How to Start Plotting Your Novel
Whether you prefer to plot at the beginning of your writing process (outlining), in the middle of it ("pantsing"), or after the first draft is done (revision), every writer plots.
You make decisions about how your characters, settings, and relationships grow and change throughout your story. And most importantly, you decide what comes next—what happens in this scene? What happens after that? And after that?
All of that is plotting!
If you've never considered yourself a plotter and don't know where to start, fear not! In this post, we have some handy tips and tricks to guide you through the plotting process.
Start with a brainstorming session
Grab your writing instrument of choice (paper, computer, index cards, dry-erase board, anything!) and write down everything you know about the story in your head. Everything. Maybe you know a few character details, or you have the perfect idea for a Midpoint that will change the hero's entire trajectory. Maybe all you know is that you want the story set in Nebraska. Write it all down, including the ideas you’re unsure about.
Remember: things will change. Nothing is set in stone at this stage, so don’t reject any of your ideas.
Is your story character-driven or plot-driven?
These are terms that get thrown around almost as much as pantser and plotter. Character-driven stories center around a richly developed character's personal arc rather than external events, while plot-driven stories tend to be propelled by a high-concept plot instead of character development.
Regardless of which narrative style you find yourself drawn to, the true star of any novel is conflict. Conflict is what keeps readers turning pages. And if you want a reader to be pulled in (you do!), you connect conflict to plot and character.
Let’s say you know more about your character than the plot. You’ve created a down-on-his-luck high school senior named Kaleb. You know who his friends are and where he lives, but you’re not sure what’s going to happen—other than he gets to kiss the girl of his dreams at the end. Start by thinking about your hero's wants, needs, or fears. What does he want more than anything in the world? Now, what could prevent him from getting it? You’ll want to throw as many obstacles at him as possible so he’s the best version of himself by the end of the story!
On the flip side, let’s say you’ve imagined this fantastical world and know every single detail of the politics, the threats, the monsters lurking in the forests, and the big battle scene at the climax. But you’re not sure who the hero of the story is. Imagine what kind of character would have the hardest time navigating that world—maybe a human dropped in through a portal.
In both scenarios, you’re plotting conflict for the character. And the best way to do that is to always think of the worst-case scenario—and then make it even worse!
Build the structure
We promise structure is not a dirty word. Just as all books have plots, all plots have structures. And that doesn’t make them formulaic or boring. The standard three-act structure has been around forever (likely before Aristotle), and it works because it’s so deeply ingrained in Western culture.
Even if we don’t know the names for each section of the structure (because they vary depending on which method you’re following), we’re familiar with the most basic premise:
- Get a character up a tree (Act 1)
- Throw rocks at them (Act 2)
- Get them down from the tree (Act 3)
And we can break that down even further: What’s the transition between Act 1 and Act 2? What’s the Midpoint? What is the lowest moment (usually at or near the end of Act 2)?
Play with your ideas from the first two steps. See if you can slot them into the different Acts or the turning points. What is the Catalyst/Inciting Incident? What happens to your character that sets them on the path to the rest of the story? If you’re not sure, go back to conflict. What would it take to shake up this person’s world?
Focus on cause and effect (and escalation)
You know your Catalyst. You have a bunch of ideas for Act 2. And maybe you have a vague idea of the ending. And you definitely want Character C to fall off a cliff (brutal, but necessary). However, there’s still a lot of blank space between those events. It’s tempting to bang your head against the keyboard because it’s too much—but we don’t recommend that. Instead, we want you to focus on cause and effect.
Every action in your story has a cause. Sienna skipped school because her girlfriend dumped her. How do you make Sienna’s day even worse? Because she skipped school (cause), she ended up at a diner and witnessed a robbery (effect). Because she witnessed a robbery (cause), she decides to chase down the perp (effect). What happens next? And how is it worse than what’s happened before (because it always needs to be worse—escalation).
Just keep asking yourself those same questions: what is the effect of this? What does it lead to? How can you make it bigger than the thing that happened in the last chapter? And if you can’t, can you move it later in the story? Keep going until you have each Act plotted.
Start writing (at any point!)
Surprise! We have a plot twist for you: You don’t have to plot every single scene and detail before you start writing. Maybe all you need are the turning points, or the Catalyst, or the ending. Maybe all you needed was the reminder to focus on conflict, cause and effect, and escalation.
Or maybe you do want to plan every scene and detail before you so much as open a Word document. That’s fine, too! Some writers will write one sentence for each chapter, others will write all the dialogue, and some will outline beat by beat (This happens, then this, then this, then this, end of chapter). Others might have outlines that are nearly as long as a novella.
Only you can decide how much you need to know before you start writing (or revising or tackling Chapter 12 after writing Chapters 1-11 by the seat of your pants). Test different methods until you find the one that gets your words flowing.
Bonus plotting tips
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed by the idea of plotting an entire book, try one of the following:
- Write a back cover synopsis: This can be tricky because it’s not intuitive. You might want to read several of them on a site like Goodreads (or your bookshelf!) first. But writing the synopsis can help you narrow down the important parts of the book and open up new plotting ideas.
- Start with the character’s GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict): Your character wants something. Why? What’s stopping them from getting it? You can use GMC to help figure out the worst-case scenarios and how to create more conflict. Keep throwing obstacles in your character’s way.
- Use placeholders: You know there needs to be a scene (or two or three) to round out Act 2, but you’re not quite sure what they need to be. Or maybe you know, but the plotting doesn’t feel right. Toss in a placeholder—either while you’re writing or before you start—and move on to the next part you do know. The answer will come to you eventually (and it might be that the scene isn’t necessary—you win!).
No matter what writing stage you plot during, plotting is inevitable. There’s no reason to fear it. Just follow our tips, and with a little trial and error, your story will unfold before your eyes!