The Ultimate Guide For Plotting a Novel
The plot of a story, constructed either for novels or screens, is perceived and described differently by different people. Some would identify it with the story itself, some with specific events within the story, others with a combination of highs and lows strung together to make the book or movie what it is. Readers often closely associate plots with characters and their journeys, and some writers too, are proponents of this school of thought, as made evident by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quotable quote “Character is plot, plot is character.” While there’s no singular definition that negates all others, most of us can agree with the idea that plots help both readers and writers make sense of the varied elements that go into a story, by arranging them and highlighting the relationship between them.
A plot is the foundation of a novel or story, meant to organise information and individual narrative events (also known as plot points) in a sequential, or rather, logical manner. Let’s look at it this way:
- The theme or premise is the WHY of the text.
- The story setting is the WHERE.
- The story or narrative is the WHAT.
- The plot is the HOW.
- The characters are the WHO.
However, the plot shouldn’t just explain how something happens, but why it does. Naturally, this means the theme(why), narrative(what), and plot (how) must be cohesive, fit into the larger premise, and most certainly factor in characters and their journeys, both inward and outward.
With that, let’s move on to understanding what a subplot is, why it can be a necessary addition, and how it’s different from a plot.
Subplots are side stories or threads that run parallel to the main plot. A subplot typically revolves around secondary characters and events that introduce new details and enrich the overall narrative, by adding complexity and intrigue. While the overarching plot defines the book, it often takes a recognisable form or pattern that can cause the readers’ interest to wane. And that’s where subplots are most useful, as they can add more depth and layers whilst supporting the bigger picture represented by the plot. Backstories and comic relief are commonly employed as effective subplots.
The difference is that the subplot deals with events or issues that aren’t essential to the overall storyline, whereas the plot deals with significant events and conflicts that contribute to the narrative arc. Remember, subplots must alter the original plot lines for the better, and not make things confusing or chaotic for the reader!
Let’s add some more clarity to the meaning of plot and subplot, with an example or two. J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is about a boy who learns about his origins and decides to seek justice by fighting the ultimate battle of good versus evil. That’s the plot, as are the trials and tribulations of characters on either side of this fight, significant events and essential character arcs. On the other hand, a subplot would be the developing competition between Harry and Draco Malfoy, which intensifies with every part of the series and represents the adversity between the two larger groups fighting the battle. Another example is Professor Snape’s constant villainous appearance and inexplicable dislike towards the protagonist, creating curiosity among readers. However, our perception of him changes over time as Snape’s backstory is uncovered little by little, and we’re made aware of how this portion of the story contributes to the overall plot.
Now that we have our plot points, plot and subplots configured, how do we tie them all together?
A useful structure or template you could follow to help you bind all your plot elements together and keep things in order is the plot diagram. Remember earlier, when we mentioned that almost all plots follow a discernible pattern of ups and downs that readers begin to notice? This familiar shape that forms out of segmenting your plot into the introduction, conflicts, escalations, cool offs and the climax is called the plot diagram. A plot diagram is essentially a visualisation of your story’s narrative arc, so let’s get to know that a little better first.
A narrative arc or story arc defines the story’s progression by combining the plot events and their sequence or timeline to make a compelling story. If your plot sums up the individual events that make up your story, your story arc is the sequence or order of those events.
It factors in the following five elements that you can find in every plot – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution – and arranges them into a pyramid-like shape to indicate the peaks, plateaus and valleys of your story. To create a plot diagram of your own, you could:
- Lay out your story’s plot points, which could include setting the stage, introducing the character, the situations they find themselves in, how they eventually get out, all of it.
- Throw subplots into the mix.
- Identify what order you’d like all of these to be appearing in, in your volume. Here’s where you could figure out what narrative timeline you want to adopt, i.e. if you wish to reveal the events chronologically or have multiple storylines unfold at once or even a circular structure where the story starts and ends at the same place.
- Finally, condense them into a plot diagram and voilà! You have yourself a pyramid that is a crisp, summarised representation of your plot.
Now you know why all those “boy meets girl” or “defeating the monster” stories follow such similar paths! Similar, not predictable. Be careful to follow the plot diagram design only to better organise your plot and narrative, not as a formula for your story itself, lest it seem redundant or run of the mill.
Now that you’ve figured out a majority of the details around your plot, is it time to start writing the chapters now? You’re almost there, but there’s one more important step left before you can plunge right into the body of your work. You’ve developed your characters, written the plot and subplots, and compiled them to fit a plot diagram. What’s left is putting these together into one coherent roadmap, also called the plot outline. It is a plan of your book’s structure, plot, characters, scenes, and more. It’s like a blueprint of your book, which concludes the organising aspect of the process and triggers the actual writing bit.
Those already acquainted with the literary world and the novel outline concept would know that it has been the subject of an age-old debate between its believers and non-believers, otherwise known as plotters and pantsers.
A “plotter” is someone who is meticulous about creating plot outlines and spends a considerable amount of time setting up their novel before they begin writing. Many successful authors like John Grisham and R.L Stein honestly believe that charting out plotlines makes the writing process more manageable and can help avoid the much-dreaded writer’s block. On the contrary, the likes of Stephen King, who feel that this prewriting stage ends up restricting creativity and curbing the free flow of ideas, belong to the “pantsers” category.
While one of these may work better for you and your book, we suggest that you find a middle ground. Create a flexible outline that can guide your work and help you orient your story without taking the fun out of it. Instead of planning out every chapter, scene and character arc, stick to the major plot points and broadly define the components of your story’s beginning, middle and end. You could do this on paper, or if you’re using an online writing platform like the Pencil editor, you could use the Notes feature to jot down everything from a single thought to an extensive outline.
With that, we’ve covered everything about the basics of plotting along with plot outlines and structures. Let’s look at some tips for writing powerful plots that can keep your readers hooked till the very end of the book!
- What to focus on if you’re writing a plot-driven story: Plot-driven stories are often exciting and fast-paced. The curiosity to know how and when characters would escape or overcome critical situations is what keeps the readers engrossed in this kind of book. As an author of a plot-driven story, you need to focus on events rather than people or their internal conflicts. The latter would be central to the theme of your book, had it been a character-driven novel. In your story, you push your characters to make quick decisions that carry the story forward. As a result, you can’t spend too much time ironing out the details of each character, otherwise, it would become character-based, instead of plot-based. At the same time, you can’t force-fit character journeys as it would seem rushed and unconvincing.
2. Creating genre-specific plots: Margaret Atwood, the bestselling author of the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale provides a simple formula to generate plots for any genre, by using a common example to start with and then moulding it to fit your book’s niche. The premise is the same: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. Based on this pattern, there are four different plots you could try:
- Sci-Fi or Fantasy: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. And then one day, a strange green light is seen in the sky. And a canister descends to Earth right behind their house, and out of it comes a tentacled monster. What will they do?
- Drama: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow but then Mary begins to suspect: Is John cheating on her?
- Fantasy or Psychological Thriller or Horror: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow. Then John discovers that Mary is mysteriously absent during parts of the night and has developed an alarming tendency to sleep in the bathtub with all the curtains drawn. What has happened? What are those strange white fangs that have appeared? Could it be that Mary is a vampire?
- Action thriller: John and Mary are living happily in their split-level bungalow, but they’re running out of money. What are they going to do? “I know,” says John. “Let’s rob a bank.”
Notice how every summary starts with the exact same line and then builds on it based on the genre or subgenre of the novel. This is a great way to set your imagination running wild, and possibly come up with something phenomenal!
3. Plot mutation: This one’s a rather clever way to kickstart the plotting procedure. The word mutation makes it sound like something straight out of X-Men, but this one’s a harmless four-step technique you could follow to get going on the plot writing process.
- Choose a novel you love.
- Condense it into a single paragraph.
- Make a simple yet profound change.
- Use that to start fleshing out your story and the corresponding plot
4. The Red Herring Twist: Everyone loves a good plot twist that catches them off guard! Introduce at least two or three twists in your story. These help keep readers engaged, especially in the middle of your book when your plot might otherwise start to lose momentum. You could even add some false leads or “red herrings” into the mix, to throw them off, and prevent them from guessing where the story’s going.
5. Common plot pitfalls to dodge: This one’s to help you steer clear of possible plot holes that could ruin your story. Make sure your plot isn’t too convoluted for readers to follow. Also ensure that scenes are well connected and character arcs aren’t left incomplete. Basically, everything must add up and there shouldn’t be any inconsistencies in your story. Another mistake writers make is to improvise too much. While this is helpful sometimes, try and avoid it especially for sub-genres like murder mysteries where you need to plan stuff out on behalf of your characters.
As you can see, writing a plot is a journey in itself, one that makes its way from a hunch or an idea to an outline to a full-blown plot, complete with twists and surprise endings! While there are a million other intricacies to plot construction, like strategies to thicken your plot or configuring the right micro plots for your story, this is pretty much the gist of it. If you’re wondering where to begin or what you could start writing, we recommend identifying a central conflict and constructing some thrilling plot lines around it!