How to Plot a Novel

Pages from one of my sketchbooks

How does one plot a novel? I am by no means an expert. But I do have a few thoughts I would like to share.

Firstly, I would like to state that this is not one of those guides that outlines the exact process. There are plenty of writers out there that have written about plot and plotting. Far more experienced writers than me have produced guides on this subject. For me to attempt a precise step-by-step guide would only serve as a poor imitation of many excellent authors’ sage advice.

And so, think of this as more of a collection of my thoughts on the subject.

Where to Begin?

For me, the plotting stage is the most volatile and elusive. It can be extremely difficult. Ideas are fleeting – whether they be for characters, plot points, or individual scenes – and if I don’t document them as soon as I think them up, they either morph into something different or disappear completely. Either way, the original ideas evade me pretty quickly, so I have to write them down.

Whenever I begin work on a new novel (and to a lesser extent a short story), I am bursting with excitement and fresh ideas. The important thing is, I have captured all those thoughts, feelings, and concepts before they are gone. For me, the greatest killer of momentum and enthusiasm for a project is when you forget why you started it in the first place. Keeping those notes to remind me why I wanted to write the book to begin with helps me stay on course.

And so, the first piece of advice I would give in regards to crafting the plot of the novel is actually to not start there at all.

Start With Generating Ideas

If I look back at the three novels I’ve written so far, each one of them began with a central theme in mind. Several ideas for scenes emerged from those themes – which in turn generated ideas for characters, as I would wonder what sort of people would say and do the things that take place in the scenes. As these scenes and characters appeared, multiplied, and developed, I was able to refine the book’s theme and develop a sense of what the aim of the novel was.

The most important point to be taken away is not the process in which I have written novels so far – because for everyone else it is likely different. The takeaway here is that no matter what thought bubble my process conjured, I immediately wrote it down.

Keep a Dedicated Notebook

I’m all for the practice of keeping a general writer’s notebook. I never do without one. The writer’s notebook is a place to jot down my ideas for stories and poems. It’s also a place to document any thoughts that relate to my writing. I glue in cutouts from magazines – faces that inspire me to create new characters.

I would also recommend having a separate notebook that is used solely for the novel you are about to write. You don’t have to use it solely for writing out your scenes. You could scribble down your initial ideas, and doodle your characters (it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst artist in the world. It all helps to visualise). But keep a space wherein only the world of your new novel is allowed to live. If you’re writing some story notes in your novel’s notebook and you get the urge to write something else that’s unrelated, close this notebook and turn to your general writer’s notebook.

Of course, I realise that this won’t work for everyone. Not everybody is going to want to own a plethora of different notebooks. I understand that. Some writers prefer to keep everything digital, and note-take on their phones or laptops. If that’s what you do, great! Keep a separate folder for this new novel project. Keep everything separate and organised. It will help you to direct focus onto your new novel and push the rest to one side for later.

Plot

You can craft a rough plot early on, but it should be just that: rough. Don’t feel like you have to write your novel down to the last letter of the first plot you write. Chances are, your plot will change as you go along anyway. You may scrap it and start again. You may also find that when you commence writing the story, your mind diverts it far from the original plan. That’s okay. Allow this to happen. Just don’t forget what the original plot was in case you need to refer back.

The important thing is to highlight what are some essential scenes that you wish to take place. Everything else is flexible and subject to change.

When I wrote my first novel, a dark fantasy called The Black Rook (which is yet to be published but soon will be), I wrote dozens of chapters that were eventually cast into the scrap pile. Some of these chapters had a word count of 5k – 10k. You might say that this was wasted time, but I’d have to disagree. Not only did I hone my writing skills when I penned and edited these chapters, but I also learned a lot about my characters and the world I had created. They turned out to be exercises, not only in writing but in fleshing out my world.

The mistake I made when I planned out this novel was that I failed to establish which chapters were crucial, and which were expendable. Still, as I said, I don’t see the writing of these unused chapters as wasted time. It’s inevitable that some chapters you write will be dismissed, either by an editor or by yourself as your story-writing progresses. Don’t let that put you off, and keep in mind that no writing is wasted writing, as every sentence you write is experience, and therefore a lesson learned.

Plot Again

Once I have written my first, rough plot, I like to look over it and see if anything obvious glares out at me. Sometimes there’s a contradiction in the narrative, or a setting just doesn’t feel right.

Having scanned over the plot, I look at the pacing. In my novel’s dedicated notebook, I will start to establish what I want my protagonist(s) to achieve (or not achieve). I will delve into their personalities, wants, and desires. Desire is really important in any work of fiction. Your characters need to want something in order to move the story along. Otherwise, the narrative will be stagnant, and the story will feel as if it’s happening to the characters, rather than the protagonists taking action. They also need to feel, unless you want a cast of emotionless zombies.

Once I’ve established and then reestablished my characters’ desires and aims (especially my protagonist(s), I return to my plot to ensure that it’s serving that purpose. Of course, many of your characters won’t get what they want and their efforts will fail, but they have to be moving towards some sort of goal to remain interesting and warrant a place in the story.

And Plot Again

Usually, I will take a break for a few days once I have reached this stage. When I review the finalised plot after taking a break, I am looking at it with brand new eyes. Any glaring mistakes or aspects of the story that either don’t make sense or are no longer desirable to remain included usually jump out at me at this point. I try to read the plot points as if I’m a reader or an editor. Of course, you’ll never be able to divorce yourself from your work completely, so you can never look at your own work as if you’re a third party. You may choose to get someone else to look at it at this point, but I don’t believe it’s essential. Instead of letting someone read the plot I’ve devised, I will usually ask friends and loved ones questions like, “Do you think this sounds like a good idea for a scene?” or “Is this a good twist?” You don’t have to take anything to heart. It’s often just good to hear an alternative opinion.

At this point, my plot has usually been shifted around, cut up, and reshaped several times. Hopefully, by now it has started to resemble a narrative that makes sense.

It’s Not an Exact Science

For example, I am currently writing the plot for my first novel’s sequel, which will in turn be the fourth novel I’ve ever written. Even though I have not finalised the plot yet, I have started work on writing some of the chapters. These are the scenes that I know will feature in the final novel, as they are essential to the character development of my protagonists. Of course, this is probably a warped example because the novel is a sequel and therefore the character arcs of my protagonists were already established in the first novel, and I already have ideas for the series’ overarching plot.

Conclusion

As I said at the very beginning, the plotting is one of the most volatile stages of the novel-writing process. This is because everything is subject to change, and so much to do with your aim and them are not yet finalised.

For me, the single most important thing in the early stages of planning a novel is to ask yourself a series of questions. These are:

  • What is the point of this novel?
  • What am I trying to say?
  • Why am I the person to write it?
  • What idea or sensation do I wish to convey?

I believe that questions such as these should be answered – or at least be answerable – before moving on to the plot.

I hope that you found this in some way useful. I didn’t want to repeat the same tips that you read everywhere else, so, this was my own personal take. I am by no means an expert in creative writing. Far from it. I’m still learning to hone my craft and develop myself as a writer and as a person.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Let me know if you found this useful, or whether you thought I was waffling and don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d also like to hear some of your own tips and tricks for plotting a novel. How do you prepare yourself for embarking on a novel writing journey?

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