How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Steps

Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.

Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.

All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks

Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

how to write a novel plot, plotting a novel, novel structure
Memorize this little graph so you’ll know when to zig instead of zag in your plot.

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.

Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot

Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.

How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

How to Write a Novel Subplot

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.

That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise

This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.

Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.

Querying With a Series and Series in General

This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

Introducing Climactic Details

Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. Dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.

The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.

A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As the novel builds and builds, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.

The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”

No. It gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.

This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).

Do not introduce an event or person or thing or consequence in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)

Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.

If you introduce something a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if you’ve been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.

Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me to review your manuscript and give you hands-on plotting advice.

Does A Character Have to Change From Beginning to End?

I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!

What Happens Here?

Every once in a while, I stumble upon a dead scene. One where, technically, nothing happens. It usually involves either an author who is brimming with information or really loves writing witty banter.

In two manuscripts I’ve read recently, I’ve encountered dead scenes. These dead scenes occurred for two completely different reasons. For one, the author felt compelled to outline the bulk of a fantasy world in the form of a more-experienced person filling a newbie in. The second MS, the author had established some good tension and a compelling plot with potential danger, then spent about 40 or 50 pages writing: witty banter at a family dinner, a witty scene at the best friend’s house, witty banter at another family dinner, witty banter at the coffee house, witty banter by the lockers at school.

Are you getting my drift? What do the two above mss. have in common? What’s that? Did you say “lot’s o’ blabbing”? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!

When you find large places in your MS with nothing but dialogue, you’re most likely in trouble. *cue wails of distress, cries of “but my MS is different!”* That very well might be, but editors and agents are looking for story, they’re looking for plot. In most cases, even a literary, character-driven masterpiece will only be half the package.

I’ve never met a publishing professional who wouldn’t also want to know: “What happens next?”

Authors usually either write long conversation scenes to serve as a) an info-dump (about a world, a situation, a threat, a character, etc.), or b) to bask in their own wit/wordplay/writing.

Both of these pose huge revision problems. Huge. Make-you-want-to-eat-a-sheet-of-tiramisu-from-Costco huge (I know from experience… I can still taste the powdered chocolate dusting my tear-stained cheeks). The first author wails: “But how else do I introduce all that information??? It’s the crux of my story!!!”

The answer is: you layer it. Introduce one thing. Then add another layer to it. Add some backstory in another conversation. Better yet, make your explanation triggered by something. Your characters find something and it starts a story. Or something happens and a character explains something. Instead of having a conversation triggered by your urge to world-build and spill the framework of your concept, have it be triggered by action. And don’t give it to us all at once. Put the pieces together as they arise naturally through plot.

The second writer will balk at this advice: “But this is hilarious. It’s so fun to read!” Sure, you wrote some funny stuff. And I’ll probably enjoy reading it. But most writers can’t keep a book in suspended plot animation for long before a reader gets antsy. If you want to showcase your wit, punctuate it with action. Have a witty moment discussing something that happened. De-stress after a long day of ACTION by hanging out with your BFF and bantering. Don’t let the witty banter be the entire book, though. That’s the grave mistake.

As you can see, the answer to both situations is action. Something happening. Plot. Every scene and every chapter must not only develop character and story and world, they must also move the plot forward. Another reason to avoid long dialogue scenes without plot is that dialogue leads toward telling, not showing.

Are you worried about this? Good. If you’re the fantasy writer in my examples, start with the chapters you loathe re-reading the most. The ones dense with info you already know, the ones you tend to skim in revisions. That’s where your problem lies. If you’re the second writer, start with the chapters you love the most. The ones that make you feel the most satisfied. The ones where you’re showing off. My guess is that they’re the witty banter ones.

Neither is easy. But when you’re revising, ask yourself about every scene, every chapter: “What happens here?”

Honesty is important. If your honest answer is: “Two characters walk into a room, sit down at the table and talk,” that’s trouble.