How To Plot Your Novel

If you’re as dreadful as I am at plotting, you might benefit from this post. I’ve scoured the internet for resources and how-tos, and so present to you the Jessica Maybury Guide to Plotting A Story or a Novel.

Part One: Chuck Wending

I’ve never read anything that Chuck has written. There, I’ve said it. I have, however, read his blog, so that must count for something. And his blog is great. I mean really great. If you’re stuck on any aspect of writing, hit it up and boom! there you are with answers. He wrote a great post entitled 25 Ways To Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story and I suggest you go read all of them. The ones that work best for me are:

Beginning, Middle, End

Write three paragraphs, each detailing the rough three acts found in every story: the inciting incident and outcome of the beginning (Act I), the escalation and conflict in the middle (Act II), the climactic culmination of events and the ease-down denoument of the end (Act III). You can, if you want, choose the elemental changes-in-state you might find at the end of each act, too — the pivot point on which the story shifts. This document probably isn’t more than a page’s worth of wordsmithy. Simple and elegant.


Happy blocks and bubbles connected to winding bendy spokes connected to a central topical hub. Behold: example. You can use a mind-map to chart… well, anything your mind so desires. It is, after all, a map of said mind. Sequence of events? Character arcs? Exploration of theme? Story-world ideas? Family trees? The crazy hats worn by your villains? Catchphrases? Your inchoate rage and shame made manifest? Your call.

Index Cards

Index cards are a kick-ass organization tool. You can use them to do anything — list characters, track scenes, list chapters, identify emotional shifts, make little Origami throwing stars that will give your neighbors wicked-ass paper-cuts. Lay them on a table or pin ‘em to a corkboard. Might I recommend John August’s “10 Hints For Index Cards?” I might, rabbit. I might. See also: the Index Card app for iOS.

The Crazy Person’s Notebook

Once in a while a story of mine demands a hyper-psycho notebook experience. My handwriting is messier than a garbage disposal choked with hair, but even still, sometimes I just like to put pen to paper and scribble. And I sometimes print stuff out, chop it up, and tape it into the notebook. (Example!)


You’re like, “What’s next? A shoebox diorama of the Lincoln assassination?” That’s a different blog post. Seriously, on my YA-cornpunk novel POPCORN, I took a whole corkboard and covered it in images and quotes that were relevant to the work. Then I’d just wander over there from time to time, stare at it, get my head around the story I’m telling and the feel of the world the story portrays. Surprisingly helpful.

See what I mean about how he’s completely fucking awesome? Go read his blog.

Part Two: The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell

What trials unite not only Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins but many of literature’s most interesting heroes? And what do ordinary people have in common with these literary heroes? Matthew Winkler takes us step-by-step through the crucial events that make or break a hero.

I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in college, and it comes ***highly recommended***.

Part Three: Three Act Plot Structure

This one comes from Aristotle, who I also had to read in college. Three is the magic number of plot – not just novel plots, but short story, movie and stage play plots. Every story – every good story, anyway – has a beginning, a middle and an ending, or three distinct and entirely separate phases.

Part Four: The Guardian

I actually quite liked the Guardian’s articles on how to write novels. They’re simple, straightforward and will get you writing in no time. There’s also worksheets.

Part Five: Ruth Long’s Blog

I love Ruth Long’s blog, and her post Writing Process: Beginning in particular. There’s another Ruth Long who’s also a writer, and her blog is deadly as well. She wrote an entire downloadable PDF on planning a novel, but it’s been taken down for editing. It’s highly, highly recommended though, so check out her blog and keep your eyes peeled for an update.

Part Six: Narrative Structure and Subplots

So what about subplot, I hear you ask. What about subplot indeed. What about narrative structure?! If you’re worried about narrative structure, don’t be. This can easily be sorted out using the index card method (in my experience). You just write down each scene (or chapter if you prefer) on an index card and shuffle them around until they make sense. I did this when I was writing A Year of Being Craven and it worked really well.

Part Seven: Scrivener

A lot of people I know use a novel planning piece of software called Scrivener. It comes highly recommended by them, but I have yet to try it out myself. I’m more of a tactile kind of a gal.

win-writing_studioScrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft.

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