5 Fabulous Tips for Plotting Your Novel

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL CAN BE CONFUSING. If you don’t have a guidance system to help you navigate, you might find yourself asking questions like these: Where do I start my story for greatest impact? What events will force my main character to undergo the change they so desperately need to make? How do I construct stakes that are high enough to keep my main character engaged with their quest all the way to the end?

If you, like me, need some help to deal effectively with these and other pressing plot questions, read on. I’ve compiled a short list of tips, approaches, and resources that demonstrate ways to successfully traverse the rough terrain you and your main character must travel to create a compelling tale.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #1: Explore a myriad of plotting methods.

Fortunately, for those of us who are writing novels, novellas, short stories, screenplays, or memoirs—basically, anything that tells a story and develops a character arc—many writers have gone before us and have generously blazed a trail through the wild woods of plot for us to follow.

So which of these many plotting methods is the best? I think that depends on your learning style.

When I immersed myself in the mysteries of plot, I read book after book on the subject. But I always felt I was missing something. Then Joyce Sweeney and I started developing the plot clock—and everything fell into place! The plot clock’s approach made perfect sense to me. Suddenly, I saw how exactly how plot can create a character arc—and what steps to take to make that happen.

For years, Joyce and I taught the plot clock at workshops, writing conferences, and to our clients one-on-one (which I still do).

But now, we’ve also written the book! As you’re browsing Amazon looking for good books on plot, check out our PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK. It’s short—just seventy pages! And yet it explains how to accomplish the two most important tasks you face when writing a novel or memoir: 1) relating a dynamic set of story events and 2) making your character changes in response to those events.

Of course, as I said, this is just the method that works best for my brain. You might love any one of a number of other more linear takes on plot, like SAVE THE CAT  WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. Or you might enjoy diving really deep in story theory with a book like THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.

This choice is personal. Take the time to find what plotting approach works best for you—even if you have to experiment with several styles to do so. It will be worth it. Because once you find what fits, that method will be your trusted guide through the rest of your story-writing journey.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #2: Start with the basics.

Here are five quick, handy reference points to help you think about how to get your story started and where you’re going to take it. Considering your plot in these simple terms allows you to see if your basic idea has enough oomph to carry the story to the finish line.

Once upon a time there was … (Describe your main character.)

Every day … (This is a glimpse at your main character’s “ordinary world,” before the inciting incident changes their life.)

One day … (Aha! Inciting incident!!)

Because of that … (Here, we see how the main character responds to the inciting incident—and we establish stakes [see Fabulous Novel-Plotting Tip #5, below] that propel them forward into the main events of their story.)

Until finally … (This actually takes you past most of what happens after your character commits to their story—their trials and challenges; their low point; their lessons learned—and brings them to the climax, the battle to end all battles, the inevitable high point of your tale!)

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #3: Let the three C’s catapult your plot.

Raindance, an independent film festival and film school that operates in major cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Budapest, Berlin and Brussels, offers up a helpful article on the “The Three C’s of Plot (and how they help you get through Act II).”

The “three C’s” of this approach are conflict, choice, and consequence. Having a handle on these major story drivers will assure that your plot has the traction it needs to keep readers deeply engaged.

Further, in the above-mentioned article, writer Jurgen Wolff says, “{While] you can use these [the three C’s] to develop your main plot … they are equally useful in constructing the smaller components of your story-–the individual scenes. This is especially true in helping you construct the hardest part of any story, the middle, or Act II.”

Learn about this concept at the Raindance site.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #4: “Yes, and …”

This improv acting tenet offers an easy-peasy way to allow your character to engage dynamically with the events of their plot. Every time the plot makes your character an “offer,” be sure she “accepts” that offer (says “Yes” to it), and then adds to the situation (or, better still, complicates it!) by adding an “and …”

For example, let’s say your character is walking down a crowded street and notices someone running from a store, having just robbed it. In improv, we’d call this an “offer.” In other words, the story has brought something to your character’s attention that she can act upon. Taking action in response to the “offer” is your character’s way of saying “Yes, and …”

Rather than allowing your character to just ignore the commotion—which can slow the story and make plotting more difficult—consistently require she make a “Yes, and” response to whatever happens in her story. In this case, she might give chase (the “Yes” being her acknowledgement of the thief escaping and the “and,” her taking off after the person). Alternatively, she could rush into the store to try to help anyone who was injured in the incident—or she could rush into the store to take advantage of the confusion and steal something herself!

In any one of these examples, your character’s active response to a situation raised by the story allows more and increasingly complex interactions with other characters to unfold. These interactions will drive her character arc and her plot forward.

This technique is particularly useful when you’re writing your first draft, as it keeps you from stalling out in the shallow waters of character ennui and unwillingness. Once you’ve “Yes, and-ed” your way through the entire plot, you can always revise to rein in or eliminate any excessive reactions on the part of your main character.

To learn more about improv and how “Yes-and” creates lively story-telling and a lively life, I suggest YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City.

To learn more about how to apply this improv precept to life off the stage, take a look at this MEDIUM article titled “Saying ‘Yes, and’—A principle for improv, business and life” by Mary Elisabeth.

FABULOUS NOVEL-PLOTTING TIP #5: Create compelling stakes.

Stakes. They’re what gets your character off her duff and involved with a plot that, let’s face it, is likely to end up being a pain in her butt!

According to the Institute for Literature, “One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is ‘What is going to be at stake for my main character?’ By this, we mean, ‘What is the cost of quitting?'”

These are great questions!

If your character can quit the demands of your plot with few or no consequences, you’re likely to lose your reader early on. You see, we readers like to see a character struggle with conflict. It helps us understand better how to do so in our own lives!

So, how do you make sure you’re getting your character into a situation that has sink-or-swim urgency? Consider my four-question “stakes squared” approach.

Jamie’s Stakes Square: Your character is faced with a significant choice. You’ve backed her into a corner. She MUST say yes or no, not delay the decision—because her decision will set a significant plot point into motion! To establish the stakes inherent in the choice, ask yourself these four questions:

Question 1: What might your character GAIN if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 2: What might your character LOSE if she says YES to the choice on offer?
Question 3: What might your character GAIN if she says NO to the choice on offer?
Question 4: What might your character LOSE if she says NO to the choice on offer?

If you make sure that all of these potential outcomes create problems for your character—problems that are in proportion to the overall intensity of your story—you’ll be well on your way to creating plot-driving stakes that will hook a reader and not let them go!

(Be sure to consider how this stakes-setting technique impacts the perhaps-impulsive choices your character makes when you require that she say “Yes, and …” to everything the story offers her!)

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