Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Plot Your Novel in 3 Simple Steps

how to plot a novel, plotting, writing a novel
By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Figuring out your novel's plot doesn't have to be a complicated process. Laurence MacNaughton share how to plot your novel in three simple steps.

There are thousands of different plotting methods out there that you could use to plan your novel. This method here is simple and easy to learn. And, bonus, it's entirely character-driven, so it will help you create rich, strong characters that readers will love. It's just three steps.

1. Give your main character an existing problem.

Before your story even begins, there needs to be something wrong in the main character's life.

Maybe their career is going down in flames. Maybe they are desperately in love with someone who is completely inaccessible. Maybe their family is about to lose their ranch to an evil corporate developer.

You're the writer; it's up to you.

The point is, the main character's life is in trouble before we even get to page one. Figure out what's wrong, and write it down in your notes.

I want to take a moment to point out that this problem is not the main plot of your novel. It's a subplot.

(If you've ever wondered what a subplot is, it's a plot that is subordinate to the main plot. Simple as that.)

By the end of your novel, this subplot should be resolved in one way or another. But long before that happens, while the character is wrestling with this existing problem, they get hit with something even worse.

(Here's more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

2. Give your main character a big new problem.

At or near the start of your novel, pit your main character up against the biggest problem they've ever faced. Something that threatens their life as they know it.

The exact nature of the problem depends on your genre. In a mystery, for example, it's a murder. In a political thriller, it might be a rogue agent with a weapon of mass destruction. In my Dru Jasper urban fantasy books, it's some kind of supernatural doomsday threat.

This big new problem forms the main plot of your book. There are about a million ways to do it wrong, so I'm going to tell you how to do it right:

First, it needs to be a problem that relates directly to the character, and affects them on a personal level.

If someone was murdered, the crime needs to have a meaningful connection to your main character.

Even if someone is threatening to do something outrageous like destroy the world, there needs to be a human face on the threat, and that face must be closely tied to your main character.

Second, it needs to be a problem that cannot be solved without the main character's direct involvement.

That's why there are so many stories where the main character has a special skill that's needed to solve the problem at hand. Make it so that only this character can save the day.

Third, this problem will end in disaster unless the main character can resolve it.

We're not talking about a little inconvenience, here. We're talking about catastrophic fallout for the main character. Consequences so terrible that the main character will either die or suffer a fate worse than death. Total, utter, complete ruin.

That's why, in so many stories, failure is not an option.

Fourth, there needs to be some kind of deadline on it.

The main character not only needs to solve the problem, they need to do it very soon. The clock is ticking.

Feel free to shorten this deadline at any point if you need to ratchet up the tension.

By the way, you don't have to set the deadline right from the beginning, if it doesn't fit the story. The midpoint of your novel is also a good place to start a ticking clock. 

(Here's more on How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot)

3. Give your villain a goal and a plan.

I once made the mistake of writing an entire novel without an antagonist. Long story short: that novel didn't see the light of day until I rewrote it and added a good villain. After that, everything clicked.

Don't make the same mistake I did. Create a memorable villain (aka antagonist) and use her to make your main character miserable.

Here's the key: the villain either created the problem, or they benefit from it. They need to be inextricably linked to this big problem somehow.

That way, they have a vested interest in stopping the main character from resolving the problem. It's a surefire way to put your main character and villain in direct conflict.

Now, I'm going to let you in on a secret that will keep your plot moving ahead briskly, and keep readers turning pages:

The villain will succeed unless the main character stops them.

It's as simple as that. If the main character does nothing, the villain will win, and the hero will suffer a terrible disaster because of it.

As an exercise, write down in your notes exactly what will happen if the main character does nothing. How will the big problem end in a terrible disaster for the main character? How will the villain make that happen?

Once you've got that worked out, you can have your main character worry about that dark fate periodically throughout your novel. That will help keep the tension level high. 

(Here's more on The Secret to Writing Fascinating Villains)

Start with solid characters, and the plot will naturally unfold.

There's a lot of talk out there about character-driven versus plot-driven stories. You can safely ignore all of it.

All that matters is that you have an interesting main character with a complicated life and an even bigger problem to deal with—and an antagonist who will destroy them if left unchecked.

Drive your characters into head-on conflict, and your readers will love you. That's really everything you need to plot your book. Get these elements in place now, before you write your novel, and they will spark more plot ideas than you can possibly use.

Have fun writing!

Do you struggle more with writing your main character or your villain? Leave me a comment below or contact me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Good advice. I especially like the point about Step 1, that the character needs to have a problem (subplot) before the story's main plot kicks in.

    "The ranch was doing fine until a field caught fire" is a one-dimensional conflict. But "The ranch had been losing money for years, and then it caught fire" gives us one slow burn problem (sorry) and one urgent problem to give the character's struggles some contrast and sense of history as well as instant drama.

  2. Good example, Ken! The more problems you can set up beforehand, the more things can go wrong when the main plot starts. And that can make for an incredibly interesting story. Have fun writing!