If someone asked you how to start a novel plot, what would your answer be? You might say that plot is everything that happens in a story and that they could begin by writing all of those events down. Your answer would be correct to a certain extent. However, in this section of the elements of novel writing, we are going to look at a deeper meaning of a novel’s plot and how novelists use it to get a story going and keep it going.
What is Plot?
If you are learning how to start a novel, the first thing to understand is that a story must have a plot. If it doesn’t have a plot, you might just have a long boring essay and not many readers. A plot includes all of these elements:
- Cause and Effect – a plot encompasses everything characters do, think, feel, or say that makes a difference to what comes afterward. It is every significant event or conflict in a story that results in significant consequences – events and consequences that your character cares about passionately. If this happens, that will happen. Think of tossing a stone into a pool of water and seeing the ripples develop – tossing the stone caused the effect of ripples. (Perhaps it was a 5-carat canary diamond that you cared passionately about.)
- Action/Reaction – thoughts and emotions cross the line into the plot when they are acted upon, causing a reaction. You can think about dying your hair purple, but if you don’t do it, nothing happens. If you think about dying your hair purple and actually do it, things could happen: your mother might be very upset with you, your peers might love you or laugh at you, and it’s going to look frighteningly weird when you grow out your blonde hair.
- Something at Stake – for a reader to care about your story there has to be something at stake – something of value to be gained or something of value to be lost.
- Forces to Reckon With – a villain, set of circumstances, opponent, or fear of doing something that tries to keep the protagonist from reaching their goal or hanging on to that which is so important to them.
- Scenes – plot depends on passions and how characters struggle to fulfill them, as shown (not told) through the scenes of your novel; one scene building upon another, from beginning to end, all interrelated to the story.
How to Start a Novel Plot Description in a Few Words
You should be able to write your novel’s overall plot description in just a few sentences. The best way I can show you this is by example. This description for the novel (and movie) Jaws is quite good: The chief of police of a New England community, while terrified of the sea, sets out to defeat a gigantic killer shark”.
In that one statement, we have the lead character’s problem, (which is further complicated by his fears), the conflict, and a problem to solve. Try to write the description of your plot using these same elements.
How to Start a Novel Plot thru Scenes
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, like even two minutes, you’ve heard the most often repeated writing advice ever: Show, Don’t Tell. So what exactly does this means for fiction writers?
Show means creating scenes. To write scenes we must show something happening, people talking, doing, or an event going on that is directly related to the rest of the story. A novel is a sequence of scenes that build upon each other from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Scenes reflect attitudes, that turn into motives, that meet resistance, creating conflict, and leading to consequences – that’s also part of the plot.
A scene may convey many things: attitudes, moods, settings, anticipation of what’s to come, even a reflection of what’s past, but first and foremost, every scene must do two things:
- Advance the plot by showing how one thing, motive, or action leads to consequences; they show what your story is about.
- Demonstrate the characters, i.e., help readers understand your character better—his primary and complex traits, emotions, and motives, etc.
When you’ve finished your novel, you should be able to describe for yourself (perhaps by writing a novel outline) what each scene does for the story, i.e., how did it develop the characters, what action did it show that led toward consequences.
How to Start a Novel with Outer and Inner Plots
The Jaws plot description is also a good example of a story that has an outer plot and an inner plot (not the same as a subplot). The outer plot is the big main problem to solve but it can be complicated by adding an inner plot. In Jaws, the lead character must find a way to triumph over the killer whale (outer plot), but before he can do that effectively, he has to deal with his fear of the ocean (inner plot). Adding an inner plot can add complexity and interest to a story. In Jaws, the police chief has quite a challenge ahead!
How to Start a Novel with Scenes Not Exposition
We know that a scene must have some sort of action, conflict—something that both lets us get to know the characters better and advances the plot. Scenes move. A form of writing that describes something, like character background or what brought the story to where it is today, etc., is called exposition. Exposition does not move a story and it is not a scene.
Exposition is the act of relating information in a story by providing a description to the reader, i.e., telling the reader rather than showing the reader. It takes away from the movement of the story, i.e., it slows the story down; it takes the reader away from the main event.
Exposition is better off in an essay rather than a novel, but there are times that a little exposition is required. Providing a bit of history about a character – and only history that is essential to the story – may be a reason to dip into exposition. But keep it short. Exposition takes away from the movement of the story, and for that reason, some experts will tell you that 80% of your novel should be written in scenes and only 20% expository writing.
Another way to handle background is to spread out bits and pieces of it throughout the novel, perhaps incorporating it into a character’s thoughts or dialogue, or perhaps using one character to provide background information about another character through their thoughts and dialogue. The point is not to overburden your story with long-winded exposes – so as not to stop the forward movement of the story.
If you are learning how to start a novel and want to write a great plot with scenes that move your story, learn to write great scenes that show your character struggling with her conflicts, and keep writing those scenes right up until she solves her problem.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article and creating a plot for your story. Please leave me a comment below. I always answer back!