How to plan a novel: a plot structure template

Here’s how to create a compelling, character-driven plot to drive your story.

Remember to peek at more vital plot points to integrate, more on character-building, on building plot momentum, and more on the seven basic plots, as identified by Christopher Booker.

Let’s get going.

How to handle plot structure and complexity

How do you know if your plot has the weight to carry an entire novel? What kind of plot 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?

Luckily, it’s easy to sort your action into structures that answer these questions.

You just need a central character with clear motivation to drive events. In your plot, you need an initiating incident, rising action (we’ll call this the main plot), a crisis, and a resolution. Subplots are great, but these exist to enhance, exacerbate, complicate – ultimately, compliment – your main action.

Here’s how to boil down a novel – say if your name was Jane Austen, and you felt like writing a book involving a little pride, and a little prejudice.

Motivation
Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet wants to marry for love.

Initiating Incident
Two wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive.

Main plot
Lizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems.

Crisis
Lizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone.

Resolution
Mr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all.

Subplot 1
Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.

Subplot 2
Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy.

Subplot 3
Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.

How to write a character-driven plot outline

Readers of Pride and Prejudice – we know. There’s lots this outline doesn’t share.

There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on.

And that’s fine to start with.

Too much on plot or character mechanics early on can confuse first plans, so try and simplify. Really. Doing this helps you be very clear from the start what your story’s about. You must know your main character’s motivation and your story’s premise, no matter how complex a plot you ultimately create.

Pride and Prejudice, for instance, is a story where everything’s evidently been built around Lizzy’s journey – and everything’s tied to her motivation as protagonist.

Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book. Nothing should be superfluous – and planning like this at the outset helps you be sure everything you write is significant.

If a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised – but this template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place.

If you’re outlining a plot for the first time, pin down your basics, then build up subplots and so on. If you are already into your manuscript and uncertain of your premise, stop – and pen down your plot.

Look at the structure, the premise as it emerges.

How to build your own novel template

We’d advise you to build an easy template that works for you before you start writing.

Perhaps one like this.

 

 Main plotSubplot 1Subplot 2Subplot 3
Initiating incident        
Main plot        
Crisis        
Resolution        

 

If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after.

What would your story look like, if you did this?

How to complicate a plot

If your plot is sparser than that, you may need to complicate it.

This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. And if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter.

A couple of ways you may wish to complicate or ‘fatten’ a plot might be through mirroring or drawing from life.

To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.

One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he 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 your novel keeping all you write intertwined, significant, in keeping with your protagonist’s journey. To Kill A Mockingbird resonates because of Harper Lee’s plotting and because of how meaningfully she ties her events together.

Thinking about themes like this also helps if you’re struggling for subplots. Think of certain novels you love, how so often the best subplots are tied in to combine with main action.

Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.

To take fantasy, J.K. Rowling’s books wouldn’t be as fascinating if it weren’t for Hogwarts, magical lore and cursed relics. Even in as sprawling a fantasy as hers, though, everything is significant to Harry’s journey. There are no spare parts in Harry’s books – and Harry remains at the heart of the series. We’re invested in his journey to the end.

Remember when plots go awry, it’s often because writers lose focus on the protagonist – and a good plot will always be character-driven.

Keep everything you write linked, relevant.

How to write a plot from multiple perspectives

If you’re eager to write about multiple protagonists, you need a plot outline, along the lines of the template above, for each one.

George R.R. Martin took this to new levels in A Song of Ice and Fire, each protagonist having his or her own richly developed plot and character arc.

John Fowles’ The Collector, for example, 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.

Still, neither character is the other’s subplot – both Fred and Miranda need their own story arc for this to work – and a plot for one will look differently to a plot for other in The Collector. They’re both protagonists, and they’re also the other’s antagonist.

Multiple protagonists can work in romance novels, too, even ones told in third-person narration, such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

This said, managing multiple points of view, even from minor characters, can work well for thrillers, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release (though these things depend on story, as much as genre).

As an example, Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) lets us into the mind of an anonymous stalker in A Career of Evil. The scarcity of it happening heightens tension. We grasp what’s at stake if Cormoran and Robin don’t find him. We’re driven to read on, to find out.

Be sure to read up on points of view, if you’re planning to experiment here – and use a plot template for each protagonist.

What to do next

You guessed it.

Draw up a complete plot template for every protagonist. What would a template look like for each one, and how would each interweave? Do your subplots do the same?

If this page has been helpful, then look up more plot thoughts, more on momentum, and on borrowing a plot. Don’t forget to look up advice on creating protagonists, too, just as important for your plot to work.

There’s also our invaluable manuscript feedback, helping many authors’ novels on their way to publication.

Happy writing – and good luck.