Books Writing

Plotting a novel – this is how it works

Every novel has a plot: This is sequence of events as they are described in the novel. If you develop the plot of a novel before writing it, this planning of events is also called plot. Plotting for a novel is similar to planning for a house: without planning at all, it’s hard to build something sensible and viable.

Before you start writing a novel, you should determine the plot in advance, at least in broad strokes. For beginners, there is a great risk that without a plot, you will get lost in the middle of nowhere and not be able to finish the novel. While writing, you should always check whether the plot and what you have already written still fit together. Often, as you write, you need to touch up – either the plot or the novel. Of course, you can still change the plot as you write, but in this case you should make sure that the arc of suspense doesn’t fall by the wayside, and that the previous draft of the novel fits the new plot.

Developing a plot for a novel

Before you can get started plotting, you should do some preliminary work. For a good plot, you need:

  • A good and unusual idea for a novel
  • The story in one sentence
  • The story in three sentences (beginning, middle, end)
  • The characters

You can read how to create these first steps here on my blog: How to Write a Book.

And then you can get started plotting. I prefer to hold on to the first drafts of a novel plot with pen and paper. To keep better track of the structure of my story, I use index cards for this. First, I jot down what I already have: Beginning, middle, end. To do this, I write down the beginning of the story on one index card, the middle of the story on a second index card, and the conclusion on a third index card.

My tip is to make sure that you write down the beginning, middle, and ending as concrete events. In other words, something that can really be portrayed in the middle of the novel based on a specific event, for example. “Lilo and Anita become friends” is not a concrete event. It’s a process that might take place over 100 pages of the novel and many individual events. For an event to be suitable for planning a story, it should be a concrete action that is manageable in time. For example, “Lilo and Anita visit a fair and are able to laugh together for the first time since they met.” This is a concrete event that can be described in the middle of a novel and is therefore suitable for planning a plot.

Plotting a novel

The three index cards on which I have noted the beginning, middle, and end of my novel now give, in very broad strokes, my plot. Some people use them to start writing the first draft of their novel. But most writers plan further intermediate steps, which gives more orientation in writing. And I recommend this to all beginners.

For further detailed planning, many authors work with a drama model. This gives the plot a good arc of tension. Popular drama models are the three-act play and the hero’s journey. The three-act play is helpful for planning the sequence of major events. The hero’s journey is a proven structure for stories in which the main character becomes a hero or heroine. The two drama models are not mutually exclusive; some authors use both models to plot a compelling story. But even with just one of the two drama models, you can develop wonderful stories that have a good arc of suspense.

Between these five essential events, you can plan some more intermediate steps. For this, it is best to take more index cards. On each index card, write a sentence or keyword about what should happen at that point in the story. You then arrange all the index cards in the sequence that reflects the plot of your novel.

This type of plotting is modular, meaning you decide how many intermediate steps to plan ahead of time. At the end of this planning phase, you may have ten, twenty, or fifty index cards. Some authors plot the entire novel in this way and create an index card for each individual scene. For a novel, this can mean fifty to a hundred cards.

But you don’t have to start planning so small. You can also start with ten or twenty cards. In that case, I would recommend that you always plan about ten scenes in advance. That is, you have the five events of the three-act play written down on five index cards. You now set aside ten more index cards and write down on each card a scene that should take place after the triggering event. You then sort these cards between the other cards in the sequence of the action.

The length of a scene can vary greatly – anything from one to twenty pages is possible. Assuming an average length, you now know what happens in the first thirty or so to sixty pages of your novel. Once you’ve written one or two or three of the planned scenes, then keep planning until you’ve got another ten or so scenes planned in advance. To keep your bearings, you can write the events of the three-act play (i.e., the five most important events in your story) on red index cards and the rest of the detailed planning, with the scenes that take place in between, on blue index cards. If the events of the three-act are planned concretely enough (see the example above with the fair), then they correspond to a scene, and so when planning the scene, the red index cards fit seamlessly into the flow of the blue cards.

Of course, plotting with index cards is only one way. Instead of cards, you can use a spreadsheet, an Excel list, or a graphics program. There’s also authoring software that presets modules for scene planning, so you can move scenes back and forth with a click. But whether it’s index cards or software, this only affects how you record your plotting. It doesn’t change the plot or the plotting.

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