Finding the Plot

I’ve been running writing workshops and coaching writers for years now and the one topic I get asked to help with more than any other is plotting.

I know from my own writing just how tricky plotting a story can be and how working up that initial idea – however strong it might be – into a fully finessed and page-turning plot can be more frustrating than untangling phone charger wires. (Does anyone actually know how they always end up so tangled by the way? Is there an evil Wire Tangler Pixie at work or do chargers come with in-built self-tangling properties???)

Anyway, if you’ve just discovered the first kernel for a story, or you’re midway through your first draft, or mired in tricky second draft rewrites that have you losing the plot in every sense of the phrase, here are some prompts to help get you going…

To get you started…

What is your one-line pitch, a sentence that sums up the crux of your story?

Once you get clear on this you can use it as a North Star to guide you through your plot and help keep you on track.

What is the inciting incident?

This is the spark that ignites the story. The event that sets your main character on their journey. Make sure it happens at the beginning of your plot.

What is your main character’s goal?

This will be their overarching goal throughout the plot, created by the inciting incident ie; to solve a mystery or to get over a loss.

What obstacles can you place in your character’s way?

There’s no drama without conflict. What obstacles can your character encounter in the pursuit of their goal? These can and should be internal and external.

What scenes or ideas do you already have for the middle of your plot?

Use index cards to create a summary for each scene. Lay these cards out on the floor or a table in front of you to give you a bird’s eye view of how the plot is shaping up. Keep adding cards as and when you get new ideas.

How can you use these scenes to ramp up the tension throughout the plot?

Think of your plot as a graph. The dramatic tension should peak and trough but ultimately it should be building to a dramatic climax at the end.

How do you want your story to end?

You don’t have to know this in exact detail but I find it really helps to have a rough idea of where you’re going with your plot when you start out.

What will your main character have learned by the end?

How will they have changed? Grown? Developed?

Can you surprise your reader with the end of your plot?

Does the ending provide some kind of resolution? Will it ultimately be uplifting or satisfying for your reader?

For when you get stuck…

Journal about your plot issues

Free-write about all the different options available to you. Write about the pros and cons of each. Brainstorming in a journal is way more effective than sitting staring at that blinking cursor on your manuscript hoping for inspiration.

Get physical

Moving your body is a great way of getting the ideas flowing too. I always take a notebook with me when I go on a walk or to a dance class as I’ve learned to my cost that ideas can be as elusive as butterflies and flutter out of your mind just as quickly as they arrive.

Throw in a random plot twist

Life is full of random twists and there’s no reason why your story shouldn’t be either. If you’re stuck on your plot try creating an unexpected event or encounter to inject some excitement.

Create a vision board

Creating a collage of images inspired by your story, either physically or on a picture sharing website like Pinterest, can also be a great way of sparking plot ideas. Simply scour the images you’ve collected for ideas or clues.

See your story as a movie

If you’re not sure where to go next with your plot try seeing it as a movie and asking what scene would the director cut to next?

Plot backwards

If you know how your story’s going to end try working backwards, asking what would happen immediately before this scene, and so on?

And finally…

Know that it’s impossible to get your plot absolutely right in the first draft so don’t be too tough on yourself. Keep writing, keep the ideas flowing, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to chop and change and cut and paste to your heart’s delight in the second draft.


The tips in this post are taken from my book Dare to Write a Novel.

Find out more here.



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