Structuring Your Plot and Story Outline

Once you choose your genre, you’ll want to come up with an overall storyline. Authors are all different as to how much detail they like to map out ahead of time, so you’ll have to see what works best for you.

Some people like to basically brainstorm a beginning, middle and end – while others want to organize an entire story chapter by chapter for the events that will unfold.

Regardless of how you manage your project, give yourself flexibility to alter your original plans along the way. Sometimes your most brilliant ideas will appear out of nowhere in the middle of a writing session, and it would be a shame to silence that voice out of loyalty to a strict pre-made plan.

Plot development might come before or after you think about your characters. Some writers see a character in their mind first and then create a story for that character to be in.

Others come up with a basic story first and then later develop characters to fill the roles they have for the plot development. Either way is fine – it’s all about whatever works for your own creative process.

What Makes a Good Plot?

The thing you want to achieve as a writer is to have your reader so engrossed in your book that they can’t bear to put it down. They hate sleeping – because it interferes with the reading of your novel.

A good plot can do that for you. It ushers readers from one scene to the next, leaving them wanting more and satisfying them with every step they take toward the end.

A good plot has to have action – and that doesn’t necessarily mean guns blaring. It just means the characters are going through things (emotional, physical – whatever) that cause a reaction in the reader.

There are two elements in a plot that contribute to its success. Those are the events that take place, and the people it happens to. As a writer, you want a series of events to unfold, and you want the characters to grow or change because of what happens.

Bad Problems Are Oh So Good

Normally in life we try to avoid problems. They cause stress, right? But in a novel – they’re what helps the story evolve into something readers latch onto. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing – problems are profitable.

Even Romance novels have a problem – boy meets girl, there’s an attraction but something goes wrong, and they have to get passed the problems in order for them to live happily ever after.

The reader has to be rooting for the main characters to overcome their obstacles and triumph in the end. Or, in the case of horror, to possibly succumb to their inevitable demise.

The problems aren’t usually dumped onto the reader right at the very beginning. The issues are revealed the way you peel an onion – one layer at a time. The problem might grow into something bigger for the climax of the story.

Your genre will determine what kind of problems your characters face. Sometimes it’ll be an event, like a bomb blast, or a situation where it’s revealed that the character has discovered something from his or her past.

Sometimes there will be a clash of personalities. This is more of an internal problem, whereas a survival situation (like an airplane crash) would be an external problem.

The internal struggle your character faces as he or she deals with the other obstacles is just as important as the events they’re dealing with. You, as an author, have to show that struggle and how the characters overcome the problems in their hearts and minds.

Don’t believe that your protagonist has to embody a flawless personality, either. Everyone has flaws – and your main character can exhibit some problems that other supporting characters have to deal with too.

Beginning, Middle and End

As you start on your journey to map out a plot, you might start at the beginning or the end. Few authors map out the middle first, but if you do, there’s no harm in that. You might start out thinking about a “what if” scenario.

What if…

· …a teenage girl was involved in a love triangle with a vampire and a werewolf? (Twilight)

· …a rich entrepreneur seduced a young literature college student and they had a dark romance? (Fifty Shades of Grey)

· …a wife is murdered at the time of her anniversary and the husband acts guilty, but isn’t? (Gone Girl)

There is no end to what you can come up with when you utilize a “what if” scenario. But what happens when you don’t have any ideas developing?

You can draw from real life events to create a fiction story. Go to any news website and start looking at the stories. If you’re looking for crime, there will be a plethora of options.

But you can also find feel good stories, too. You don’t need to copy the story verbatim. Just use it as a springboard for an idea. For example, if you read a story about a girl who gets her arm bitten off by a shark and ends up succeeding as a surfer again, you can take the idea of overcoming a physical devastation and work it into something completely different.

Maybe your character is paralysed by a drunk driver or is the victim of domestic abuse – and ends up succeeding after undergoing lots of physical and/or mental therapy.

The beginning of your novel doesn’t have to be backstory. In fact, most beginnings are just present tense situations – whatever is happening to the character right that second.

Use the middle to show how your character’s life is affected by events and personalities and allow it to build into the crescendo of your ending.

In most cases, the story will need to wrap up neatly so that your reader either firmly knows or can guess where the future will take the character. If you’re doing a series, then it’s okay to leave the reader uninformed to some degree, but the story should still satisfy them.

When you craft your plot from beginning to middle to end, make sure you have changes that turn things upside down. Use situations that get worse over time. Or just as the protagonist thinks it’ll all be okay; their world is turned upside down and they have to struggle to recover once again. Your plot shouldn’t be predictable to the reader. Surprise them with twists and turns they may not have anticipated.

(This article is an excerpt from Quick Guide to Writing and Publishing Fiction)

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