how to plot a novel

Sometimes, linear writing does not come easy to me.

It’s Throwback Thursday

It’s Throwback Thursday, and I’m reprinting a post on linear writing that originally appeared five years ago. The concept of every story being different is still true. Sometimes, extensive plotting is required. Sometimes, you put your head down and jump in. I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’d be lying.
p.s. The short story mentioned is still on my hard drive. It morphed from a short story to part of a trilogy, all three subplots occurring simultaneously. I still don’t know how I’ll pull that off.

Linear writing doesn’t always mean linear plotting.

Linear writing doesn’t always mean linear plotting. In the debate of pantser vs. plotter, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being I’ll figure this out later and 10 equaling a hundred page outline), I’d put myself at about an 8. Yes, I’ll admit to creating a spreadsheet or two in my time, but I don’t always know what will happen three chapters from now. I generally have an idea, and I know that P, Q, and R have to happen before Z, but sometimes T, U and V are a bit hazy.

Sometimes, linear writing does not come easy to me.I’m having a haziness problem with the short story I’m working on. You’d think, with a short story, I’d have the opposite problem. With fewer words, scenes and subplots, the way to Z should be clear. Alas, not so much.

Being early solved my plot problem

Last Saturday, I attended a writing retreat. As providence would have it, I misjudged when it started, which left me with an hour of free time. Luckily, I had a fresh legal pad with me. I set out defining the GMC (goal, motivation and conflict)  of my main character, Ray. It didn’t take me too long to realize he lacked two of the three. I played the old game of  “Why does he want it?  Why does he really want it? and Why does he secretly, deep down, maybe-he-doesn’t-know-why want it?” I discovered a lot of his history which probably won’t make it into the story, but it sure as hell gave me his motivation. After that, his conflict was clear. What or who has the power to stop him?

Aliens are my go-to antagonists whether I am linear writing or not.I played this game with his antagonists, the aliens. Yes this is an alien story. I discovered they are my go-to antagonists. After I’d clarified their GMC, I realized they and old Ray have the same antagonist. This brought a third major character (or entity) into the story. There’s all kinds of secret keeping, double dealing and tension that wasn’t in the story before.

This is called the crunch. The juicy element that pulls you in and keeps you in. The bite to the story.

A new way of writing

I know the final scene. The challenge is, I will have to write it in an entirely different way than I normally do, which is linear writing, the comfort of A to Z. In order to preserve the twist, this will be a C, K, R, F kind of story. Non linear. Very Inception-like. Benjamin Button. Look here. No, over there.

I’ve turned to a new page on my legal pad and am working through the GMC of the three main characters and what scenes are crucial for each. I’m sure I’ll have to write them out of sequence then patchwork them together later.

It’s not quite pantsing. It’s a little scary, but it’s the way I wrote my very first story. I woke from a dream with a vivid ending. I didn’t know the characters, I surely didn’t know what GMC was, but I knew I had to get them to Z.

How do you write, and how do you get to Z?



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Story Genius' core message is to know your character's why. It emphasizes the importance of the author's knowing the origin of the main character's world viewpoint.

For this month’s contribution to #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, I’m reviewing Story Genius by Lisa Cron. A member of one of my Facebook groups recommended it to me.

Story Genius’ Core Message

Story Genius’ core message is to know your character’s why. The author emphasizes the importance of you knowing the origin of your main character’s world viewpoint. Story Genius' core message is to know your character's why. It emphasizes the importance of the author's knowing the origin of the main character's world viewpoint. What specific event happened before the story started that has significantly driven all of her life decisions?

The “Know Your Why” concept is something I explored in my book, The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel, in the chapter “5 Whys”. A member of my former writing group, Lisa, always drilled down to the character’s motivation. She force me to answer why they make current decisions based on a specific turning point in their early life.

For example, in an unpublished work of mine, the main character, Naomi, is fiercely loyal to her adopted family. She makes wrong and unethical decisions to salvage her brother’s reputation. Her “Why”? Peeling through the layers of her past, at age eight, she witnessed her birth parents’ murder/suicide. She vowed to do anything necessary to thank her adoptive family for taking her in. She validated their decision with her loyalty. This causes multiple problems from the start of the story, pushing her through the rabbit hole of bad decisions. Ultimately, she has to question her misbelief to attain her true goal.

Questions the author asks you to ask your characters

My very first, official writing conference I attended was Deb Dixon’s, based on her book, GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict: The Building Blocks of Good Fiction. Since then, I’ve always looked at my character’s motivation, but Story Genius, asks you to look further and question more.

  • What early event changed your character’s view on the world?
  • How did it form a false belief  that has stopped him from getting what he really wants?
  • What inciting event at the story’s start pushes against his misbelief and causes him to make more and more wrong decisions as the story progresses?
  • What ultimately forces him to confront his misbelief and allows him to reach his goal?

Story Genius, the Subtitle:

How to Use brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel

The book’s subtitle is misleading. While the author touches on how humans are hardwired for story, she did not delve deep enough into the biology of explaining how our beliefs affect our behavior. For the best, in-depth explanation on that theory, pick up a copy of The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton.

The Biology of Belief does a much better job of explaining how our beliefs affect our behavior than Story Genius

In Conclusion

Story Genius reinforces a story tool I’ve used since the beginning: the character’s “Why” matters and drives the plot. I have not sharpened this tool lately, as I tend to gallop from one plot point to another. I now have to step back, ask questions, and make it clear to myself and my readers why my character makes the decisions she does. If I can bring her “Why” to the forefront, I’ll have a realistic, flawed character the reader can identify with.

What do you think?

Do you explore your character’s background before writing? How deep do you go? I hate character interviews. Who cares if she hated chocolate milk in the second grade? (unless her classmates teased her, warping her sense of friendship that carries on into adulthood, and clouds her view of society). See, that’s what I’m talking about.

Please comment if an event in your character’s past (B.S., before story) shapes the decisions he makes A.S. (after story).

More about #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop is a monthly blog hop for authors who want to learn more about being authors.

#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop is a monthly blog hop for authors who want to learn more about being authors. Held the third Wednesday of the month, the members participate with “posts related to the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, blogging tips for authors, reviews of author-related products, anything that an author would find helpful.” If you would like to learn more or become a member, go here.

I’ll be back in July with another AuthorToolBoxBlogHop tip, and twice a week (fingers crossed) with other writing information and happenings in my life.



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The Hero's Journey makes the perfect skeleton for an outline. Find out more at

For today’s AtoZChallenge, the letter J is for The Hero’s Journey.

The Hero's Journey makes the perfect skeleton for an outline. Find out more at

The Hero’s Journey makes the perfect skeleton for an outline.

Yes, I know. The Hero’s Journey starts with an “H”, not a “J”, but I’m taking a little creative license. Can you think of a “J” related writing tip? Didn’t think so.

I’m also saving myself some time, as I and my writing partner wrote about the Hero’s Journey in our book, The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel:

The Hero’s Journey

This is nothing new. If you’ve read The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or if you seen Star Wars, then you’ve experienced the familiar progression of the Hero’s Journey. It’s the classic set up and plot progression of story telling. I find that this method of plotting makes the perfect skeleton for an outline. And if I need to see where a story is going or why it’s falling flat, the Hero’s Journey is the perfect tool.

If you want to find the strictest, most respected version of the Hero’s Journey, I recommend reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces or his The Power of Myth.   Another popular source is Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. There is a huge variety of articles and websites dealing with the Hero’s Journey, some containing as many as 17 steps, but the whole thing really boils down to the following:

The Hero in His Normal World

This is where you introduce your reader to the protagonist and his normal life. It should give your reader the chance to relate to the character, and find something likeable about him or her.

This is a good place to introduce some of your character’s inner or external problems. Think of Luke Skywalker at the beginning of Star Wars. Luke had two problems: a deep desire to go to school and get out into the world, and the desire to be trusted as something more than a witless boy.

Notice that Luke’s ordinary world is not like our ordinary world. It doesn’t have to be. But audience gets to see him before he goes off to save the cosmos, and so we have a chance to relate to him and his problems.

Please, do not linger in the normal world too long. Your reader probably doesn’t want to slog through four paragraphs about the room in which we find the hero (think Dickens). Give a picture of the normal world as fast as you can, or sprinkle parts of it into the rest of the story.

The Hero Receives a Call to Adventure

The call isn’t always polite.

Sometimes your hero gets dumped into the adventure. However, if your hero has the choice to take the adventure or leave it to someone else, there has to be a compelling reason for the protagonist to interrupt his or her normal life and have the adventure in your story. Dorothy got dumped into her adventure by a tornado. James Bond chooses to live his adventures because it’s part of his devil-may-care nature and because he has a duty to Her Majesty. There’s a difference, but one way or the other, the hero needs a good reason to leave the comforts of his or her normal life.

The Hero Refuses the Call

Okay, maybe she doesn’t refuse, but she feels great reluctance.

This isn’t always true, but if you can work it into your story, it serves to heighten the tension. Some adventures have scary results, and your protagonist can’t be stupid (because, unless he’s Forrest Gump, your readers won’t root for him), so he or she is probably going to turn down the opportunity the call presents.

Another possibility is that adventure has called, but your hero has obligations and duties in his normal world. It might sound good to run off to the Amazon with the fetching Ms. Jane, but he can’t because his father’s business is on the verge of collapse and he must stay home and work long hours to save it.

And don’t forget that someone else might turn down the call on behalf of the hero. In The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, Lucy turned down her call to adventure because her siblings told her the call didn’t exist.

One call characters find difficult to resist is death. If dying or a near-death experience lands your character into the world of adventure, he can’t really refuse. But she might deny that it’s happening to her. Or she may refuse to cooperate for a length of time.

When the Hero Refuses the Call, a Mentor Steps in to Encourage Him

The rule when it comes to this part is that a good Mentor never, ever forces the hero into following the call to adventure. However, the Mentor will make the hero see that terrible things will happen if he doesn’t take the call. And a really good mentor helps the hero get ready for things to come by giving the hero a talisman, a book of codes, the answers to riddles, or the perfect gadget that will later save the hero by the skin of his or her teeth.

If your hero is facing more conflict than he has the motivation to overcome, killing off the mentor boosts motivation. It also gives your protagonist greater hero status if he accomplishes the goal without handholding from the mentor.

Crossing the First Threshold

This is where the protagonist decides to go for it. He or she might get pushed into the adventure by an external force, or they might decide to go for their own reasons like the realization that Mr. Right is a cheating, lying two-timer. But whatever the reason is, this is where the decision has been made and the adventure will begin in earnest.

This doesn’t always mean that the hero has a straight and easy path. There can be obstacles for him to make it across the threshold. His wife may be holding him back. He may lack the training that he needs. He may have a powerful enemy that has some sort of pre-knowledge of his arrival and has taken precautions to prevent his entry into the new world. An accidental hero usually doesn’t face too many impediments to his or her arrival in the world of adventure, but the noble, god-like hero may have to overcome obstacles to his or her world saving presence.

The New World

The hero may still be living in the same apartment he or she has always lived in, but life is now different. Now she must see things in a different light. She may realize that her friends are not who they seemed to be, or that her boss is a snoop. She finds out who her allies are, who her enemies are, and if the rules have changed.

This is where your spy hero is gathering information. This is where your warrior is finding a place to rest later in the story. Sherlock Holmes always smoked or did a little opium at this point. He had a case to solve, he had some facts in hand, and so he sent Doctor Watson out to get more information while he “contemplated” the facts.

Approach the Inner Cave

He’s in it now. Your hero has arrived, and last minute preparations are made before he faces the great battle. This is where David is gathering stones to kill Goliath. He’s already faced his nasty brothers, he’s heard the taunting of the Philistines, and he’s convinced the king to let him fight, but he still has to get his stuff together. The king is trying armor on him that doesn’t fit. The generals are bombarding him with strategy points. And David has to find a minute to go to the brook and find his stones.

Your hero must realize his situation. He needs to know what rides on his success or failure. He and your reader need to feel the weight of this moment. The consequences of failure must be dire, or nobody will care.

Now this doesn’t mean that your hero has to be excited about his plight. He may still be reluctant to go to the “inner cave,” that stronghold of the enemy or that firing line he must face. Your hero may need extra incentive to face the enemy. Extra incentive can be the death of the mentor at the hands of the enemy. It can be his memory of his dying mother’s wish. But whatever it is, it has to resonate with the hero and the reader. Here lies a great opportunity to give the reader greater insight into the hero’s mind – what really motivates him or her.

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT let the inner cave be what the reader and the hero are expecting.

The diabolical maniac bent on world domination has to have some evil curve balls to throw at the hero – perhaps he gets inside the palace only to find that the evil overlord has kidnapped the hero’s mother and she must be rescued before he can blow the place to smithereens, or maybe he gets in the enemy’s camp only to find that they are slowly starving several prisoners of war originally thought to be killed in action. Whatever it is, your hero has to be taken off guard by something, and it’s better if that certain something instills a greater sense of urgency.

The Ordeal – When the Hero Faces his Greatest Challenge

Everything has been leading up to this moment. Here the hero and the reader are witnesses to the sacrifice. They can taste death or defeat in the air. The hero must be in maximum danger, and can even appear to die.   The experience must change or transform the hero in his own eyes. He has to come of this with a new sense of self.

In this section the villain is seen differently through the hero’s eyes. She must see a dark reflection of herself when she looks at the villain. Part of her greatest fears come to life in what she sees in the villain. She might vanquish the villain here, but she cannot kill him. The villain must live on to be confronted again later. Now, if the villain is one of the gods, then an earthly representative might get killed off because the gods can make anyone a pawn of their plans. But if the villain is real and tangible, then he or she may need to escape death in order to be brought back at the climax of the story.

In a romance, this is the part of the story where love may be betrayed or may be consummated for the first time. This is when the hero puts his or her whole heart on the line.


Now our hero gets to enjoy a little success. He has survived. She has put her heart on the line and won. And the audience gets to catch its breath. In an action adventure, this is where the hero recognizes that he is special or different. He may still see where he’s made mistakes, but he also sees that he has a purpose in this new world.

This part has to be short lived. Celebrate the success too long, and you’ll lose your audience. There has to be some conflict mixed in here so the reader wants to continue with the story. Think of Forrest Gump – he makes it out of Vietnam, and the audience is thrilled, but while we watch Forrest win ping-pong tournaments and start his shrimping business, we still want to know about Jenny. That little bit of unresolved business keeps the audience in the game.

The Road Back

Now something sucks your hero right back into the adventure. The villain comes back for revenge. The hero must pull himself together after the tragedy of the last crisis. Or a sudden catastrophe tosses everything into action again.

Again, this section is rather short. Don’t linger too long.

The Resurrection. The Climax. The Last Big Hoopla. The Big Black Moment

Now the hero faces a greater challenge than he’d ever dreamed of. He cannot be saved by anyone but himself in this section. It’s the big showdown, and he or she must be fighting for their life. Here we see where their growth as a person through the rest of the story comes into play so that they can overcome the last big obstacle. Attitude is everything here, and the hero might be tempted to give up, but he perseveres.

Remember when the Pevensy children fought in the big battle towards the end of The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe? Everything the children suffered through, witnessed, and trained for up to that point prepared them to fight in that battle. They are still kids, and they are scared, but they do their part because they’ve been conditioned by everything else that has happened. Furthermore, everything prior to that point in the book builds up their motivation to take such a big risk.

This is the part of the book where you may kill off your hero if you must

But only if it’s for a noble cause, and only if the story is over. If you’re Tom Cruise and you die in Valkyrie, it might be okay. But if you’re Willy Wonka, you cannot. I keep waiting for James Bond to die. He can’t live forever, and I’ll be really sickened if he dies for no reason later. He needs to die for his cause, and needs a noble death. Or, if he gets to die in his own bed as an old man full of years and heroic deeds, he must die holding a major secret that everyone wanted to know.

The hero’s triumph in this stage is most complete when the original problem in the story has come back to haunt her (perhaps her mother’s condescending voice comes back to tell her she can’t handle things, she isn’t capable, she’s in trouble and she deserves it) – only now she can do things or make decisions that she couldn’t make before. She’s stronger now, and she can handle it. This makes the hero look bigger and better and stronger than ever before.

The Return

This is where the hero gets back to his or her normal life – only it needs to be the “new normal.” She must be changed somehow, and even if her life looks like it did before, she has to be better prepared to live it and have something new to offer those around her.

Some people like to talk about the hero returning to the ordinary world with a boon or treasure to make that world better. If you’re in a sci-fi/magical place, that might be okay, but for a “normal” setting, I don’t think it has to be anything tangible. The hero’s shift in attitude may be all that’s needed.   When Stella got her groove back, she didn’t have something physical in evidence. It was attitude – all attitude. When Bruce Almighty became simply human again, he came back with prayer beads and a whole lot of humility and appreciation.

An attitude shift is one of the most satisfying boons a hero can return with. Peace can turn to war in an instant. Magic potions and powers can be lost or stolen. Treasures are really nice, but they too can be lost. Make sure your hero returns with more than something external, and you’ll make your story more satisfying.

So there you have it – The Hero’s Journey in a nutshell.

Look for it in movies that you watch and books that you read. Study how other writers manipulate it. (Remember that the steps don’t always come in the order given.) And try it for yourself.

Thursday’s #AtoZChallenge* will focus on the letter “K”.

#AtoZChallenge is a blogging challenge that takes place in the month of April.

#AtoZChallenge is a blogging challenge that takes place in the month of April.

Blessings until then,


If you’d like to continue reading my entries in the AtoZChallenge* and to receive my blog posts, please use the entry form to the right. Also sign up for my newsletter, and you’ll receive a FREE copy of my short story, Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, Mr. Alien.

If you know of someone who would enjoy learning more about The Hero’s Journey, use the buttons on the left to share this post. Thank you.

*#AtoZChallenge is a blogging challenge that takes place in April (except on Sundays). Participants blog every day around a theme of their choosing, in alphabetical order. Throughout the month of April, I’ll share tips, links, and insights I’ve learned in my writing career.





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