. 😊

    1. Thanks! That's what everyone always asks me about. :)

  3. I'm curious about how sequel relates to the above. Do we need a sequel after every scene? (some discussions I've read about scene/sequel seem to imply so) Is it permissible to have three scenes and then a sequel?

    Does your example below contemplate or imply a sequel within? Thank you!!

    The babysitter cancels at the last minute, forcing a woman to ask her mother for help so she can go to a critical job interview. The mother says no, they fight, elements of the bad relationship are slipped in, and the woman is forced to take the children with her on the interview, where they cause trouble and she doesn’t get the job.

    1. Yes, since the sequel is where the choice to act is made.


      Sequels are one of the most misunderstood aspects of writing. A sequel isn't a scene. There's no goal driving it, no conflict. It's the reaction to whatever just happened in the scene where the character reacts to what happened, thinks about it, debates their options, and decides what to do next.

      This might be several pages of debate and internal struggle, or it might be, "Oh no, the ship's about the explode, we gotta get out of here!" One line CAN be a sequel if it does everything it needs to do.

      So in my example, there would be a sequel after the babysitter cancels where the character gets angry and realizes she has to call her mother. This one might be short, with some hints about the relationship tossed it to provide some foreshadowing. There will be another after the mother says no and the character has to figure out what to do next and decides to take the kids with her. This might be longer since the character will likely have serious and complex emotional feelings about her mother and the situation, so she'll need more time to process what just happened.

      Actually, that's a great way to think about the sequel--it's how the character processes what just happened to them and decides what to do next. The importance of the event often determines the size of the sequel, so key moments usually have longer sequels, and smaller moments have shorter ones.

      Does that clear it up?

      I don't think I've ever done a post about just sequels, so I'll have to do that!

    2. Janice, the fog is lifting. You've cleared up many things for me just in this short reply. But yes - please do a post about sequels!
      So basically something happens, the character processes (however long, depending), decides what to do next, then does it. Well, heck. That's so intuitive it's ridiculous. Yet I've struggled for so long trying to make sense of sequel. Not that I don’t understand there should be an action, reaction, and decision. What is confusing is knowing when I’m in a “sequel” and when I’m not. And how to relate that to the scene.
      In our example, let’s say babysitter cancels, the character sits there for a moment deciding what to do, then immediately calls mom. One scene? And the “sequel” occurs within the scene?
      But what if the thought of calling mom so terrifies her that she decides she needs to grab a coffee next door at Starbucks help her to think. Finally, in a corner table at Starbucks, she breaks down and calls mom.
      Looks like we have two scenes in this example. If so, how do we think about sequel in this case? Are we in “sequel” between the time of her decision to leave for Starbucks and her finally calling mom? Or is there a first sequel that ends when she decides to go to Starbucks, and then we are in a new scene? If so, she seems to be still pondering the same thing.
      I’m starting to think it doesn’t really matter where sequel occurs. Something happens, reaction, decision, and finally action. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s within one scene or spread out among scenes. Am I on track? I feel like I’m making this much harder than it is. And now I’m babbling. : )

    3. Oh good!

      The sequel follows the scene from the technical standpoint, but it can be mixed in like that. Today is the next post, so Ill let that answer your question :)

  4. Janice - Great post. I recently started doing a Cause and Effect timeline when attempting to plot my story. I am doing this for the overall story line, but I think I will still need help working out the smaller parts of the individual scenes. Your craft books are all great but when you add in the posts like this one and so many of the others, you are truly a godsend at times. Thanks.

    1. Aw, thanks so much! That's a great technique. I have a line in my outline template for that :)

  5. Hi Janice,

    I struggle with the idea of the proactive protagonist. I understand how it works with say James Bond but what if your protagonist isn't such a strong character?

    For example, in my WIP, the protagonist has a secret which would have big consequences if revealed. The antagonist has discovered this secret and is blackmailing the protagonist. The antagonist makes most of the running in the plot as she manipulates the protagonist and he has to react to a series of nasty surprises. Finally the protagonist realises that the only way to win is to reveal his own secret and take the consequences.

    So in my story the protagonist is reactive for most of the story and only becomes proactive right at the very end.

    Thanks very much


    1. A proactive protagonist can still react. The difference is what the protagonist is doing when things aren't happening.

      If the protagonist is sitting around basically staring at the wall or living their life and ignoring everyone until something "happens" and moves them to the next plot point, they're being reactive. They're not trying to accomplish anything.

      If the protagonist is trying to achieve a story goal or dealing with a problem and reacting to the problems the antagonist has thrown at them, they're still being proactive. The problem is the blackmailer, and the goal is to stop them (or whatever).

      Now, if the protagonist sat around and did nothing while waiting for the blackmailer to strike again and then did nothing after they struck, you'd have a reactive protagonist.

      Your protagonist is reacting, but the proactive goal is to keep the secret from getting out. So she's proactive.

      Does that clear it up?

      I've had a post on this in my "to write" file fr a while, so this is a good one to push to the top of the pile. I have two movies that make good examples here to use.

  6. Perfect timing. I'm finally revising (writing a second draft) and many of my scenes are just me working out world building or back story or character... This post will definitely help re-work them so they matter to the story and move the plot forward.

    1. Oh good! Sometimes we just need to write those early draft scenes to figure stuff out :)