Greetings, all. I have emerged from the other side of the sickbed at last. Well, actually, I emerged a couple of weeks ago, but it took some time to get back on my feet. In case you missed my tweets or Instagram posts, I was taken out by a nasty flu for two weeks, throwing off my productivity and scattering it to the wind. This was discouraging, especially because I really did (and do) intend to keep up with this series more frequently, rather than one blog post per month, as has been my habit in the past. Now, finally, I can share the writing/craft advice I meant to share with you a month ago: how to plot your novel.
A disclaimer before we begin: there is no one way to plot your novel. Plotting “properly” is dependent on a lot of different factors: what type of story you want to tell, what you value about a story, whether you’re writing commercial genre fiction or literary fiction (or a blend of these), whether you’re a first-time author or a more established one (yes, this matters–more established authors are allowed to break more rules), and even what part of the world you’re from (for instance, Western and Eastern stories sometimes approach plot in ways that are very unalike from one another. Compare the structure of any Disney movie with that of a Studio Ghibli film). As I go through my pieces of advice, I will do my best to accommodate all of this–and, in cases where that isn’t possible, discuss the exceptions. Also keep in mind that I write YA fantasy with a literary bent, so that is where most of my experience lies.
I’m excited to be discussing plot today, because plotting used to be one of my weaknesses. I’m proud of how far I’ve come since I started my first novel several chapters too early and inserted random, embarrassing scenes because I worried chapters weren’t long enough. No lie, I once had a chapter end with my main character being chased down the street by “scary men” because I couldn’t think of how else to end the chapter. They never showed up again and it had no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The obstacle was also easily overcome, as the police happened to be driving by and swiftly apprehended them. My character, barely fazed, then turned her attention to a clumsy bit of foreshadowing: a cat in a shop window that had hair and eyes matching those of my main character’s future love interest. Ten years later, I’m mortified over how many people I let read this.
But writing is, much of the time, about trial and error. This was just one of the many growing pains I had to undergo to improve. You will have your own. Hopefully, though, you can learn from my mistakes and make the most of your plotting process by applying the following tips. Enjoy!
Tip #1: Figure Out If You’re A “Pantser,” “Plotter,” Or Somewhere In Between
First, some definitions. A “plotter” is someone who outlines their story, who knows the beginning, middle, and end of their tale before writing the first scene. A “pantser,” meanwhile, is someone who dives in with maybe a vague idea of what the novel will be about and runs with it. The pantser may have no clue where their story is headed, how it ends, what subplots will emerge, etc. Something I’ve noticed anecdotally: plotters tend to enjoy the drafting stage more, whereas pantsers, for whom first drafts are more uncertain, are more likely to find fulfillment in their story during revisions. This is not always the case, though.
As with any binary, many people fall somewhere between the two extremes. Though I lean more towards plotter, I’ve learned I’m a combination of both. I write loose outlines for my stories, aware of the primary things that need to happen during the plot. Then I fold up the outline, stuff it somewhere safe, and try not to look at it ever again. I guess that means I memorize plot points and hold them in my head until they’re unleashed onto the page, which, now that I think about it, is probably not a universal skill. I’m privileged to have a good enough memory that I don’t need a reference to look at. As I write, I understand a few key things based on experience with myself: 1) most or all of my scenes that serve as transitions between plot points will be made up on the fly, 2) some of the plot points written in the original outline will not happen in the order I originally planned, 3) scenes mentioned in the outline may be deleted before they can be written, because I’ve realized there’s no space for them, and 4) never, under any circumstances, should I impose any of the characters’ emotional arcs onto the outline.
Let’s focus on that last one for a moment. In the past, I’ve tried to write emotional arcs into outlines, and time and time again, I’ve seen my characters reject what I’ve planned for their emotional journeys. For example, in my third novel, I uprooted one character’s understanding of his life up until that point in a traumatic way. During the outline, I designated a certain amount of time he would spend coping, which was important, because this character’s overall demeanor was certain to impact the plot. Ideally, I didn’t want him moping when I needed him to focus on a government mission or whatever.
But once I reached the point where he was supposed to suck it up, it didn’t feel at all natural. It was as if this character saw my intentions and snapped back with, “Are you kidding me? Do you realize what happened to me? You want me to just get over it?” He continued to act downtrodden long past the point he was supposed to, leading me (and my characters) to worry. Gone was my primary comic relief character, and the leading cause of laughter in the other characters’ lives. Gone were the easy jokes that usually felt so effortless for this character. The mood of the novel warped to keep up with his grief. It reminded me that, just as in life, characters are not always going to feel up to certain tasks. A writer who cares about keeping their characters authentic will adjust the plot to accommodate this. The novel is often better for it, too. The character’s prolonged depression resulted in one of the best scenes I’ve ever written. And I realized that for this character, whose story was part of a four-book series, there was no “going back to the way things were.” He was forever changed. This traumatic event would have to linger in him, past the end of book three and throughout the final novel (which I still have yet to finish).
What does this mean for you? It means that, unfortunately, you’re going to have to fail a few times before you figure out which category you belong in, or what version of a mixture describes you. Do what feels natural. Try both. Keep doing new things until you find a process that works for you. If something doesn’t feel right, stop doing it and try something else. The reason I never read my outlines after writing them is because I tried outlining scene-by-scene once, and it leeched away my creativity. I became too dependent on my outline, leading to stilted writing. But maybe that approach will work for you.
Tip #2: Understand The Conventions Of Your Genre
Ahh, genre. I have a complicated relationship with genre. On the one hand, it is important that it exists. People gravitate towards certain genres and seek out familiarity there. People want to know generally what to expect when they buy a book. Genre can also foster communities that spring up around them. The first novels I wrote were about teenagers and magic, and since I ended up wanting to stick with that, I’m happy that I can call myself a “YA fantasy writer” and have people know what that means without further explanation. On the other hand, if you immerse yourself too deep in your genre, you run the risk of…well, not taking risks. It’s easy to limit yourself if you define your writing by a certain category, e.g. “I can’t write a story about that, or include [x] plot element, because I’m a [insert genre here] writer.” There is a fine balance to strike here. Know where you stand, but don’t let that hold you back.
Side note: keep in mind that if you want to invent a new genre entirely, or a new fusion of two genres, or innovate within your genre in a dramatic way, this is much more difficult for first-time authors. Like I said, it’s a risk–agents and editors might be hesitant to take on an author who can’t be clearly categorized. There are of course exceptions, but remember that genre-bending in large ways is easier to do when you already have a following. I do advise new authors to bring something new to the table, however. You don’t want to come off as a carbon copy of whatever’s popular, and frankly, if you’re doing absolutely nothing original, that’s an insult to both your readers and to your writing.
All this aside, it is important that when you plot your story, you know what plots are common in your genre and what readers expect to find in it. Again, this requires balance: you don’t want your story to be too similar to what’s out there, but you also don’t want to stray too far from what makes your genre what it is. Your instinct may be to cry, “Don’t put me in a box!” But think about this: imagine you’re in the mood for a fluffy romance and then halfway through, it turns into S.A.W. Suddenly, you’re reading about people running from some chainsaw-toting asshole in a mask when all you wanted was some cute flirting and first-kiss buildup. This isn’t to say that a single reader can’t enjoy both of these genres, but not everyone is a fan of this brand of crossover, and it may dissuade the reader from picking up another of your books. You want to give readers something close to what they signed up for, even if it isn’t exactly what they expected (which is inevitable–you can’t judge everything about a book from the back cover copy).
Once you gain a following, feel free to delve into your slasher novel masquerading as a romance meant to provide poignant commentary about how readers take genre conventions for granted. But if you’re a first-timer, know that this sort of thing is a long shot.
Tip #3: Plots Need Conflict; Scenes Need Tension
From what I understand, the idea that plots thrive on conflict is a pretty Western notion. Again to use Studio Ghibli, there is little obvious conflict in Totoro until the climax, yet it is a beloved film with well-deserved popularity that has persisted over decades. But generally, if you’re writing in the Western world, and particularly if your story falls into the commercial fiction category, your plot is going to need an overall conflict, as well as rising action, a climax, and possibly falling action. I’ve noticed that in YA, especially in books that intend to release a sequel, falling action is not a requirement, since it allows for an abrupt cliffhanger. This isn’t to my personal tastes, but it’s good news for those of you who enjoy ending stories very suddenly.
When you outline–or, if you’re a pantser, when you revise–make sure that, throughout the novel, there is something at stake for your main character. Make sure they have a primary, overarching goal in mind, even if they also have smaller, separate goals within the book. Make sure to give them plenty of obstacles to get in the way of this goal, and don’t make much of anything easy on them–force them to work for what they want. Keep them hurtling towards this goal and keep raising those stakes until you reach the climax. Afterwards, bring the story to a satisfying conclusion in a chapter or two. If you don’t have an agent yet, pinning this information down as early as possible is extremely helpful, and saves you pain later down the line. I didn’t know any of this when I wrote the first novel I would end up querying, so to write my query letter, I had to work backwards. I had to figure out what my character wanted and what her stakes were, and through this analysis, I learned that 1) her stakes weren’t high enough and 2) she spent most of the novel fighting things she didn’t want rather than pursuing something she did want. Some of this was fixable in revisions. Some of it wasn’t. It doesn’t mean it was a bad story, but it did mean that the book’s plot wasn’t as strong as it could be. It also made the plot more difficult to explain, which isn’t ideal when you’re trying to sell a book.
When it came to my most recent novel, then, I composed the query letter before I started writing the book. As a teenage writer, I would’ve thought this was heresy–“How can you know the soul of a book before it’s written??”–but it actually helped me focus the stakes and move the characters toward their goal. In the end, I had a much cleaner, much shorter novel than usual, which was crucial for me, since my novels tend to run overly long. I highly recommend this method for people who find their plots meandering from one plot point to the next. If you absolutely need to get out scenes that don’t relate to the story’s main conflict, write those in a separate document. That way, you can get it out of your system without having to confront the pain of cutting them from the novel later. It also might serve as a good character building exercise, which can aid your understanding of your characters.
What about tension? I alluded earlier to cutting scenes that aren’t related to your story’s primary conflict, but I don’t think every scene like this needs to be cut, so long as it 1) serves some other vital purpose and 2) has tension. With every scene you write, make sure something is at odds with something else. If the characters are sitting around eating breakfast, are they silently stewing over some interpersonal issue that’s about to boil over? Is one character distracted from the otherwise mundane discussion, leading the others to ask her what’s wrong? Does one character have a crush on the boy next to him, and he’s trying to balance the conversation with how overwhelmed he is? That last one, romantic tension, is a good example of tension that can carry a scene even if it isn’t linked to the main plot. If absolutely nothing is going wrong or is at stake in this breakfast scene, whether externally or internally, then it probably doesn’t need to be there. Examine each scene closely for this problem, especially expositional scenes that you placed there to provide information to the reader. My rule: don’t write purely expositional scenes unless at least one person is upset, preferably more than one. And make sure you’re able to show that emotion.
Tip #4: Pull Your Reader Toward The End With An Unanswered Question
This is a technique I learned by reading widely and by paying attention to which stories had me voraciously turning the pages: put forth an unanswered question, make a big deal about it, and don’t answer it until as late in the game as possible. It can be central to the plot, but it doesn’t have to be. This can be particularly helpful for stories that aren’t necessarily action-packed. If you write literary fiction but you want to hold a reader’s attention, I’d recommend this approach.
If you’re not sure what I mean, here’s an example. I recently read a beautiful YA novel called We Are Okay by Nina LaCour. It was quiet, literary, and not much happened plot-wise, but I sped through it. What kept me reading? The book follows Marin as she grieves her grandfather, the one parental figure she had left and who died shortly before she moved across the country for college, plunging her into a suffocating depression. You discover these details early, but the novel is careful not to reveal how Gramps died. Furthermore, you slowly learn that Marin isn’t just mourning her grandpa. It’s clear something else happened around the time of his death, something terrible and shameful. Something involving him. You don’t figure out what this is until the novel is almost over. Even though the characters weren’t doing much besides reminiscing, watching the snowfall, and visiting ceramics shops during the plot, I kept thinking What happened with Gramps?? What messed her up so badly? TELL ME! Even better, LaCour kept teasing the reader, waving the promise of an answer in our faces before snatching it back. It sucked me in.
Of course, with this approach, you’d better come up with an excellent twist if you’re going to withhold it until the book is practically finished. I’ve been disappointed by novels that kept me reading until the reveal and didn’t deliver a twist that matched the buildup. If there’s a component to your plot that’s intriguing but couldn’t bear the weight of the whole story, maybe don’t make that your unanswered question. Plenty of questions left unanswered in the beginning can be revealed in the middle, or earlier, and provide adequate tension on their own.
It’s also not a requirement that your unanswered question be a mind-blowing twist, or a twist at all. It can be something as simple as a loose end that wasn’t wrapped up during the climax. In my latest novel, the reader is left wondering about one character’s fate and about the main character’s relationship to her, even as the climax reaches its conclusion. I used this unanswered question to support my falling action chapters. Just because the drama has reached its peak doesn’t mean you want your readers to lose interest. Give them one last treat.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope it will help you with your future plotting endeavors. Before I go, I wanted to mention that I’ve set up a donation page for anyone who enjoys my blog/this Writes and Crafts series and wants to show their support monetarily. If you are able to donate, I sincerely appreciate it!
Have further questions on this topic, or wanna suggest what my next Writes and Crafts topic should be? Let me know in the comments!
Or: have a more long-form writing question that you want a direct answer to? Feel free to hop into my Tumblr ask box!
Thanks for reading!
*Avatar by Charlavail