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How To Plot A Novel (Using Our Easy Plot Template Technique)

How To Plot A Novel (Using Our Easy Plot Template Technique)

All stories share a simple common structure – so the simplest way to outline your novel is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding.

Figuring out that template and how best to use it to create the best story possible for your readers is exactly what I’m going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. I’ll just help a little on the way…)

In this step by step guide to plotting a novel I will be teaching you everything you need to know about novel plotting – from my favourite mind mapping method, to understanding character arcs and how to tie up loose ends.

Are you ready to learn the most important part of the writing process? Here we go…

The Best Way To Plot A Novel

Very few writers can have a load of story ideas and start writing without any clear direction as to where they are heading and what is going to happen.

The novel plotting template I will be demonstrating in this article is more of an outlining process. A simple but detailed plot outline for your book that will serve as a skeleton from which to hang the meat of your story (sorry for that rather macabre visual representation).

As you go further into your writing journey you can make this into a pretty bullet journal or a colour coded Excel spreadsheet if you want, but for now you just need a pen and a piece of paper.

Ready? Good. Let’s outline your novel together.

What A Story Template Looks Like

A story template is just a simple method for getting all those brilliant pictures out of your head and on to the page in a way that will help your story ideas make sense to your readers. To begin with we need to look at the key components of any story.

Write down the following headings:

  • Main character (who leads the story)
  • Status Quo (situation at the start)
  • Motivation (what your character wants)
  • Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo – conflict)
  • Developments (what happens next)
  • Crisis (how things come to a head)
  • Resolution (how things resolve)

And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible – aim for 1-3 sentences.

It’s important to keep it simple at this stage as complex is our enemy. Fixating on intricate plot detail at drafting stage will only get in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel. And it’s those bones that will hook an agent/editor/reader.

The Novel Template: An Example

You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right?

OK. Let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. If your were plotting Pride And Prejudice, the outline might look something like this:

Character
Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England.

Status Quo
Lizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well).

Motivation
Lizzy wants to marry for love.

Initiating Incident
Two wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive.

Developments
Lizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems.

Crisis
Lizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone.

Resolution
Mr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all.

Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy.

You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments.

If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.”

And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.)

Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this, it’s really useful!

Developing Your Story Outline

You might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic.

Which it is.

So let’s develop the structure another notch. What we’re going to do now is add anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure.

So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this.

Subplot 1
Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.

Subplot 2
Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy.

Subplot 3
Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.

Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here, Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end).

But again: don’t worry.

Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and filling in any plot holes – that’ll do your brain in.

Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up.

How To Use Subplots

If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff.

There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, conflict, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on.

And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good.

What does matter, however is your character’s motivation.

Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book.

Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place.

In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously:

  1. If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots, conflicts, and so on.
  2. If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word.

And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself.

How To Plot A Novel: The Template

Remember that every subplot has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it will have its own beginning, middle and end, its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution.

Go ahead and drop everything you have into the grid below for every subplot as well as the main plot.

MAIN PLOTSUBPLOT 1SUBPLOT 2SUBPLOT 3
INITIATING INCIDENT
MAIN PLOT
CRISIS
RESOLUTION

If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after.

How To Further Develop Your Plot Outline

What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank?

You may have a great story idea, but that’s all it is – a basic idea. So how do you go from there to the plot points?

This is particularly hard when drafting your first novel. You may love the vibe of your story, have developed some cool characters, you may even know your rising action or character arcs, but that doesn’t mean you know how to plot a novel.

The basic problems here are twofold:

  1. You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, or
  2. You just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel.

Two different problems. Two different solutions. Let’s look at building a story from an initial idea…

The Snowflake Method

The snowflake method allows you to expand on an idea and flesh it out bit by bit.

This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces, like unnecessary drama just for the sake of it. It means adding depth and subplots, and developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story.

Here are four ways to grow your story idea into a full plot.

Method 1: Mirroring

Imagine your name is Harper Lee and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout. Let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.

One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.

A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout?

It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature.

Method 2: Ram Your Genre Into Something Different

Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.

So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Without the time travel element it would be a standard issue romantic story, but by adding a fantasy element you have something shimmeringly new and exciting.

Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters.

Evocative Victorian historical novels are nothing new, but by adding a lesbian coming-of-age story in that context the result is a literary sensation.

Method 3: Take Your Character And Max Them Out

Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe?

Stieg Larsson took a basic story and made its complex character, Lisbeth Salander, the star. Lisbeth is an autistic bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor – this made the story unique and intriguing.

Method 4: Add Edge – A Glint Of Steel

A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. The basic plot, main characters and final climax were strong, it wasn’t working. My solution?

A glint of steel.

I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist. The need to rescue the main character made the book!

Steel. Edge. Sex or violence.

Those things work in crime novels, but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died?

How To Plot A Novel: The Next Step

Now you have your plot, the next stage is to work on character development. I won’t delve any deeper on that as info on character building is an entire collection of articles, which you can find here. But it’s important to remember that plotting is merely the first stage of your writing process, because even with a strong plot a book without memorable main characters is nothing.

Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned…

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are The 5 Parts To A Plot In A Story?

  1. Introduce characters and setting
  2. Inciting incident
  3. Main story premise
  4. Crisis/Realisation
  5. Resolution

How Do You Plot A Novel In One Day?

If you know roughly what your story is about, you can plot your novel in a matter of hours (in the most simplest of ways). Ask yourself what your character wants most in the world, and think about the incident that has turned their life upside down. Decide whether they achieve what they want by the end (or get what they NEED) and then show their journey.

Start with this simple list:

  • Main character (who leads the story)
  • Status Quo (situation at the start)
  • Motivation (what your character wants)
  • Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo – conflict)
  • Developments (what happens next)
  • Crisis (how things come to a head)
  • Resolution (how things resolve)

From here you can add all the details that will make your story shine.

What Makes A Good Novel Plot?

As a writer all you should care about is keeping your readers hooked. So make sure you understand your characters and their motivation, add lots of obstacles in their path to success, make them (and your readers) think all is lost, then show your character arc as they grow at the end (and if they don’t succeed, at least offer some hope).

Having completed this exercise you should have lots of notes on your plot and a very strong foundation from which to build your story. Which means now you can have the real fun and add all the details. Enjoy!


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