Plotting Fiction: How To Write A Better Novel (You Need 2 Plots)

You’re plotting fiction and you’re ready to give up on your plot. Plotting fiction can be a challenge, but it’s easier when you learn a simple secret.

Here it is: you need two plots, rather than one.

Plotting fiction: your two plots

When you work with two storylines/ plots, it will make plotting a novel (or a short story, for that matter) easier and more fun. Readers will enjoy your fiction more, and that translates to sales.

Here’s why.

In fiction, you have (at least) two major storylines

Your two plots:

  • The external plot is what happens.
  • The internal plot is what your main character, or characters, think about what happens.

In some genres, the external plot is primary: thrillers, for example. However, in other genres, the internal plot is primary: women’s fiction and any form of romance, for example.

That said, ALL genres, without exception need both. It’s common for beginning writers to “plot”, focusing on the external story line. That’s fine, in a first draft. However, as soon as possible, you need to pay attention to the internal plot/ storyline too.

When plotting fiction, the “character arc” is a story line

The internal storyline is often referred to as the “character arc”, but I’ve never thought that that was a particularly useful construct.

For example, in the novel that I’m currently working on, a romance, I realized this morning that something wasn’t right. The main character’s internal storyline wasn’t working. I could get it to work, but that would require an extra 20,000 words, and it would throw off the pacing. Or instead, I could start the story earlier, and revise what I’d written to reflect that.

So, I decided to revise. Luckily, the revisions will be minor, because the major character isn’t aware of the importance of what happened earlier (backstory.) So, I’ll write a single scene to start the novel, bringing a little backstory alive. In addition, I’ll need to revise the internal storyline (character arc) to reflect that. Since I’m halfway through the novel, that means a week of work, but it will make the story more entertaining.

Although I’m not a fan of revising in the middle of a first draft, I decided to do it anyway. It’s the only way I can get the internal plot to work—and the novel to work, for that matter.

Plotting fiction: two plots tell the story

Think about the books you’ve loved: the Harry Potter series, for example. Do you remember the plot of each of the books in the series, or do you remember the characters?

Famous novelist and academic E.M Forster offered this brilliant definition of plot:

The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot.’

The king’s death is plot 1. The internal story of the main character (whoever he or she is) is plot 2.

Simply recounting events, which newbie fiction authors tend to consider a “plot”, is unsatisfying to readers: you’re only telling half of the story. You end up with cardboard characters. Readers complain, give your novel low ratings, and they won’t buy your next book.

Chances are that while you’re writing, you’re aware that your plot isn’t working, but you don’t know how to fix it. The solution is to look at your main character’s internal storyline.

You’ll find that your plotting becomes easier, once you start thinking of your plot as two strands, intertwined.

Of course, sometimes you have three strands to braid together.

What happens when you have three plots/ storylines?

Some genres have more than two strands to the plot. Mysteries and thrillers for example have three. The crime, or disaster, is a storyline of its own. Your murderer, or evil antagonist, has his own internal and external storyline.

Is this sounding way too complicated?

Relax. When you’re writing, write.

Later, when you’ve finished your writing session for the day, think about your story, and think about your internal plotline. It helps to map out the second (main character’s internal) plot separately from the main plot (what happens.)

Try using Trello for this; or create a mind map. I like to do both. I find that the more I think about the internal plotline, the more ideas I get for the external.

You’ll find that with two plotlines, plotting fiction becomes more satisfying: you’re telling the whole story.

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