Trying to figure out how to plot a novel, and not sure where to start? One thing’s clear – if I didn’t draw up a story outline before drafting, my narratives would fizzle away into nothing. No character arcs. No pacing. No flow. No meaning. Nuffink.
All writers need to find their own way (we all think differently, so it stands to reason that we write differently too), but most writers benefit from some story plotting first, even if it’s to keep them on course while they sow seeds and reap what grows along the way.
So I’m going to lay out exactly how to plot a novel – or at least, how I do it, and hopefully it’ll help you start plotting the story you need to tell. I’ve included a few different styles of novel outline templates to help, no matter how you like to map things out.
So, got an idea for a story and ready to chug out a first draft? Here’s my step by step guide to how to plot a novel (it’s a bit weird) and a few novel outline templates to help you:
Step 1: What’s your story?
What story do you want to tell? WRITE STUFF DOWN. Anything, at this point. What it’s about, what happens to the characters, the setting. If you can – try to write a bit of a blurb for it. Your ideal ‘book back cover’ summary. Even better – summarise your story in one key line.
Now, break your story down into three elements:
Ask questions of your summary.
What is your story going to be really about? Is it love, betrayal, time? What point are you trying to make with your story? Literary novels deal with heavy themes ranging from the universal to the very niche, but even plot-based novels need to be about something.
This is when you start thinking about the journeys your characters will go on. I’ll go into this a little more in the next section, but ultimately your character needs to learn something by the end of the story, or have been changed on their ‘return home’.
b) Character arcs
What is your protagonist striving to achieve? What is their goal? Whether they achieve their goal (they don’t have to) will shape their character arc – their personal journey.
It doesn’t matter how action-packed your story will be, if your character doesn’t change, a reader will be left thinking ‘Oh, OK then.’ Even if there’s no external change to their lives, there needs to be an internal shift, even if its to darkness.
Is there an antagonist? This might be an enemy, or someone close to the protagonist. But the protagonist could also be a ‘thing’ – it could be the environment (like in ‘The Martian’), or an object (like the One Ring in ‘The Lord of The Rings’). There needs to be a protagonist, because there needs to be struggle.
A few years ago, I thought I’d invented a unique way to draw out character arcs and narratives, but turns out Kurt Vonnegut beat me to it (I should have known). Look up Kurt Vonnegut’s the Shape of Stories for a full breakdown, but essentially, it’s a timeline of your protagonist’s emotional swoops. Imagine your character’s journey as a line graph, and you’ll see something interesting develop.
Here’s a little example of two of Kurt Vonnegut’s graphs:
Give it a go with your protagonist’s journey and see what happens.
c) Plotting your story
I do love a graph. In the same way as Vonnegut’s Stories, I draw out the entire plot on a graph, marking periods of tension, crisis, upturns, and downturns.
(If you’re not a visual thinker, try doing this in a list or a spreadsheet. Whichever method helps you! Never follow advice that feels unnatural. You need to find a way of outlining that suits you.)
I bring out the old colouring pencils and giant paper and try to get as much down on one place as I can. This story outline example maps out the typical story route, but there are lots more, and this can be as unique as you like:
Need a bit of structure? Most stories follow this simple pattern:
- Character introduction
- Status quo
- Initiating incident
Write one line under each heading when you’re plotting your story. A quick google search and you can find examples of well-known story outlines planned out in this way.
Are there any subplots? Add in one or two other subplots that keep a reader intrigued or perhaps even shine a light on a different element of your key plot. Back to ‘Lord of the Rings’ – the main plot would be Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom, and the subplot would be Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s travels.
Map the subplots on the same graph as your main plot to see how the peaks and troughs match up, or complete the same ‘one line under each heading’ exercise for the subplots too.
Here’s a little novel outline template to simplify it all for you:
At this point really don’t worry too much about detail. You just need a framework, because when you start writing and filling in the blanks you might need to mix things up, add in new twists and turns. Sometimes characters take you in directions you never expected.
Map out your characters
I do as much work on characters as I can at the beginning, but I stay flexible enough to change their histories or add to their quirks as I go along.
Set up a Pinterest boards for each character, and pin actors with the same ‘look’, or clothing, or even just images or things that remind you of your protagonists. Do this for all of your cast and you’ll have a nice little reference bank to come back to when you’re writing your first draft and you’ve lost your way.
I also find it useful to start a little mind map of character connections, and keep adding to it as I write my first draft. This becomes a key resource for reminding myself of all the characters I’ve introduced to the story, who they are, their key traits, and how they’re all connected. Include as much or as little as you want to, even down to eye colour, accents, and ambitions.
Plan your setting
I’ve written a full guide to how setting affects a story, so take a peek. For now, I’ll just say that having a clear idea of your setting now will help you endlessly further down the road. You’ll be consistent with descriptions of place, atmosphere, and tone, and will minimise all the fiddly continuity errors later
Once you’ve mapped out these story elements and spent a little time plotting your story, you’re ready to write your first draft! Hopefully these novel outline templates and story outline examples have helped you to learn how to plot your novel. Plotting a story doesn’t have fit strict criteria – the most important thing is to have an idea of the plot elements, who your characters are, and why you’re writing the story in the first place.
Remember to have all these notes to hand while you’re writing, and don’t’ be afraid to change things as you go and inspiration strikes. Looking for more advice on how to plan, structure, and edit your novel? Find out more in my guide to how to be a writer.