Three-act structure, nonlinear arc, or experimental design? Subplot or counter-narrative? There are dozens of ways to structure a plot, and learning how to plot will save you years of writing grief.
From literary, crime, and historical fiction, to women’s literature and magical realism, let’s take a look at the techniques practiced by five critically-acclaimed novelists in bringing their best works to life.
1. Three-Act “Save the Cat” Strategy
The Edgar Award Shortlisted author, David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s novel Winter Counts followed a standard three-act structure and a screenwriter’s guide called “Save the Cat.” This template helped him break the plot into sections that introduced the character in their home world, and followed up with an enticing incident, action, complications, a climax, and finally a falling action. Weiden, however, took the liberty to deviate from the standard structure and introduce elements of indigenous culture and storytelling into his plot.
2. Reader’s Point of View Strategy
The International best-selling historical author of The Jane Austen Society, Natalie Jenner, has honed her experience of writing 6 books into adapting an intuitive approach that focuses on writing from the point of view of the reader. She starts off with visualizing the setting, its location, time period and the kind of people populating her book. Then proceeds to decide what is at stake and what everyone is fighting for. By seeing herself as the reader, she is better able to question every milestone as the plot develops. Her revision process starts through the third quarter of the plot, and instead of revising the plotline, she fills in more background to the character development through their resolutions of choice and personal growth.
3. Post-It Note Plot Map Strategy
According to Heather Chavez, the author of No Bad Deed, outlining a plot is the most important aspect of writing a thriller. She admits to spending about 3-4 months developing the plot. First, she delves into each idea with a set of questions about the premise, character growth, twists and turns and then organizes these ideas in colored index cards. After that she then maps the journey on her corkboard for the best visual appeal. She recalls having 55 scenes fully outlined with several sentences, locations, dates and times for each scene in No Bad Deed.
4. Parallel & Non-Linear Combo Strategy
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, adapting a trial and error approach to developing a plot, took seven years to write her award-winning novel The Mountains Sing. She managed to overcome the challenge of telling the story of four generations of Vietnamese families through seven major historical periods of Vietnam by combining plot structures, and adopting which one suited best. The three-act structure of her novel follows the story set-up, conflict, confrontation, and resolution. Dual storylines with separate timeframes, dimensions and locations follows a parallel structure, alongside non-linear structure to alternate between different time periods across 16 chapters. This helped her ensure the fictional events of the novel matched with the real-life historical events every step of the way.
5. Chaotic “What If” Strategy
Margarita Montimore, the author of National Bestseller Oona Out of Order, prefers a chaotic approach to developing the plot. She starts off with the premise, and follows up with “what if” scenarios that take their own path as the story develops. For her, each scenario is a piece of the puzzle, and she takes a step back to look at them as a whole and identify what can be put together and what needs further refining. She summons order when necessary through a wall of Post-Its. And for Oona, she used two simple documents; one a chronological timeline with just key points happening in key years, and another with Oona’s own personal timeline in the order she lives her life. Just cross referencing the documents helped keep her develop a compelling plot.
Shafeeka Hafeez grew up escaping into a world of books where she discovered a love for writing and a fascination with trees. When she’s not taking up a new marketing skill, or typing out a blog post, you can find her Googling the best therapy for abandoned cats.