How to Structure Your Plot

Planning a novel can be a little intimidating, particularly if your ideas are only vague images in your head, and you are a spontaneous person. Perhaps you’ve got the beginning of the novel in your head and a glimpse of the ending. The climax is what sparked the idea in the first place, and you want to work toward that. But how? What about the middle? How are you going to fit all the pieces together to make a cohesive story?

First of all, calm down. One question at a time. You probably learned basic plot structure in elementary school: the pyramid with the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion. It’s time to dispense with that forever and advance to the Next Level.

Think of your story as an onion with many layers. The top layer is the most basic way to organize a plot: beginning, middle, and end. Under that layer, you have the Inciting Incident, the Call to Action, the Journey, and so forth. As you break the story down into smaller and smaller pieces, it will begin to appear less intimidating.

Pull out a pen and paper. Write what your story is about. It can be a sentence, a paragraph, or several pages. Jot down every idea you have regarding your plot, such as the climax, a random fight scene, the killer ending, and so forth. These are some of the puzzle pieces you’ll want to put together. Here are some pieces I can conjure from the top of my head regarding the Liquid Death story-line:

  • Kandi is tortured by her father.
  • Juan is forced to watch Destiny die.
  • Kandi has a breakdown at school.
  • Juan meets Time.

Now all of these events obviously fit on a timeline, and it’s up to me to decide where. Kandi is tortured by her father as a child, and since the story begins when she’s nineteen, I’ll need to reveal those scenes in flashbacks. Same goes for the second point. The third clearly must occur before the fourth.

This is why many authors use the “storyboard method”; they compose their outline with sticky notes and paste them to board, where they can move the scenes around as they write, giving them structure and flexibility. Since I like to work chronologically, I’ll typically outline from beginning to end and let the pieces fall where they may.

Anyway, how do you know you’re putting your story together properly? Maybe you’re trying to fit a piece where it looks like it should belong but doesn’t. No problem. You can move it later, if needed.

The easiest way to structure your story is by chapters. Chapters are like mini novels within your novel. They should each include a hook, inciting incident, rising action, a tipping point, a climax, and a cliffhanger/conclusion/segue into the next chapter. To ensure your story is as cohesive as possible, each scene must be lead into the next like a row of dominoes. I try my best to achieve this by coming up with a scene, then asking, “so then what happens?” I do this chapter by chapter. Don’t leave too many scenes in your novel that would occur with or without the events that preceded them. Those scenes are irrelevant and tend to be skipped by readers.

There are many resources you can find online about plot structure, and the sheer number can be overwhelming. My advice is to read more books and get a feel for how stories are structured, especially the kind of stories you want to write. I’ve always played it by ear. I can feel where the screws are loose in my plot. I would not recommend printing out a blueprint for your plot and filling it out, as that can make your story too rigid and force you to alter it so it fits.

To summarize (5 tips):

  1. Write down all of the ideas/events you would like to include in your story.
  2. Organize those ideas based on chronology and relevance.
  3. Fill in the gaps as you outline/write your novel.
  4. Tighten the most essential plot elements: the hook, the turning point, the climax, etc.
  5. Make sure every scene is important enough that removing it would cause the story to collapse in on itself.
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Do you have questions? Please comment down below, and I’d be happy to answer them! 👇

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