Well, that should be easy, no? You have a great story idea, already stringing together what happens through plot points, both major and minor. But when plotting a novel, how do you know which one will actually sell?
Tried and true methods do exist. Though plots vary a bit through genres, they all come back to the writer having a firm grasp on structure. And while new scribes especially tend to chafe at this, thinking creativity will be hampered, as a book editor who’s been in these trenches for nearly 30 years, I can guarantee you the opposite is true.
Mastering, and knowing internally, the arc of the storyline, frees your creativity to soar.
Why? Because you don’t have to worry about racing far off track only to be faced with revising huge sections.
Believe me—I’ve been there myself in the early years. Many of us write from discovery, having a notion of our characters, of the beginning and perhaps the end, and then get lost at times in between.
Then only in revision, once some time has passed, we see that whoa! We went to China when we should have gone to Brazil. Or, never came back to whichever continent or planet we started from.
But what successfully published authors learn, which serves them from here to eternity, is to internalize that structure, so it’s second nature even as they’re writing the first draft.
Here’s a simple discussion to keep you on track, to keep that arc of the story sailing smoothly from beginning to end. And the true beauty is that this combines both characterization and plot, ensuring that the characters drive the plot, and the plot changes the characters.
The Opening Act
We have basically 5 parts to this. The thing is, none of them take very long, and again, the pacing of these does depend a good bit upon genre.
Real life for our Protagonist now.
This, especially, no matter what genre, needs to be very brief. The main character’s life as is may not be extraordinary, or she wouldn’t need her own book to begin with! Or, we could have an exceptional character, whose life is in a lull.
The Call to Adventure/Action
This is the central theme of the book. It’s your Story Question, the point, that issue that’s come up that your main character will have to answer in the end. I.e., can he scale that mountain? Save the world? Kill the beast?
This knocks him out of his status quo, puts him off balance, and the reader needs to question whether he can achieve any of this if he even decides to. Truly question. I mean, Clark Kent didn’t look that convincing, did he.
Our Main Character Refuses Whatever
Meaning he just says no. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. Too much trouble. Gonna stay in, drink whiskey or eat chocolates, and watch Netflix.
Story and book over!
He Meets a Mentor
Then dang it, something but usually someone crosses his path and gives him an offer he can’t refuse.
In the absence of Don Corleone, this can be, well, just about anyone. That Wise Old Man/Woman. Or the converse—the Fool. It can even be the intuition, or the voice of God, or whatever he conceives the divine to be. Or as above, the ramifications if he doesn’t dive in will be dire.
This being is almost always archetypal as well.
Which leads him to:
He Says Yes.
This is a threshold crossing, and from here he’s all in (even with his doubts), committed to the story question. And hopefully, your reader is too!
This is the end of the Opening Act. It takes our hero from real life into a new world. In myths and fairytales, he often walks through a literal gate (and may even have to answer a riddle from a troll to do so). Or, flies to a galaxy far, far away . . .
Again, although it seems like a lot of stuff to cover, this comprises on average, genre depending, only about a quarter of your book.
The Middle Act
Okay, here’s where the vast majority of “stuff” happens in your novel. And here’s where in plotting a novel, so many writers get hung up, finding themselves lost and adrift.
As a book editor, writers tell me this almost daily: “I was going along fine, and then I just got bogged down.” It’s a fairly constant refrain.
Mastering the 4 stages here will keep that from happening. It’ll keep you on course, and those dreaded sagging middles at bay. Promise!
Facing Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Here our hero sees what he’s really gotten into. He’s naïve—no matter how adept or jaded he was in his normal life. He’s just never been here before, and he needs help from allies, as enemies will test him.
His own Achilles Heel will test him too. And now whatever that is comes to light as well.
He Approaches His Nadir
Like a river irrevocably flowing to a falls, our hero is carried (often quite against his will) toward the steep descent. But over and into them he knows must go. This is where he learns how that Achilles Heel will defeat him if he doesn’t face it. So through his doubts and fears, he braces himself, musters his forces, prepares and rehearses.
And quite often, he gets pushed by a foe.
Going into the Dark Night of the Soul
Over the falls, into the cave, whatever metaphor works for you, our hero plunges.
In other words, he faces his greatest fear. Snakes, if he’s Indiana Jones. Commitment if he’s in a category Romance.
But this is the very heart of the story (and is so often missing), and the most important piece. He’s in the borderlands between life and death, and the skillful author will create suspense as to whether our hero will come out alive.
Success and Rebirth
He made it! He faced that thing about himself he always found repugnant (the Shadow, in Jungian terms), which mirrored the beast he has to ultimately slay.
Now he gets a reward. He has found his power, owns it, and can wield it effectively.
Possibilities present themselves at this point—ones which he didn’t see before; doors that just magically open. He now has options.
And, he gets a reward for it. A celebration may ensue.
This is also the place for a love scene. He’s earned it, no?
This is the end of the Middle Act. This section, again, the meat of the book, takes up about half of it, as we then head toward the climax.
The Final Act
Relax! We have just 3 stages here J
Because your character has just had a bit of a breather, so has your reader. Much needed! Now he has the skills required to finish. And allies by his side.
His enemy often strikes here as well. Not as in the big climax, but leading up to it.
One way or another, we have a burst of energy to take us to the end. A car-chase scene. A revving of the engines in some form or another.
This is it! The thing the whole book has been leading up to. The true test.
It takes all those skills he learned. All the allies backing him (even if those are only internal). We see that our hero got it. He’s changed—stronger, wiser, smarter.
Through this last test comes his transformation.
Back to the “Real” World, with the Boon
This is the time of denouement. The tying up of loose ends. The return, our hero now changed, now “better” in some way. And with his personal sense of closure, now with something precious for his community as a whole as well.
Even though this Act contains the climax of the story, the whole thing is pretty short—the last quarter of your book. The biggest issue I see is the final section going on . . . and on . . . and on . . . The denouement should be the shortest part of all.
Do you have to follow this structure exactly when plotting a novel? Not at all! Many times lines will blur. You’ll have crossover between them as well. But by internalizing this arc, you’ll intuitively feel where plotting a novel can veer here and there. Where breaking the rules helps rather than hinders.
That’s when you know you own it.