Plotting can be highly detailed, down to chapter and scene, or it can be more like a roadmap with major points of interests highlighted. However you decide to do it, having a plan can make writing a novel a less frustrating experience. The freedom of sitting at your computer with a blank screen, knowing your story can careen any which way you want it to, can be thrilling. It also can be terrifying. Having no clue what comes next or how to craft a coherent novel are two downsides of doing no plotting. Plotting doesn’t have to take away the spontaneity of writing, but it can serve as a guidepost, steering you along. Here are my top tips for plotting your novel.
A Compelling Premise Needs a Clear Central Conflict
Most people sit down to write a book because an idea takes hold of them, and it won’t let them go. In other words, before you even attempt to write a book, chances are that you have a premise. If that’s the case, the first step in plotting your novel is done. The brainstorming has taken place. To turn a premise into a novel, however, you’ll need to create a clear central conflict involving that premise.
A premise goes something like this: Homeless orphan Aladdin finds a genie in a bottle and is granted three wishes. Okay, cool idea. This idea is not a story, however. It’s still merely a premise. Aladdin could have wished for a home, a million dollars in the bank, and world peace and been done with it. Instead, self-preservation gets derailed by his interest in a girl, and trouble ensues. Aladdin trying, failing, and then ultimately succeeding to get what he wants is called a plot. The central conflict elevates the premise of Aladdin into the story of Aladdin.
All novels require a plot with a clear central conflict. The one in Aladdin is: will Aladdin help Princess Jasmine overcome the machinations of the evil Jafar, win her heart, and find comfort in his life? If you can’t boil your central conflict down into a sound bite that concise, you want to spend more time on this step.
Give it Structure by Plotting
Structure and arcs should be top of mind when plotting. Most stories are written in a classic three-act structure. The first act introduces the characters and sets up the inciting incident. The second act is when the protagonist is actively working to accomplish the goal she decided she wanted in the first act. The final act is about pushing your main characters through their toughest moment (aka, the climax) and resolving the conflict. You can use another structure too (remember there are no hard and fast rules), but why reinvent the wheel?
The other element to look for are your character arcs. Does your main character go on a life changing journey? How is he different at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning? Each act should ideally have its own arc. Read more on character arcs and development here: Deep Dive into Characters. If you keep these things in mind, you’ll plot with more intention, which will strengthen your work.
Let Reason Ring
Your outline should include major events. There’s no need to get granular, but you should have a sense of the inciting incident, the point of no return, the major setback, and the climax. When plotting these points, make sure that one thing leads to another. Every scene should be informed by the one that preceded it. A logical progression of character motivation and actions should drive the story forward. Remember, you’re eventually going to have to tie up all of your loose ends by the end of the novel. The more one action flows from the other, the easier it will be for you to create a satisfying resolution.
On a final note, don’t ever feel like the plot you planned before you started writing is in stone. You can change it. If you find a better idea during the creative process, by all means, go with it. Plotting in advance is a way to watch for potential pitfalls and shore up your conflict and progression before you get started. However, always answer your muse when she calls.