When it comes to writing a novel, thinking up a fantastic story is only part of the equation. Character development and plot development are both just as important, and often just as complicated too.
Figuring out how to plot out a novel is half technique and half individual best practices, many of which you’ll work out over time as you practice. Along the way, there are various tips, tricks, and tools that you can use to develop your story structure and optimize your plot and pace.
So, how do you plot a novel—and how do you plot a novel quickly? Here’s what to know, including four big steps to novel plotting that writers of all skill levels can use to get their story out onto the page.
How to Plot a Novel
If there’s one rule to how to plot a novel chapter by chapter, it’s that there is no rule. But just because there’s a lack of a one-size-fits-all approach to novel plotting doesn’t mean that you’re totally on your own in figuring out how to do it well.
Storytelling is either a predominantly plot driven or predominantly character driven endeavor. Whichever way you choose to go, though, it’s essential that your novel is structured in such a way that it makes sense for the reader and creates a cohesive narrative.
All plots can be broken down into five distinct parts within the traditional three act structure of a beginning, middle, and end. In terms of how to plot a novel, template driven exercises like those that take these five parts into account can be immensely helpful—and immensely convenient—in ironing out the details. And they’re particularly useful if you’re wondering how to plot out a novel quickly.
What is a Novel Template?
A novel template, sometimes referred to as a novel outline, is essentially the blueprint that you’ll base your story off of.
The specifics of your template may vary, but ultimately, it’s a document where you can plan out all of the information that’s helpful to get in order before you sit down to a blank screen—including plot, of course, but also characters, timelines, and story arcs.
There are some big benefits to working from a novel template. For starters, outlining your novel in this way allows you to approach your project from a big picture perspective, which in turn makes it easier to identify gaps in the narrative or scenes that might benefit from more context. Likewise, templating gives you a guide to follow as you write, which can be key to overcoming the occasional—or not so occasional—case of writer’s block.
Only you know the best way to tell your story. By creating a template, however, you can map out your story, and the process for telling it, within the traditional storytelling structure. Your story will still be all your own, but it will hit on all of the touchpoints necessary to make it a truly impactful read for your audience.
What Are the 5 Parts of a Story Plot?
There are many ways to structure the plot of your novel, but all stories will have five main parts that should always be included.
- The Introduction: Sometimes referred to as a novel’s exposition, the introduction is both a hook for your readers and the place where you’ll lay out necessary context for getting your story off the ground. This is the part of your plot that takes part before conflict hits, and it’s where you’ll do things like introduce your characters and your setting and start laying out the stage for all that’s to come.
- The Raising Stakes: In novels, and in life, conflict often comes along gradually instead of out of nowhere. This is the part of the story plot where you’re revving your engine in anticipation of what’s next. If you think of a plot structure like a bell curve, with the conflict or climax being right at the top, it’s during the climb to get there that you’ll start to raise the stakes and provide readers with both anticipation about what might happen and a vested interest in the outcome.
- The Climax: What goes up must come down. The climax of your plot is the turning point when all of that tension you’ve been building up finally comes to a head and the protagonist is at the moment of life-altering change. The telling of the conflict itself will likely be the shortest part of your plot, even if it’s one of the most memorable.
- The Comedown: Conflict has hit, so now what? Here’s where your plot will shift to the outcomes of the climax, both plot driven and character driven. What happens as a result of the conflict? How does the protagonist change? Keep a steady pace here as you wind down the story and lead up to the end of the narrative.
- The Conclusion: Even the best of stories need to end at some point. The conclusion, which can also be called the resolution, is when all loose ends come together and your protagonist gets their happy (or sometimes not-so-happy) finale. It may also be where you set the scene for more conflict ahead, if you have a sequel in mind.
Plotting a Novel vs. Novel Outlines
As you think of how to plot a novel, template driven exercises are incredibly useful since they work off of that five part structure and force you to establish a rhythm to your work. But plotting and outlining aren’t interchangeable terms, even if there is quite a bit of overlap.
Think of it this way: plotting is coming up with the events that make up your story, and outlining is lining up those events in a cohesive, well-paced manner. When you’re figuring out how to plot a novel chapter by chapter, think in terms of both, first working out in your mind how your plot is going to come together (plotting) and then documenting it in a template (outlining).
As for turning a plot idea into an actual novel, here the basic steps to plotting a novel that will guide you through each phase of the process.
Step 1: Start With the Basics
You’ll want to start plotting from the very beginning: your premise. Dedicate the beginning of your outline to documenting all of the key components of your novel, including the protagonist and other main characters, the setting, the main conflict, and the transformation that will happen as a result of that conflict.
Step 2: Ask the Big Questions
Maybe you already know what your story is going to entail, but do you know why it matters or how it’s all going to link together?
To turn story into substance, you have to ask some pretty big questions of your narrative. These include:
- What is my protagonist’s background and point of view? How do they transform over the course of the plot?
- Why does my protagonist make the choices they make? What is their motivation? Are they believable?
- What are the stakes for my protagonist?
- Does every event have a cause and effect, or are things just occurring in a sequence that’s convenient for moving the story along?
- What am I trying to say? What is my central message? Why should my readers care about what’s happening?
- As you plot your novel, you’ll find yourself asking a lot more questions. If you can’t find the answer, or if the answer isn’t satisfactory, it’s a sign that you need to work out the kinks.
Step 3: Formulate Your Arc
All stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and these should be clear to you before you’re done plotting. Within that framework though, you also need to consider the five parts of a story mentioned above and how you’re going to map them out.
Think of your plot like a rollercoaster, and make sure that it’s structured in a comprehensive manner. You need to strap your readers in, get them to the top of the arc, face the drop (i.e. the climax), and then ease them to a stopping point. Each plot point should serve this purpose, and the plot as a whole should come together into one cohesive bell curve, with some exciting twists and turns of course.
Step 4: Form Your Resolution
Your resolution is how your story is going to wrap up. And even more than that, it’s how your protagonist is going to be different in the end than they were in the beginning. Think of how any loose ends you’ve presented throughout the plot are going to come together and what sort of ending will be satisfactory—not because it necessarily tells your readers what they want to hear but because it doesn’t leave any open gaps.
Keep in mind that your plot is not the same as your completed story. Rather, it’s the blueprint for all that’s to come, and will be expanded on greatly with descriptive elements that create immersive scenes, fully realized characters, and an engaging world that keeps your readers turning the page.
Ready to get started? Begin your outline and turn the seed of an idea into your most impressive work yet.
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