How to Plot a Story (Even If Plotting Scares You Silly): 7 Sure-Fire Ways

    how to plot your novel

    Can a story work without a structure?

    Of course not.

    But a structure itself is not a plot.

    A structure is a Holiday Inn. A plot is a Gaudi cathedral. It has twists, turrets, flying buttresses…

    So how do we find a plot?

    The instinctive way is to start with a strong idea, incident or character. Introduce conflict. Then see what happens.

    That’s still not a plot. It’s a game of marbles. After the event, we spend a lot of time discarding junk.

    No, marbles is out.

    Are there better methods? Ever since a bard stood up in a Stone Age cave, pundits have created plotting systems.

    In 1863, Gustav Freytag devised his famous pyramid.

    how to plot a story

    It purports to define the rise and fall of tension in a story, but works only in classical Greek drama.

    Georges Polti became a legend in 1895 with his 36 Dramatic Situations. But there were hundreds more, he conceded. Just patch one dramatic situation onto another.

    William Wallace Cook did exactly that in 1928 with Plotto. It lists thousands of basic plots across 550 small-print pages, but the permutations are almost infinite. Plotto works. Hitchcock swore by it. So did Erle Stanley Gardner. It helped him dictate 66,000 words of Perry Mason stories every week.

    Problem is, Plotto is tough to use.

    Christopher Booker thought he’d found the answer with The Seven Basic Plots (2004). He mapped stories onto ancient myths and showed why Star Wars — and so many other movie epics — became blockbusters. Their patterns are wired into our DNA.

    Take one of his Basic Plots: The Quest. It’s the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress, the Odyssey, Watership Down, Raiders of the Lost Ark… and Star Wars.

    Thank you, Mr Booker, but mythic themes–by themselves–don’t help us. We want a plot.

    Where do we get one?

    Stop thinking Words. Start thinking Pictures!

    As a random example, let’s start with The Quest. It’s a search for something — perhaps a precious object, lost or promised. That theme is timeless. It comes with reader appeal built in.

    The object of our Quest might be a will, secret formula, military plan, map to a buried treasure, scandalous love letter… even a lost cat. Its discovery will change people’s lives, for better or worse. And maybe some don’t want it found.

    That’s a source of conflict, all by itself.

    How can we use the epic theme of the Quest to create a gripping story about… a cat? Let me count the ways. I’ll start with seven but there are many more. (And I’ll show you how to find them.)

    Each of these seven strategies derives from a picture.

    The Quest theme and cat are merely examples. They’re elements in a picture. Look at the shape behind each picture. It will suggest new ways you can craft a story plot, in any genre that you wish.

    For simplicity, let’s imagine just four central characters:

    Alice, an elderly lady; Sharon, her daughter; Ned, their jobbing gardener; and Estella, a pampered Persian cat.

    Now we’ll put them into plots based on pictures.

    1. The Rugby Game

    rugby-78193_640This story moves from one narrator to another, and back again, in a game of pass the ball.

    Scene 1. We see Alice lamenting the loss of her cat. “Has Estella been abducted?”

    Scene 2. The point of view switches to her overworked daughter Sharon who suggests that the spoiled pet has merely taken a holiday. “Cats can look after themselves,” she says. And adds beneath her breath,  “I wish old ladies could.”

    Scene 3. We move into the mind of Ned, the gardener. He hopes fervently the cat won’t come back. He’s tired of the beast wrecking his flower bed.

    Scene 4. We switch to the author’s viewpoint and see the cat, purring complacently in the flower bed. It’s had its fun. Time to come home, it thinks.

    Scene 5. The story closes in Ned’s point of view. He removes the cat’s identity tag. He phones a local cat home. “Can you take delivery of a stray cat? It’s ruining my flower bed. No, you don’t need my name…”

    As the viewpoint switches back and forth, like a rugby ball, we see into each character’s mind. We view their private opinions of each other. The cat is simply a pretext for a tale of human conflict, farcical or sad.

    2. The Kaleidoscope

    This story is given a big shake in the last scene. Each element drops back into a different pattern. We realize that everything we were told before was a lie. Our narrator has been unreliable!

    So the tale above might be related entirely from one viewpoint, that of Ned.

    He shows us persuasively how he has helped the ladies look for the lost cat, stuck Wanted posters on every lamp post, and commiserated with them mightily. We think “What a nice man!”

    The ladies, who had previously disdained him as a grubby oaf, see him in a new light.

    In the last scene, the kaleidoscope gets a big shake. A chuckling Ned reveals to the reader (but to nobody else) that he had abducted Estella and taken her to a cat sanctuary. At last, he’s got his garden back!

    The wicked man.

    Shake the kaleidoscope well and the surprise in the closing lines will leave your reader breathless.

    3. The Switchback

    This story shifts continually between crisis and relief, tension and tranquility — like the beat of a human heart.

    Scene 1. The cat is lost. (Tension.)

    Scene 2. Rumours come that she has been found safe and well by a kindly neighbor. (Relief.)

    Scene 3. On inspection, the cat is not Estella! (Tension.)

    Scene 4. A vet reassures the ladies that cats can survive perfectly well in the wilds. Estella will come home when she wants to. (Relief.)

    Scene 5. A local newspaper reports that a nearby Chinese restaurant has been closed down by Food Hygiene inspectors after cat fur was found in its meat. (Horror! Has Estella met a culinary fate?)

    Scene 6. It turns out to be a false alarm. (Relief.)

    And so on.

    The Switchback pattern can be sustained for as long as you wish, until the cat is found or not found, or you reach your desired word count. Sub-plots emerge, conflicts develop, marriages collapse… Potentially, there’s a whole novel here, for cat lovers.

    4. The Nautilus Shell

    Nautilus ShellHave you seen the pattern of a Nautilus shell, sliced in half? The spiral swirls towards its centre and every cell has another cell adjacent to it. Map that onto a story. As the tale winds to its close, the narrative timeline continually flashes forward then flashes back.

    Scene 1. Flashback five years. Alice has acquired the cat to keep her company after her husband’s death. (A slow poignant scene.)

    Scene 2. Return to main timeline. Estella has vanished. (The pace quickens.)

    Scene 3. Flash forward three years. Alice is relaxing in her garden, quietly thinking back to that tragic moment when Estella vanished. The scene is tranquil but contains a teasing question – did she ever recover the cat? – to encourage the reader to read on.

    Scene 4. Return to main timeline. The cat is being hunted everywhere. A vast reward is offered. Cruel hoaxes and false alarms raise the tension.

    Scene 5. Flashback to the day before the cat disappeared. Alice is playing contentedly with Estella. (A slow nostalgic passage.)

    Then we’re into the main timeline again as the frantic search for Estella continues.

    Done skilfully, the Nautilus Shell pattern can endow a story with great suspense and depth.

    Tip: To avoid confusing the reader, mark every shift in time and place very clearly. You could prefix each scene with a dateline: ‘The garden March 2012,’ etc. Or, more visibly, with stage directions: ‘It was March 2012 and the crocuses were already in full bloom…’

    5. The Pink Thread

    Pink Yarn Ball on white background

    This is a term I’ve invented for a character or incident that appears early in the story and reappears at random intervals, but seems (at first) to be irrelevant to the plot. The crucial importance of the Pink Thread only becomes clear at the end.

    Scene 1. A friendly postman arrives at Alice’s house, finds her in a state of shock over her missing cat, sympathizes with her and leaves. The man appears to have no function in the story except as a sounding board, a device for the reader to learn what has happened.

    Scene 2 – ? A few scenes later, the postman turns up again, ostensibly to see if the cat’s been found. Again, he acts as a sounding board so the ladies can review – for the reader’s benefit – the events to date. The reader quickly forgets him.

    Final scene. The postman turns out to be the culprit! He has abducted Estella to give to his disabled little daughter. The cat is found alive and well at the postman’s house and seems contented with her new home and owner.

    Alice is faced with a moral dilemma. Should she take back her cat or leave her with the little girl, who will be inconsolable at her loss?

    The Pink Thread is a useful strategy if your plot doesn’t – quite – come together at the end. Go back and drop in, here and there, an ‘inconsequential’ character or event. Return to this Pink Thread at the close. Now its plot significance becomes clear. It resolves a central mystery or ties the ends together.

    6. The Round Robin

    Circular arrows for various design

    The story circles back to its starting point, having explored many adventures en route.

    Scene 1. The cat goes missing.

    Scene 2 – 9. The cat is hunted everywhere, to no avail. Crises and dramas occur, sub-plots emerge, red herrings abound…

    Scene 10. The cat returns, by itself, purring happily. Ned, the gardener, tells Alice wisely, “Cats like a holiday now and again.” And he winks.

    Final scene. The cat vanishes yet again. Déjà vu. But this time, Alice goes to bed without worrying. She puts food behind the cat flap every night. And she remembers Ned’s heavy wink. She grants him a holiday too.

    The Round Robin pattern gives a story an inherent unity. But be sure to end the tale on a note of irony or accomplishment, whether upbeat or not. The character(s) have learned something on their journey and changed – just like a Greek hero returning from a Quest.

    7. The Frame Game

    Frame in FrameOne narrator introduces a story which features another narrator, who tells the story. It’s a frame within a frame. The tale closes when the first narrator reappears and returns us, with satisfying finality, to the outer frame.

    Scene 1. Sharon, the daughter, is narrator #1. She defines the first frame. Maybe she’s having her hair cut and styled and, having nothing else to do for an hour, tells the hairdresser of that terrible time when her mother lost her cat.

    Scenes 2-? The tale itself is related, in the mother’s voice. Her story defines the second frame.

    Final scene. Return to narrator #1. Sharon, her hair now done, tells the hairdresser how the story ended.

    One value of the Frame Game is that the first narrator, who forms the outer frame of the story, can describe the context at the start – giving us information that’s not in the story – or deliver a punchline at the end.

    “The saddest part of it is that Mother never did have a cat. It was all in her mind.”

    The hairdresser presses her hand. “Dementia is a terrible thing, my dear.”

     

    Who needs Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations?

    We can impose an almost infinite number of patterns – or pictures – on a story theme to create a working plot. Snowflakes, mosaic pavements, turreted castles, labyrinths… You need never again wonder how to plot a story.

    For inspiration, we just need to look around us. Now.

    Sitting in my study – now – what do I see? A wastebin! It has a provocative funnel shape…

    Could it be a new story in the making?

    Where do you find your plots? Please share your thoughts in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast helpful reply.

    About the author

      John Yeoman

      Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

    • David says:

      It starts with the character. Map out its internal and external goal, motivation, and conflict. Scenes express this information, teach lessons, make points, show character developement and move you through a plot that is now character based. Write a few sentence synopsis of each scene on a note card. Lay them out on the ground. Mess with the order. Write new scenes, toss dull ones. Constantly evaluate the GMC (goal, motivation, and conflict) of each character. All scenes should show have to do with the GMC.

    • krish says:

      Hi, Amazing article i like your way of your writing skill , its cool and very informative post . I really thanks for sharing awesome article.

    • Lisa Nicholas says:

      I like this approach to plotting — it sparked lots of ideas in my mind that I can use in my current Works-in-Progress. Too much advice on plotting makes it sound like plot is a formula into which you simply plug the particulars of your story and — Voilà! — instant story! Or rather, instant formulaic story. I also like the way the visuals make the varying possible structures memorable. Thanks for a great article.

      • You’re very welcome, Lisa. I hate those over-cerebral approaches to plotting too. I doubt that Homer had ever read a writing textbook! In the old days, drama was done by dynamic shapes – plots were literally acted out. Perhaps writing tutors have forgotten that?

    • Really good article and more informative. Thanks for sharing.

    • Priyaa says:

      First is to thank you for all this informative posts you give us for free; i bet all of us are happy.
      Such a great idea of yours! You have been a big help for me. Thanks a lot. more post for interesting topic. Great!

    • Bridget says:

      Love the Gaudi cathedral vs. Holiday Inn Plot vs. Structure analogy! Great post, John.

      • Maybe I over-stretched the metaphor by mentioning Gaudi, Bridger. My wife once got lost in a Gaudi cathedral!

    • Emi says:

      I must say Writetodone is good place to start learning new ways of writing I always found thing which need to be worked out for writing more perfectly.Thanks

    • Samady says:

      I learn some great tips today. I am going to make my story great.

    • Board says:

      actually i always try and write different stories, but what exatly happens is, i tend to take scenes from other plots and which makes them copied…. what to do

      • There’s no shame in borrowing from other stories. Shakespeare stole all his plots! The trick is to copy, then extensively adapt. If you find a scene you like in one genre, nobody will worry if you use its principal elements in another genre and change the details and character names.

    • honey says:

      Wow ! Amazing article thanks for sharing such a nice article…..

    • Shirley says:

      I love this article. Trying to plot before I write has stalled me for years. How long do you reckon it would take to get a plot down? If I don’t do it fast it’ll end up on my endless to-do list.

      • How long will it take to get a plot down, Shirley? It depends how complex it is, of course, and how long your story will be. When I drafted the ‘plot’ for one of my better flash fiction stories The Novice, all of 400 words, it took me five minutes. You can read it here:

        http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/how-to-write-a-very-short-story-the-ultimate-guide-

        To plot my first historical novel – a multi-dimensional labyrinth of sub-plots and intrigues – took me six months, not to mention years of preliminary research. And that was before I started to write the story!

        You can craft the essence of a good plot in five minutes. How long it takes you to tease it into a story is another matter…

        • Shirley says:

          Thanks John. I love historical novels (I have a degree in history but learn the most from novels) and yours is a new era for me. Much more fun when the author has done all the research. I don’t aim that high yet. Five minutes huh? I will give that a go with one of the ideas from your article and get that first draft done by the end of May. I would love to do your writing course but the pound/rand exchange rate is ridiculous. If I lived in the UK I’d do it in a heartbeat. So I’ll just keep reading your great articles and go through the notes on your book very carefully.

          • Many thanks, Shirley. I’d always wanted to do a second PhD in History but didn’t have another $50,000 handy to invest 😉 A PhD in creative writing was the next best thing, as it allowed me to focus on historical fiction. (And isn’t – to advance a provocative thought – all historiography a branch of ‘fiction’?)

            The pound is very weak now so your exchange rate should be favourable. If you lived in England, somewhere accessible to London or Oxford, I could even offer you personal live coaching. (My new program.) But this is not the place for a sales promotion…

            Good luck with your novel. Let me know, privately, how you get on.

    • J.Q. Rose says:

      Thanks for the overview of plotting by using such easy to follow examples. I discovered I use several of these methods myself. I’d hear authors refer to a frame within a frame. And now I get it! I get a lot of my ideas from the news stories on TV or in the paper. Some crazy real-life events make great topics for a story.

      • Indeed, JQ, news stories are not called ‘stories’ for nothing. In my days as a newspaper editor, we’d analyze a news report and shape it into a dramatic event. News items will only get read if they’re structured as an ethical form of fiction. I tried to make that point when I taught creative writing to journalism students at a UK university. Some of them ‘got’ it and had a bright future ahead of them. Others didn’t, so they were doomed to remain lowly news reporters, forever writing up church fetes and weddings 🙁

    • Mark says:

      My issue is the interweaving of plot and theme, keeping the story balanced on a fine line of literary message, and engaging characters that don’t appear contrived. The heroes journey and the quest have become over done in current fiction.

      It becomes a point of marriage of all these structural elements, and where they don’t appear old to your audience. The character’s growth or decline through their arc is what provides the connective tissues. We us conflict in our known human condition with an environment of uncertainty that twists and turns. I know how to describe it and control its direction, but artfully constructing such lofty clouds in words and pictures is daunting. It is tying up the many ribbons on a mist that keeps me from completing my task.

      • That’s a very perceptive analysis, Mark. I agree that the Quest theme has been overdone of late. It seems to drive every Hollywood epic. That said, all of Booker’s Seven Basic Plots are clichés, of course. The more a basic plot – or theme – disappears into the story, like a palimpsest, the better the story. ‘Tying up the ribbons on a mist’ is an elegant way of describing the dilemma of a true author. To write ‘genre’ fiction is a no-brainer but a work of literature is something else. If I were to suggest any ‘quick fixes’, without reading your novel, they would be formulaic and so, alas, defeat your purpose 😉

      • That’s a very perceptive analysis, Mark. I agree that the Quest theme has been overdone of late. It seems to drive every Hollywood epic. That said, all of Booker’s Seven Basic Plots are clichés, of course. The more a basic plot – or theme – disappears into the story, like a palimpsest, the better the story. ‘Tying up the ribbons on a mist’ is an elegant way of describing the dilemma of a true author. To write ‘genre’ fiction is a no-brainer but a work of literature is something else. If I were to suggest any ‘quick fixes’, without reading your novel, they would be formulaic and so, alas, defeat your purpose 😉

    • Zarayna says:

      Hello John,

      You are a hero! Thank you for all of your good, ideas here.
      I do appreciate your solution-based answers to tricky problems – a true leader and a valuable resource.
      Must go now, because I want to apply your ‘switchback’ ploy to a story which was in danger of getting stuck halfway round the course.
      Thanks again.

      • Thanks, Zara. I especially commend the Firework Pattern. When your story gets stuck, put a rocket up it! (Or, as Raymond Chandler wisely advised: ‘have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.)

    • David says:

      How do I find a plot for my story? I was listening to the radio while taking a shower and something was said, I don’t recall what, and I saw the opening scene to my story in my mind’s eye. I’ve recently finished the very rough hand-written first draft of my story, so I have a lot of work yet, but I’ve got the story done.

      • True, David, plots are everywhere. BTW: My idea of using a ‘funnel’ shape to plot a story wasn’t facetious. That’s exactly what Eleanor Catton did when planning The Luminaries. Each chapter is progressively shorter than the other. It won the Booker Prize.

    • Pre written Paper says:

      Nice post dear . I like your post thanks for sharing .

    • Melodye Collins says:

      I find idea’s just turn up in my head, some times I don’t know what to do with them. Other times it is so full of what is going to happen, I just have to keep writing until I have the whole story written.

      • ‘I just have to keep writing until I have the whole story written.’ You’re in good company, Melodye. That’s how Dostoyevsky allegedly wrote The Brothers Karamazov. He had to keep writing to discover what the characters were going to do.

    • I use scapple for the wordy storyline and then I find pictures on Google and or Pinterest and I put them in a word doc. These standard plots are very useful. At this moment I am working on headhooping, something I do too much.

      • That’s fun, Michael. Personally, I’ve never headhooped. Reminds me of the gentleman, circa 1930, who asked a young lady “Do you like Kipling?” She blushed and replied coyly. “I’ve never kippled.”

    • Sam Wood says:

      Thanks for the informative article. My take is the pot boils as the plot thickens.

      • True, Sam. That’s the merit of a hay oven. Porridge, like a story, tastes better after it’s been cooked s l o w …

    • Glen Donaldson says:

      John.

      On the wall somewhere in your home office do you have a sign that says –
      “GENIUS AT WORK” ?
      If humility directs you to answer no then I say you should.
      This is genuinely brilliant!

      • Many thanks, Glen. “GENIUS AT WORK”? Best not tell that to my wife. She’ll answer: “I’m the one who does the work around here!”

        • Glen Donaldson says:

          Wives are such a leveler to keep us sensible and our dreams in check. Bless them and bless hay ovens.

    • I bet this is a godsend for many writers, John. Full of very sensible but inspiring advice. And with examples to help.
      For me, plotting is the antithesis of creation. But I know I’m odd that way (actually, I’m odd in lots of ways!) and prefer to write on the fly. Lots of writers wonder how I can write a story or a novel without some for of structure. I wonder how any writer can write with a pattern before them.
      The important thing is whether it works for you as a writer. My ‘method’, and I place it in quotation marks because it’s not so much a method as a way of being, works for me.
      Most writers plot. So this’ll be a great help to them.

      • Great to see you here, Stuart. Good heavens, you get around! As you know, I take the opposite view, being always perverse. I plot a story first and then I write it. Curse it. Tear it up. Then – the fragments of that structure still in my mind – I write the story. I can’t write without a preordained structure, preferably one with a great last line – already written – that I have to make good. But it can be anything. Last night (true story) I was woken at 3.30pm by voices in our sitting room. Burglars? I crept downstairs. The tv had, somehow, turned itself on, all by itself. At once, the first line of a story flew to my lips: “Who’s there?” Followed by that classic closure, as I turned the set off, “Bloody technology…” Now I’m writing a story about a wife’s ex-husband who lives in the cellar and comes out, covertly, at night. (Truly, I am.)

    • To be honest I’m not that educated of a writer.

      “36 Dramatic Situations” sounds like an interesting read.

      I do a good job of writing in my journal consistently, but I don’t mix things up very much. And don’t challenge myself as a writer very often.

      This post has given me a lot of great ideas.

      Thanks John!

      • Thanks, Eli. Educated or not, you’re a luminous blog writer. It’s time you wrote a guest post for Writers’ Village 😉

    • Lorraine says:

      How very helpful your illustration of the different ways to approach the story telling has been for us. Thank you so much for being of service to others who have stories we wish to tell. You’re a wonderful, generous person!

      • Many thanks, Lorraine. It seems to me, you’re a very nice person yourself 😉

    • Ohita Afeisume says:

      Thanks for this post. When we see pictures we remember better. The 7 pictures shown here and the memories they evoke will help me better in my plotting.

    • Sarah Carpini says:

      Thank you, I have a story I want to tell and this information will help me to tell it.

    • Ryan says:

      Thanks for the refreshing post, John! This is a really creative and fun exercise that helps me see writing in a colorful, new way.

    • Blanche Springer says:

      Very interesting and informative. Makes “plotting”
      sounds less frightening.

      • Why should plotting be frightening, Blanche? It’s fun!

    • Blanche Springer says:

      Excellent and very useful information on plotting. Makes the thought of plotting less frightening.

    • Thanks, Evelyn. It has always surprised me that Freytag’s pyramid was ever taken seriously. For sure, it rarely works, even with classical Greek drama ;(

    • Great update on the old Freytag’s Pyramid, not only for writers but also for writing teachers.

    • Hello John,
      Thanks for the fun plotting examples. Using the lost cat for all the types was brilliant – even a dyed in the wool pantser like me can understand. I’m saving this and sharing with my critique group.

    • honey says:

      HI, actually i want search this type of article , i will search several websites but no one give detailed.
      But luckily i got this article thanks for sharing such a nice article.

    • Freedom says:

      The last example reminds me of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes! Ty, bookmarking this article.

      • ‘Fried Green Tomatoes!’? Now there’s a plot pattern…

    • Mike says:

      Hello John,

      Thank you for the tips. I can always use some new ideas to keep readers interested. Writing about science can be difficult at times. Although, enthusiasm seems to be a good attention grabber. Have a good day.

      Sincerely,

      Mike

      • Here’s a tip, Mike. Don’t write about science. Let science write about people. Hm, is that worth a tweet? 😉

    • Wonderful post, John, as usual. I always read all of your articles and learn something new each time. The examples are very helpful. This is another post that I’ll be bookmarking! I am starting the plotting process on my WIP, which is undergoing yet another transformation. I have been having trouble with it and this will help. Thank you! 🙂

      • It’s good to see you here, Rebecca. Glad my thoughts helped.

    • Margaret Fieland says:

      What a riot! Loved your article. The stories are all great fun.

      • Ay, Margaret. Riot is my middle name. As Shakespeare said, when I met him last: ‘”Cry ‘Riot!’, and let slip the dogs of war”.” Of course, he didn’t know me very well then, so he got my name wrong 😉

    • Vivienne Sang says:

      What a brilliant post. I’ll definitely be using some of there ideas in the future.

      • Do use them, Vivienne. They work. I’ve written a lot of stories that way 😉

    • Amy Spungen says:

      Really helpful tips. Thank you!

    • Mary Kate says:

      So detailed and interesting–definitely bookmarking to have around!

    • Andrew Rees says:

      This is a great little guide the example is simple but ports very well as it is transferable and easy to follow across all the examples of how to plot of story thank you for putting it together

    • Mary says:

      I found this to be a good visual on plotting a story, slipping in clues and giving an ending that no one anticipated.


    • >