How to Plot a Novel

Part of my job is helping writers find plot. The other part is to be a writer. Since finishing my second (actually third) novel this year I have had many conversations about choosing and building plots that work, and while I claim no absolutes, I thought some readers of this blog might find the bare bones of this conversation helpful.

1. Start with story arc. Aristotle says you need a beginning, middle, and end. He even gives us a helpful arc to visualize the escalation of events through those three phases to a climax. (And if you are wondering what the little boxes are, we’ll cover that in Step 5.)

2. Decide on your theme. A professor once pointed out that Aristotle’s arc looks like the top of a fish; the fish’s back should represent what happens, and its belly should represent theme. Theme is not a synonym for moral. It’s more like an open question. It evolves in parallel to the plot, under the surface of the story. The beginning events introduce the idea. The middle tests the idea in multiple ways. The end should demonstrate the idea’s truth or falseness.

3. Get ready for an art project. OK great. Get your materials. Butcher paper, pen, marker, index cards or stickies.

4. Draw the fish on the butcher paper. Divide it in three and label it, as in the picture. You should have a big empty length of paper that looks like the image in Step 2.

5. Gather your scenes. If you’ve been wondering what the little boxes were in the first two pictures, they’re your scenes. Whether you’re starting the novel from scratch or revising what you already have, you need a way to see what you’ve got (if you are a visual thinker like me). On your index cards or stickies, write down every scene you have, need, or think you need to show a logical escalation of events. All the events should be relevant to your theme.

6. Organize your scenes. When you have all your cards, start organizing them along an escalating series of causes and effects. Start thinking about what might fall into a chapter together. Think of chapters as mini-arcs, each with a beginning, middle, and end. Your butcher paper will be covered in cards and very messy, but it will slowly start to look like this.

7. Expect to think hard. Expect your head to hurt. Expect this to take a few weeks. Be logical and patient, even if you are temperamental and emotional at heart, like me. Trust that when you finish organizing all the cards, you will have planned a whole NOVEL. When you’re done, the plot will look like this. (The green stickies are chapter summaries. The blue stickies are the spots I know are still a little problematic, but I’ll solve them either while I’m writing the synopsis, or when I am actually writing the novel.)

8. Synopsis first, novel second. If you’re wondering if you read that correctly, you did: Write the synopsis before you write the novel. Translate your work into narrative–about 10 pages double-spaced explaining what happens. You should start to feel the energy of story as you write; related events progress, and in doing so, indicate the theme. It should feel interesting and engaging, like a little story unto itself. Again, take your time. Work on it every day for a week or two. Share it with a trusted reader when you’re done, invite his or her questions, and revise for clarity.

9. Begin. Open a blank Word document. Start writing your novel. Work on it every day.

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