How to Plot a Story

So, what’s it about? 

Say you’re writing a book and that’s the first question everyone will probably ask you. 

You might be able to rattle that plot off the top of your head. But for most people there’s a bit of rambling. Plot can be hard to articulate, yet if you can turn this into a polished skill, every story will be easier to write for the rest of your life. 

There’s an impossible amount of information out there about how to plot a story — books, courses, blog posts, YouTube tutorials. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not the only one. 

It can seem like a Herculean task to turn your ideas into an outline that you can start writing from.

But it doesn’t have to be, if you’ve got a clear step-by-step process for figuring out the best way to tell the story that only you can tell.

The Plotting Process

Step 1: Pull your ideas together into a workable premise. By premise, we mean all the pieces of the engine that will drive your story’s action. 

Here’s a quick overview of the parts of a premise:

  • Genre/Sub-genre: elements that let the reader know what kind of story they’re getting (a love story, an adventure, a thrill-ride, etc).
  • Setting: a broken world that gives rise to an antagonist shaped by that brokenness and whose actions amplify or take advantage of it.
  • Character: the protagonist, who’s marginalized or disadvantaged by the brokenness in the world, but who longs for something better.
  • Situation: the protagonist’s backstory, which has inflicted a wound on him, trapped him in trauma, or enabled a flaw that he would otherwise be forced to confront.
  • External Conflict: the protagonist and antagonist’s mutually-exclusive goals pit them against each other.
  • Internal Conflict: the protagonist’s struggle between his desire to step outside his trauma, heal his wound or overcome his flaw and his desire to stay in his comfort zone.
  • Theme: whatever the resolution of the internal and external conflicts says about human nature or the nature of existence. (It’s not unusual to write the rough draft or a detailed outline, and see what theme arises as the story plays itself out.)

For example, here’s the premise breakdown of Star Wars: A New Hope:

  • Genre/subgenre: droids, storm troopers, epic space battles, aliens, energy weapons like light sabers and blasters, a damsel in distress, Death Star (space station), psychic powers, faster-than-light travel, a galactic Empire, Jedi Knights
  • Setting: a tyrannical Empire whose will is enforced on its subjects by Darth Vader, evil Jedi Knight
  • Character: Luke Skywalker, orphaned farm boy with Jedi powers, desperate to be a hero
  • Situation: Luke believes his father was killed by Darth Vader, trapping him on the backwater planet of Tattooine, depriving him of the chance to be a hero
  • External Conflict: while Darth Vader is trying to squeeze Princess Leia for the location of the rebel base so he can blow it up with the Death Star, Luke seeks to deliver the Death Star plans to Leia, rescue her from Vader, and blow up the moon base
  • Internal Conflict: do what’s practical vs. follow his heart
  • Theme: a pure heart is more important than skill or experience (External Arc theme); trust your feelings (Internal Arc theme)

If this feels like a lot of structure, don’t worry! Pull together whatever planning you normally do while preparing to outline. Maybe you always start off knowing Setting, Character and External Conflict, but you figure out the Situation and Internal Conflict as you write. Or maybe start with Internal Conflict and build the rest around it as you outline or write.

Step 2: In three sentences, can you give an overview of what happens in the beginning, middle, and end of your story?

Your goal here is to be accurate, not to come up with a clever blurb for pitching (or selling) your story. Don’t worry if yours reads awkwardly, and don’t feel like you need to cram everything into it. Just go for the big picture. 

  • Beginning: Where do your characters start, and what happens to kick off their quest?
  • Middle: What are your characters trying to do, and what kind of trouble do they get into because of it?
  • End: Do your characters succeed or fail, and how do they end up?

Here’s a three-sentence overview for Star Wars: A New Hope:

  • Beginning: Luke is working on his uncle’s moisture farm until R2D2 reveals Leia’s message, leads him to Obi-wan Kenobi, and then Obi-wan motivates Luke to escort R2D2 to Alderaan.
  • Middle: Luke and Obi-wan hire Han Solo and Chewbacca to take them to Alderaan, but are pulled into the Death Star by a tractor beam, where they discover Leia is being held prisoner and rescue her, losing Obi-wan in the process.
  • End: Luke and friends travel to the rebel base, where Luke joins the rebels and blows up the Death Star in an epic space-dogfight.

Step 3: Break your three-sentence summary down into acts (or map it to the structure of your choice).

In Sterling & Stone, we use four-act structure most often, aiming for (but not sticking strictly to) ten scenes per act. Depending on your average scene length (which depends on your personal storytelling rhythm), forty scenes usually yields a novel of 60,000 – 80,000 words.

A quick summary:

Act One sets the story up, introducing the protagonist in her everyday world, and showing what’s broken in it (which may or may not mean introducing the antagonist). An inciting incident throws the protagonist’s life out of control, and at the end of the first act, the protagonist must commit to a new course of action (the first plot point).

Act Two is where the protagonist’s opposition to the antagonist starts to get serious, but it’s not going well, because she’s tackling the challenges of her new, extraordinary world with the tools of the everyday world she’s left behind. She might see how she needs to change, but she keeps falling back into her old ways more often than she makes the right choice. Somewhere in the middle of this act, she gets a taste of the antagonist’s true power and begins to understand that she’s in over her head (the first pinch point). Act Two ends with the protagonist making a discovery or having a realization that helps her see she hasn’t just been playing the game wrong — she’s been playing the wrong game (the midpoint).

Act Three opens with your protagonist taking a new approach to defeating the antagonist —she’s reaching for the new person she’s trying to become, and while she’s not very good at it, she’s getting better at making the right choice (the brave choice, the selfless choice, the hard choice). Somewhere in the middle of this act, she gets trounced again by the antagonist in some way (the second pinch point), and it hurts more this time, because she thought she’d figured things out. Act Three ends with her doing what she thinks is her best to defeat the antagonist — and discovering that her best isn’t good enough (the second plot point).

Act Four focuses on the epic final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist — sometimes it kicks off with the protagonist’s darkest moment; other times, the dark moment happens later in the act. Either way, your protagonist begins her final assault, loses allies and resources as she encounters the antagonist’s forces, and is forced to face the antagonist alone (the climax). Whether she wins or loses, we see the fallout of that final battle and how the world is changed because of it (through the impact of the lives of those who were affected).

But you can break your story down using any structure you like: the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, the W-Plot, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beats. 

For each act (section, phase, etc) of your chosen structure, write a sentence that summarizes the big-picture thing that your protagonist will be trying to do.

Looking at the four acts of Star Wars: A New Hope:

Act One: Luke’s life on Tattoine starts to fall apart when R2D2 shows him Leia’s message about the Death Star plans, then leads him to Obi-wan Kenobi and the truth about his father, tempting Luke to join the battle between the Empire and the rebels.

Act Two: Luke loses his reasons for staying on Tattooine and joins Obi-wan’s quest to deliver the Death Star plans to the rebels, joining up with Han and Chewbacca. On the journey to Alderaan, Obi-wan begins to train Luke in the ways of the Jedi.

Act Three: Luke and his new allies get caught by the Death Star, discover Leia is aboard, and rescue her, losing Obi-wan.

Act Four: Luke joins the rebels and uses what Obi-wan taught him to blow up the Death Star.

Step 4: Brainstorm major plot points, twists and reversals, reveals, and big emotional moments that might happen in your story. 

If you’re using four-act structure, the major plot points will be:

  • Act One: inciting incident, first plot point
  • Act Two: first pinch point, midpoint
  • Act Three: second pinch point, second plot point
  • Act Four: dark moment, climax

Here are some brainstorming questions to help you figure out your major plot points:

Inciting Incident: How is your protagonist coping with the problems in her everyday world? What would cause her to lose control of her life?

First Plot Point: What is the antagonist doing that’s making it impossible for your protagonist to regain control? And how does it force your protagonist into a position where she must commit to a new course of action?

First Pinch Point: What awful surprise does the antagonist have waiting for your protagonist as soon as they cross paths? In what ways is your protagonist completely unprepared for this encounter?

Midpoint: What’s the missing piece that your protagonist has been looking for this whole time? What does she need to learn — or unlearn — in order to see what’s really happening with the antagonist?

Second Pinch Point: What did your antagonist learn about your protagonist’s weaknesses during the first pinch point that he’ll exploit in this encounter? How does your protagonist fall back into her old ways during this confrontation and fail to defeat the antagonist?

Dark Moment: Now that your protagonist has experienced her worst defeat ever, what doubts, fears, and negative thought patterns would make her feel like giving up? What would it take for her to convince herself to try again despite her fears?

Climax: How will your protagonist try to defeat your antagonist? What surprises does your antagonist still have up his sleeve? What sacrifice will your protagonist make to defeat the antagonist?

Twists and reversals, reveals, and big emotional moments often happen during a story’s major plot points, so answering these questions usually generates many of them.

But it never hurts to take a second pass and ask yourself if you’ve missed an opportunity to add another twist, reveal another secret, or make the most of a character moment.

Twists and Reversals: Could there be anything else going on under the surface of this story that would make what you’ve already got more meaningful or emotionally-impactful? What do your characters not know that could definitely hurt them?

Reveals: What secrets does each of your characters have, and what harm will those secrets do: a) if kept, and b) if revealed?

Big Emotional Moments: What kinds of losses will each character suffer? What victories will you allow each to achieve? And how will their relationships with each other shift under pressure, surprising them with support or depriving them of it when they need it most? 

You should always be looking for universal experiences that you can turn the volume up on: moments of rejection, betrayal, humiliation, abandonment, disillusionment, loss of faith and rediscovering it, rebellion, reunion, acceptance, gratitude, inspiration, awe, etc.

Here’s a breakdown of the major plot points for Star Wars: A New Hope:

  • Inciting incident: Uncle Owen buys R2D2 and C3PO.
  • First plot point: Instead of telling Uncle Owen that R2D2 has run away, Luke goes after him, following his heart for the first time.
  • First pinch point: Luke comes home to find Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru murdered, which eliminates his reluctance to go with Obi-wan to Alderaan.
  • Midpoint: Luke and his allies find a debris field and the Death Star where Alderaan should be, and are captured by its tractor beam.
  • Second pinch point: Luke and his allies are cornered by Darth Vader’s minions and nearly die in the trash compactor.
  • Second plot point: Luke sees Vader kill Obi-wan and must choose between staying to seek revenge or fleeing to complete his mission.
  • Dark moment: On the way to the rebel base, Luke grieves for Obi-wan.
  • Climax: Luke decides to take a run in the trench that leads to the exhaust port, where he succeeds in blowing up the Death Star while Darth Vader pursues him.
  • Resolution: The celebration at the rebel base.
  • Twists and reversals: Han’s return at the climax (due to Luke finally persuading him to care about someone other than himself).
  • Reveals: That Luke’s father was a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars, which is revealed between the first plot point and the first pinch point.
  • Big emotional moments: 1) The moment of horror when it becomes apparent that the Death Star isn’t a moon, it’s a space station, and they try to flee (right before the Millennium Falcon is captured in its tractor beam). 2) The reunion after the climax, where the rebels are celebrating their victory, which is tempered by Luke’s temporary grief when the extent of R2D2’s damage from the battle in the trenches is unknown.

Step 5: Identify where the major plot points and other big moments belong, then look for ways to connect them.

It’s not unusual to have some difficulty figuring out how to fill in the gaps between your major plot points. Sometimes you’ll just know how your character gets from the inciting incident to the first plot point, because you’ve already got your antagonist’s fiendish plan in mind. But when you don’t, here are three ways to figure else how to connect the dots:

Method #1: Think in terms of setup and aftermath.

For example, let’s say your protagonist is an archaeologist, and you know that he’s going to discover a lost tomb containing a magical artifact that he’ll have to risk his life to retrieve.

And you know that later, your antagonist is going to ambush him and steal the artifact.

How do you get your protagonist from the tomb to the site of the ambush?

First, ask yourself: “What is the aftermath of the first event?”

In the process of retrieving the artifact, did your protagonist lose something important that he’s got to go back for? 

Or learn something new about the artifact that he must act on right away? 

How does he feel about having violated the ancient tomb? 

What does he intend to do with the artifact? 

Does he believe in the ancient curse that was inscribed on the wall of the tomb? 

What’s he going to do to protect himself from the curse?

Does he have to go somewhere to get medical treatment or can he patch himself up? 

Did he attract the attention of the antagonist, and if so, is the antagonist doing anything in response that might affect the protagonist?

Is there really a curse, and if so, what’s happening as a result of it being focused on the protagonist? 

How is his concern about being cursed affecting his behavior? 

If he doesn’t believe in the curse, do those around him, and if so, does it affect how they treat him?

Now that the protagonist has the artifact, what does he plan to do with it? Get it to a museum? Have a wizard neutralize it? Sell it to someone who will use its powers for good? 

Second, ask yourself: “What has to happen to set up the second event?” 

Your protagonist needs a reason to be in the place where the antagonist will ambush him. 

Why is he there? 

Is he trying to show the artifact to an appraiser or a wizard or another archaeologist? 

Is he trying to get the curse lifted?

Also, how did the antagonist know he’d be there? 

Is the contagonist or some secondary character spying on the protagonist for the antagonist? 

Does the antagonist have the ability to track the artifact with magic? 

And is this a good time for the protagonist to figure this out?

How did the protagonist get to the ambush site, and what could go wrong on the way? 

Could the curse be causing problems that slow him down? 

Could his superstitious belief in a curse cause him to take a less-than-optimal route? 

Could he be betrayed by someone along the way? 

What dangers lie along his chosen route?

Does the protagonist know that the antagonist wants the artifact? 

If so, is he preparing to defend it? 

Or trying to find out what the antagonist is up to as he travels to the ambush site? 

Does he have allies he can visit to request help? 

Method #2: Look for ways to show your characters growing.

Your protagonist (and any other character with a growth arc) should wrestle with her internal conflict during major plot points. 

You can often generate ideas for the “in-between” scenes by asking yourself what situations might trigger her internal conflict in smaller ways?

If she’s struggling to be braver, what situations could you put her in that she’d find intimidating? 

Is there anyone in her life who needs her to make a brave choice? Or who’s pressuring her to take the easy way out?

What are all the ways she usually chickens out, and what reason could you give her to face those more mundane fears, to give her practice at being brave when she gets to the climax?

Method #3: Look for an opportunity to work in a subplot.

This one isn’t always appropriate — if the subplot doesn’t support the big story you’re telling, it could split your story’s emotional impact and distract from the things your audience is looking for. 

But, done right, a subplot can add emotional resonance and make your story richer. The best way to come up with a subplot that works is to look to your character’s relationships, habits, and coping or defense mechanisms. 

Could your protagonist’s sibling rivalry shed light into the way she approaches her highly-competitive career? 

Could resolving a fight with her best friend help her get her priorities straight before she has to face off with the antagonist?

Could her addiction to smoking be symptomatic of her deeper craving for acceptance, or symbolic of the death wish she’ll have to overcome in order to achieve her most important goal?

Connecting the dots in Star Wars: A New Hope was done primarily through setup and aftermath scenes. Each of the setup scenes get the characters in position for the next major plot point, and each of the aftermath scenes show you the fallout from the choices that the characters made during the major plot point.

  • Setup for the inciting incident: Darth Vader’s star destroyer captures Leia’s rebel ship, R2D2 and C3PO escape to Tattooine and get captured by Jawas, and Luke tries to convince Uncle Owen to let him leave the moisture farm early so he can get his piloting certification at the Academy. 
  • Aftermath of the inciting incident: Luke cleans up the droids, R2D2 shows Luke the message from Leia after convincing Luke to remove his restraining bolt, Luke tells Uncle Owen he thinks the droids are stolen, Uncle Owen forbids Luke to contact Ben Kenobi to see if the droids are his.
  • Setup for the first plot point: Luke discovers that R2D2 has run away.
  • Aftermath of the first plot point: Luke is attacked by sandpeople and saved by Obi-wan, Obi-wan tells him the truth about his father being a Jedi Knight.
  • Setup for the first pinch point: Luke realizes that the storm troopers pursuing the droids will track them to the farm.
  • Aftermath of the first pinch point: Luke and Obi-wan take the droids to Mos Eisley, Luke gets hassled in the cantina while Obi-wan looks for a pilot.
  • Setup for the midpoint: Obi-wan and Luke hire Han and Chewbacca to take them to Alderaan, storm troopers pursue them to the Millennium Falcon, Obi-wan trains Luke with a light saber during their journey.
  • Aftermath of the midpoint: everyone hides while storm troopers search the Millennium Falcon, Obi-wan sneaks off to shut down the tractor beam, R2D2 locates Leia onboard and Luke persuades Han to help rescue her.
  • Setup for the second pinch point: Luke finds Leia, but Han blows their cover and gets them trapped in a corridor with no exit.
  • Aftermath of the second pinch point: after they get out of the trash compactor, Luke and Leia are temporarily separated from Han and Chewbacca.
  • Setup for the second plot point: everyone arrives in the docking bay in time to see the end of Obi-wan’s fight with Darth Vader.
  • Aftermath of the second plot point: the dark moment where Luke grieves for Obi-wan, Han and Leia fight about whether the Death Star is tracking them to the rebel base.
  • Setup for the climax: they arrive at the rebel base and all the rebels are briefed about the plan to attack the Death Star, Leia tries to convince Han to join the fight and fails, Luke gets R2D2 settled in his fighter, then tries to persuade Han to join the fight and seems to fail, the rebel fleet engages the Death Star and we see the rebels taking heavy losses, Luke’s assignment is to protect the ships in the trench, but when they fail, he decides to try for the exhaust port himself.
  • Aftermath of the climax: celebration back at the rebel base, followed by a formal ceremony where Han and Luke get medals, and we see that R2D2 was repaired. 

Ready to Plot Your Own Story?

Here are some tips to make this process go more smoothly:

  • Give yourself the time and space to brainstorm multiple possibilities for each step. Your first idea is seldom your best one — it’s usually a cliché. Same goes for your second idea, and third. You might find yourself moving scenes around as well, to see where they’re going to have the biggest emotional impact.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to your characters. What does your protagonist really want, and why does she want it? Is your antagonist putting his money where his mouth is, or is he lurking around in the shadows, waiting to see what your protagonist will do next? 
  • When you find yourself reaching for tropes, reach for the twist as well. When you’re outlining, you’re looking at your story in big-picture mode, it’s easy to assume you’ll think of a way to make the tropes feel fresh when you’re writing the draft. (And that’s asking a lot of yourself when you’re trying to stay in flow.) Looking for a way to twist them during the outlining stage can often lead to awesome plot ideas that you’d never come up with otherwise.
  • Don’t start writing from an outline you’ve just finished. Set it aside for a few days to get some emotional distance, then read it through again with a dispassionate eye, looking for plot holes, clichés, missing character motivations, anemic stakes, and any other potential problems. If you’ve got a collaborator or critique partner who doesn’t mind giving you feedback, considering asking them to read it, too.

Now get out there and start changing the world with your stories! 

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