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How to Plot Your Novel: 5 Ways to Write Your Bestseller

So you want to write a novel — now what? Well, unless you plan to pull 100,000-plus words from where the sun don’t shine, you’re going to want to do a bit of plotting before you begin. It’s ultimately up to you to decide how to plot your novel, but I’ve picked out five methods you can use to find success as a writer — whatever that means to you.

With NaNoWriMo right around the corner, writers everywhere can feel the pressure of the looming time crunch. In just a few short weeks, we’ll all be shutting ourselves off from the outside world — writing sprints and jams excepted — to churn out 1,667 words per day, give or take. Beginning at 12 a.m. on Nov. 1, it’s always going to be time to write. After 30 days, NaNoWriMo will be over, and we can breathe again. As any Wrimo will tell you, however, those 30 days are downright brutal.

One way you can lessen the negative impact of NaNoWriMo on your mind and body is to carefully plan your novel before you sit down to write it. That would make you a Plotter, in Wrimo-speak. The opposite of a Plotter, a Pantser, doesn’t have anything other than a blank page waiting for them on Nov. 1. Falling somewhere between these two extremes, Plantsers do some plotting, but prefer to let their creativity lead the way.

The problem with that, of course, is that creativity, like motivation, is a fickle bitch.

Look, I’ve been a Plotter, a Pantser, and a Plantser, and I’ve never had greater success with a lengthy manuscript than when I planned what would happen in each, successive scene, in advance. I didn’t have to question what would happen next, because Past Me had written Present Me a guide to her novel.

Plotting your novel may be the worst thing you’ve ever tried — you know, aside from writing it — but there’s no reason you shouldn’t give it a try before NaNoWriMo rears its beautiful and frustrating head. Here are five methods you can use to plot your novel before Nov. 1.

How to Plot Your Novel, 5 Ways

1. The Fractal Method

Also known as “the snowflake method,” this method of plotting out your novel shows you how to write it first in tiny increments.

It all begins with a one-sentence summary, which you later expand to a paragraph. Then you take each sentence in that paragraph, and use it to write another, longer paragraph in a one-page document explaining what happens in your novel. You’ll also write one-page synopses of the novel’s events from the perspectives of each of your main characters, and then expand each of these individual pages into a four-page narrative.

The goal of the fractal method is to help you figure out whether you really want to sit with this story for one long, writing-intensive month. You might not identify all the plot holes in your story using this method of plotting your novel, but you’ll sit down on Nov. 1 with a rock-solid idea of what your manuscript is and where it’s going.

2. The Spreadsheet Method

How many scenes does a novel have? If you can’t answer that question, and if it bothers you that you can’t answer, the spreadsheet method of plotting your novel may be right for you. There’s no better way than this, in my opinion, to get intimately acquainted with your novel before you write it.

Plotting your novel in using the spreadsheet method requires you to write a short description of each scene, and to organize them in the order they’ll appear in the story. Don’t worry if you’re writing a novel with a convoluted timeline. There’s nothing to stop you from putting your scenes in chronological order before you arrange them to suit the flow of your manuscript.

The tech un-savvy shouldn’t let the name of this novel-plotting method scare them. The spreadsheet method can be accomplished using Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, or even Scrivener, but you can plan out each scene just as easily using index cards or Post-its on a wall or board. Although it’s much more difficult to carry around a physical story grid than your phone or tablet, you can make the spreadsheet method work in virtually any writing environment, with a little ingenuity.

3. The Pixar Method

When I’m teaching my first-year composition students how to revise their work, I often have them read Pixar’s list of 22 storytelling rules. Although the Pixar method is geared toward fiction writers, this sage advice from the creators of Toy Story and Finding Nemo have applications for most writing genres, including the academic essay.

Of course, you want to use the Pixar method for writing fiction, and who could blame you? Getting started with Pixar’s rules for storytelling is a little more difficult than plotting your novel using the fractal or spreadsheet methods, but not to worry — The Write Practice founder Joe Bunting has a super-brief cheat sheet to using the Pixar method for fiction plotting.

4. The Jericho Writers’ Method

Jericho Writers have a plotting technique that’s a little more detailed than the Pixar method above, while still offering the structure that the first two items on this list lack. If you like the Pixar method, but have trouble fitting your story summary into its fill-in-the-blank format, you might like what the Jericho Writers’ way of plotting has to offer.

What’s different here is that, while you will have to know — or come up with — your protagonist’s motivation and the conflicts that will drive their story, you don’t have to write about these narrative elements in any particular style. All the Jericho Writers’ method asks is that you keep your statements about seven key plot factors to the absolute minimum.

In addition to their easy-to-follow plotting plan, Jericho Writers also offer a short spreadsheet that connects your main narrative with up to three subplots, so that you can plot everything in your story, side-by-side. If you write — or want to write — complicated stories with intricate plots, this may be the best plotting method for you.

5. The Pantser/Plantser Method

Of course, for some people, the best method is no method at all.

When it comes to NaNoWriMo, pantsing and plantsing are legitimate methods of preparing to write your bestselling novel. If you’ve never been able to figure out how to plot your novel, you may just need to let go and see where the wind takes you.

Found a novel-plotting technique that works for you? Let me know by sharing your favorite method in the comments!

Image credit: Caroline Rccrd on Unsplash