How to plot a novel: our plot structure template


 

Plot structure and complexity

One of the challenges that writers coming to us often face is difficulty of creating a plot with the right amount of structure and the right amount of complexity. The Writers Workshops main advice on plotting, and the best place to start, is our Quick Guide on How to Plot. But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel? What kind of structures work? Is there a quick way to design your own plot template? And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view? You’ve got two ways to work it all out:

  1. Cross your fingers, write your novel and hope for the best
  2. Read on!

 

How to write any (basic) plot or novel outline

A good plot has a clear motivation. It has a clear structure. It has an outcome. It has subplots. A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below. (In fact, that plot feels so good to us, we think someone should make a book out of it, or a movie, or a TV series.)

Motivation

Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet wants to marry for love.

Main plot

She meets Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to like Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy. Darcy turns out to be a good guy.

Outcome

She marries Darcy.

Subplot 1

Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s long-suffering sister) loves Mr Bingley, a friend of Darcy’s. Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.

Subplot 2

Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s foolish sister) elopes with Wickham. She vanishes. She is later found and helped by Darcy.

Subplot 3

Idiotic Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.

 

Plotting the bare bones

You’ll see there’s plenty that threadbare outline for Pride and Prejudice doesn’t say. It doesn’t tell you where the novel is set or anything about plot mechanics. It doesn’t tell you why events happen. It has nothing significant to say about character so far, character relations, or the supporting cast yet to appear.

And that’s fine for now.

Too much extraneous detail about settings, mechanics and character will cloud the overall structure. The simpler you can keep your plot template when you start, the better. If you’re outlining a plot for the very first time, just commit to getting the basics down on paper.

Note also that everything in the structure should relate pretty directly to the protagonist’s motivation. Taking one of the above subplots as an example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Collins. Lizzy, though, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage as subplot reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values (and it later throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again). All subplots feed back into Lizzy’s journey as novel protagonist.

Nothing in your own plotting should ever be superfluous.

Planning this simply at the start helps you make sure that everything you write is significant. You can flesh out with details later.

 

Build your own plot template

We strongly advise you build a template much like the table above before you start writing. If you’ve already started your manuscript, get to that template right away.

If your template has about as much structural complexity as the one above, then you’re doing fine. If you’ve got loads more complexity, then challenge yourself to pare it down. If you really, really can’t reduce your plot to a few bold strokes, then you may well be making a mess of things, Take care. You must be able to identify the essence of what you’re writing. If your plot is much less complex than the template above, then again take care. You may well need to complicate matters. That doesn’t mean you should add frills (i.e. irrelevant things): you need to add depth. Develop the complexity of your novel.

(If you’ve already written something and feel in doubt, come to us for a full manuscript appraisal. Plots are the most important aspect of your work. You really do get them wrong at your peril.)

 

How to fatten a plot

If you think that your plot is a little lightweight, then it needs substance added to it. That doesn’t necessarily mean more events, more backstory, more points of view, more people yelling at each other. It means add complexity.

Let’s suppose your story tells the tale of a little girl. She’s spooked by an odd, harmless man who lives on her street. You want her to grow emotionally and see past appearances. That sounds okay, but there’s arguably not enough complexity to carry a novel, so complicate it. One route is mirroring. Give her a father figure, say a lawyer. He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he very obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.

It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring: Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Plot with your end goal in mind, keeping everything intertwined, significant, as you add in details feeding back into your main character’s journey. To Kill A Mockingbird resonates because of Harper Lee’s plotting.

Another way to fatten up your plot is throw the action into a different genre: maybe sci-fi, fantasy or crime. To take fantasy, Harry Potter has to defeat Wizard-fascist Voldemort. J.K. Rowling’s series wouldn’t be as fascinating if it weren’t for Hogwarts, wandlore and cursed relics. Even in as sprawling a fantasy as this, though, everything is significant to Harry’s journey. There are no spare parts in these books.

Remember when plots go wrong, it’s often because you fail to keep focus on the protagonist and it’s characters we care about. A good plot will always be character-driven. Keep your focus clear. If instead you’re finding there’s plenty of good character material, but plot is too bare, then you need to fatten it up and that means adding structure, not just bunging in extraneous spare parts.

 

Multiple POVs

If you are telling stories about multiple protagonists, each of whom will occupy a decent chunk of the novel, then you basically need to develop a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each and every one of them.

Multiple POVs work well for thrillers, especially, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release. John Fowles’ The Collector, though, is narrated by a kidnapper and the girl he’s kidnapped. Sullen, menacing Fred justifies all he does. Miranda chronicles her fear and pity. The result is taut, terrifying. We’re engrossed in their shared experience to the end. The novel wouldn’t work if John Fowles had planned it differently.

Using multiple viewpoints, not all of whom are protagonists, can help move a plot forward in thrillers. Bear in mind things depend on story, as much as genre.

Thomas Harris doesn’t really let us into the mindset of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of Lambs. It keeps Hannibal enigmatic, menacing to us and protagonist Clarice Starling. Sharing Buffalo Bill’s POV in the story makes sense, though. Harris’ insights into Buffalo Bill’s plans terrify us, heighten the tension. We understand just how sinister he is, exactly what’s at stake if Clarice doesn’t succeed. So we’re driven to read on and find out.

So you also need to consider what works for your novel and develop a complete plot template for every protagonist in this way. What would a template look like for each, and how would each interweave?

Remember through all of this to think about how to avoid confusing your story, though. More detailed information on doing this just here.

 

How to write a novel

As to how to structure a scene or chapter once plotting’s all done? Well, the best advice we’ve heard is to structure the scene like the sex act. That is, foreplay, action, climax, wind down. Since the advice comes from a successful erotic novelist, you can’t really argue. More on that here. If you want more help, then think about coming to one of our courses, or get a full manuscript appraisal. Better still (it’s free!), just sign up to our mailing list to get all the free PDF writing resources you need.