Friday, August 13, 2021

A 9-Step Plotting Path to a Stronger Novel

By Ann Harth, @Annharth 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: There are as many ways to plot as there are to write. Ann Harth shares a character-focused process that helps her visualize her novel's plot.

Ann Harth writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Strong, interesting female characters creep into many of her books, and many arrive with a sense of humor. She taught writing for the Australian College of Journalism for eight years before taking the leap into freelance writing and structural editing work.

Ann has had a number of fiction and non-fiction children’s books published in Australia and the UK and over 130 short stories sold internationally. When not tapping the keys, Ann stuffs a notebook into her pack and searches for remote places to camp, hike or explore.

Take it away Ann...
Ann Harth
There are many methods of developing a plot for a children’s story. I’ve tried dozens. If you don’t count cramping in the lotus position and waiting for the muse to strike, most of these have worked to a degree. But not one gave me the consistent technique I wanted. I finally came up with a visualization that works for me – a plotting path. It’s straightforward, simple and makes me laugh, which is desperately needed at the plotting stage of my writing. 

The plotting path is based on one specific premise: your relationship with your main character. It will not always be sunny, but love them, respect them and, above all, challenge then. The objective is to make them work for the dubious honor of playing the main role in your story.

Feel free to adjust this plotting path to make it fit into your own style of creating.

1. Create your main character.

Make sure they’re is three-dimensional, likeable and not too perfect. A young reader may have trouble identifying with a main character with perfect hair, clear skin and the fitness of an Olympian. They won’t really understand a kid who refuses to swipe a finger through the chocolate frosting. Let’s face it; we all swipe the frosting at times.

2. Give them a goal.

Often, if you develop your character well enough, one of their less-than-perfect character traits will point you in the right direction. The critical thing here is to give your main character a goal that is personally important and easily defined.
  • Maybe they’re overweight but wants to try out for the part of a scarecrow in the school play.
  • They could be obsessed with soccer but is afraid to try out for the team as they’re constantly tripping over their feet.
  • They have an oral presentation coming up in front of the whole school and feel physically ill at the thought of speaking in front anyone.
Your main character and their goal will change with every story, but your plotting path – your visualization – is the main character’s journey toward this goal. Visualize the goal as something tangible: a star, a soccer ball or a Ferrari if you like.

(Here’s more with Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

3. Throw an obstacle at them.

Once your character’s goal is clear and definable, send them along the wooded path to achieve it. Make sure you perch on a comfortable branch above them with your bag of tricks. As they spot the shining star through the trees and strides toward their goal, toss a banana skin under their feet.

4. Throw them another one.

When they regain their footing and catch a glimpse of the star in the distance, race ahead and push over a massive tree, blocking their path.

5. Throw them a third (this is optional).

The star still beckons. As they’re climbing over the trunk or finding another way around the tree, clamber back into the highest branches and scramble along the canopy. Pull a cleverly situated chain that releases a pack of dogs, trained to block the path. You can now allow your maniacal laughter to escape as they won’t hear it over the growling canines.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Make Your Characters Hate You (And Why You Should))

6. Throw them your biggest and best.

After they’ve distracted the dogs using their courage and ingenuity, the star is brighter than ever. It’s time to throw them their final and seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Pull your magic powder from your bag of tricks and sprinkle it on the path. Watch with glee as it sparkles and grows and becomes a large body of water shimmering between your main character and their goal.

7. Allow them to wallow.

Your character wants to give up. They shake a fist at you and nearly turn back. They’re tired of you and your sadistic ways.

8. Let them succeed in spite of you.

They decide to give it one more try. The star shines like the sun and, after all, success is the best revenge. With pleasant visions of sprinkling itching powder in your underwear and mutiny on their mind, they build a raft and paddle across the sea. They grab their star, reaching their goal.

At this stage, it’s up to you whether you throw a couple of great whites or piranhas into the water, but it may be time to give the kid a break. They had a goal, overcame many obstacles and achieved their aim using unique and unexplored skills. You were no help at all.

9. Allow your character to grow.

As your character curses you and struggles to reach their goal, make sure that they are learning. External conflict can be riveting – the ground slippery, the path blocked and the dogs mean. But internal conflict is where your readers will find the satisfaction. Your main character can fight laziness, boredom, fear of failure, lack of confidence or a difficult relationship. If you have the stomach to throw angry Rottweilers at them, you will have no trouble giving them a debilitating character trait.

(Here’s more with The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc)

If the plotting path doesn’t strike a chord with you and you’d rather try waiting for inspiration in the lotus position, it can’t hurt. (Oops! Wrong, it can hurt but your main character will love you for it.) But if you decide to use this plotting path, just remember to challenge your main character and give them enough untapped ingenuity or strength to succeed in spite of your evil ways.

Bernice Peppercorn’s imagination fills her mind and her notebooks with adventure and intrigue. She sees crimes where there are none and races to the local police station daily to fulfil her civic duty.

When a real robbery is committed in town, Bernice dives into detective mode and stumbles across vital clues that could help find the thieves. No one believes her except Ike, a one-legged fisherman who lives down at the wharf.

Bernice Takes a Plunge is an exciting and humorous adventure for middle grade readers.


  1. Great tips. Thank you.

  2. This. Is. Brilliant.
    Each step you take strongly resonates w/ me. (I'm a FT Indie novelist, so I've been around the block a few times) and have tried a bunch of outline techniques and this one sits well w/ me. I'm saving this for my next work.

    I'm a somewhat experienced writer, so the only comment on this method would be don't be shy about bouncing back and forth b/t the steps as you do your first development steps.

    For example, maybe your character's really not all that real for you yet. You see her age/height/and maybe a quality or flaw, but she's not really 'real' yet...

    As I would go through throwing obstacles at her, I'd sit back and think stuff like, 'After climbing over the fallen trees, Annabelle confronts a pack of wild dogs....'

    Now possibilities open up:
    Maybe Annabelle is terrified of dogs. Or...
    Maybe Annabelle LOVES dogs? And now...
    I'd start thinking about Annabelle's relationship w/ animals in general...

    Here's my point:
    As my character deals w/ each of these obstacles, more of her own personality comes to me. By the end of the process you put up I'd have a really good handle on her; much deeper than the shallow rough sketch I had at the start. Isn't there something about how relationships develop in conflicts in real life? I think that could also be the case b/t me and my MC in this work. She'd reveal more of herself to me as I proceed through these steps.

    Again, hella post.