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2/8/2014: Plotting Through the Middle

1/18/2014: Who's Telling The Story?

1/21/2013: Supporting Characters

8/1/2012: The Ins and Outs of Publishing

7/1/2012: Plotting Along

6/1/2012: Advice for Aspiring Writers

Letters from the Editor
Plotting Along

Writing a novel is hard. It is for me, at least. I spent a year and a half working out the details of my first novel, and in the end I felt it could have been better. With six months of planning for my second novel, I feel a little better about that one. Still, it is a struggle for me to stay on track.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time researching tips and tricks for writing good stories. Here is what I’ve taken away from all of that research.

In a nutshell, I’d say that a story is:

People overcoming obstacles and completing tasks to achieve one or more goals.

You start with people the audience can care about. The goal is the point of the story. The obstacles and tasks create the story, while overcoming the obstacles and completing the tasks keep the story going.

Take the information in this article as far as it suits you. There are two spots I’ve marked as "At the very least" that you should pay attention to, but all the rest are optional suggestions that can assist with writing your story.


Every resource that I’ve read about writing stresses the characters. You have to know your characters. The better you know them the easier the story is to write. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of writers’ block comes from not knowing your characters.

At the very least, you need a protagonist and antagonist, both of whom have strengths and weaknesses. The protagonist will need internal and external conflicts that complicate achieving the goal. Take some time to define these two, and include some basic demographics: height, weight, hair and eye color, race and ethnic background, relationship status. A quick and easy way to build a balanced personality for your character is to use an enneagram chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enneagram_of_Personality). Note that this is a suggested guide to get you started; feel free to experiment to make your character more real.

If you want to add some depth to your characters, consider writing a few paragraphs on their backstory - their history. This information will influence how they react to situations in the story.

Your story may also include supporting characters that may help, hinder or remain neutral. A supporting character is not necessarily a person - it could be the weather or an animal or an inanimate object.


Before discussing methods for plotting your story, it would be helpful to know what style of story you want to write. There are two basic styles: plot-driven (the story is more important than the characters) and character-driven (the characters are more important than the story). In an article titled "Character-Driven or Action-Driven?" on the Writers Store, author Martha Alderson, M.A. offers a simple test - a 10-point Character Emotional Development Plot Profile. The ease with which you can fill out certain points help to determine your preferred style of writing. The test can be found at http://www.writersstore.com/character-driven-or-action-driven. The 10 points from the website are:

  1. Protagonist's overall story goal
  2. What stands in his/her way of achieving this goal
  3. What does he/she stand to lose, if not successful
  4. Flaw or greatest fault
  5. Greatest strength
  6. Hates
  7. Loves
  8. Fear
  9. Secret
  10. Dream

If points 1-3 are easier, then your writing style is Dramatic Action (plot-driven). If points 6-10 are easier, then your writing style is Character Emotional Development (character-driven).

Next, it helps to have an idea what your story is about and where it’s going.

At the very least, you’ll want to identify goals, obstacles and tasks. Start with three lists - one of goals, one of obstacles and one of tasks. If it helps, take each item and write a short paragraph summarizing each goal, obstacle and task.

If you have the desire to spend more time fleshing out plot points, there are several structures from which to choose.

Screenplay Structures

Even though these are screenplay structures, they can still be useful when plotting a story.

Three Act Structure

Act 1: Establish the characters, their relationships, and world in which they live.

Act 2: Rising action as the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem by overcoming obstacles and completing tasks.

Act 3: Resolution

Five Plot Points

Act 1. Opportunity - The protagonist is confronted with the problem, and the internal and external conflicts are revealed.

Act 1. Change of Plans - The protagonist decides to achieve the goal.

Act 2. Point of No Return - Circumstances force the protagonist continue.

Act 2. Major Setback - A plot twist that makes the situation look hopeless.

Act 3. Climax - Revelation and resolution. The goal is completed or not.

Eight Plot Points

How to Structure a Story: The Eight Point Arc by Ali Hale

The author describes eight chronological plot points which would translate to key scenes in your story. A summary of the eight points from the website are:

  1. Stasis – The “every day life” in which the story is set.
  2. Trigger – Something beyond the control of the protagonist which sparks the story.
  3. The Quest – The journey or effort in pursuit of a goal.
  4. Surprise – Pleasant events, obstacles, complications, conflict and trouble for the protagonist.
  5. Critical Choice – The crucial decision by the protagonist to take a particular path.
  6. Climax – The highest peak of tension in the story.
  7. Reversal – The consequence of the critical choice and climax.
  8. Resolution – Return to a fresh stasis.

How to Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps by Glen C. Strathy

The author describes eight high-concept plot points which act as a guide to the events in the story. A summary of the eight points from the website are:

  1. Story Goal - What your protagonist wants to achieve or the problem he/she wants to resolve.
  2. Consequence - The negative situation or event that will result if the goal is not achieved.
  3. Requirements - What must be accomplished in order to achieve the goal.
  4. Forewarnings - Events that show the consequence is getting closer.
  5. Costs - The sacrifices or pain suffered in order to achieve the goal.
  6. Dividends - The rewards that characters receive along the journey towards the goal.
  7. Prerequisites - Events that must happen in order for the requirements to happen.
  8. Preconditions - Stipulations laid down by certain characters that make it more difficult for the goal to be achieved.

Other Structures

The Story Map from "The Writer’s Compass" by Nancy Ellen Dodd

The author uses the three-act structure as a basis and marks it with high-concept plot points. This is an excellent tool for identifying gaps in the structure of your story.

The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson PhD

The author illustrates an intriguing method for building your characters and plot concepts, starting with a general description of each and gradually adding more detail until you have complete character and plot summaries, as well as a comprehensive list of the scenes that will appear in your story.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Welland

The author presents a very comprehensive method for organizing your notes and outlining your story, covering character, setting, structure, conflict and theme. The book also contains comments from ten other authors who have consented to share their experiences.


Think of a scene as a mini story: it has a beginning, middle and end. There should be an obstacle and/or task and a goal.

The Japanese have a very interesting concept called jo-ha-kyū (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/jo-ha-ky%C5%AB), which roughly translates to "beginning-break-rapid." The idea is to begin slowly, speed up, and then end quickly

A few other good resources:

Create Scenes That Sizzle - 7 Essential Elements by Martha Alderson, M.A.

4 Elements of a Scene by Rob Donoghue

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