My Writing Strategy, Part II: Planning the Plot

December 31, 2011

Photo from Flickr, by Jetheriot.

I have always struggled with plot. Characters, worlds, and opening scenes explode in my head, but the spurt of imagination only lasts for so long. After a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters, it dies off, and I am left wondering what happens next. Some authors begin their work with an idea for the climax, the high point of the story. I usually start with the inciting incident, maybe a few characters and world details, and no idea how the story will end.

While that’s not a bad thing, I have to find out how the story ends (or at least get a vague idea) before too long. Otherwise the book becomes a series of aimless events, not leading toward any particular resolution. I’ve had this happen so many times. It tends to kill the story about 3/4 of the way through, when I’ve run out of interesting event ideas, and I’m asking myself, “What happens now?”

My Plot-Forming Breakthrough

A couple of months ago I discovered an excellent video series which can be watched on YouTube: “Story Structure”, by Dan Wells. It is amazing for those of us who aren’t sure what to do with our plots – totally worth the hour or so it takes to watch. Now I run all my potential story ideas through the outline he recommends, because it helps me understand where I’m going with the story as I begin, so I can pull it all into focus.

I highly recommend just watching the video series, because he explains it better than I can, but I’ll sum it up briefly here so you can get an idea of how the outline works.

The basic outline looks like this:

  • Hook: where our main character begins
  • Plot Turn 1: something happens that moves the character from their starting point into the story (often called the “inciting incident”)
  • Pinch 1: bad things happen and force the character into action
  • Midpoint: the main character discovers something or learns the truth about something, and they choose to act on it (for example, maybe they realize they must defeat the villain)
  • Pinch 2: more bad things happen; this is the lowest point of the story, the “jaws of defeat” – often the main character finds himself alone to face the enemy
  • Plot Turn 2: the last piece falls into place, enabling the main character to defeat the enemy or solve the problem (this often takes the form of, as Mr. Wells says, “the power is in you!”)
  • Climax/Resolution: the point to which the entire story builds

The best way to go about filling the outline is by starting at the end. What is your entire story building to? If your character must end strong – say, defeating a powerful villain – then it is best to start them out weaker so there will be growth over the course of the story. Once you have the Climax and the Hook filled out, figure out the midpoint. Everything else can be filled in afterward.

As Mr. Wells points out during his seminar, almost every author uses this outline, even though they may not even realize it. He uses it to outline The Matrix, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Pride and Prejudice! You can use it for almost any story, and almost any genre. There are some good examples in the video.

Here’s a screenshot from the series, which makes the outline into a kind of mad lib.

Naturally, most books are much more complex than the outline may make them look; there will be subplots and other storylines that are not represented by the basic outline. Often one point on the outline will play out over several scenes or even several chapters. Usually, when I fill it out for my books, I don’t know what happens between the main points, and sometimes I’m not sure about a few of the points themselves.

However, filling this out very basically, in the beginning, helps me understand the bare bones of my story, and what will move it forward.

Next week: characters and their motivations.


  1. Bethany, thank you for explaining your own experience with plotting, THE OGRE of writing! And sending us somewhere to get more help.

    I may be avoiding my WIP because of not knowing how to handle all of the material I’ve written and organize it, essentially subjugating it (?) to a strong storyline, plot.

    • You’re very welcome, Maria! The video series was so helpful I felt I needed to spread the knowledge. 🙂

      Do you have any plot-planning tips or strategies of your own?

  2. If a story is character-driven, stay focused on the characters, and they will lead the way (just don’t get sidetracked).

    If a story is primary, remain with it unremittingly (but remember, people love characters).

    • Great tips! My stories definitely tend to be character-driven, and I have to be careful not to overcorrect and be so focused on a good plot that I lose that strength.

      • Bethany,
        Yes! And this strength is what readers love. I feel they want the story to be a good one, but the characters are like people to them. Of course you know this very well.
        My WIP is several character-driven stories around a central story, and I’m wondering if I’m attempting too much. But I don’t want to give up any of the characters/stories. They all are THE story.

I love to hear your thoughts!

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