Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Goal-Checking Trick for Plotting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Here's a handy trick to make sure your plots are strong and driving your novel to the end.

I’ve just finished a rough draft of my latest novel, and like all my rough drafts, I have to fill in some holes and fix a few issues before it’s done enough to call it a first draft. This is all part of my usual process, so I don’t worry about things that don’t yet line up or work (I’ll get there). The rough draft is my way of getting the idea down and giving me something to work with to bring my story to life.

One of my first steps is creating a brand-new editorial map. I already have an outline, but it gets messy with notes and old ideas I forgot to edit out, so I like to do a fresh map to make sure my outline matches what I’ve actually written. It’s also a nice way to remind myself of the story flow and spot holes and things I need to fix on round two.

(Here’s more on creating an editorial map)

As I summarize each scene, I can immediately tell when a scene might not be strong enough just by how I describe it in my summary. The bulk of the summary is what happens in that scene—what the protagonist does. If the protagonist isn’t doing anything, that becomes obvious.

Scenes where I use “Protagonist does something to achieve a goal” usually have the right goal-conflict-stakes arc a good scene ought to have. The goal of the scene is stated right there at the start, and what the protagonist does is clear. The result of the goal is also typically there, with what was learned or discovered or how the goal was met or not.

(Here’s more on the easiest way to plot a novel)

Scenes where I use “Protagonist goes to a place and does something” typically don’t have the same plot-driving elements. They often read more like sequels, infodumps, or backstories, and there’s little to no forward plot movement.

Some scenes fall in between, and even though there’s a scene break in the middle, they’re a continuation of the previous scene’s goal. These still have drive, but more often than not, it’s slowed down some because I’ve forgotten what the point was as I got caught up in another aspect of the tale (such as world building, backstory, character building, rehashing information so my protagonist can figure something out, etc). Reminding myself what the goal is also helps me find the backbone of the plot in that scene—or realize I have no goal.

This is one of the reasons I find an editorial map so useful—it forces me to state what the scene is about and what’s happening in that scene. Summarizing it strips away the details and leaves me with what’s important—the plot and story arcs. What the protagonist does and why.

Look at how you describe or summarize your novel’s scenes.
  • Are you explaining them and the reasons you wrote them, or do you clearly state the protagonist’s goal for every scene? Scenes with no goal stated often have no goal driving them.
  • If you don’t state a goal, is this a scene currently giving you trouble? Scenes without goals tend to be the ones that ramble or drag the pace, or don’t do more than dump information.
  • Which scenes best advance the plot—scenes with goals stated or ones that explain the scene? The scenes that work are usually obvious to us, and training ourselves to recognize good scenes vs. weak scenes allows us to catch issues before we write them.
A bonus tip—watch out for scenes where the primary reason is so the protagonist can “realize important information.” These can feel like plot-advancing scenes because something is realized, but half the time these serve no other purpose but to suddenly have this information “discovered.” What they often are, is a sequel to a scene, not an actual scene.

(Here’s more on the difference between a scene and a sequel)

Summarizing your scenes with an editorial map can help you spot trouble and make the next draft easier to write. It’s also a handy tool for the pantser looking to organize or restructure a draft.

Do you use an editorial map? Do you ever look at how you describe your scenes when looking for trouble spots?

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 ShifterBlue 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. 
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I like the idea of knowing the purpose behind each scene! That can really help with cutting and revising novels.