8 Points on Plotting that Novel

Sometimes when writing, it’s just an idea. Frequently a story presents itself (almost) fully formed, a gift from the Muse gratefully received. But it will always need honing. I don’t mean editing out innumerable typos and grammar errors, but serious fiddling with to make it work, to make it flow, to make it readable, to make it believable.

And novel is a different bag of worms.

An idea is nowhere near enough. I need to take that idea and break it up with other ideas. Characters need more definition, a history and somewhere to go. Every single element of action event and place will need to have a reason for being there. Plot is definitely a verb. Even the pantsters among us (and to a certain extent I am one of that merry band) will choose, even if unconsciously, what goes into the story and how to justify its existence in the story.

So I offer below advice that has been given to me and hope that it will be useful to you, even if you tend to fly by the seat of your pants and just write. Eventually we all have to fiddle with our draft to make it work. I hope these pointers help:

  1. The first question is usually ‘Why?’ We have to make the reader believe, so every part of the tale needs to have a significance. If there is no reason for the gun on the first page, then why is it there? Why that name? Why in that place and why is it the butler who did it? The answers are that they are there to make the story real, to prepare our reader for what is to come, or to explain our theme, the point of the book. 
  2. History. The plot is not the beginning of the story. All of those characters existed before the reader meets them, although the story should begin at the latest possible moment. We may not need to explain all that went before (though the writer ought to know it) and we don’t want an info dump at any point. Leak it out slowly by inference as the action takes place or as a flashback.
  3. Prophesy or set up. Without making your reader aware of how important something is, you have to set up your story. Coincidence and the superhero turning up to save the day will not cut it unless you have set it up earlier. Prepare. And if you didn’t prepare because you only thought of it in chapter fifteen Ms Pantster, then you must go back and write in the missing element or we will refuse to believe you.
  4. Be true to your genre. If this is a romantic comedy, then don’t go putting great scenes of tragedy into it. Suspense will be of the ‘will she/won’t she marry him’ variety and if it is of the ‘will she/won’t she kill him’ sort, you had better have a good reason and come to the right conclusion or you will turn off your reader.
  5. The main character. He or she has to grow. Given your story idea, the protagonist must take charge at some point and deal with the final act pretty much on his own. He can have loads of help along the way, but he should be the instigator of the denouement. Or be like Poirot and be flummoxed all the way through and then snap his fingers and explain while some underling detective actually does the catching, if that is the sort of tale you are writing.
  6. Every character has to count. Even the minor ones. Each has his own agenda. Having a fight on the top of a cable car or struggling with a shark may be  thrilling scenes to write, but you must have a good reason for putting them there. We have to understand the motivation for each action and must be able to see what drives him and why he cares about it enough to play tag with a shark. Even quite minor characters have their own person reasons for being just where you put them at any given time. And those that really don’t are not characters – they are walk-ons who don’t justify being named. Do they need to be there? Could a real character do that job? Could you go back and write him out?
  7. Plot growth determines the character. We identify the character by his actions in given situations. Cowardly in the beginning, our hero really is a hero when he goes up against his deepest fear and is brave at the end. Mean spirited at the beginning he may be, but he will see the error of his ways and be generous at the end – like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Each event in your story shows the character’s motivations and feelings at that point.
  8. Villains and heroes coexist. Therefore neither can have his own way all the time. If you are writing a tragedy, then our protagonist may die a hero’s death, but it will be a pretty short novel if everything the villain does points to that end. He may look as though he is winning for most of the book, but you must allow both the good and the bad to have their day, before one wins out in the climax.

And now I am off to do some writing. By the seat of my pants of course, but with one eye on the above. Happy Writing! :-)

34 responses to “8 Points on Plotting that Novel

  1. Excellent points to remember.

  2. Great advice. As a mainstream fiction writer, I would agree with all of those points. However, I have learned that in some genres these points don’t always apply, apparently, which was a huge surprise to me (for example, #5). Even though some genres have their own rules, I still think the ones you listed are good for all genres.

  3. After reading these points, some of which I’d already figured out,I am going off to review my mini story. You have provided a good check list for my critique. Thanks

  4. Thanks for the advice. I’ve learned a lot on my break from novel writing and it’s shocking how much I didn’t know when I wrote my first few! I’ll have to tape these reminders to a wall somewhere for constant reference.

    Happy Writing!

  5. Good stuff, Pat. Really enjoyed reading this, and it offered useful reminders. I think what you mention in #2 is so important–not dumping all the backstory at once; we need to slowly drop bits here and there. Seems so simple but can be so hard to do.

    • Thank you Carrie. Yes, I do agree that not info dumping sounds simple but is incredibly hard to do. Drip feeding all that backstory in is an art form in itself.

      • That’s why I outline. I plant my bits throughout, so I’ll write them that way when it comes time for the first draft.

        • I’m half and half: Outline the main points, know more or less where I’m going, then barge in where angels fear to tread. I make notes as I write, things I need to change/put in/leave out.
          Have tried winging it totally, but this involves too much rewriting for me.
          Have also tried outlining every single iota – on a writing course when the guy in charge wanted EVERYthing absolutely outlined to the nth degree. Hate that. Get bored with the thing before it’s written if I know the whole show beforehand.
          Now I do the half and half and it seems to work for me.
          But my first draft needs a lot of work whichever way I work!!

  6. Fabulous pointers. Thank you Pat!

  7. These are some great tips for plot structure! I’m an aspiring writer myself, and I will definitely be printing this off to refer to in the future! Thanks :)

    • You are most welcome. I hope it helps. Thank you for coming over and commenting. Hope you made good use of the kettle and the biscuit tin. :-)

  8. I especially like #5. Minor characters often are the ones that make a novel fully realized. Each character will be watched by the reader, so we’d better watch them as they’re created. Very nice list you’ve compiled.

  9. Reading your points reminded me of another useful tip;
    If you have minor characters that drift in and out of the story, never to be seen again, take a hard look at them and ask if A) they really need to be there – do they add ANYTHING to the story. and B) try to combine them if you can.
    I successfully combined a minor character who was nothing more than a simple accident victim with a later minor character who was simply someone’s mother. The coincidence of meeting the same person within two days really caused my main character to think and wove a new thread through my story.

    • Yes, those minor characters are a pain.
      Thought – I need someone in here to do whatever…
      I’ll create a maid/nurse/dustman/policeman….. they never work and you’re right they don’t often need to be there.
      Usually a bit more thought is needed to work out what is really happening.
      And coincidence that complicates the plot and weaves new thread is great.

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