Writing

7 Tips for Writing Better Plots

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 5, 2019 • 4 min read

At the core of any great novel, short story, or screenplay is a great story idea. Fiction is shaped by character development and vivid world-building, but without a good plot, character arcs and textured detail won’t connect with your audience.

Creating a compelling plotline can be easier said than done. On the one hand, you want your main story to sustain your reader's attention until the end of the story. On the other hand, you don’t want to rely on an overly familiar plot structure. There are a lot of plot ideas out there, and you want yours to stand out from the pack. If you can split the difference between these competing interests—novelty and familiarity—you may be able to come up with a story plot that pays dividends in every stage of the writing process.

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7 Tips for Writing Better Plots

Jumpstart the most critical component in your novel writing (or scriptwriting) process with these writing tips for better basic plots:

  1. Learn from your influences. The best way to understand plot development and good story structure is to read it on the page. Depending on your intended writing style, seek out highlights of the genre. If you’re looking to write young adult literature, consult some YA touchstones like the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Goosebumps universe of R.L. Stine, or the poignant coming of age novels by Judy Blume. If you’re looking to write science fiction, study the work of Isaac Asimov or Neil Gaiman. If you aim to write fantasy novels, consult The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. If crime thrillers are your thing, try Dan Brown or David Baldacci. If you want to succeed in creative writing, learn from the creative writers you most admire.
  2. Build your plot around a main character who changes. Readers want to invest in characters. If you can craft a compelling three-dimensional character and put them in interesting situations, your novel will practically write itself. Ask yourself: How does your main plot suit the evolution of your protagonist, both inwardly and outwardly? Does the sequence of events you have planned give your character enough to do at the beginning of the story, the middle of the story, and the end of the story? Make sure you can answer these questions before you start writing the first page of your actual novel.
  3. Use the snowflake method to brainstorm with spontaneity. The snowflake method, created by author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson, is a technique for crafting a novel from scratch by starting with a basic story summary, then layering in additional elements. It works well for all sorts of creative writing. To begin using the snowflake method, think of a big picture story idea and describe it with a one-sentence summary. For example, the sentence could be something like: “Two teenagers discover a secret cave that contains treasures hidden by a group of criminals.” The snowflake method then requires you to build that sentence into a paragraph, using that paragraph to create various character descriptions. From there, you use those descriptions to create a series of storylines that involve those characters—and each of those storylines traces back to the basic idea at the center of your “snowflake.”
  4. Consider starting at the end. Endings are hard. An otherwise great book can become forgettable if it has a feeble ending. But books with memorable endings—from Anna Karenina to The Great Gatsby to Native Son—are nearly indelible from a reader’s mind. Make sure your ending is worthy of your narrative. Some authors literally begin their writing process by figuring out their ending and then reverse engineer the various series of events, plot points, and plot twists they will need to reach that ending in a satisfying way. Consider this method when mapping out your own story.
  5. Craft a basic structure that prioritizes action. Whether you’re writing an action novel, a romance story, or even a muted period drama, you’ll do your readers a favor by loading up your story with action scenes. “Action” does not have to mean car chases or fights. All it means is that the characters are actively doing something beyond talking. This also means you’ll need to create characters who have well-developed interests, which could be a job, a hobby, or a criminal enterprise. As a first time novelist or screenwriter, you may underestimate action’s importance in keeping audiences engaged. If you can write great dialogue, by all means lean into it—but don’t ignore the crucial role that activity plays in a great story.
  6. Draft a plot outline. Although it may be tempting to dive right into a first draft, a structured outline can clarify your storyline, help you track your main character’s motivation at each stage of their journey, and effectively pace story elements throughout the course of the story. J.K. Rowling is a famous in-depth outliner. Her preferred method, which she used while writing the Harry Potter series, involves pages and pages of handwritten notes with the plot written out in columns representing the book’s timeline. Within an outline, you can track character backstory, storyline, and subplot.
  7. Consider laying out your story using a three-act structure. In fiction, a three-act structure divides a story into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action, from inciting incident to denouement. Learn more about using three-act structure in your writing with our complete guide here.

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