Does plotting scare you? Do you find yourself wasting valuable words and time writing boring, unrelated scenes that you know you’ll just cut later? Do you have a great idea for a story, but aren’t sure what events should happen when in your plot?
Never fear, The Writersaurus is here, and we’re going to build a plot skeleton!
Novels are typically 70,000 – 90,000 words long, with about 60 scenes.The more successful an author is, the longer their books are, because publishers know their work will sell and will accept longer manuscripts. For example, the first Harry Potter book was only about 76,000 words long, while the fifth one comprised nearly 260,000 words!
For new authors, it’s important to keep the word count as low as possible. Traditional publishers are more likely to buy it, and readers are more likely to take a chance on an unknown author and read it.
But how does one use this knowledge to their advantage when plotting, writing, or editing their manuscript?
My friends, today we’re going to break down to the barest, most basic structure of a novel. This is a skeleton you can build on, adding backstory, character development, and minor plot points.
3 Major Acts
All stories have 3 basic acts – the beginning, the middle, and the end.
Act 1 (the beginning) – Act one will start with plot point 1, and end with the midpoint plot point. Act one contains as little backstory as possible. Act 1 will comprise about 25% of the novel, and about 15 scenes averaging 1,500 words per scene.
Act 2 (the middle) – Act two comprises the meat of the story. It begins directly after the midpoint plot point. It contains as much backstory as necessary (but not more) to develop character and explain motivations. It contains all the stories minor plot points and ends with Plot Point 3. Act two comprises 50% of the novel, about 30 scenes, averaging 1,500 words per scene.
Act 3 (the end) – Act three contains the Final Plot Point. It contains the climax, the resolution, and the end. It should contain no backstory. Act 3 comprises 25% of the novel or less, 15 scenes, 1,500 words per scene.
(Note: since writing this post, I have personally shifted my allegiance from the traditional 3-act plot structure to the simpler, more user-friendly 4-Act model. If you’d like to know more about 4-act plot structure, click here. The principles in this post are the same – simply change the percentages accordingly!)
Plot Points – ‘Story Bones’
We also must know what our major plot points are, and where they have to go relative to the rest of the manuscript. According to developmental editor Jessica Morrell in her book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, A book must have at least 4 major plot points:
Plot Point 1 – This plot point is the incendiary incident that starts it all. This event changes the MC’s life – without this event, they would simply carry on with their normal, everyday life. It’s the first domino that sets events in motion. Plot point 1 needs to happen as close to the beginning as possible, at least within the first scene – don’t lose readers in pages and pages of backstory. You want them to get to that hook ASAP.
Example: In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka Announces that he has hidden five golden tickets inside chocolate bars all over the world.
Midpoint Plot Point (Plot Point 2) – The midpoint plot point ends act one. It is usually a profound change of circumstances for the characters; after this event, things can never go back to the way they were before.
Example: Charlie Bucket finds a golden ticket. His life will never be the same afterwards.
Minor Plot Points – Minor plot points comprise the bulk of Act Two. They represent complications standing between the character and their goal, and help develop and reveal personality and character motivations. They’re not necessarily essential to the plot, but they make it a hell of a lot more interesting, and keep the reader reading.
Example: All the bad children fail to make it to the end of the tour due to their own specific character flaws.
Plot Point 3 – Plot point three is a reversal of fortune, the MC’s situation now seems dire and hopeless.
Example: Willy Wonka tells Charlie that because he drank the fizzy soda when he wasn’t supposed to, he is no longer entitled to receive his prize.
Final Plot Point (Plot Point 4) – The resolution; how the characters triumph.
Example: Charlie returns the everlasting gobstopper to Willy Wonka, proving that he is good and not selfish, and worthy to inherit the chocolate factory.
So What Does This All Mean?
So how do we use this information to plot and structure our story? By following the steps below, you’ll create an outline to help guide your writing. BONUS: having a rough idea of what your scenes are and how long they need to be will help you avoid writing pointless, unrelated, and boring scenes you’d only cut later (lengthy waking up / breakfast scenes, anyone?)
Step 1 – write out your plot points. If you don’t know what your story’s plot points are and haven’t got a clue where to start, please read my post about developing good plot points. Expect to ‘spend’ an average 1,500 of your allotted 70,000 – 90,000 words on each plot point scene.
Step 2 – what needs to happen between the plot points? Go through and write out all the minor events that need to happen between the plot points. These are your scenes. Decide how many words you want to spend on each one.
A good strategy is to aim for 15 1,500 word scenes in act 1, 30 1,500 scenes in act 2, and 15 1,500 word scenes in act 3. These numbers are based on averages, and are arbitrary, but they’re a good place to start! You can always adjust them later if you find you write longer or shorter scenes.
Step 3 – decide if you need to add or omit anything – If you don’t feel like you can stretch the events you’ve written down into 70,000 words, first decide if there’s enough to your story to make a whole novel – maybe it would be a better short story or novella. If you still think you’ve got a novel, brainstorm more minor plot points. Ask yourself if you can stretch any of the scenes out – but only if you think you can do it and still have a compelling scene!
If you’re going over the 90,000 word mark, see if you can combine any events into a single scene, or omit the event altogether. Always ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen if I left this out altogether?
Download the free Novel Bones Worksheet below to see an example of how this will look when you’re done. You can also print it out and keep it in your story bible or notebook.