5 Plotting Methods for Your Novel

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This is the second in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo. To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

Once you’ve you’ve got an idea for your novel, you need to figure out what is going to happen, and who is going to make it happen (or who it will happen to). These two steps are fluid; they work together to create the overall picture of your novel, and they can happen simultaneously or one by one or in a strange order. It is different for every writer and every project.

This post is for the planner-at-heart. There are 5 different methods here which you can mix, match and customise to work for your project. Don’t worry if you feel out of your depth—the next post in this series will help you create characters that speak to you, which will help you to navigate your outline.

1. Building on your premise

This is a popular, if intensive, method for plotting novels. It entails describing your idea in a succinct way, and then expanding on it over and over to create a multi-page outline. This method applies a structure to building on your previous ideas.

The most well-known version of this is known as The Snowflake Method. This is a useful tool for creating many summaries of your novel of different lengths (which are useful for referencing when pitching your novel), and developing your idea into a novel-worthy outline. However, this method also requires a lot of detail which may take some research to develop, and it isn’t very pantser-friendly. Some writers may prefer using this method to refine their novel in the early editing stages.

2. The post-it note/flash card method

This is both a planner-friendly and a pantser-friendly plotting method. Essentially you write each major event on a post it note or flash card and you keep them on a board. As you add new plot points and your ideas develop, it is easy to reorder or shuffle the old ones, and add new ideas. It’s also possible to colour code by subplot using different post-it notes. If you’re a digital person, this method is also perfect for Scrivener. In Scrivener, you can view every scene as a notecard in the corkboard mode.

It’s easy to do this as either a planner or a pantser. If you’re a planner, you can create your entire outline before you start writing, Michael Crichton-style. But if you’d prefer not to have an outline before you start, you can create one as you go. Once you’ve finished each scene, create a card for it and put it where it fits, rearranging the rest of them as you go.

3.  The timeline method

This method involves writing a chronological timeline for every event in your novel, and may include different columns for different characters or subplots. Of course, it’s not necessary to tell the story in the same exact order as what is on the timeline, but this method is good for keeping track of everything that’s going on. It’s an efficient way to handle simultaneous subplots while making sure that nothing is neglected and everything makes sense.

The great thing about this method is that it is scalable. J.K. Rowling used this method to plot Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but it would work just as well for a simpler novel, or even a full series. It’s also easy to construct; you can go J.K. Rowling-style and use pen and paper, you can use an Excel spreadsheet, or you can find an online web tool or program.

4. The scene-by-scene outline method

This is an intensive and traditional way of planning a novel. Essentially, you create a single document and write down what happens in every scene, what characters are in each scene, where each scene is set, and the major conflict and/or resolution of each scene. The amount of detail you include for each scene is up to you.

Your outline then becomes your bible when writing your novel. It is easy to see where each scene is going, so your writing can be more focussed and efficient. This is a great way to ensure that you’re fully prepared to write before you start, but it also lacks flexibility for less plan-oriented writers.

5. The Three Act Structure/The Hero’s Journey/The Fichtean Curve

This method can work in conjuction with any of the above methods. Through studying the stories humans have been telling for thousands of years, academics have been able to find similarities in popular stories that resonate with their audience. There are lots of theories, many of which are based around the amount of tension or conflict at each point in the novel. Popular models include the Three Act StructureThe Hero’s JourneyThe Storyfix Story Structure Method and The Fichtean Curve (#1 at the link).

The advantage of using one of these pre-set structures is that the outline has essentially already been created for you, and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks. You can also easily study the stories you’ve enjoyed and how they fit in regards to the structure to help you determine what parts of your plot will work and what parts won’t. Be flexible, and make sure not to lose your own storytelling voice to the model.

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