How to Plot a Novel

So you want to learn how to plot a novel… Woohoo! Gold star for taking the first step to writing it down. There’s a brilliant story in your brain just bursting to explode, and we’re going to help you light that fuse…

Yes, it’s a little known fact that novel plotting mostly involves dangerous quantities of creative dynamite. It’s exciting! It’s unknown! It’s a little bit scary! And there’s usually a fair amount of clean-up to do after the dust of the first draft has settled. But that’s all part of the process. So let’s get into it and find out how to plot novel and explode that story of yours.

The Best Way to Plot a Novel

Honestly? The best way to plot your novel is your way. Every writer is different and every writer will naturally find the approach that works for them — through trial, error, experimentation, perseverance, and hopefully a load of creative fun along the way.

We can’t tell you how to write your novel but we can give you the tools, techniques, and resources to find your own way. Because there’s nothing worse than being told “this is how it must be done” only to find your writerly brain doesn’t work that way.

Try out the methods below, pick ‘n choose which plotting advice sounds useful to you, and formulate your own unique novel plotting plan.

Gif from Home Alone - Kevin unrolls a hand-drawn battle plan.

How to Start Plotting a Novel

<Sean Bean voice> One does not simply just write a novel. First, one must learn how to plot a novel. And there are a few things you need under your belt first. Three things, in fact:

#1. A PLAN: How, when, and indeed why are you doing this? A novel is a glorious monster of a project and if you’re gonna get to The End you need to get your ducks in a row. That means carving out some regular writing time, setting your expectations to reasonable levels, and gathering all the materials you need. (New notebook? Heck yeah.) Find out more about how to do all of that right here >>

#2. A BIG IDEA: Good guy fights the bad guy! Human considers their humanness! Love wins! Suddenly: pirates! Every great story can be reduced down to the simplest of premises. And every novel grows from the tinest of story seeds. So first, figure out what that (tiny) big idea is, and let it grow from there >>

#3. A CAST OF CHARACTERS: Every story needs its people, so let’s figure out who your story’s about. Get to know your protagonist. Put them on the psychiatrist’s couch and ask them about their childhood. Find out what it is they really, truly, desperately want from life (and then maliciously whisk it out of reach). Go on, make some fictional people with your brain >>

Once you’ve got those three things, you should be well on your way to developing something decidedly story-shaped. And then we can crack on with the actual plotting.

Screenshot of a tumblr post. The first image is titled: so I've got a pretty clear idea of my story. Below are some scribbly lines with three points marked beginning, middle and end. 

The second image is the same, but has been altered so there is only one point labelled 'one cool moment that I base the whole story off of.'

The third image has been scribbled over almost entirely with black and blue lines, with the words 'the vibe' stamped over the top. Below, a comment reads: sometimes you gotta get down to brass tacks.

The Easiest Way to Plot a Novel

Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all 80,000-ish words of a whole novel?

Easy. Start small. Write a Tiny Novel first.

Outlining your novel in the simplest of terms not only helps you to get to grips with the overview in a manageable way, but it actually makes sure you’re hitting all the main beats before you get down into the details.

In our free novel plotting course, Write a Tiny Novel, we start with just four major plot points and the most important ingredient in any story: your protagonist.

You can have the most finely-tuned plot outline in the world, but if your main character isn’t a living, breathing, realistic human being, with motivations, goals, flaws, and believable behaviours, then you’re going to struggle to get to the end of your novel in one piece.

Use your character’s arc to map out your novel. Where do they start? Where do they end up? What trials, tribulations, and important changes must they go through to get there? Start with the big ups and downs and gradually expand it into something more detailed.

Can You Write a Novel Without an Outline?

Yes, of course you can, but… even if you think yourself to be the free-birdiest free-writer ever to draft by the seat of their pants, chances are you have made an outline — a secret one inside your head. And outlining doesn’t have to be a paint-by-numbers, analytical spreadsheet kinda deal (though if that’s your thing, by all means nerd out). it doesn’t even have to be particularly detailed. It could be a case of: “this happens, then this happens, then… um, a bunch of stuff I haven’t figured out yet… then, ooh, THIS happens!”

The aim of plotting your novel is not to constrict your creativity. It’s to give you a flexible, generalised guideline to follow, so you don’t get lost along the way. You’re entirely welcome to head off the main path and explore the wilderness for a bit, see where it takes you, but you’ll still have your compass with you to make sure you make it back to camp in time for songs around the fire.

Our favourite method of novel plotting is a little something we like to call Plotstormers. And it helps you map out exactly the kind of flexible-yet-reassuringly-solid outline you need when you first start drafting your novel. It’s a cross between plotting (duh), and brainstorming (geddit, plot-storming?) — giving you the structure AND the creativity to satisfy both sides of your brain.

Check out this blog on Planning vs Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) for more on how it works, then hop on over to Plotstormers to put it into practice!

Gif from The Princess Bride. Miracle Max and his wife wave off the heroes with the caption: have fun storming the castle.
How to Develop Your Novel outline

Once you’ve got the bare bones of your plot down, you can start to expand them out into something much more comprehensive and detailed — scene by scene.

Think of it as a big ol’ join the dots puzzle. You know the ultimate journey is going to take you from A to Z, so now you just have to add in points B to Y…

Let your characters guide the way. How do their goals and motivations and flaws push the plot forward (or send it two steps back)? How do your secondary characters help or hinder the protagonist’s progress? What do they learn? How do they change?

Use cause and effect to keep connecting those dots. Something plotty happens! Then what? How do your characters react? What do they do? And then? And then? And then?

And what about your subplots? What secondary threads are running through your story, alongside and/or weaving in and out of your main plot? How do they influence your protagonist’s journey or expand the world of your novel?

Suprirse, surprise, we’re going to recommend Plotstormers again, because it contains the answers to all these questions as well as a handy template for a 16-point novel outline plan to get you from dot to dot to dot.

But that’s not the only trick up our sleeve — try these suckas on for size:

  • Making People: create living, breathing, fictional beings with our characterisation masterclass!
  • The First Draft: everything you need to finish the very first draft of your novel (and beyond)!
  • Troubleshoot Your Novel: fix the wonky bits and turn your WIP into a well-oiled machine!
Gif of a white woman saying "the plot thickens"

Phew. Okay. We’re done here, even though this barely even scratches the surface of all the novel writing resources we have to throw at you, but it’s plenty to get started with. And once you’ve taken that first step to plotting your novel, we hope you stick around to tell us all about it.

Happy writing, noveleers!

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