Nine Steps for Plotting Fiction

This week the blog will be all about plotting in response to one of our "ASK US" requests (with a little bit of our own personal stories sprinkled in along the way).

I usually start a book with a general idea of the major plot points. I know what the big conflict will be and probably how it will resolve. I often don't know much else. This time, however, I wanted a little more guidance--especially when it came to sub-plots and tying it all together. I've never been an outliner, but I found this terrific visual exercise for plotting and thought I'd share it with you. I used it about one fourth of the way into my new manuscript and it really helped clarify major plot points, flesh out the subplots, and connect everything together.

This is not my original idea. I read about it on Cynthia Jaynes Omololu’s blog. (Cynthia is the author of Dirty Little Secrets, published by Walker Books). Cynthia mentions the method first appeared on the always resourceful Verla Kay Message Boards. and I know it's also been featured on QueryTracker. Whoever came up with the idea, it was definitely helpful for me, so thanks!

9 Steps for Plotting Fiction

Start with a piece of paper. It should be large enough to write on. You can use a 11x14 for a little more room, but 8x11 is fine. Draw two parallel lines both vertically and horizontally across the page, creating 9 comparable boxes, as if you were starting a game of tic-tac-toe. These boxes represent chapters, scenes, or sections, depending upon your book's intended length.

Number the boxes, starting from the upper left: 1, 2, 3.
Next row, starting from the left: 4, 5, 6.
Last row: 7, 8, 9.
Title each box…

1. Triggering Event

First things first. What happens? Why have you bothered to write a book, and more importantly, why should a reader invest time flipping through its pages? Your triggering event is the answer to these questions, so make it a good one. Also, don't make the reader wait very long for it. First page, first paragraph, first sentence. These are good spots for a triggering event.

2. Characterization

Generally, books succeed or fail on the strength of their characters, more so than on the strength of their plots. Box 2 is where you explore what makes your protagonist tick. No, this isn't an excuse for drawn out exposition, history, or back story. If your triggering event is captivating, the reader will discover enough about the protagonist in Box 2 simply by reading how he or she reacts to the event.

3. First Major Turning Point

By now, your plot is picking up steam, and because of Box 2, the reader is invested in the ride. Time to throw a curve ball. This turning point can be either a positive event for your protagonist, or a negative one, but it should lay the groundwork for the negative turning point in Box 6. There is a reason these boxes are touching one another; they interrelate. For example, Box 3 may introduce the motivation of the antagonist, which then justifies the events in Box 6.

4. Exposition

You've earned some time to fill the reader in on important data. Since this box touches Box 1, here's where you shed some light on that triggering event. Since it also touches Box 7, you get to foreshadow your pro-tagonist's darkest hour. Box 4 often reveals a relationship, character flaw, or personal history that contributes to the dark times ahead.

5. Connect the Dots

Here is where many plots fall apart. Box 5 represents the trickiest part of fiction, and since it is the center of the diagram (and book) it must connect to all the boxres around it. (2, 4, 6, & 8.) Kind of like the nucleus at the center of a bomb, Box 5 should tick systematically upon elements introduced in Boxes 2 and 4. And like the calm before the storm, Box 5 should give the false impression of resolution before heading like a freight train to Box 6. Most importantly, it needs to provide foreshadowing for the protagonist's revelation in Box 8. That's a lot for a little box to do, but focus on efficient prose to get it right. Your plot depends upon it.

6. Negative Turning Point

Here's where that bomb explodes and all (word censored) breaks loose. Good thing you laid the groundwork in Box 3. Good thing, too, that Box 9 will deliver some just desserts.

7. Antagonist Wins

The protagonist is defeated here, and the antagonist apparently wins. How the protagonist deals with the darkest hour of defeat depends upon the traits and/or story developed in Box 4, which leads to his or her revelation in the next square.

8. Revelation

Of course! The protagonist's revelation turns the tide. Here is where the protagonist connects the dots and overcomes the obstacles of Boxes 6 and 7 via the device introduced in Box 5.

9. Protagonist Wins

The negative turning point in Box 6 is rectified while the character's resolve from Box 8 is brought into full bloom. Congratulations! Another great tale told greatly.


I love this idea! I'll definitely be trying this. Thank you!

Okay, seriously? This is awesome. I just did this for my WIP and now I feel like I have all those main boxes checked off and that I have a plan. I may not know what color the walls will be painted, but at least the drywall is up! Thank you soooooo much!

I agree! It provided amazing clarification for me. Glad you found it helpful. Thank you to the original author wherever you are!

Very cool outline. I want to apply it to my WIP, but will have to wait until morning when I have renewed brain cells. I love it when people make things clear and simple!

A very effective way of showing how the different parts of a plot need to work together, influence one another and impact on one another. Doing it visually in the form of the chart you describe is very helpful for this.

You've certainly given me a new take on plotting! Thanks for this. :)

I have a question. Can you just put one sentence in the box, or do you recommend expanding on that a little?

Annikat: I put the title at the top of the box and then tried to answer all the questions in the box. So, yes, more than one sentence. That's why the bigger version of the chart worked well for me.

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