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Friday, April 29, 2011

4. Creating a Good Plot (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 4 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series.

4. Creating a Good Plot
Creating a good plot for a novel is a lot more difficult than you might imagine. It’s one thing having a story in your head, but actually getting it down on paper and turning it into something that is 80,000 words or so is no small task. If you have tried to create a short story as was suggested in the previous article, you already have an understanding of story points. As I wrote before, a short story needs between ten and twenty story points, but a full-length novel is going to need a couple of hundred! Do you have enough ideas to make a story progress through two hundred bullet points?

So how do you get to this place? I like to start simple and expand on it. I start with the ten to twenty story points of the short story type and see what else I can intersperse. Maybe that will get me to forty or fifty, but I will still be a long way short. How do I dramatically increase this number so there are lots of exciting things for the reader to read about?

First it is important to understand that novels of 80,000 words don’t just come from people’s minds on their own. They need planning. Lots of planning. Most writers have an idea for two or three major plot twists and what the ending is going to be. But that’s about it. Hence the ten to twenty story points. The exercise here is to dramatically increase those story points. This is where you need to think of other things that can be happening in your story – the sub-plots. All good novels have sub-plots. Several of them. Maybe they involve the major characters or maybe they involve other minor characters, but there at least has to be some cross-over between main plot and sub-plots. If you watch any good movie on TV you will see this in action. Okay so the movie is boy meets girl; boy dates girl; girl leaves boy; boy has change of heart; boy and girl live happily ever after, but there are a lot of other things that happen along the way. If all movies were simply the plot outlined above, no one would watch the movie. Sure, we know that in the end the boy and the girl will live happily ever after (usually), but it’s the journey there that makes up the movie. Lots of sub-plots are thrown in and these sub-plots are full of conflict, emotion and everything that could possibly go wrong, going wrong. That’s what makes a movie special. It’s no different for novels. Conflict and disaster and emotion keep readers turning pages. The reader wants the happy ending but feels compelled to read through all the drama so that they can get there. Hopefully they stay invested with the main character during this journey as well.

The secret is to add enough story points on top of your twenty to fifty to reach at least a hundred, preferably a hundred and fifty. And I say this because by the time you’ve finished writing you’re going to need all two hundred of those story points, no matter what. At some time you’re going to have to create them. Sure, a lot of fresh ideas will come when you’re actually writing, but you shouldn’t rely on more than fifty percent of the novel coming as you write it. If you do, it may escape from you and turn out to be something very different and not at all what you planned; probably something that really makes no sense at all. You need to be in control of the plot, and not let the plot be in control of you (and this is about plot and not creativity).

Time spent working on creating enough story points before you start writing a single word will pay off with dividends as you write. Using this method you shouldn’t ever get writer’s block because you’ll always know what you’re writing about, and when you suddenly have a new inspiration about a character doing such and such later, you can add it to your already developing story point list. You’ll know where it fits. By the time you get to the end of your novel you should have your two hundred story points.

As a final point, before you start writing, take a look at your story points (plot) and analyze them for things like conflict, disasters, action, narrative, events, people, etc. and try and get a feel for the ebb and flow of the story. A good novel takes the reader through a whole range of emotions and on a roller-coaster type journey. Does your book do that, or is it just a natural progression from beginning to end? The book should start with a conflict or some action, then things can calm down a little if you like, then another major event needs to happen, etc., so that by the time you are about eighty percent through the book, everything looks like it is a complete disaster. Then maybe a couple more twists before you resolve everything on about the last page but one. Tie things up and then finish quickly before the reader has a chance to get bored. Wow, we have a plot!


  1. Good points! I can't believe I'm the first one to comment. I think of story points as beads and the novel is a multistranded necklace. Some beads are bigger and flashier than others, some regularly spaced, others surprising. At some points the strands thread together through a bigger bead (these are the major plotpoints). And you're right, near the end everything comes up to a big mess before it all ties up into your resolution.

  2. With this important work done, I get to concentrate on who said what and who did what, instead of.....what happens next? Sorry, I'm a guy, multi-tasking and me don't mix. I'll trade all day for a decent paragraph or two. As Elmore Leonard says, If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. OK - I'm back to 1000 words and have to reboot. Suddenly I describe my villian's shoes and make him kick somebody. Hard. The Goat-Ripper Case ... a bloody mess.

  3. Can you elaborate on story points? I've written an outline for a story I started 20 years ago in high school but my writing trends to be short. And sci-fi novels are longer than 40,000 words these days. Before I start my (second) first draft, I want to make sure that I have enough story to tell.