Are you struggling to discover where to go next with your book? Author and editor Christina Kaye shares her tips for plotting and outlining that will help you get your words onto the page.
It’s the age-old question authors ask one another when discussing the methods to our writing madness: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Ask a group of authors, and you’re bound to get a split vote. But what’s the difference?
Pantsers – people who prefer to open a blank document and start typing with nothing more than a general idea in mind beforehand. They typically don’t plot out their novel before they begin writing, and they just “go with the flow,” letting the story and characters develop naturally.
[Note from Joanna: I prefer the term ‘discovery writer,' and I am certainly one of those!]
Plotters – people who prefer to use outlines and other tools to determine the story arc, setting, characters, and even subplots before they even sit down to write. There are varying degrees of plotters, as some make simple notes ahead of time while others will write a complete story outline before they type the first sentence.
But how could anyone be a plotter? Aren’t most writers right-brainers? Is it even possible to create something organically AND plan your book in advance at the same time?
Impossible, right? Not necessarily.
Plotting doesn’t mean you have to type out your entire plot, chapter by chapter (though, it’s a possibility – more on outlines later). We’re simply talking about plotting out your novel to avoid major issues you might not even know you have until you’ve typed THE END, and an agent, publisher, or editor points them out.
So what do we mean by plotting, then?
Plotting, when you boil it down, refers to getting all your ducks in a row before you begin writing your novel. It’s the process of predetermining your characters (and fully developing then ahead of time), your setting (and mapping it out before you start), and plot/subplots (and deciding your story arc in advance).
During author coaching (where writers hire us to work with them as they write their manuscript), we recommend authors start big and work their way inward. The very first and most crucial step in the plotting process is to determine what you want to happen during the three major acts of your novel. What are we referring to?
The 3 Act Method
This is a method of structuring a novel into three distinct acts (essentially, a beginning, middle, and end). There are different variations of this method, and of course, it's only one way of working out your story.
In some, all three acts are divided equally into exact thirds. In others, Act 2 encompasses the biggest (middle) section of the book, while Acts 1 and 3 act as bookends (for lack of a better term).
Regardless of how you choose to split yours up, the concept is essentially the same across the board. There are certain aspects included in each act, and by following this simple method, an author can ensure they are covering all the crucial bases.
Let’s break it down, act by act.
We recommend starting a new document in whatever word processing software you feel most at ease with and type out Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Then, under each heading, make a list of the following plot points to cover within each:
Act 1 – Welcome to the Protagonist’s World
Introduction – we meet the protagonist and her life as she knew it before the conflict arises
Example – Gone Girl, Nick
Setting – set the stage and tell the reader all about the protagonist’s surroundings and everyday life
Motivation – tell us what makes the protagonist get out of bed each day, what drives them
Inciting incident – the catalyst that sets the protagonist’s adventure in motion and pushes them to action
Call to adventure – the protagonist is compelled (internally or externally) to take action in some way
Decisive action – protagonist makes the decision on her chosen route toward the resolution
Act 2 – Introducing…the Conflict!
New world – protagonist sets out on a (literal or figurative) journey to a “new world”
Breaktime – allow the protagonist to get a break from the conflict, enjoy their new surroundings
Midpoint – this will dramatically change the protagonist (usually when we meet antagonist)
Consequences – the immediate fallout/reaction to the protagonist’s choice/change/decision
And…Action – protagonist must take action to resolve the problem presented at the midpoint
Roadblock – things don’t go according to plan, consequences for protagonist ensue
Perseverance – the protagonist decides to push through to the end, consequences be damned
Act 3 – Finally, We Have Resolution
Trials – protagonist faces difficult situations (trials) never experienced before now
Twist/Pinch – something unexpected happens that makes things worse, protagonist’s darkest moment
The Ultimate Battle – protagonist and antagonist face off for a final battle where winner takes all
The Winner Is… – battle is over, protagonist triumphs, antagonist is defeated, conflict is overcome
Resolution – show us the protagonist’s reaction to the ultimate battle and its outcome
Once you’ve jotted down (or typed out) your notes on each point of each act, this is where the fun begins.
This is where you can decide whether to pants it and start writing your story or to continue plotting by creating a more detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline first, then writing your story.
It’s not enough to have your “main” plot planned out. When we say “main” plot, we’re referring to the direct journey your protagonist will travel from the beginning of the book until the end.
For example, think about the book (and blockbuster movie) The Notebook. The main plot is that Ally and Noah fall in love at a young age, they struggle with the pressures society puts on the different classes they were raised in, and (spoiler alert) they find their way back to each other, despite the odds.
However, there were subplots throughout the story that added complexity and tension that your story-at-hand may be lacking. In The Notebook, Ally’s subplot is her relationship with her parents and her fiancé Lon, whom she’s about to marry, even though she still loves Noah.
And Noah’s subplot involves his father and the house he wants to build for Ally, despite financial setbacks and his tour in the war. Think about how these “smaller” storylines not only made the story complex, but they wove together with the main plot to add tension and dynamics which might not have been there otherwise.
When trying to determine your subplot(s), think about what your protagonist (and even antagonist) can be dealing with in their “normal” life to make their journey more complex. Once you have a few ideas jotted down, try to find ways to interweave those subplots into the main plot. It won’t work if they don’t all connect and serve a purpose.
Now that you have all your main ideas and subplots planned out, it’s time to either begin writing (pantsers) or to write your detailed outline (plotters).
Let’s assume you want to write a chapter by chapter outline. Here’s how we recommend writing an effective, detailed outline.
Outlining can come in handy if the author is worried about plot holes, timeline inconsistencies, or failing to deliver on promises. If you choose to create a chapter outline first, we recommend spreadsheets. Spreadsheets were created by angels, in our opinions.
Column 1 – Chapter number
Column 2 – Events that transpire in that chapter (in one brief sentence)
And so on…
It’s that easy. Start with chapter one. In the second column, type out a short sentence of what you envision happening in your opening chapter.
What is the protagonist doing when we meet her? Do this row by row, chapter by chapter, constantly referring to your Three-Act Outline and ensuring you’re covering all the crucial points along the way.
If you get stuck…stop. You can always come back to your outline later as the story further develops in that wonderfully talented brain of yours.
When you’ve gotten as far as you can in your outline…when you’ve finished your outline…or even if you decided not to outline, here are some key issues you want to try to address as you write, which will keep your pacing tight, your story flowing smoothly, and your structure in-tact, all while creating amazing characters in an unforgettable setting doing amazingly unique things.
Sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? Don’t get stressed. You can do this. Just make sure you cover all the following bases as you write:
There is no hard and fast rule on chapter length, though fantasy writers tend to get away with longer chapters than other genre writers can. As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the chapter, the faster the story will seem to move along to the reader.
Think about it from their point of view…if you’re reading a book, and the chapters are 15, 20, even 30 pages long…don’t you tend to find yourself flipping to see how many pages are left until the chapter ends? Odds are, if you’re writing extremely long chapters (well over 10 pages), you risk losing the readers’ attention. This is to be avoided at all costs.
We advise our clients to keep chapters only as long as they need to be for the scene to be complete, concise, and get your message through to the reader. Anything more, and your pacing will suffer.
This one’s a bit harder to explain, but essentially, sentences that are too long, too wordy, and have too much crammed in there, will slow the pacing of your story significantly.
If your sentences tend to be in the run-on department, you risk readers skimming to shorter, more succinct sentences to find out what in the heck you’re trying to say in the first place. One rule of thumb is the “30-word-sentence” rule. No, it’s not hard and fast, but it’s a good way to measure your sentences, if you aren’t sure if it’s too long or not.
Much more than 30 words and odds are, you’re rambling. You may be trying too hard at that point. Without getting to technical, the only real requirements of a complete sentence is a main clause with an independent subject and a verb to complete the thought.
When writing your dialogue, and especially in your narrative, fight the urge to over-describe people, places, and things. Avoid describing every aspect of everything your characters encounter in the story. There is no one waiting at the end of your manuscript to hand you an award for the number of “big” words you use, the way you describe every detail, or how many unique adjectives and adverbs you can come up with.
Just remember…readers don’t read books to be impressed with your ability to use five-dollar-words or “flowery” language. They don’t care that you have an impressive vocabulary that rivals Ralph Waldo Emerson himself. They simply want to be transported into your story and to step out of their own worlds, if only for a few moments.
We hope these tools will help you structure your novel and plot your story in a way that you feel more confident about your book. But if we could offer one final piece of advice, it’s this. Read, research, and practice.
It’s not enough to have a great plot structure. You also need well-developed characters, a perfect, well-defined setting, and a three-dimensional supporting cast. Also, there are so many “rules” to writing fiction properly, and who can keep track of them all?
First, read every book you can get your hands on in your chosen genre. See how the masters do it.
How did they structure their book? What tools did they use to create characters you’ll never forget? Stephen King said it best when he said, “Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” So…read all you can.
Second, there are unlimited resources out there for authors seeking help while writing their novels. Most notably, The Creative Penn has articles, podcasts, and books galore that touch on every subject you can think of and every question you could conceivably have about the art of writing. So tap into those resources.
Learn all you can. Reach out to people who have found success already (published authors, editors, etc.) and ask them questions if you can’t find the answers you seek. Be a sponge and absorb all the information you can to help you write your best story.
Third, practice makes perfect. It’s true. Nothing will help you hone your craft better than writing, writing, and writing some more. Find out what works and what doesn’t.
If your first book never finds success, don’t give up! Keep writing. You will get better with each book.
It’s like any other art form. You must practice to sharpen your skills. If you were a piano player, you wouldn’t just play the instrument once a month, would you? So treat your craft the same. Practice regularly. Write something. And keep writing. Never give up.
Do you have any favorite strategies or techniques you use when you're outlining and plotting a novel? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
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Listen to Christina's podcast, Write Your Best Book, every Friday to learn helpful advice from industry pros on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your books – available wherever you listen to podcasts.