Guest Post : How to Plot a Novel

Novels are about characters and relationships (or should be), but plots are about something that happens. How can you be sure that your plot is properly structured and that your characters are playing the proper role in the proper way? By using this fun and easy method:

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Get an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper and fill it with a Tic-Tac-Toe grid (or pound sign symbol, if you prefer).  Then enclose the lines with an outside box and you are left with 9 blank squares. Number the boxes from 1 – to 9 starting at the top left corner and going from left-to-right on each row.

Place the single major incident that happens in your novel in the center square, box number 5.  And since everything that occurs in a novel should somehow be connected to that one major event, this blocking scheme will help you place (and pace) appropriate characters, events, and twists in the appropriate parts of the story leading up to (and in the aftermath of) that event.  Boxes 1 -4 (the beginning portions of the novel) all must lead up to that major event.  Boxes 6-9 (the ending portions of the novel) involve the fall-out, climax, and resolution from that event.

Box #1 in the upper left-hand corner is typically where the protagonist is introduced, hopefully in a dramatic way that entices the reader. Box #2 in the middle of the top row is typically where the antagonist is introduced. You will also notice that since Block #2 is touching Block #5 directly below it and Block #1 to its left, that the antagonist must play a key role both in the protagonist’s character and in the major event of the story. Box # 3 in the upper right is where other major characters and perhaps (hopefully) the major love interest is introduced.  After all, what’s the point of reading (or writing) a novel that doesn’t involve love?

So in the top row of our grid we have The Protagonist, The Antagonist, and the Love Interest. Therefore, each major character plays the largest role in their own column.  Of course the protagonist is featured throughout, since he/she is the protagonist, but Blocks 1, 4, and 7 are his/her starring sections. The antagonist plays the largest roles in the middle column (Blocks 2, 5, and 8); and the love interest owns the right column (Blocks 3, 6, and 9). Not coincidentally, major turning points occur at the end of each row (always related to the love interest; it’s what the protagonist fights for, right?)

It could be argued that the center column is actually the most important, because that is the column where the major event takes place in Block #5.  Part of the point of this 9-block device is to ensure a book is properly paced, with sufficient build-up (ie, motivation), and sufficient fall-out, and all the emotional highs and lows that result.   But it would be a mistake to assume that just because the major event is in Block 5 that nothing happens until half way through the book.  The opposite is true.  Something notable must happen in EVERY single square (otherwise, why write about it?).

Now that we’ve discussed the columns, let’s discuss the rows. The top row involves the beginning of the novel, and if you’re a 3-act structure traditionalist, you would say Row 1 is Act 1, Row 2 is Act 2 and Row 3 is Act 3. In row 1 you introduce your characters, and lay the ground work and emotional motivations for everything that takes place in Row 2.  The plot-outline-blocks of this 9-Block device can help you determine where in the story each character should be introduced based upon that specific character’s involvement with the plot.  The middle row is arguably the most important (for the same reason column 2 is the most important) because it involves the major event of the story.   And finally, the bottom row (Act 3) involves the character’s lowest point, the turning point, and the dénouement (the final resolution), respectively.

Block #4 traditionally involves specific build-up and motivations to the major plot event in Block 5, which is the centerpiece of your plot. Block 5 is also the one square among all of them that is connected to the most adjacent squares, so important characters or events leading up to this plot point must be present in Block #2 and Block #4, while important consequences must be present in Blocks #6 and #8.

Block #6 in the middle-right is where another major turning point of your novel should take place, which is further complicated (and motivated/caused) by the major event that just took place in Block 5.  And, more importantly, that turning point in Block 6 should lead to the “emotional low” of your novel, when everything is at their darkest. This is Block #7.  A protagonist driven to his or her lowest point is sometimes driven to drastic measures and this is where events and characters introduced in Blocks 1 and Blocks 4 make another appearance, thus fulfilling requirements of foreshadowing, and demonstrating you are well in control of your craft as a novelist.

Typically a major twist leads to an epiphany and is what motivates the final climax (often some sort of emotional or physical confrontation), and this all occurs in Block 8. Given its direct proximity below Block 5, it’s probably no surprise that the epiphany or twist, as well as the climax, are all directly related to the event that takes place in Block 5.

The final block #9  in the lower right hand corner is where the dénouement begins and all the plot points are resolved, not out of the blue, but by connecting dots left in adjoining Blocks 6 (the second major turning point) and 8 (the results of the climax), while all involving the “love interest” or character/motivation introduced in Block 3.  Resolutions cannot occur without the proper foundation, and novels cannot end without making a statement (of some sort) about the nature of love.


brent sampson

In 2002, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Semi-Finalist Brent Sampson founded Outskirts Press, a custom book publishing solution that provides a cost-effective, fast, and powerful way to help authors publish, distribute, and market their books worldwide while leaving 100% of the rights and 100% of the profits with the author. Outskirts Press was incorporated in Colorado in October, 2003.

In his capacity as the President and Chief Marketing Officer, Brent is an expert in the field of book publishing and book marketing. He is also the author of several books on both subjects, including The Book Marketing COACH, Self-Publishing Questions Asked & Answered, and Sell Your Book on Amazon.

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