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Plotting a Novel: Why to Do It & How to Do It Right

The following is a guest post.

Writing a story that spans hundreds of pages and has a cohesive narrative structure takes some planning. This planning can be thought of as “writing a plot outline.” It’s a process many writers skip. But, it can literally mean the difference between starting a novel — and starting and finishing one. Read on for why.

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Why You Should Always Write a Plot Outline

Stories can often take shapes of their own. It’s not rare for a writer to admit that they had an idea for a story, but once they started writing, it didn’t look anything like what they had in their head. This is because many writers follow their characters and stories wherever they lead, instead of the other way around (ie, the author leading the characters where they wish them to go).

No way is right or wrong; but one way can lead to frustration an writer angst, while another can make the writing process much smoother.How to Write a Plot Outline - and Why You Should for Every Story

The narrative structure you develop in the beginning of a novel should be firmly established, with everything that happens as you write abiding by those rules.

As an aside, this is why many writers get lost in a story – they don’t have a defined plan of how to progress it. This is what a written plot does; it’s a roadmap of where your story is going.

Started Writing without a Plot Outline?

If your story has advanced to a certain point without the creation of a written plot outline – and you find yourself stuck as to what to write next — it might be a good idea to take a step back and write an outline.

It will make your story flow better, and the writing process easier and faster. That’s because you’ll have a visual indicator of what happens next, what happens after that, and so on and so on.

How to Make Writing a Plot Outline Easier

The main reason to create a plot outline is to make writing your story easier, right? But sometimes, creating this is where your writing problems start.

You may encounter “plot bottlenecks”; parts of the plot outline that just won’t flow for whatever reason. Ironically though, this is the very reasons to write out a plot.

Defined plots can foreshadow bottlenecks that will appear during the writing of the actual story; so creating a plot beforehand will help you work out major kinks before you start the story-telling process.

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Following are some tips on how to make writing a plot outline easier – especially when you encounter problems along the way.

Take a breather

Taking a break can give you the mental distance you need to craft a cohesive plot.  This gives you – and the idea of story you want to create – a chance to breathe.  So if you hit a plot-writing roadblock, stop writing and distance yourself for a couple of hours, or even a day or so. Then, come back to it with fresh intent and insight.

Write on a body clock-based schedule

Some people feel most creative and productive at night, while others are early birds and like to work in the morning. One of the best things a writer can do is figure out what works best for them.

Most of us are trained to think along a Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 existence for work. But, the beautiful thing about writing is that there is no set schedule you have to adhere to – other than the one you set for yourself. So chuck pre-conceived notions aside and listen to your body. What works for you? Once you know, don’t be afraid to go with that.

Setting Your Writing Schedule: A Warning

In order to stay productive, stick to a schedule, eg, if you find that your creative juices flow best from 9 pm to midnight, then make those three hours sacred. Commit to writing a certain number of days per week during that timeframe. Not only do you train yourself mentally to work during these hours, you’ll see a sustained output.

Writing is a profession. And while it may be a creative profession, if you want to make money doing it, you must treat it like any other money-making venture – which means putting in the time and producing consistently. Adhering to a set writing schedule will help you to do this.

Now, back to how to write a good plot.

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4 Basics Every Plot Outline Should Have

One of the most important aspects to writing a good plot is creating a plot outline because “the plot outline is what will hold up your story if you know how to use it—or cause it to collapse if you don’t.” With this in mind, a well-crafted plot outline should contain the following basics.

(i) Defined Character(s)

Who are the main character(s) in the story? Readers have to know this in order to know who (or what) they’re about to get invested in emotionally.

Example: A 30-something nurse moves from a small, rural town in Mississippi to New York City. She’s been given a new job to head a healthcare charity by her best friend, who married a billionaire (it’s their charity, which her best friend started). Upon arriving, she sees how happily married her best friend is and realizes that it’s been too long since she’s been in a relationship. She decides she wants to do something about that. Can she find love in the big city

(ii) Character Dreams/Goals/Aspirations

To have a successful career and a family.

(iii) Obstacles to Dreams/Goals/Aspiration

This is what creates the drama in a story; what gives readers a reason to keep turning pages.

Example: Before she can even wrap her head around dating, she meets a handsome Italian businessman and before long, finds herself pregnant. Will her unexpected pregnancy derail their budding relationship and stop her from having the family she always dreamed of? She came from a single-parent household and vowed never to be in that situation.

Even if he accepts their child, will he think that she intentionally trapped him? Would she ever know if his involvement with her was based on love, or duty for their child?

(iv) Conclusion

Many writers rush an ending – leaving readers unsatisfied and/or confused. Don’t do this. Your ending is every bit as important as the intro and the body; hence, be patient when crafting it so that you give readers the satisfying ending they deserve.

Your story’s ending is inextricably tied to the main characters goals, dreams and/or aspirations. If they achieve their goal, then you have a happen ending. If they don’t, you have a sad ending (eg, a tragedy).

Many genres have expected endings, eg, in crime, the detective will always find the criminal; and in romance, a HEA (happily ever after) ending is expected. But even though the ending may be pre-determined, how they get there is the exciting part – and why readers continue to flock to a certain niche, even when they know “how” the story is going to end. Speaking of endings …

Plotting Sequels/Series: 3 Tips

A cliffhanger can be a smart move to end a story. But, only do this if readers know from the beginning that the book is a sequel and when they can expect successive parts. Otherwise, you run the risk of pissing them off and losing them forever.

Even when a story is a series, each part should stand alone sufficiently enough to leave readers feeling satisfied, yet yearning for more. And yes, this is a delicate balance. To learn how to do it right – so that you don’t alienate readers – read series by successful authors in your genre. How do they do it? What do you love/hate about it? What lessons can you learn from them to incorporate in your story(ies)?

(i) Get a second opinion

You don’t have to let a professional writer or a university professor critique your plot. A friend or neighbor can be a perfectly suitable person. This is because ordinary people will make up the majority of your reading audience.

Also, beta readers are another great option. You can find many of them in reading groups on social media, eg, Facebook. In fact, many Facebook groups are devoted to beta readers.

Whatever feedback you get, take it seriously and with as much objectivity as you can, especially the “negative” feedback. In fact, this is the feedback that is most helpful. “

Think about it – what can you do with feedback like, “I loved it!” There’s nothing for you to do; to improve. But, feedback like, “It seems like the story would drag here, which made me lose interest. Put in some action; that’ll make me wonder what’s going to happen next.” Now this is feedback you can work with because it helps you to help advance your plot and perhaps tell a better story than the one you had in mind.

(ii) Know when to restart

Sometimes the most painless thing you can do is start over. While this may throw off your writing/publishing schedule, it can also give you a better perspective on the mistakes that lead you to this point. For example, you may be able to see lingering plot elements that made the story drag, and illogical plot sequences that led to potential writing bottlenecks.

When looked at like this, starting from scratch is far from the worst thing that can happen since you won’t exactly be starting from the beginning. You’ll simply be perfecting the first version of your plot.  So having the courage to “start over” will make you a much better writer because you’ll develop the patience and energy it takes to perfect your plot, which will make for a more cohesive and enjoyable story.

(iii) Remember  your “why”

If you feel like your outlined plot is going nowhere, remember why you wanted to tell this story in the first place. What about it resonated with you as a writer that made you go, “Yes, this is a story I need to write.” Sometimes going back to basics like this is necessary to get in touch with your motivation as a writer – your motivation for telling this particular story at this particular time.

Conclusion

Many successful writers take years to write a single novel — and it shows in their quality of their work. Although length of writing time isn’t a criteria for telling a good story; if you’re having trouble formulating your plot, maybe, just maybe, it’s not time for this story.  There’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of other stories to tell.

Get busy plotting one of those.

Your Plot-Writing Process

Do you create a plot before writing a story? Why? Why not? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

About the Author: Luisa Brenton is an educational writer who has over 4 years’ experience in marketing. Her mission is to help people find their way to a balanced lifestyle and cope with everyday assignments successfully. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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