How to Plot a Novel

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:

  • Use Aristotle's incline to create a beginning, rising action/complications, climax and denouement.

Or you may have been given information that felt too complex for a new writer:

  • Create a strong premise, concretize cause and effect obstacles based on value clashes, make each obstacle and clash more difficult than the last, until your character arrives at the worst possible choice and must make a final decision that resolves the central conflict through either success or failure.

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 propel characters (and readers) through a story with purposeful, goal-oriented action. This narrative practice is based on the Romantic view that humans act with reason and volition. They direct life results through free will and choice.

  • Naturalistic plots nudge characters through story as the characters observe and respond to events, based on the anti-volition philosophy of Naturalism, which says free will is illusory. Life happens, and we respond.

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.

How to Plot a Novel

  1. Decide on a theme. What abstract principle will your story explore or prove? For example: Love conquers all, Money conquers all, Justice must be served, To have friends you must be a friend, Happiness cannot be earned, Liberals should never marry Conservatives, etc.

  2. Begin with your story premise, one line, which lays out the central conflict of the story in a way that best concretizes your theme.

    For example: The premise for "Love Conquers All" might be: A happily married couple, sweethearts since childhood, lose their savings in Vegas while trying to win money for a real estate project, and then meet a tycoon who offers them one million dollars to spend one night with the wife. (Plot of Indecent Proposal)

  3. Decide how the conflict will be resolved. I.e.: The couple goes through hell but ends up together, their bond tested and enduring.

  4. Now choose key scenes. You want to concretize the steps required to get from the opening to the resolution. In our example, required scenes would:
  • Establish the happiness of the couple
  • Show their "important reason" for needing money
  • Show them lose the opportunity
  • Show the wife meet the man
  • Have the man make his proposition (incident that makes everything else possible)
  • Have the couple discuss his offer and decide to take it
  • Have the wife go off on the yacht to consummate the deal (first turning point, as the story "turns" in a way that will have unknown consequences)
  • Show complication scenes as the couple tries to adjust
  • And more. As an exercise, you might watch the film and list the scenes, analyzing how they move the plot toward the resolution of the central conflict.

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.

More Creative Writing Help

Plot Outline


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