How to Write a Novel Plot that Grips your Reader


These days, plot matters. No fiction will be taken on by agents - no matter how brilliantly written, how edgily contemporary, how weighty in subject matter - unless it has a strong story line. We've seen stunning work rejected for this reason. This is scary for authors. Get your plot wrong, and your book has failed before you’ve even started. You simply MUST get this aspect of your novel right. Here’s how.

Need more? See also our More About Plotting guide


The seven rules behind a perfect plot

Plotting hasn’t changed since Aristotle. Here are the rules:-

1) The protagonist must have a clear central motivation. In literary fiction, that can be some fancy-schmancy motivation, like coming to terms with the death of a parent. In commercial fiction, it’s got to be a more obviously important goal - like getting married or saving the world. But it has to be clear. It has to be consistent. And it has to matter. If it’s not important to the protagonist, it sure as heck won’t be to the reader. (On the left, we see a character whose motivations are always admirably clear!)

2) The protagonist’s goal (which derives from that motivation) has to be determined as early as possible into the novel. Chapter one for preference. The exact definition of the goal can shift. (Lizzie Bennett first wants to marry Wickham, then D’Arcy. James Bond first wants to locate the missing bomb, then he wants to kill Blofeld). But the basic motivation behind the goal never shifts at all. (True love for Lizzie B, saving the world for Jimmy B)

3) The jeopardy must increase. At the outset of a novel, the goal has to matter. By the end, it has to matter more than anything else in the world. James Bond’s little problem has become one of world-saving consequence. Lizzie Bennett’s generalised desire to make a good match has become an all-consuming passion for one specific man. If the jeop ardy doesn’t increase, the reader will get quickly bored.

4) Every scene and every chapter must keep the protagonist off-balance - things may get better for him/her,  or worse, but they need to be constantly changing. If the protagonist is in the same position at the end of the chapter as he/she was at the start, then you need to delete the chapter. No excuses. Another way to think about the same thing is to ask what the dramatic purpose of each and every chapter is. "Setting the scene" is not a dramatic purpose. Nor is "filling in backstory". Change & disequilibrium is the heart of drama. Your story has to move; otherwise it dies.

5) Don’t spend time away from the story. The reader has bought your book because it has a story. Spend time away from your story and your reader will want to spend time away from your book. If you let more than 300 words go by without touching on your story, then that’s too many. Go back and start cutting.

6) Think about classical structures. In Campbell’s famous analysis of story archetypes, he typically identifies (1) the Invitation - where the hero is asked to take on the challenge, (2) the Refusal - the hero says no, (3) the Acceptance - something happens to change the hero’s mind, (4) the Adventure - the hero seeks to master the challenge (5) the Failure - everything comes to a head and it seems like the hero has failed, then (6) the Triumph - just when it all seems too late, the hero pulls off a magnificent triumph. You can’t beat 2000 years of storytelling tradition

7) Control your characters. Most novels have just one central protagonist - usually the best choice for first time writers. If you do want multiple protagonists then don’t go for more than 3, max. And make sure that each one of those 3 stories obeys the 6 rules above. No short cuts, no excuses.  If you want more information on managing points of view in fiction, then go here. This is an area you cannot afford to mess up.

8) Don’t think you’re smart. We said 7 rules . . . but here's another one for you. Commercial fiction follows ALL the rules above - just read the James Bond books, for instance. But so do the classics. Read Jane Austen or Dickens or Shakespeare. What’s good enough for them is good enough for you. It’s smart to follow the rules, not clever to neglect them. And agents, publishers and readers all know this for a fact.

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