Plotting Your Next Novel: Part 2

Phase Two: Organizing

So now I have a document full of chaos, angst, and self-doubt. It's not unlike James Wymore's high school yearbook. Seriously, this document is made of pure, distilled fail. If you don't feel terrible about it, you probably did it wrong.

There is an old saying about movies. I say old, but it was coined by a contemporary film-maker, I just can't remember his name. There are three movies. The one you set out to shoot, the one you shoot, and the one you find during editing. Novels are the same. You'll see in this section that even at this stage, you're plotting, you're actually shooting at a moving target.

But let's get on to the real work. So now I have all my plots listed. Now it’s time to check to make sure they’re complete.

I start by reorganizing them. I often have plots with bits like:

  • MC travels to location one.
  • MC travels to location two.
  • MC travels to location three.

All the important stuff is listed elsewhere. So right now I start by going through each through-line and putting the events in order. Now it will look something like:

  • MC Travels to location one.
  • MC meets bad guys
  • etc.
  • MC travels to location two.
  • MC gets captured by bad guys
  • etc.
  • MC travels to location three.

Once I feel like all my plots are roughly in the right order, I move on to make sure they are all complete.

I have a couple books on stock plots. My favorite is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. This book divides all the plots in the world into twenty basic plotlines. Then it describes what is necessary for each of those plots. From those, I’ve built plot cheat sheets. Something like this:


Type: Forda


Act I

1) Point of Origin

2) Motivating Incident

Act II

3) Character-Changing Obstacle (Repeat as necessary)

4) Act Two Twist

5) Character-Changing Obstacle (Repeat as necessary)

6) End of Act Revelation.


7) Character Revelation: Obtain/Deny.


  • ‘          Make sure that the object of the search draws a deep parallel to the protagonist’s intent and motivation.
  • ‘          Plot should contain a lot of orchestrated movement.
  • ‘          Consider bringing the plot full circle.
  • ‘          Make the character substantially different at the end of the quest.
  • ‘          The object of the journey is actually wisdom.
  • ‘          At least one traveling companion.
  • ‘          Consider including a helpful character.
  • ‘          What the character discovers is usually different from what he sought.

The checklist is paraphrased from one in that book. I recommend buying it.

Anyway. At this point I find all the through-lines that have full plot arcs. For instance, the Overall, the MC the IC, the MC vs. IC and the Love plotlines should probably all have complete arcs with their own twists, revelations, climaxes and resolutions. My plotline on ways of dealing with grief, on the other hand, didn't have an arc, so I left it alone. Another note, you might want to consider trying to attach Forda plots to plotlines with character-motivated drivers (like Manipulation) and Forza plots to plotlines with body-motivated drivers (like action). I haven’t played with that much myself, just an idea I’m kicking around. In one of my books, I think every plotline was Forda. 'Cause I’m hooked on character change.

So I take each of these plot-lines and assign a master plot to it. I then copy my cheat sheet from that plot underneath the through-line and I make sure that everything is there. I check that each of the major events happens (and put the type of event in parenthesis afterward) and I run the checklist on the plot. If necessary, I might copy a checklist item into parenthesis after scenes where I need to remember them. For instance, if I had a pursuit plot, I might have after every item on the plot the following note: (Make sure that the chase is more important than the characters involved.)

When I’m sure all the plot-lines are more or less complete, I move on to the next step.

So how did that turn out this week?

First of all, I used my Cat Saving for Fun and Profit plot point list to assign a structure to my overall plot. I numbered those scenes as heir own chapters and put the target chapter in parenthesis after each point. For instance, my major subplot is supposed to come around chapter 19, but now it's around scene six, so I know that I get to add around thirteen chapters before that point to get the scene in the right place. I'm interested to see how this method works out. (Also, my comedies have very short chapters)

As I built the plots for the next book, they started feeding into and informing each other. As plots developed in my mind, they started to connect. Right off the bat I threw out my master theme, which I thought was about people thriving in conflict. Now if I squint really hard, I can kind of see another theme in there. It has to do with the effects of free will and great power. There might be some god stuff in there.

I agonized about that a bit, but finally decided that I don't need to find it yet. I have enough of an idea to explore it as I write and find that theme organically.

That's not the only time I broke the rules. Be ready to break the rules when you need to. There are some plots that I want to unfold more like a metaphor than a plot with twists. I didn't assign a love story to this one at all... I felt it would be too contrived after everyone ended up happily ever after at the end of the last book. The relationships don't need artificial conflict and the natural place to put in a new one would have undermined the story I'm telling with those characters.

Also, there's a spy plot that still consists of line after line of "Spy Stuff." I intend to riff that one as I go and use it to build course corrections into the greater plot. I've never tried that before, but I feel like this one is going to be tight and I'll probably veer off course from time to time. It might be useful to have room for fixing stuff as I go.

So, it's done. I have my plots. Next week, I see if they fit together or if I'm up in the night.