Happy Monday, my beautiful writers!
Planning your story can be tough. Revising your story into something resembling an actual novel can be nothing short of impossible. I want to share a real quick Guide to Plotting that’s been helping me through my (near endless) revisions — a quick look at the basic shape of a story. Don’t take this as a cookie-cutter formula, nor as the End All rule all novels must follow. Rather, it’s a tried-and-true suggestion for the structure of a story that works, a story that moves along briskly, has coherence and cohesion to its plot points, and basically looks all pretty and book-shaped when completed.
At the end of the document, I have a handy PDF of the guide you can download — a perfect insert for your writing notebooks!
So, let’s get to it! I bring you Plotting in A Pinch: A quick, handy guide to the main plot points you’re going to want to hit for a beautiful, exciting story that actually feels satisfyingly like a story! (A possibility that can seem far off and whimsical when you’re drowning in revisions and sixteen different versions of a single scene, believe me.)
Act One sets up your story, introducing your characters and their beginning states, the main conflict, and a hint at the story’s overall theme.
Glimpse of Regular Life
Your story begins in media res, establishing the average life of your main character. (Now, your character’s average life might include disabling bombs for the FBI, or creeping up on a sleeping dragon to steal from their horde of gold. Point is: we see your character in their natural habitat, before everything goes wrong…)
Trigger / Inciting Incident
The moment where everything goes wrong. Something changes for your character, the antagonist appears, the main conflict arises, something happens to upset the status quo of their life.
The Point of No Return
Now, if you’re employing the Hero’s Journey, there might be some more back and forth in your opening chapters, of your character resisting their call to action, getting advice from a sage protector, etc. and so forth. But the crux of Act One is the important bit: Act One closes with your character deciding to throw themselves into the conflict. They make a decision, open a door, kiss that person (or kill them!) — the metaphorical Rubicon is crossed and your character cannot go back to their comfortable regular life. They’re In This now.
Act Two is the biggest, chunkiest, most intimidating act in your story. Give it structure by following this basic skeleton:
Employ peaks and valleys (successes and failures) as your character tries to achieve their end goal, a process hampered by increasingly difficult obstacles. Remember that in the Struggle, your character is trying to perpetuate their False Belief — the lie they stubbornly cling to and which their character arc is designed around.
Also, remember this phrase: And so / But then. These are the best phrases you can use to link your scenes, chapters, and story events together. Everything is a consequence of something that came before.
This is a fascinating detail of story structure that I only learned about in the last year. But it works so well. Some people even get very specific with it, and advise that your pinch-point occurs around 37.5% of the way through your novel. Isn’t that something?! You don’t have to get that precise, but just keep in mind that, a little after the first third of your story, you’re going to want your Pinch Point.
What is the Pinch Point? It’s a moment where the story’s antagonist rears their ugly head. Your character, and your readers, are reminded of the conflict they should really be worried about.
The peaks and valleys of Act Two should build to a mini-climax. I’ve posted about this more in this post, Use a Mini-Climax to Strengthen Your Story’s Sagging Middle. The idea is that the action reaches a dramatic peak with some kind of confrontation with the antagonistic forces — and this dramatic peak has lasting, story-changing consequences.
Midpoint Mirror Moment
The mini-climax has thrown your character into a state of turmoil and upheaval. At this moment, halfway through your story, your character needs to figuratively look at themselves in the mirror. They are midway through their story arc, midway through their emotional journey. They’re losing hold of the person they were in the beginning of the story; as their clinging grasp to their false belief loosens, they’re edging nearer and nearer to the person you want them to be at the story’s close. However, they’re not there yet.
Because of whatever happened in your mini-climax, your character has a moment of self reflection. In some way, they ask themselves some combination of the following questions:
Who I am? Who am I supposed to be? What have I done? What am I supposed to do now?
That moment of self-reflection has lit a fire under your character’s heels. They’re not going to take it anymore! There’s no more time to be reactionary — they’re going to ACT. Your character, in this part of the novel, literally takes charge. They stop being reactionary to the ups and downs of the plot and start making their own — possibly bullheaded, possibly reckless — decisions.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to turn out so well for them …
Dark Night Of The Soul
The character’s actions as they tried to Take Control of their Life wound up causing their life to fall fantastically apart. (Oops.) This is the darkest moment, where the character retreats back into the comfort of their false belief, thinks everything is lost, and that they’ll never make it out of this mess they have made for themselves. The night is darkest, they say, before the dawn.
The Dark Night of the Soul is also significant because it is your last moment to introduce any information the character and reader needs to understand the Climax. Your character here learns the final few clues, the last key bits of information they’re going to need to take down their antagonist. This is also your last chance to introduce major characters, or any plot devices you’re going to be using in your climax.
Your character emerges from the Dark Night of the Soul with the necessary vigor to prepare for the final confrontation. Use this time to move your pieces into place.
The big moment!!! This is what your story has been ramping up to. The protagonist faces off with the antagonist in an Epic Showdown that ties all your story threads, carefully laid clues, character arcs, all of it, together in a payoff that’s exciting and satisfying for the reader. (SO, NO PRESSURE.)
The final threads are tied up tidily, and we see how the story has affected all its key players. Your character emerges changed in some way, having thrown away their false belief and accepted their new reality.
Want this handy Plotting in a Pinch Guide in PDF format? Right Click/Save As the following link: Plotting in a Pinch Guide ~ PDF DOWNLOAD
I hope this helps you lovely writers with your plotting! I’ve found this basic structure immensely useful, especially when I’m editing and struggling to chisel a formless story into something more story-shaped and satisfying.
Happy writing. 🙂