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Writing

10 Tips for Plotting a Novel: How to Plot Your Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Plotting a novel is a daunting task. Many authors are stymied by plot, and learning to plot a novel is one of the hardest things for young authors to learn. Whether you are planning on self-publishing your first novel or are working on the first draft of a new novel after publishing multiple bestsellers, the following tips will help you develop a plotline and improve your novel writing abilities.

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10 Tips for Plotting Your Novel: Step-by-Step Guide

Plotting your novel is a multi-step process. There are a few different approaches and mindsets when it comes to plotting a novel. Whether you’re new to fiction writing and trying to translate a great story idea into a novel or you’ve already written novels and short stories before, the following is a step-by-step guide to plotting a novel that will help authors of all ages and levels of experience:

  1. Generate ideas. The first step in writing a novel is generating story ideas. Some writers like to freewrite and brainstorm, others prefer working with writing prompts. Whichever approach you take, it’s important to spend time coming up with a variety of ideas and choosing a strong premise that lends itself to an effective plot.
  2. Start with a simple, compelling premise. Once you have a basic idea, it’s time to develop a story premise. One way to develop a small idea into a basic story is called the snowflake method. The snowflake method involves starting with a core premise or theme upon which you build every other aspect of narrative and character as you flesh out the big picture.
  3. Have a clear central conflict. Creating a clear central conflict will anchor your plot and give your narrative focus. Harry Potter is a great example of a story with a clear central conflict. J.K. Rowling wrote seven books all centered around a central conflict between the protagonist, Harry Potter, and the villainous Voldemort. If you’re a first-time novelist or new writer, look to thrillers, fantasy or adventure stories for examples of clear good guy vs. bad guy conflict.
  4. Choose your structure. There are many different models upon which you can base your plot structure. The most common is a three act structure. Learning the basics of how a three-act story structure can help you start to piece together your plot and structure your narrative.
  5. Trace out general story arcs. Start to lay out a storyline. You don’t have to worry about building the whole thing at once. Rather you can focus on an act length story arc or even scene descriptions and piece these together as you build out a full-length narrative.
  6. Build subplots. Once you have a good sense for your main plot it’s time to layer in subplots. Subplots can often be character specific, so this is a good time to think a bit about the characters you’ve populated your world with and how each individual backstory might come into play. Good subplots will weave seamlessly through your main arc and help advance your action rather than distract from it.
  7. Think about cause and effect. Good stories involve a logical series of events that progress one into the next. Make sure that your scenes are each motivated by something that preceded them. A good driving narrative should feel dynamic. A plot should progress forward because of tangible story elements like a character’s motivation or actions that propel your narrative. If you look at your story arc as a sequence of events, there should be a logical progression where one scene triggers the next and pushes the action forward.
  8. Write a detailed outline. Before you start writing, you should have a detailed plot outline. This should catalog the main story and individual plot points. It should be comprehensive enough that someone who has no knowledge of your story could look at the outline and piece together the narrative of events, identifying your inciting incident, rising action, and climax.
  9. Tie up loose ends. Once you have a detailed outline, it’s time to tie up loose ends and fill any plot holes. Editing is a very important part of creative writing. One common misconception about writing is that editing comes at the end of the process. Editing is something you should return to throughout your writing process and it’s important to edit your plot and outline before you start writing in earnest.
  10. Don’t neglect character development. Character is an incredibly important part of a story and helps to balance out plot-based narratives. Before you start writing you should make sure that you have detailed character arcs and main characters with clear motivations and backstories. Part of building a good character is building a strong and nuanced point of view. Balance out the plot portion of your writing process by taking some time to analyze your characters and make sure they are strong, realistic, and nuanced.

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