Writing Hacks #9: Use plot points to map out your story structure

Plot is a massive topic and one I’ll frequently return to in Writing Hacks. Today, I want to talk about macro-plotting and using plot points to anchor your major story destination points to help keep your novel’s shape. I would always recommend that you write knowing how your book is going to end, but more than that, you should know (at least roughly) what your major plot points are along the way. As we’ll see below, most plots will follow an approximation of this standard plot diagram below:

It can be helpful to map out your novel visually. For one it gives you an easy reference and lets you ‘see’ the overall shape of your novel. These things are great motivators too, keeping you on track and more likely to finish. Each time you hit a milestone it’s a ‘Well done! you’re one step closer to finishing! Plus, when you’re dealing in bitesized novel chunks you are by default not wrangling with the while massive lump of novel all at once. Let’s breeze through this example structure.

Setup – Typically this will establish the status quo, who is your point of view character(s). Your job here is to also get across location, time and place (using direct action) to situate the reader in your novel. Some sense of what your PoV character wants or is lacking, subtly conveyed, would make for a strong setup.

Plot Point 1 – Inciting incident: This will be either something borne out of your PoV character’s action; e.g. The trod upon dogsbody finally quits their job, a happily married woman finds herself inexplicably following someone she finds attractive. Or it is something that happens to your character; e.g. a river bursts its banks forcing a family to move out of their flooded house and in with cantankerous relatives. Either way, something happens to upset the status quo and creates conflict or dilemma with your PoV character.

Rising action – This is simply development and further smaller plot points that move the story forward. Sub-plots emerge and your PoV character’s desires and wishes are frustrated and prevented. Complexity increases.

Plot Point 2 – An emblematic major moment in the novel. There will be a small climax that will be bigger in significance than the inciting incident in Plot Point 1, but not as big in significance as the climax in Plot Point 3 to come. This will give the sense of rising drama and is critical to the build up to the climax.

Plot Point 3 – This is the key period of drama in your novel, the moments you’ve worked so hard to build up patiently. It will be the key point of drama or crisis for your PoV character. In police procedurals, it’ll be the scene where the detective finally confronts the killer he/she’s been chasing. It’s the moment when the husband realises he’s lost his wife forever or when the fight between two warring armies takes place. Things may be happening fast but here you need to maximise the dramatic payoff. Don’t rush through this, depict the full action and emotion of what’s happening.

Falling action – This is the fallout of PP3, a warrior is picking through the dead army, sombre but victorious. The husband is wondering how he can live without her, the detective has the perp in cuffs but is scarred mentally from the confrontation.

Exit music

Plot Point 4 – You’re cantering towards the finish line now, so what’s the exit music to your novel? Is there an emblematic moment? A medal ceremony to laud the heroic warriors. The husband crying into a photograph while on a bench? The detective hitting the bottle? This is your moment to leave your novel’s last impression on the reader…or set up the sequel.

Mapping out your novel doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible

I find mapping out a novel at a macro level extremely helpful. That doesn’t mean that the plot points are set in stone forever and can never change. Sometimes in the process of writing you think of a better idea and that’s awesome! You just re-plot, checking that everything still fits together as a whole- or if not you start again. Some people find it helpful to map out the minor plot details in this visual way too, with detailed graph annotations that serve as a turn by turn sat-nav for their novel. I’ve seen amazingly detailed excel charts of each character’s plot arcs, people who use revision flash cards and sticky notes. However you do it, you need to find a method that works for you and that might take some experimentation and trial and error. So try a few different ways and see what works best for you.

Happy plotting