How to Plot a Novel: Preparation Before You Write

Posted on Aug 3, 2021

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Written by Gloria Russell

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So! It’s time for you to write your book. 

How are you feeling? Probably some mix of excited and energized. Maybe there’s a little fear there, too. Writing a novel is no small undertaking, after all, and plotting is often one of the most difficult parts. Getting stuck on a particularly difficult scene can take all the fun out of the process and leave you pulling yourself through your draft, which can be really draining creatively. 

There’s no need to be afraid, though! I’ve got some tips and tricks for plotting your novel that will help you keep your momentum, stay creative, and remain energized the whole way through (or, well, most of the way through). We’ll also talk about ways to save time in the plotting process so you don’t get stuck! 

Without further ado, let’s get into it. 

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How to Plot a Novel 

In this section, we’ll talk about how to prep your novel to make the drafting process as seamless as possible. We’ll also go over some tips and tricks for revising your plot after you’ve written it. 

1. Plan Your Novel Before You Write

Making sure you’ve got a solid outline is one of the most crucial steps you can take in making the drafting process as seamless as possible. Some people claim that they can’t work with a detailed outline, or that outlining doesn’t work for them. 

But here’s the thing: an outline doesn’t need to be strict. If you’re drafting and you don’t vibe with your outline, you’re allowed to drift from it. Having an outline, though, means you’ve built yourself a safety net. It doesn’t need to be super detailed, and it doesn’t need to be constricting. It’s meant to be there for you if you get lost along the way, not hold you back from adventuring. 

How can you make sure your outline is set up to guarantee you success? Let’s discuss. 

Brainstorm Your Book 

A good brainstorm gets all of your ideas out of your brain and onto paper. There are a ton of different methods you could try–mind mapping, bullet points, index cards on a wall or a whiteboard–but whatever method you choose, this is a step you shouldn’t skip. 

If you don’t like to outline, a good brainstorm might replace the outline altogether! Also consider using a bookmap to get your ideas out.

Brainstorming gives you the chance to see what you’re working with. It’s easy for ideas to get jumbled or lost up in our heads while we’re working on our draft–that killer idea we had for the climax might slip out when we’re working on the introduction, for example. 

Writing everything out lets us see it, and if we can see it, we can work with it, move it around, and improve it. Make a list of your characters and contemplate their backstory. Fill out a worldbuilding template and let yourself write down the little ideas that come up alongside it. 

The thing is, you’ve got more ideas than you think you do. When you’re stuck on plotting your novel and you think you’ve got no idea where to take it next, turn to your brainstorming document and check out your ideas! 

Map Out Your Plot Points 

Brainstorming might be enough if you don’t love outlining, but for writers who prefer a little extra structure, it might help to map your plot points. 

If you’re not sure where to start with this step, look up a basic plot structure like Freytag’s Pyramid. Almost any story is going to need an introduction, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution–there are exceptions, and these steps will look different depending on your genre, but these are the fundamental blocks of storytelling

Take whichever plot structure you’ve chosen, or even just those core story components, and identify them in your story. Which scenes will make up your rising action? What will your climax look like? 

You can even lump scene ideas into these categories. Maybe you don’t have a specific plan to take you from your rising action to your climax, but you know where it’ll happen on a specific planet or city. Jot it down! 

Know Where You’re Going 

Think about the difference between long-winded TV shows that don’t know when to end versus a tight, compact series. Usually, the difference is that those long-winded sitcoms never had a set ending–they operate on a premise, and they drag that premise out until they have to stop. Something similar happens in our first drafts when we don’t have a clear idea of how the story will end. 

A novel is meant to set up and pay off different plot points. Your climax is meant to be a culmination of the themes and tensions you’ve been building, and your falling action and resolution is meant to tie it all together. It’s difficult to set up something if you don’t know how it’ll pay off, and vice versa. 

How can we avoid this issue? Know where you’re going. It can be as simple as “they live happily ever after,” or “the protagonist wins,” or it can be a detailed epilogue. Either way, now you’ve got something to point your story towards, and that makes a world of difference when you sit down to draft. 

2. Fix Your Novel’s Plot & Look for Plot Holes

Say you’ve already written your novel, and now you’re looking to revise it. A lot of writing advice covers outlining pretty thoroughly, but it can get a little nerve-wracking when it comes to the revisions process. That can be scary, because it turns out that revising is most of the gig, and you need to have some kind of a game plan before you go in. 

Let’s talk about how to avoid spending ages and ages working on revisions. 

Search for Holes 

After you’ve written your draft, go over the scenes you’ve put together. If you’re anything like me, there are going to be a ton of plot holes in your first draft, especially if you’re a discovery drafter and prefer a rough first draft in lieu of an outline. 

Take a look at the scenes you have. Are there places where the transitions from scene to scene feel too jarring? Does the climax feel like it happens a little too quickly, or does it feel like it takes forever to get there? 

Pro tip: while you’re drafting, add notes to yourself if you can tell you’ve got a plot hole. An example might be a comment on a Word Doc that says “make it clear why they decided to kill the shopkeeper.” Then, when you revise, go through and look for those notes–they’re basically instructions to your revising self on what scenes you need to include! 

3. Get Feedback from a Friend or Writing Partner

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what’s missing, especially if you’ve been revising for a while or working on the same project for a long time. In these instances, it’s often helpful to get a writing buddy

Search online for a writing partner to critique your work, or get a friend to look it over for you. Ask them specific questions about the plot: does the climax feel earned and exciting? Does the conclusion make sense? Do some parts of the book drag, or do some parts feel rushed? 

Having an extra set of eyes can really save you time in revisions! 

4. Let Your Novel Rest

When all else fails, it’s time to take a break. 

Sometimes, spending too long on revisions makes us blind to obvious problems. Because it’s a world we know, and because we understand the character motivations, we don’t really see the ways the story we’ve written doesn’t exactly convey the information we intended. 

Put your book down for a minute. Work on something else, if possible. After a few weeks, revisit your manuscript! This is a great step to take immediately after drafting–taking a pause between that first draft and the first round of revisions gives you the chance to step into revisions with a clear head and a more objective framework. 

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Bonus: How to Plot a Novel Quickly 

Now that we’ve talked about how to prep your novel’s plot and fix it in post, let’s go over some tips and tricks for making the plotting process as quick as possible. 

1. Have a Type and Know it Well 

The plot of your novel is going to depend heavily on the genre. High fantasy adventure books come with a different set of expectations than contemporary romances do, for example. 

What genre are you writing? Read widely in that genre and get a feel for what sorts of scenes and plot points you see. You’re not copying the content of these scenes, obviously, but you’re getting a feel for what audiences expect. Romances require a happy ending, and a high fantasy novel often calls for some fight sequences, for example. 

Identify the genre conventions you’re working with, and maybe even check out some online plot templates for your genre. There are plenty of romance beat sheets, for example. You don’t need to follow these to the letter, but they can help you keep an idea of where your novel needs to go. 

2. Know Your Tropes 

Similarly, identifying and working with tropes consciously can save you time in plotting. What are your favorite tropes in movies, books, and TV shows? Are they specific to your genre, or can you work with them across the board? 

Find a way to incorporate these tropes with the plot points in your story. Often, these tropes will write plot points themselves. If you love enemies to lovers, then you already know the beginning and end of the story–they start out as enemies, and they end up as lovers. 

3. Stick to a Formula… Mostly 

What you’re doing here is coming up with a formula. Romance authors in particular have mastered formula, churning out hundreds of stories using the same story beats that readers have come to know, expect, and love. 

You don’t necessarily want to write formulaically, though. A good story isn’t too predictable. But it’s important to know the formula you’re working with and to understand the plot points you’re following. Having a formula enables you to consciously, purposefully break that formula to make your story unique and memorable. Check out this post on writing rules for a quick refresher.

Find a story arc that works for you and find subtle ways to subvert it. Maybe the meet cute is an anti-meet-cute (in the example of enemies to lovers). Maybe the wise old sage character in a high fantasy novel is a young, quirky scientist.

This is a great way to save time plotting your novel, because you aren’t getting stuck trying to overthink a way to be subversive. It’s also a great way to give your reader the tropes and story beats they love and expect when they read from your genre while also giving them a new, interesting, memorable story. 

Do you have tips on how to save time while plotting a novel? Let us know in the comments! 

Want to learn more?

Novel plotting can be hard, and sometimes, having a coach or a community of other motivated and dedicated authors to give feedback and help you reach your goals, is invaluable.

Check out our free resource below for more tips on kickstarting your novel.

If you want to learn more about Self-Publishing School, the authors we help, and the results (a.k.a. books published) of our student authors, you can book a call with one of our Publishing Strategists to learn more about our self-publishing courses for authors! Whether you’re starting out writing your first novel or planning a series, we can help!

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