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Learning how to plot a novel is not difficult. Having the skill to implement a good plot is more problematic. On this page I offer both the "how to" and some exercises for increasing your ability to plot well.
In the past, you may have been instructed to use a simple plot structure:
Or you may have been given information that felt too complex for a new writer:
I studied creative writing for six years in university, and I was never instructed on how to plot a novel. I should write and not worry about plot, I was told, and in doing so, everything would come together in the end.
It did, and I wrote Burning Ground while giving very little thought to plot. Nevertheless, structured plots force characters into purposeful action, and more readily hold reader attention.
We can think of plots as being either structured or naturalistic:
Structured plots = volition and purposeful action
Naturalistic plots = reactive anti-volition
Both philosophies are valid, but if you want to sell what you write, editors appreciate complex, structured plots.
I recently reread The Art of Fiction, by Ayn Rand, where I first encountered the idea of Structured and Naturalistic plots. I recommend it for one of the best discussions of plotting I have encountered.
Everything above shows how to plot a novel, but not how to train yourself to think up good complications and plot points. Imagine sitting in front of the computer with a very small vocabulary. You would naturally find it difficult to express your ideas.
But how many writers have an insufficient store of ideas for creating plot complications?
In The Art of Fiction, by Ayn Rand, discusses the importance of training the mind to associate abstract ideas with concrete details, and the reverse--training the mind to associate concrete details with abstract ideas.
A "perfect" day is an abstraction. To be meaningful to readers, provide concrete details that make imagining easier--birds, the heat of the sun, blue skies, the scent of lilacs, the company of a friend, etc.
Anything that exists in thought without a concrete form is abstract, such as love, anger, emotion, warmth, or colour. To learn how to plot a novel better, teach yourself to associate these abstractions with the concrete objects and sensory stimuli that make the writing useful in fiction.
Likewise, you can teach yourself to translate the concrete into abstractions that will be useful as you plot. For example, you may notice a lot of individuals eating snack food in public. You see them munching on potato chips, candy, fruit, etc. These are concrete details.
But what do the details mean? You might decide that they mean values have changed, or that snacking in public is a sign of general restlessness or dissatisfaction.
You might hear drivers blasting their horns, see them shaking their fists, yelling, banging on steering wheels, or screaming obscenities, and conclude that an abstraction such as "road rage" is increasing.
According to Rand, the act of practicing associations of both sorts will develop your ability to use events and their concrete details as unconsciously as you now use vocabulary and punctuation.
It may be possible to fully understand plot basics only when one becomes proficient in some of the subtler narrative skills, such as how to control tension, deepen characterization, thwart reader expectation, use cause and effect sequences, etc.
However, with even a little understanding of how to plot a novel, plot lines and plot points become easier to create.