Wait. We should probably clear up one key question first: what is plot?
Your plot is a summary of the most important actions or events in your story, in chronological order. Simple, right?
Now that’s out of the way, on to the main question:
What’s the best way to structure the plot of your novel?
There is no best way – no right or wrong way – but here are two of the simplest and most effective ways to make sure your novel develops in a way that keeps your readers engaged, invested, and dying to read more. Because that’s what you want, right?
1. The Pixar Storytelling Strategy
If you’ve already read my 5 Questions to Test the Strength of your Story Idea, you’ll know how much I love the straightforwardness of Pixar’s basic plot template. It’s so simple, it can be broken down into a series of short sentences:
Once upon a time, there was __________ . Every day, __________ . One day, __________ . Because of that, __________ . Because of that, __________ . Until finally, __________ .
And that’s it. That’s as complicated as this method gets.
With ‘Once upon a time’, you start by introducing your MC (Main Character) and their world. ‘One day’ sets up the overarching conflict in your story. It’s the event that changes everything, as in ‘One day… something happens that knocks your MC off the path they were on and sets them on a new journey’. That journey is the heart of your novel.
The most important thing to remember with this method is that every action has a consequence. One day Event A happens… because of that, Event B happens… because of that, Event C happens. And so on.
The main piece of advice I’d give you with this method is make sure that every event is bigger than the one before. With every action, the consequences should intensify ‘until finally’ you reach the climax of your novel, where we find out if your MC was successful and if we get the happy ending.
2. The 3-Act Structure
This is probably the best-known way to structure the plot of a novel. It includes a little more detail than the Pixar method but you’ll see that it’s essentially the same thing.
Even if you’ve never heard of a three-act structure before, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the three parts are – quite simply – The Beginning, The Middle, and The End!
There are no literary laws about how long each act should be but a good rule of thumb is to allow:
25% for The Beginning (Act I)
50% for The Middle (Act II)
25% for The End (Act III)
Just like the Pixar method, Act I starts by introducing your MC (Main Character) and the main themes of your novel, building your story world in the mind of your reader and setting up the coming conflict so your reader has some idea of what is at stake. At the beginning of Act I, your MC is just another character going about their life, but at the end of Act I something important happens to draw them fully into your story. We’ll call this a Major Plot Point. It’s Harry’s letter from Hogwarts. Or Darcy insulting Elizabeth. Or Prim’s name being drawn at the Reaping.
Act II is where it all gets super real. This is the meaty section of your novel, so you should expect your MC to be challenged by a lot of difficult and tense situations. The first Major Plot Point (in Act I) was something that happened to your MC, but Act II is all about your MC stepping up to a more active role and making decisions for themselves – with each decision having a profound consequence.
Act II is a series of small conflicts but it’s marked by two more Major Plot Points – each bigger than the one before. The first one comes at roughly the halfway point of your story and its job is to stop your readers losing interest while your story plays out. This is a good place for a major twist, or dilemma, or a dramatic escalation of conflict.
Let’s go back to my Hunger Games example. Act II starts with Katniss volunteering as Tribute and goes on to describe her training and preparation for the Games. The second Major Plot Point of the novel – the first of Act II – would therefore be the start of the Games.
The conflict keeps escalating, until Act II ends with yet another Major Plot Point – the third one in the novel and the biggest one of all. This plot point forces your MC to choose a course of action that will decide how the story ends. In The Hunger Games, it’s the moment the Gamemakers change the rules and open the contest up to two winners, allowing Katniss and Peeta to work together and make their stand against the Capitol.
Act III is all about reaching the climax of your story and answering the question your readers have been asking: will your MC succeed? The Climax of the Hunger Games comes when Katniss and Peeta threaten to eat the poison berries and the Gamemakers finally declare them joint winners.
And breathe… You can finally relax. The rest of the novel is spent winding down to The End (or setting up the next book if you’re planning a series!) but everything is peaceful in contrast to what has just happened.
Of course, whether you structure your plot before you write your novel, or restructure it after you’ve written your first draft, really depends on whether you are – by nature – a Plotter or a Pantser.
Not sure which one you are? Take my quick ‘Plotter or Pantser’ quiz!