Plotting a novel is like swimming under water.
It’s murky, you run out of air, you have no idea whether you’re up or down, you start to panic - and then you suddenly pop up and see the island you’re heading toward in front of you.
This article is about how to create a plot that sizzles. You'll learn about the elements of plot so that you can weave together a story your readers will adore.
I've studied half a dozen books, taken courses, cursed, and whined before I finally understood how to create a plot structure. The problem is that no single book tell you everything you need.
That’s why I want to introduce you to the best ideas and the most practical advice for creating the plot of your novel.
If you’re struggling with your plot, read this post and put each point into practice.
Remember the Greek myth of Ariadne’s Thread?
She gave a sword and a ball of red string to Theseus with whom she had fallen in love. His mission was to kill the Minotaur, a monster hidden deep in the Labyrinth.
After finding and killing the Minotaur, he was able to follow the trail of the red string to find his way out of the cave system.
The image of Theseus above is from a fresco found in the ruins of Pompeii (minus the figleaf). You can see the Minotaur, half human, half bull, lying dead at his feet.
This post is the red thread you can follow to find the light at the end of the labyrinth.
First, let’s zoom out first and consider the elements of plot structure.
The Skeleton of a Plot
There’s an assortment of literature devoted to plotting. In most books, the recommendation is to use the 4-part story structure (which is a variant of the age-old 3-act plot). Below, are the four parts:
1. The Setup
3. The Attack
2. The Response
4. The Resolution
The problem is that most books or article on plotting can leave you scratching your head or shelving your novel for another year.
Here is an example of some advice about the first part of the structure, The Setup:
All clear now? Nope, sorry.
It might as well have been an instruction on how to change the oil in my car! As John Truby says in his excellent book, The Anatomy of Story:
Creating your plot with a mechanical view is like gluing bones together to form a skeleton and expecting the thing to breathe and walk.
The other extreme is to pile up flesh and expect the thing to stand up without having a skeleton upon which to hang the innards.
Doesn’t work either.
How to Make Your Plot Zing
On what are you going to base your plot?
The mechanical view of plotting concentrates on the sequence of outer events. However, there is a more compelling way to frame your plot by focusing on the inner events which shape the development of your protagonist.
I’ve recently read Michael Connelly’s novel, The Black Echo. Apparently, Connelly binned his first two novels before writing The Black Echo, the first story featuring his protagonist, Detective Harry Bosch. It is a masterpiece of storytelling.
Scarred by traumatic experiences in Vietnam, Harry Bosch’s personal life if barren because he is divorced from his emotions.
The Black Echo is a gripping novel and a masterclass on how to base a story on the character arc of a protagonist. In Connelly's series, you can follow Harry Bosch's slow journey of healing. Libbie Hawker explains:
Basing your plot on the character arc of your protagonist makes things both easier and more difficult. Let me explain…
Weaving Your Plot
The challenge you face is to tie together two distinct plot patterns, the classic 4-part story framework (which focuses on outer events) and the character arc system (which follows the inner development of your characters).
Once you meld the two plotting systems, your plot will begin to breathe and wriggle.
In Part 2 of the Fire Up Your Stalled Nove l, I talked about the importance of creating character arcs. If you skipped this step, please go back to Part 2 and work on your character arcs before continuing.
How to Base Your Plot on the Character Arc of Your Protagonist
No matter how many characters you have in your novel, make sure that your plot follows the development of your main character.
In the text box below, you'll find a blueprint for creating your character-based plot. It follows Monica Leonelle’s suggestions in her book, Nail Your Story: Add Tension, Build Emotion, and Keep Your Readers Addicted.
Once you’ve completed the plot outline in broad strokes for your protagonist, the story of your novel will emerge because it should follow the arc of your protagonist.
Celebrate the milestone. But don’t stop there.
You need to create a Story Blueprint for each of your characters. Don’t skip this step!
In Part 4 of How to Fire up a Stalled Novel, we’ll start creating the individual scenes that will make up your novel. This is the fun part! You'll learn how to use the strategy of inverted triangles to create sizzling scenes.
Do you have questions? Please write them in the comment section below.