How to plan a novel: a plot structure template


 

The Writers’ Workshop’s main advice on plotting, and the best place to start, is our quick guide on how to plot. But if you’ve got a good grasp of the basics and want to get started, then this page is the one for you. (You also may like our blog post on plot mountains just here.)

Plot structure and complexity

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

After all, 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?

The answers to all those questions are coming right up.

How to write a character-driven plot outline

Pride and Prejudice

A good plot has a clear motivation. It has an initiating incident, a clear story structure, a crisis and a resolution. It may also have a number of subplots.

So the simplest way to structure your novel is simply to take those headings and use them to sketch your plot. Here’s how you might do it, if your name was Jane Austen and you felt like writing a book that involved a little pride, and a little prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice plot outline

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

Initiating Incident
Two men – Mr Bingley and his super-rich buddy, Mr Darcy – come to Lizzy’s town.

Main plot
Lizzy meets rich, proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to like Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her when he proposes to her. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy. Darcy turns out to be a good guy.

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

Resolution
Darcy is a hero. He saves the day and proposes again. Lizzy marries Darcy.

Subplot 1
Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s patient 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 pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.

 

Plotting and the basics

Pride and Prejudice

You’ll see there’s plenty that our 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. In fact, the rule is simplify, simplify, simplify. Or to put that another way:

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. If you need to ignore any subplots for now, then do. If you tick off those basic headings (Motivation, Initiating Incident, Main Plot, Crisis, Resolution), then you have a story, my friend.

Note also that everything in the structure should relate directly to the protagonist’s motivation.

Take one of the above subplots as an example. So (for subplot #3) Charlotte wants security through marriage to Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage effectively reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, it also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book.

This subplot, and all the others, feed back into Lizzy’s journey as novel protagonist. Or to put the same message in the form of another golden rule: if a subplot doesn’t directly bear on the protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or motivation, then the subplot has to be deleted or rewritten.

Nothing in your plotting should ever be superfluous.

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

If you are already midway into your manuscript and think, “uh-oh, I’m getting worried now”, then just stop. Start plotting out your novel according the to template on this page, and don’t start to create any more text until you’re completely happy with the structure as it emerges.


Build your own novel template

We strongly advise you build a simple template 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. irrelevance): 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

Mockingbird

But maybe your problem is the exact opposite one.

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. The novel 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.

Plotting and multiple perspectives

The Collector

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 (points of view) work well for thrillers, especially, often driven by the drip-drip-drip of information release. But the technique is highly versatile and is used in a host of very different novels.

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.

And notice that both characters need their own story arcs, for this approach to work. You can’t allocate real page space to characters that don’t have their own storylines, which means each major POV character has to have their own Motivation, Initiating Incident, Main Plot, Crisis, Resolution.

 

Major and minor viewpoints

Clarice Starling

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, more ominous 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.

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. You can get more on plotting here, and more on points of view here.

 

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