8 tips for plotting your first novel

8 tips for plotting your first novel

In Expert Tips by Julia Malacoff

8 tips for plotting your first novel

It’s pretty common to be an aspiring novel writer. The thing that keeps most people from accomplishing their goal (or even getting started), however, isn’t finding the concentration, but rather the daunting nature of actually writing a novel. Arguably, one of the most important elements of that process is working out your plot. Here, novel writers share the strategies they use to get plots down on paper.

1. Know which type of writer you are.

Quick question: When you think about the novel you want to write, do you envision an intricate plot? Or, do you hear a character's voice?

There’s no wrong answer, emphasizes Mary Billiter, author of A Man for All Seasons. But knowing whether you’re plot- or character-driven can help you figure out if the plot is really what you should be focusing on first. “If you're a character-driven writer, the voice of your character draws you to the page. If the twists and turns of a riveting plot are the first things that comes to mind, most likely you're a plot-driven writer,” Billiter explains. Of course, a novel needs both characters and a solid plot. Figuring out which aspect to develop first and focus on in your early drafts can make the process feel a lot easier.

2. Create a plot outline.

You might imagine that writing a novel happens by churning out drafts of fully-formed chapters. But nearly all the authors interviewed for this article mentioned working from an outline, or a loose framework for their novel’s plot before they get started on writing the real thing. Chances are, if you take the time to set up the major plot events in an organized way, filling in the rest of the story happens much more smoothly.

3. Work with what you have.

Your outline probably won’t include every plot twist or turn. In fact, some writers start with how they want the book to begin and end, then fill in the rest of the plot based on those two components. Mining what you already know you want to include can be a helpful strategy, according to Kristen O'Neal, author of Lycanthropy and Other Chronic Illnesses “Sometimes it's best to introduce something new, but often, the answer is in a location, character, or clue you've already introduced in another scene.”

4. Try a character exercise.

Telling your story from different points of view can help reveal plot holes and new ways to keep readers guessing. To start, pick a character and start to tell their side of the story, advises Clay McLeod Chapman, author of Whisper Down the Lane and The Remaking. “Now, try picking another character and seeing the same story from their point of view. How does that change the plot? Does it open the story up even more?” You might not use all this material from this exercise in your actual draft, but it can help add depth to your plot or move it forward when you’re feeling stuck.

5. Don’t stick too close to real life.

“If you’re working on your first novel, I can nearly guarantee that some aspects of your story are autobiographical,” says Reyna Marder Gentin, author of Unreasonable Doubts and the forthcoming Both Are True. “Truth may be stranger than fiction, but in most cases, the plot needs to be bigger and more exciting than what actually happened to you.” As you write, instead of asking yourself “is this what happened in real life?” Gentin recommends asking yourself, “does the next twist further the character’s journey in a way that’s gripping?” It’s fine to be inspired by the story you lived, but don’t feel beholden to it.

6. Try starting with the last line of a scene.

Sometimes, the journey to the end of a scene can feel like a long, winding road that’s never going to end. If you’re wondering how you’re going to get all the characters where you need them to move the plot along, try starting at the end. “Have the last line of a scene in mind so you can build toward it, rather than meandering, trying to figure out the point, and getting sidetracked by clever dialogue or detailed scene description,” suggests Alina Adams, author of The Nesting Dolls. “If you know where you're going, it's much easier to get there directly.”

7. Create trials for your characters — but not too many.

“The reader wants to see your protagonist experience significant highs and lows,” Gentin says. “When you’re plotting your novel, you want to keep the rollercoaster motif in mind.” But you don’t want to overdo it. Winning the lottery one day and getting hit by an 18-wheeler the next might be a little over the top. The point: “The downturns in your novel have to be piled on in a way that makes your protagonist’s ultimate triumph feel earned.”

8. If something unexpected happens, go with it.

“As much as I rely on my outline to guide me, and as much as I usually know where I'm heading, I still leave room to surprise myself,” O’Neal says. “The outline is important, but it's not sacred. If something reveals itself to you that you didn't expect, the outline can always be edited.”


About the Author: Julia Malacoff

Julia is a freelance writer and editor who holds a BA in Art History from Wellesley College, and is also a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. Her work experience includes writing, reporting, and editing for top publications, including Shape, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, as well as leading brands like Nike, Aveeno, and Precision Nutrition. She lives in London with her husband and two cocker spaniels. An avid reader, you can find her devouring her book club's latest pick — or anything by Zadie Smith, Blake Crouch, and Jeffrey Eugenides.
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