Let’s Talk About Page-Turning Plots

Learn how to master the mechanics of developing a plot for your novel

Credit: Adobe Stock // olly

Christopher Booker spent 34 years of his life developing the theory that new stories don’t exist, that we live trapped in a world where seven plot archetypes are perpetually recycled in the media we consume. His core story types included conquering the beast, rags to riches, the quest, the voyage, and the return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. The film about the woman who loses her husband in a tragic car accident and holds her sadness close, guards it, and makes a place for it inside her? It’s been done. The book about the boy who once woke to the sound of gunfire and bombs and then grew into an influential leader who brokered peace? Rinse, lather, and repeat. Ronald Tobias developed twenty master archetypes, and Georges Polti devised 36 dramatic situations.

Stanley Kubrick once said, “Everything has already been done. every story has been told every scene has been shot. it’s our job to do it one better.”

While much of Booker’s and Kubrick’s argument borrows from a canon of established writers and filmmakers and, at its best, is reductive and tedious, there is some truth to the commonality of our experience.

This is our one life. We love. We lose. We overcome. We break in ways we never thought possible. We climb, ravage, and wreck. While it’s possible that every story has been told, that knowledge doesn’t stop us from reading, watching, listening, and feeling. It doesn’t disconnect us from someone’s unique experience. Instead, we live for the retelling: how individuals bear that which is familiar or common, and how their singular experience feels fresh and new.

Instead of vivisecting plot arcs — because frankly, I’d rather gouge out my eyes with an acetylene torch — I invite you to consider three simple questions: what story will sustain your interest for 70,000 words? Can you commit to your story and the sequence of events that unfold for months or years of your life? Does your novel have the weight to capture and hold your reader until the end?

The challenge of writing poetry and short stories is navigating the tyranny of economy. Words are your scalpel, so you don’t have room for botched surgeries. The strength in shorter work is indicative of the writer’s level of discipline. Words are obsessed over — what is each word trying to convey? Is it the best word you can use? Does it have clarity and conviction? Could one powerful word replace two weak ones? Every line has to operate on both a functional (how it communicates what it needs to move the story forward) and creative level (how the combination of words you choose evoke beauty, melody, and rhythm). Every movement a character makes is deliberate and calculated.

Short stories demand that you move far and fast in a tight space. Stories are sprints, while novels are for the cross-country runner clocking a steady 10-minute mile — it’s the difference between I need you to see and know this now versus I need you to see and know this when the story concludes.

The struggle in writing a novel is making it to the finish line intact. In a novel, there’s room for a mess, and in that crawl space you’ve occupied there’s a danger in veering off the road for a hundred pages before you realize that you’re lost and you need a map, compass, and ten tour guides and park rangers to find your way back. Creating a longer work is about staying the course.

Here’s a plot twist you didn’t see coming: I use to hate plots with a passion. I considered myself a character writer, which means you let those crazy kids loose on the page and chart where they go. In Zadie Smith’s world, I would be considered the “Micro Manager,” where I start with one sentence, then another, and another, until I somehow make it to the end alive. Or, as Margaret Atwood would have it, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Plot outlines gave me vertigo; this woman wanted to move. Until last year, the only outline I’d ever done was a timeline because, for some reason, I decided to be a masochist while writing my first two books, which shifted through points of time and view. I created two detailed timelines for my second book because there came the point when even I was confused about what was happening and when.

Maybe getting older, in some ways, forces you to return to childhood where you feverishly flipped through pages of a book because you wanted to know what happened next. You cleaved to plots because they were satisfying. I used to love strange, experimental fiction, but now I can’t be bothered wasting time wading through a hundred pages where nothing happens. Now, I ball my fists. Give me my damn plot!

So, what’s a plot? A plot is an engine that makes your story run while your characters take the wheel. It’s a sequence of events that guide your characters from point A to Z. Plots signal a deliberate happening that means something. When you want to master plot-writing, spend a few months reading children’s books. They’re perhaps the hardest to write because you have to balance economy with a child’s insatiable curiosity. You’re writing a poem and a novel all at once, and you’re forever answering for the inevitable question: and then what? What happens next? What makes a child flip feverishly through the pages? Are they satisfied when the story comes to an end?

How do you build a house? You build a house brick by brick. You rely on drawings, schematics, measurements, and plans and make adjustments as you go. No one wakes one day and — poof — there’s the house. The act of building is the becoming, so why would writing be any different? You build a book word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. And there you have it, what Sylvia Plath once called “the long short story.” We often forget the smallest of parts creates the beautiful whole.

Decide Whether You Can Live With This Story Because You Will Be Living With It For a While

Over the years, I’ve read articles, books, and news reports, and I’ve felt the spark. Maybe I should write about dissociative fugue states! Maybe I should retell Jonestown from Jim Jones’ wife’s point of view! The sparks are the equivalent of standing in the supermarket checkout line and padding your cart with issues of Us Weekly and Snickers bars. The ideas offer instant gratification but not enough sustenance for the long haul.

Good ideas come from anywhere — the books you read, the news you watch, the people around you. There’s no formula for deciding what you want to write about — I tend to think you write that which haunts you. You can brainstorm and mood board all you want, but you have to imbibe the story. You have to feel it in your fiber. I’ve been writing for over thirty-five years and I’ve never once used the word “muse.” I don’t romanticize the stories I’m compelled to tell and why I need to tell them, because I feel the antithesis of romance when it comes to my work. What I feel is an urgency that’s guttural and tactile. Everyone has the story that consumes them. Now, it’s a matter of ferreting it out.

For my second book, I knew I wanted to write about a woman who leads a double life. By day, she’s the baker of cartoon-themed cakes. Come evening, she’s a cold, methodical serial killer. I also wanted to examine intergenerational abuse and how this character views love and loss as flip sides of the same coin. That’s all I knew going in. Sometimes, that’s all you’ll know.

Once I have an idea, I road test it for a few weeks. Am I up for the research? Who are my principle players? Do they fascinate me enough for 200 pages plus an Odyssean level of rewrites? Even if I don’t know the plot just yet (I almost never do), could I sketch out a vague idea of where the story could go? What are my acts? Why this story now? Often, my “why” is what keeps me going. I map out a general idea for the book, and I spend time with the characters. If I’m bored after two or three weeks, odds are I’ll be bored after a few months or the fourth rewrite.

Start With an Outline

If I find an idea that I can’t shake, I’ll compose character sketches. Normally, I do this before the plot outline because if I know my characters and I have a general idea of the storyline, the plot outline becomes easier to draw. If I know my characters, I have confidence in how they can move or break the story. Because isn’t it easier to envision how your story will play out if you know the participants playing the game?

Armed with my character and plot sketches, I move to the plot outline stage. I’m still a fan of the 3–4-arc framework:

  1. Inciting Incident: What’s the incident that sets this whole situation into motion? Every writer deliberately starts a story with a specific action. At the onset of a book, a writer’s main objective is to seduce the reader and draw them into the action. Stories start with movement, which could be as minor as a conversation between two people or as major as a plane crash. In this act, you’re laying out your blueprint and building on your foundation.
  2. The Big Struggle: What’s the major tension or challenge they’ll face? At one (or a few points) in a novel, your characters will face tension. I’m being deliberately ambiguous here because it’s important to give latitude to how the writer defines tension, challenge, or struggle for this particular story and these specific characters. There will come a moment in the book where the story will shift and the characters will face change (or a deliberate lack of change juxtaposed with the events they encounter). By this point, the reader is invested in the character and the story and the narrative stakes are high. In this act (s) — because you can have a major second act and minor third act before you hurtle to a climax, depending on your story — the plot hits a crescendo. The second act is the place for conflict, failure, revelation, shock, and surprise.
  3. The Resolution: How will your characters navigate that tension and come to a resolution? Whether you’re creating a plot line that resembles a bell curve or a Richter scale mapping an earthquake’s oscillations, your story has to move to closure or resolution. This is less about solving a problem and more about finding the end. Your characters can experience seismic shifts or remain completely unchanged, but they will face narrative extinction.

Within that simple framework, you can insert A/B plots (main plot, relevant side plot) and split the second act into two, but starting with simplicity makes for a less stressful plot outline. Remember, you’re not tethered to an outline. Books often change course while you’re writing them, and sometimes you’ll have to revise an outline, but isn’t it easier to embark on a journey with a compass and roadmap? Consider the plot outline the map to your final destination.

I’ve used the tools of plot arcs and outlines in forming customer journeys in marketing analysis and strategy. In both scenarios, we know a beginning and an end exist, but the challenge is steering your characters and plot through the middle because, like in life, no journey is linear. Your characters get distracted. They encounter the unexpected. They leap and regress. Your characters are thinking, feeling humans who don’t always make the decisions that propel them forward. Few of us follow a straight line. We like our day trips that veer off the main road.

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Map Out Your Chapters

Within each of your acts, there’s a number of chapters. The chapters’ objectives are to orient the reader and give them time to evaluate what’s happening in the space you’ve created. It also gives them permission to pause and take a break from the story. When you come back and you’re ready, it moves you forward in the action. Think of your chapters as rest stops on a map to your destination.

Some writers don’t want to think about chapters in the outline process because they view it as boxing them in, confining their creativity. Remember, there are so many ways to be a writer and write a book — I’m showing you one of them. Take what works for you and discard that which isn’t useful.

In my outline, I’ll jot down 1–2 sentences about what happens in the chapter. Some of my friends have excel documents where they outline chapters and break down scenes within the chapter. I prefer to start with the chapter outlines first before I dive into the scenes because I want to get a broader scope of the structure and pacing of the book. Have I established a balance between the acts? Do I have 30 chapters in the first act before I even get to the main event? The chapter outlines will help guide the story and form the structure of the book.

But more importantly, it will give you a clear sense of pacing. Pacing is important because you’re creating a story that will unfold at a pace and speed that guides the reader with confidence through the action. Too fast and the reader is confused. Too slow and they’re bored. Are you strategic with where and how you plan your surprises and reveals? My chapter outline within the overall plot outline gives me a clear picture of the book — what works and what doesn’t. Why is this helpful? Because who wants to get in the messy months of scene-writing to then uncover plot holes and dead ends. In marketing, it’s like executing tactics without having a firm strategy planned out. You get the strategy right and the tactics are easier to execute without wasted time or heartache.

There are no set rules for chapter lengths, titles, and actions — all of this is decided by the writer based on their intention for the book. Titles can give a preview of what’s to come or you can simply number them. You can have chapters that are a page, 100 pages, or in the case of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, no chapters — just a relentless, never-ending stream of pages. There exists no right or wrong, it’s whatever best serves the story. I do like to start my chapters with an action or dialogue because people naturally gravitate toward velocity. They want to move.

However, there is one certainty — chapters serve to open and close windows. An action begins and ends. And the ending doesn’t signify a resolution or closure to the story — just closure for this particular part in the story.

Bring Your Outline to Life By Creating Your Setting and Scenes

A collection of scenes compose a chapter, and they can be the places you go, the people you encounter, or the things you do, think or feel. Know that you don’t have to map out your scenes in your plot outline. What’s comforting is your chapter outline that could provide structure and guidance for scene creation and development.

Now, you’re ready to write.

Candidly, this is my favorite part within the overall novel structure because I’m in front of the characters and action. I’m setting the stage and powering the players to perform, and for a writer, nothing is better than being in the thick of it.

For every scene, I create a setting. This orients the reader and places the characters on a specific point on the map. Where are they? What surrounds them? Define their external or internal environment. What do they hear, see, touch, feel, and taste? The setting is your stage — an environment in which your characters function.

Once you orient your characters, the action or dialogue can unfold in a series of scenes. A scene can be as long or short as you want it to be — there are no hard and fast rules, only that a scene has to move the story forward. Think of it as a miniature story within a story, containing a beginning, middle, and end. A scene could be a conversation that informs the plot, characters, or both. Or, it could be pure action. Or, it could be a combination of dialogue and action. Scenes shift when you change the character point-of-view, setting, time and location.

A scene has to have a purpose for it to be included in the story. If a scene doesn’t move the characters or story forward, doesn’t make you feel or think something, evaluate why it needs to be included. A scene can be beautifully written but it has to serve a purpose, otherwise, it’s page filler that slows the story down.

Examples of purpose can be character introduction or development, evoking a mood, setting, or place, create or build on a conflict or plot point, or provide a resolution or element of suspense.

Evaluate Each Chapter

I have a whiteboard (which used to be a spreadsheet) where I jot down the pertinent details of every chapter. Do I achieve what I set out to do? If so, why? If not, why? Where did the plot go? What happened to the characters? What do I feel is missing? (This is more about your gut.) Were there any revelations? Places I didn’t expect to go? Having this board up while I write helps because I glance at it every so often to remind me where I am and where I could potentially go. It also serves as a working roadmap, providing guidance so I don’t go too far off course.

Take Periodic Steps Back

It’s easy to get lost in a novel because you have space and latitude to fuck up. It’s easy to put your head down and immerse yourself in the scene and story to then look up and realize you’re on a whole different continent from where you started. I set informal check-ins at milestones within the novel. For example, I’ll pause at the 50, 100, 150-page mark to make sure I’m on task and staying faithful to the outline. I’ll wait for 1–2 weeks from the last line I wrote to the evaluation stage since I’ve cooled from the material and can examine it through a critical, objective lens. If I’ve deviated from the outline, I need to rework it to accommodate any shifts and changes to the plot.

No one said writing a novel was easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it. A great novel is a balancing act of plot, character, pacing, and structure. You have to have an idea that develops into a story that forms an arc that drives a structure from which your characters can move and operate at a place that aligns with the objective and intention of the story.

What keeps you going is desire and discipline. You have to love the story you’re wedded to. You have to have the patience and discipline to stay the course and find your way back if you’ve drifted. It can take months or years to write and revise a novel, so you have to love it. You have to want it. And you have to commit to it.

It all starts with an idea waiting to unfold.

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