How to Quick Plot a Story Structure
I am not an expert, but I have worked as an editor on a number of manuscript critiques, I’ve studied story crafting, and when I gave the following advice to someone, they seemed to find it very useful, so I thought I’d share.
Plotting a story can be as complicated as you want to make it. If you want to build in a lot of mystery, twists, misdirection, messaging, and — above all — worthy character development, then the more planning it takes. However, most of us don’t have 7 years to plan out and write our first novel.
So, here’s one way in which you can quickly plot out a story. For example’s sake, I’m using a standard novel, but the method is flexible.
Skip to Step 2 if you don’t care about making a series/serial.
Step 1 - Plan the Series/Serial
Pick how many books you want to write, at least for now. The series or serial can be extended later, but pick a number to start with.
- 3 is a very good starting point. Anything more is very ambitious and better for writers with a lot of experience. 3 also easily fits the 3 Act structure or Rise-Fall-Rise style patterns. (Many new writers make a huge mistake thinking they’ll start out with an epic plot and don’t have the skills for it. Start small and practice.)
- 4 and 5 fit the 4 and 5 Act structures.
- 6 makes for a dual trilogy of ups and downs. This is easy to separate into two 3-Act plots with a big twist in the middle at the end of B3.
Book 1 - Protagonist enters new world.
Book 6 - Protagonist defeats last boss, the Demon King, and becomes Hero King.
Once you know those two points of the story, divide the rest of the stages into what needs to happen to get from beginning to end.
Decide whether a stage will be an overall Up, Down or Neutral/Mixed beat. You can give them multipliers to indicate the scope of risk and action.
The series/serial must have these ups and downs like a rollercoaster. This is where drama comes from. The scale of those ups and downs should increase over time as more is at stake and we face bigger enemies, earn bigger rewards, or closer friends die.
You may also want to make pacing notes. Pacing must vary within books and over the series to keep things exciting.
Below is just one example. Any combination of ups and downs can work. Though there are common types in the links below.
Book 1 - Protagonist enters new world. (Up) (Fast)
Book 2 - Fun & Games (Up)
Book 3 - Minor Setback/Defeat (Down) (Slow)
Book 4 - Recovery and Rising (Up x2) (Slow > Medium)
Book 5 - Major Defeat (Down x3) (Slow > Fast > Slow)
Book 6 - Protagonist defeats last boss, the Demon King, and becomes Hero King. (Up x4) (Medium > Fast)
You can find some common plot types here, and they are expanded here. by Christopher Booker
Universal plot types here. Or just make up your own using Rise or Fall for each section. Be warned, ending a story on a Fall (tragedy) isn’t very popular, commercially. But it can make for a good cliffhanger.
After you’ve got the rollercoaster outline you want, fill in major events (the action) and major character development (emotional arc).
Book 1 - Protagonist enters new world. (Up) (Fast)
- Arrive in fantasy world; physically and emotionally struggles with accepting the new world
- Protagonist is a regular person > becomes Bronze rank adventurer
- Excited. Dives into exploring and dealing with the new world, and having initial success; but remains the same person as before
- Becomes silver rank adventurer
- Big conflict hits. Falling back into old patterns, protagonist fails and gets hurt. Loses something.
- Big twist in the overall plot, a revelation that changes everything
- Protagonist’s ally dies; and/or they lose their magic weapons
- Protagonist rises up by accepting changes needed to become a better person and do what’s needed to overcome the conflict.
- Protagonist becomes Gold rank adventurer and rich
- Not fully committed, protagonist fails. Or, villains are stronger than we thought. Major fail. Doubt. Lose everything.
- Friends lost, major battle lost, protagonist loses their rank and is cast out of society
- Try one more time, giving it their all, the protagonist commits to personal change and overcomes the villain
- Protagonist defeats the demon lord and becomes King
Step 2 - Plot the Book
A traditional novel is 100,000 words. The recommended length for an online chapter is 2500 words. That means we have 40 chapters for an online novel.
Make a 40 point list, or 40 blank pages in Scrivener.
Fill in the title for each with the main idea for each chapter. Start with the major points: beginning, end, inciting incident, midpoint twist, minor/major fall. (You don’t have to use them all.) Then fill the remaining chapters in with the steps needed to get there.
It’s easiest to start with the beginning and the end. This focuses later efforts.
1 - Arrives in new fantasy world
40 - Becomes Bronze Rank adventurer
Plot a rollercoaster. Plan for up or down or neutral chapters. This creates drama. Same for pace. You can make a note on each chapter for Up/Down, Slow/Fast, etc..
If you have multiple points of view (POV) make a note for each chapter so you can see who is on stage and how often.
Don’t just plot action. People don’t fall in love with cool dungeon crawls and magical weapons. That’s just the fun stuff on the surface. They fall in love with characters. And they remember life lessons and wisdom and character growth. So plot chapters that have more than just action. What is your character going through and why? And how to they overcome it?
Again, just focus on the major ideas for each chapter, what step it takes. You can refine later or as you write.
1 - Arrives in new fantasy world
2 - (inciting incident) Attacked by goblins
3 - Protagonist is confused and upset and rejects being in the new world
20 - (twist) Goblin lord appears)
21 - Protagonist’s love interest rejects him out of fear, leaving hero distraught
25 - Protagonist learns humility and admits to being wrong
35 - (major fall) Hero was too cocky. Goblin lord destroys the village, best friend dies
36 - Protagonist lashes out in anger, hurting allies and love interest
38 - Protagonist repairs relationship with love interest and regains confidence
39 - Battles the goblin lord
40 - Becomes Bronze Rank adventurer
These chapters can change as you start writing. Maybe you change what happens or delete a chapter, or add one. It’s ok if the total length of the novel changes later. You just want that 40 chapter starting point to help you make a tight initial plot.
By having a fixed length and actionable steps, you know what you have to do for each chapter. You can still let the story go in a new direction later if you want, or you can stick to the tight plot you have. But you start with a clear structure that you can see, which makes writing much easier because you have a road map.
After you have the list above plotted with major points, then you can either start writing, or refine the list by detailing steps within each chapter. Plotting is like nested eggs. Start with the outer one, then work inwards. Series > Book > Chapter
Step 3 - Write
Start writing. It doesn’t have to be with the first chapter. You can write the most fun ones first, or the most important, like the ending and the midpoint twist (if you have one). By doing the important ones first, the other chapters are largely forced to go in the direction you want to get to those key ones you’ve already finished. That keeps you on track.
Have a single character’s POV (unless omniscient) for each chapter. Don’t head hop, and only break into sections if you’re sure it’s the right thing to do.
First person and third person intimate are perhaps the most common POV types. You generally want to keep the same style throughout the whole story.
It’s best to have a single tense for the whole book: past or present are the most common. Don’t change between or inside of chapters.
Consider posting online as you write (if in order). By telling people you’re posting Mon, Wed and Fri each week, and committing to that, you know you have to be productive or you’re going to let people down. And if you let readers down, they’ll leave. This should keep you writing. The power of fear and responsibility.
2500 words per chapter. That gives you a fixed length to get done what you need. Of course the length is ultimately flexible, but by consciously aiming for 2500 words, you can keep the writing and plotting tight. You don’t end up with sprawling chapters with boring content. And you’ll know when to stretch things out, adding more to make it fit better.
Be humble. All writers have room to improve. None of us are as good as we think we are.
Hope this helps. Good luck!
Edit: thanks for the advice though, I'm sure it's good, and I've seen a lot of it mentioned before by other big names. Especially the tips at the end are really useful :) It's just a bit disillusioning "seeing how the sausage is made"...
Don't get me wrong, this is just quick plotting. The bare bones. From here, you can get much more in depth both in the planning and in the writing phase. This is just an easy way to start the process. Having that fixed length and thinking about what specific steps you need to reach each point in the story you want to tell, makes it easier.
And for something like romance, which is 60%+ of the fiction market, or serials where you have a new chapter out 3-5 times a week, you're going to want to crank out as many stories as possible, without having in-depth plots and deep meaning. It's just faster. And it makes money, regardless of the quality.
Of course, you can go ahead and create whatever you want for your art and story. As I said at the beginning, this is just one way of doing things. Something I think will help newer writers. Because telling a simple story well is better than trying to be really creative and complicated and not having the skill level to make it work.
Do you follow these structures? I follow the 3 Act structure for the genres I write in but for the first time, one of my fantasies is naturally progressing into either one ginormous book or more realistically, a trilogy. I plotted the book I'm planning on expanding with using the three act structure but the problem I'm running into is how many meaningful and plot-moving challenges for the MC and their main goal (for each book) can I create?
The other challenge is determining how to incorporate characters naturally in a plot that continues to expand within itself as I write, without losing the value of those characters. If that makes sense, let me know. I feel like I'm rambling.
Do you have any insight, advice, or experience about these types of things?
CShadrockz Wrote: Do you follow these structures? I follow the 3 Act structure for the genres I write in but for the first time, one of my fantasies is naturally progressing into either one ginormous book or more realistically, a trilogy. I plotted the book I'm planning on expanding with using the three act structure but the problem I'm running into is how many meaningful and plot-moving challenges for the MC and their main goal (for each book) can I create?
The other challenge is determining how to incorporate characters naturally in a plot that continues to expand within itself as I write, without losing the value of those characters.
I tend to visualize the 4 and 5 Act structures better. They're the same as the 3 Act, but breaks the parts down into more managable pieces.
Personally, I don't think we need to overload on events. It's better to develop each event well. For example, what emotions is the character going through and how do they think? How are other people reacting during the situation? How are relationships affected? Trying to portray the bigger picture tends to take more space if done well or in detail.
And, really, each plot is really about the character learning 1 thing. They may have multiple challenges, but each novella, each novel, is about one big step in character growth. Maybe they learn to be brave or learn to be humble or accept that someone has died. Use as many steps as you need for that growth to be plausible.
A very helpful guide for this is the 5 or 7 stages of grief. Those stages aren't just for grief, they're also the stages we go through when dealing with any change, and with making big decisions. A character can go through some or all stages, repeat stages, whatever you want. You can plot those stages within the Act structure and the fixed chapters listed above.
Other characters either serve to illustrate what the protagonist is going through (and are 2 dimensional) or they have their own character journey as well. Generally, the main characters have the biggest and most complicated plot, and the side characters either don't grow, or learn their own lesson in only one or two stages. If you're writing a novel or short series, put most of the effort into the MCs. If you're writing a sprawling, never-ending online serial like Wandering Inn, with no word limit, you can flesh out every character as much as you like.
Barrent Wrote: Does anyone follow the monomyth format?
Absolutely. It tends to mirror the stages of grief/decison making mentioned above and it fits into stages of the Act structure. With the 40-point list above, I plot stages of the monomyth journey and I find it nice to know that I'm restricted by so many chapters, which helps force those pieces to stay contained. Otherwise, the many steps in the journey tend to sprawl and the book gets too long.
Barrent Wrote: Does anyone follow the monomyth format? https://orias.berkeley.edu/resources-teachers/monomyth-heros-journey-project
this is the worst explanation of a hero's journey I've ever read
according to this Frodo and Luke Skywalker didn't undertake it, lmao