Stop the bus! This plot needs work!

Image from WANA Commons, by Cellar_door_films

I started working on a fantasy novel in August of last year. I was at home all day with a newborn baby and I had a great idea growing in my mind and I decided that I would need to get it written. I did a little bit of research and wrote out a one-page synopsis, then I jumped in and started writing. Unfortunately, I realized about a month ago that I had not put enough effort into the planning stage of the novel and I would have to do some serious legwork if I wanted to rescue this manuscript from the black hole that is my incomplete folder.

The story is set in a world similar to ancient north west Africa and the plot is loosely based on the fall of the Wagadu Empire. I realised, about 37,000 words in, that I was quickly loosing track of my characters and their goals were getting fuzzy. I didn’t know where the novel was going.

I wasn’t prepared to throw out the whole thing and start again, because I think I have some good work in there and I’m not prepared to give up those words. Not yet.

What did I do? I read.

Step One

I started with a revision of the Heroes Journey, the 12-step structure of mythical stories that just about every novel I can name adheres to. The official definition, from the link above, is:

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.  It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

I got out some colorful pencils and sketched it out for myself:


Step Two

The next thing I did was to write out my plot according to the three act structure.

This is very important, I wanted my story to have a tight, compelling and satisfying structure. I want readers to be drawn in by the flow of the story as the characters move through the world. I needed to make sure that I had my three acts properly laid out from the beginning.



Step Three

My third step was to write out character sheets for each of my main characters, outlining their personal journey (external and internal) through story. This is their master-sheet, who are they, what are their positive and negative traits, how does the story change them?




Step Four

At this point I knew where my story was going, and where my characters were going. My next step was to write each of the two main characters’ stories into the three act structure. I included major points from the Heroes Journey as well. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how well these two structural archetypes meshed.



Step Five

Finally, I grabbed a stack of index cards and wrote the plot out on them, marking major elements such as Act breaks, threshold and abyss moments.



At this point I had a crystal-clear picture of the outline of this novel. I compared my plan with my existing work, moved a few things around, and voila! I didn’t have to delete a thing!

I am finding that I actually have more fun writing this story now, it is easier to see the flow and enjoy the shape of the narrative. I’m even discovering new skills as I go along.

I hope this helps you, if you find yourself staring at a novel that is getting away from you.

Do you have any tips or tricks for when you need to re-plan a work in progress?





2 thoughts on “Stop the bus! This plot needs work!

  1. I like how you outline. I use an Excel worksheet to do my outlines, but I always like authors such as yourself grabbing sheets of paper and notecards, work out the character sheets, plot, acts, individual chapters, etc. It’s a lot of fun and inspiring to see these.

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