Friday, October 8, 2010

Novel Design: Plot Structure

Novel Design: Plot Structure

plot structure With just 23 days before NaNoWriMo, you should have a nice outline of your story drawn out.

Oops. I got nothing. In fact, I’m working on two completely separate story ideas right now. But plots are coming…I hope.

Anyways, despite the “No plot? No problem.” mantra of NaNoWriMo, constructing the barest outline of a plot can help you immensely.  A roadmap of your novel provides scope and direction for your writing. Having the final outcome in mind allows you to focus on the journey.

Here are some popular methods for plot construction:

Heroes Journey. I’ve written a crapload of posts on this, please read at your leisure. To sum up, Heroes Journey is a 12-step program to construct a novel, based on mythical storytelling. It is perfect for almost any story that involves drama and action, where your Hero transforms from Billy Bob Joe Everyday to Mr. Super Dude, solves a case, falls in love, learns a lesson, or fights the Underworld.


  • Based on thousands of years of storytelling tradition.
  • Defines character types and general obstacles Hero must face.
  • Almost every major motion picture is based on it.


  • It’s not actually a plot, it’s just a collection of somewhat optional elements in a rough but non-binding order
  • It is a little formulaic, makes everything sound like Star Wars or Avatar
  • Specific genres have specific requirements which it doesn’t address (so research your specific genre to find those requirements)

The Snowflake Method. A very intuitive method that involves creating broad strokes and then filling in the details as you go. For instance, start with a one-line description of each chapter. Then a paragraph. Then a page. For each character, do the same. For each setting, etc.


  • Gives an easy drill-down into your story
  • Allows you to work at any level of detail
  • “Pay as you go” writing. Makes the big details right so you don’t write sections that will be deleted.


  • Once again, it’s not a plot. It’s a method.
  • Commits you to the big picture
  • Sometimes the devil is in the small details. Sometimes my best insights into my characters have come from the things they let slip in conversations or small acts.

X-Act Structure. Now we’re talking. 3, 5, 7 act structures are all out there. Also, there are books like “20 Master Plots” that literally explain every possible plot. Let’s face it, there are really no new ideas out there, everything that can be done has been done. But this is good news. This means that the “winning” plots have been identified and are ripe for the taking.


  • Definitive framework to craft your story upon
  • Identifies high and low points such as setbacks, breakthroughs, and ordeals and where they go in your story
  • Proven structures that appeal to readers


  • They don’t help you figure out what your story is about, just how it flows.
  • It’s not a methodology, just a analysis.
  • NaNoWriMo is more about exploration than conformation. Crafting a story is hard work; sometimes it’s better to just write it, then worry about structure during editing.

So I hope that left you more confused than when you started reading this. Personally, I use parts of all three methods. I start with Heroes Journey, writing a few paragraphs about each aspect. Then, using the Snowflake Method, I fill in the details until I have a list of potential scenes. I use 3-Act Structure to define the turning points in the story. Then I write it.

Here’s the other problem I’ve found. Recently in my critique groups, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend for writers to throw everything in their stories, every piece of description and characters they can think of. I’ve been calling it “detail diarrhea.” During the course of plotting and planning your story, you may come up with 2-10 times the number of great ideas more than you can use in the story, and then when you actually sit down and write it, double those figures again. Ideas happen.

My final piece of advice is to plot small. Heading into NaNoWriMo, plan for a story somewhat smaller than what you’d like. Perhaps fewer subplots, a reduced cast, not as many settings. Recently, I came up with a list of everything Sophia must achieve in Steam Palace:

Sophia must find a way to rescue Viola, restore Thomas’ honor, convince Ghost to join their cause, locate the mythical Sea Key, and fight off her country’s invaders before war claims the remnants of a once-proud kingdom.

That’s even an edited-down list, and it’s TOO MUCH. If I had that in my original planning document, I’d probably freak out. Give your character ONE GOAL to achieve during the course of the story, otherwise you' may dig yourself a huge hole that 200,000 words won’t fill.

Good luck!


  1. I guess I didn't follow any design structure - I just wrote down 1-5 sentence paragraphs describing scenes as they occur, from beginning to end.

  2. @Alex: Any amount of planning is good. :)
    Besides, sometimes I feel like I can plan until the cows come home, but the book only happens when I actually write it. But, for instance, with The Immortals I got stuck because I have no concept of where the story is going, which is why it's on hold until I can figure out the overall plot.
    The question is how do you balance things? You don't want to get stuck, but you also want to be creative.

  3. Balance is a huge issue, one I am currently working on. I think it's a learning process. My last book actually didn't get written because I over plotted it to death, so I felt no need to actually write the darned thing. The book prior to that was not planned enough, so I never finished it.

    Right now I am trying to have the best of both worlds. I have a few crucial scenes figured out for the beginning, middle, and end of the book, but there are large gaps where I don't know what is going to happen. Hopefully this will be a good middle ground. Good luck!

  4. I plant to seat-of-my-pants it almost 100%. We'll see what happens. :)

  5. @Elizabeth: Yeah, I find a level of diminishing returns on my plotting effort. But having a general outline can really be a boon.

    @Spock: Nice. Can't hurt.

  6. Great post. I use all three methods as well. After rough sketching my initial idea in about 5-6 sentences I wondered if I had enough powder in the story keg to mold it into a full novel. Then I sat down, began writing, and BOOM! I have WAY too many options/goals for my characters which - like you said - is totally overwhelming. Here's to one goal! :)

  7. You've made me nervous. I am taking part in NaNoWriMo for the first time with the hope that it will propel me into the writing I want to discover for myself. I don't know yet what I can really do beyond some children's story ideas. I'm going into this, so far, with no set ideas, no organized plan - nothing more than the hope that once I begin a story will take shape. I guess that would make me what they call a "pantser"?

  8. @Brandy: In my first draft, I had my character so focused on one goal that it left little room for growth. She became almost a tyrant about achieving it. So maybe a multi-goal approach is better, where the character starts small and then adjusts as they grow.

    @Lynn: Sorry. :) It's hard to create advice that works for everyone--this is tailored for maybe people who have been through NaNo a couple times and want to maximize their effort. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with sitting down on Nov. 1 with only a vague idea in your head and then cranking out 50,000 words. Plenty of people have done it. For my first NaNo in '07, I had a document with about 500 words of notes, no outline or anything, and I wound up with 63K words.
    So advice is just between now and November, put whatever ideas or thoughts you have down on paper and don't worry too much about the process.

  9. I'm a new follower and this is my first time doing NaNo. Thank you for this post. It is very helpful!

  10. I'm a new follower, writer and NaNo participant. My sister directed me to your website. Thank you for this post, it is definitely helpful. Outlining seems to be one of my biggest struggles.

  11. Check out all my NaNoWriMo goodness here:
    Includes a 4-part series on what to do during NaNoWriMo.

    @Patricia: Thanks!

    @Regina: Think of your outline as a roadmap. Note that there's usually more than one way to any destination, some scenic, some more direct. When you are writing, just follow whichever road seems best, but always keep the destination in mind. Always drive to the ultimate conclusion, but it doesn't have to be a straight line.

  12. NICE comparison chart of the methods of outlining! I'm a pantser who's begun to plot more (the horrors) and this was a great post. I'm also a fan of the Hero's journey, since I come from the world of playwriting and screenwriting.

    Have a great NaNo!


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