Thursday, May 28, 2009


I just finished plotting my latest novel. I have to say, seeing it all laid out like that, beginning to end, characters and subplots and suspense and all... it feels almost as good as finishing the actual book.

I've discovered over the last few months how important it is for me to do this: to lay out the book in at least the sketchiest of ways, so that I know where I'm going and how I plan to get there. My first attempt at a novel was one of those that I just sat and started writing with only vaguest ideas of what I wanted to write. The second - the one currently on submission - came to me all at once, and the plotting was more a formalized way of getting what was already in my head on paper.

As I've started a few novels the past couple months, I haven't had the discipline to really pull the story out of my head, do the grunt work that was necessary before writing. As such, the pages fell flat and the characters floundered and I grew frustrated and disenchanted with them.

I can't outline a book. I suppose what I am doing is actually an outline of sorts, but a more wordy one, a style that fits me much better than a traditional outline. I can't do a chapter by chapter either. That feels too constrained for me.. I never really know where a chapter is going to end or begin, or what extras I'm going to need to add that I didn't expect.

What I have is the merging of two structures I found some time ago in researching writing.

The first came off the internet somewhere. I'm not sure where, but if you know and want to tell me, I'd be glad to give credit. The second is from a book. I thought it was Noah Lukeman's book The Plot Thickens, but it turns out not to be. From my notes I think it's possible it's from Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb's book called Your First Novel. At least, that is the book name scribbled at the top of the page. It could have been a book that was recommended to me and that page was the first space I found to write the title, but I think this method comes from there.

So here it is. My plotting Method.

3 Act Method

Act I (25%) Set up characters, motivations, backstory. At the end of this section, a dramatic event propels the main character into conflict
Act II (50%) In the middle of this, the MC discovers a secret, by the end is the start of big confrontations with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Conflict rises steeply.
Act III (25%) Obstacles are overcome, MC must make choices

Percentage Method

Stage 1 (10%) draw reader in, identification with hero
Turning Point (10%) new opportunity, new journey often followed by MC refusing to take the journey or by into the opportunity
Stage 2 (15%) hero reacts, formulates plan
Stage 3 (25%) hero is overcoming obstacles
***Turning Point (at the 50% mark) hero must commit, there is no turning back
Stage 4 (25%) goal is more visible, stakes are higher
***Turning Point (at 75% mark) Major setback, a do or die moment
Stage 5: (15%) Final push; conflict becomes overwhelming, MC must give everything; accellerated pace; MC determines his or her own fate.
Stage 6: Aftermath, what life are they living now

When I plot I use 300 pages as my guideline. Thus the above percentages would be:
p 1 - 30
p 30 - 60
p 60 - 105
p 105 - 180 (turning point at p 150)
p 180 - 255 (turning point at p 225)
p 255 - 300

Obviously I'm not stringent about the page number and things falling exactly in the timeline. It's more of a guide for me, to help me pace, to get suspense and conflict in the right places, to see how the story is going to progress, and conclude, before I sit to write.

Flexibility in the process is key for me, but having this helps move me along, keeps me from getting too sidetracked, and always provides a new scene to be contemplating as I'm washing dishes or driving kids around.

There are a ton of ways to write... this is the one that worked for me. Maybe someone else will find it useful too.


  1. Since I'm plotting oiut a new WIP, that was very helpful.

  2. Excuse my one handed typing.

  3. That is interesting, Heidi! And I'm very happy you're back on track...I know it was bugging you.

    Can't wait to read the new WIP!

  4. I'm loving you so much right now. This is exactly what I need.

  5. Heidi, this is really helpful. I've never really plotted a book out before I started. With RUN I had it all in my mind so it's been easy to write. Things have changed as I've written and I like that.

    I like your "Act" approach.

  6. Last time I outlined a novel, it got too complicated and I wanted to scream at it when I was finished. It just took more out of me to outline than to actually write it. So, yes, that book died. Then I tried to write a novel by just writing. Hmmm, that didn't work either. Any other ideas?

  7. Thanks for sharing your methods. I've been thinking about the 3-act structure lately, because I'm currently planning a new WIP (and that's quite something, cuz I'm such a pantser!).

    Nice to find your blog.... I came via strugglingwriter's blog. :)

  8. Welcome Shari! I'm glad you came by, and I hope it was helpful! I'm in the middle of editing, marketing, and also starting a new book,so I'm a bit all over the place with the blog these days! :)

  9. I'm a late-comer to this post but I find it incredibly helpful. I am just home from a great conference today but find myself feeling guilty for not being able to outline the way a favorite presenter of mine suggested. I've been writing long enough to know that no one method works for everyone, but I do wish I had a more economical style. Your method listed here seems much more "me". Thanks!

  10. Yay Sidni!! I'm so glad this helped! You throw things out into the cyber-world and hope someone who needs it will find it. I love this method. It's the only one that works for me. I hope it helps you as well!