How to plot a novel: More on Plotting


Structure and complexity

One of the challenges that WW clients often face is difficulty of creating a plot with the right amount of structure and the right amount of complexity.

Our 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
  2. Read on ...

How to write a 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 some one should make a book out of it - or a movie - or a TV series - ... )


Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love

Plot structure

She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.


She marries Darcy

Subplot 1

Jane Bennett (Lizzie's nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.

Subplot 2

Lydia Bennett (Lizzie's idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She's recovered.

Subplot 3

An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Things you don't need to worry about when plotting

Note that there's loads of material that the above plot template doesn't tell you. It doesn't tell you where the novel is set (though we think that Regency England could work nicely). It doesn't say anything about plot mechanics - it doesn't tell you why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopment. It has nothing to say about character (apart from maybe X is nice, or Y is an idiot).

And that's fine. Too much extraneous detail about settings, mechanics and character will cloud the overall structure. The simpler you can keep your plot template, the better. Note that everything in the structure should relate pretty directly to the protagonist's motivation.

Build your own template

We strongly advise you to build a template much like the one above before you start writing. If you've already started your MS then, for heaven's sake, 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. 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 padding - it means you should develop the complexity of your novel..

Finally, if in doubt, come to us for a full MS appraisal. Plots are the single most important aspect of your work. You get them wrong at your peril!

Boys & Girls

We don't want to be too sexist here, but we do notice that men and women tend to face slightly different challenges. Men tend to be weaker on characterisation and stronger on plotting. When men's plots go wrong, it's often because they fail to keep focus on the protagonist. Remember, boys, it's characters we care about - keep your focus clear!

As for women, the most usual problem is that there's plenty of good character material, but just not enough plot. If your plot is too bare, then you need to fatten it up - and that means adding structure, not just bunging in loads of extraneous new backstory, etc.

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 need mean more events, more backstory, more points of view, more people yelling at each other. It means add complexity.

For example: let's suppose your story tells a simple tale of a man watching his father die slowly of cancer while coming to terms with their troubled relationship. That sounds good, but there's not enough complexity there to carry a modern novel. So complicate it. One traditional route is mirroring. Give the man a son (or daughter, or both), with whom he also has a complex relationship. That would be a fairly straightforward kind of mirroring.

An alternative would be a sideways kind of mirroring. This bloke is upset about his dad, so he embarks on a ridiculous relationship with a 22 year old Polish nurse, thereby imperilling his marriage.

Yet another way is to ram your novel into some other genre altogether. Put a ghost story in there. Or a whodunnit. The key is to add layers, add complexity.

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. The only difference is that you can go in for a tad less complexity in each one. But only a tad. You still need to develop a complete story for every protagonist. Renember to think about how to avoid confusing your story, though. More info here.


Yes, there are always exceptions - but not many. Experimental literary fiction that doesn't obey these rules is very, very hard to publish these days, so experiment at your peril.

The major genre where different rules apply is in crime novels & thrillers. The exceptions are twofold. (1) Detective stories are often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release rather than plot in a conventional sense, and (2) thrillers (and crime tales) often use multiple POVs, few of whom are protagonists, to move the story forward. That's OK - but do take care to keep a relentless focus on your core story and your protagonist's place in it. There are exceptions to the golden rules - but most people who break them go horribly wrong.

Creating scenes

How to structure a scene or chapter? 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.

How to Write a Novel - the full picture.

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 and get a free PDF download on How to Write a Novel.