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For quite a while I worked on writing a novel. After that went poorly, I tried to plot it. This too went poorly, but now, on the second attempt, it’s going pretty well. There’s just one problem.

I have no idea what kind of plot this is.

I didn’t follow any established plot structure thus far. My process has consisted of writing down my already established plot points on notecards, then putting them in order. After doing that, I would add notecards with whatever new ideas came to mind.

However, I’ve come to the point where I no longer know how to go forward, and most of the advice I found seemed to expect that I had a particular plot template in mind. That is, things like Freytag’s Pyramid or Hero’s Journey, etc.

So! The question is this: how do I take the “plot” I have now and determine what plot structure would fit it best? I know the genre of the setting, but I don’t know the genre of the story. That is, I’m not sure what model it should follow.

I have the beginning and the ending, as well as most of the things in the middle, but I worry that if I try to write the novel now with what I have, it will lack proper pacing.

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  • Hard to know what you expect from this question. "I no longer know what I’m doing" is very vague. What do you mean you don't know the plot? What do you mean by plot structure? Are you unsure how the story is going to end? Are you unsure whether your story is a tragedy or a comedy?
    – thedude
    Nov 14, 2022 at 14:58
  • I’ve edited my question in an attempt to clarify what it is I’m asking. This is somewhat a situation of knowing the gist of what I want to ask but not how to word it. Let me know if there’s still anything unclear.
    – Lea
    Nov 14, 2022 at 15:17
  • How much detailed do you want in the structure? If you google "three act structure" there are some examples where they further subdivide each act in 3 or more events/waypoints (e.g. here). There's some answers going in detail about it on this site as well (but I haven't had luck finding the one I was thinking of, yet).
    – user54131
    Nov 14, 2022 at 16:58
  • It may be helpful to give us some details of the plot, such as the main characters and the central conflict of the story to help answer the question. Generally, all plots can be boiled down into three generic plots: (Man vs. Man, where the antagonist is another personified entity capable of rational thought and having morality, Man v. Nature, characterized by an antagonist that is a neutral force (like a storm or evironment) or an entity of or belonging to nature (such as an animal with no human traits ascribed), and Man vs. Self, (the limitation is self-imposed either mentally or physically
    – hszmv
    Nov 15, 2022 at 19:39
  • +A fourth and fifth type are Man v. Society or Man v. Machine. In the former, the antagonist is the society that opposes the nature of the protagonist on principle but is often immorally so, but rarely a conscious individual choice. In the later, either opposition exists through a creation of man that fails to respect the authority or purposes of its creator(s) and creation OR opposition by an unsyphathetic system as a result of automation. I tend to lump these in Man v. Man or Man v. Nature.
    – hszmv
    Nov 15, 2022 at 19:44

4 Answers 4

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How do I take the “plot” I have now and determine what plot structure would fit it best?

That's the exact opposite of a problem. Having all your plot sorted means it's time to write. Any other "pre-planning" is largely procrastination. Writing is a long journey... but it's probably the most fun you'll have on your whole goal... but like every journey, you need to take the first step.

I have the beginning and the ending, as well as most of the things in the middle, but I worry that if I try to write the novel now with what I have, it will lack proper pacing.

As a writer, better to have a poorly paced draft than no draft at all. You are your harshest critic. I am my own harshest critic. Write what you got into a cohesive story now... so what if it's not the Great American Novel. It's not likely to sell like Harry Potter anyway so don't worry about being the next hit. Get a draft done. Then, when you're done, give it to a few friends and family (especially if they are target audience) have them read it and give you feedback... and put it out of your head for a bit. A month at least. And understand that the criticism that you receive might be unintentionally insulting... but it should be coming from beta readers who are on your side (For example, one of my beta readers approached me and said she hadn't had time to read my book at all (sad face) but her son (who was in the target audience and was a beta reader) couldn't put his copy down and he never reads anything and that I needed to keep it up (given that my reason for writing is because I didn't read much when I was the son's age was because there were so few books in genre's I wanted to read... I was just writing things I would have loved to have read.). I also found out that his sister also loved the book and both of them were asking questions about plot elements I hadn't considered (Sister start shipping two characters I hadn't intended to have a romantic relationship based on their dialog... and the book had no real romantic plot arch at all cause I'm a terrible romance writer.).

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Allow me to chime in here with a non-professional opinion.
The meager educational contact I’ve had with whatever semantic field the plot notion belongs to is limited to one –or two, maybe– lecture(s) about the narrative arc and certain standardized types of characters, as part of an otherwise technical course about (short) video-editing, plus one couple-of-month-long course about narratives in general, but not as much in the context of story-telling as in that of semiotics.

Plus, I’m no native, which may seem irrelevant, but I’m providing this background info anyhow, so you get an idea of how come, despite my otherwise good command of English, I have no real grip on how much the plot concept includes in its scope: My own lack of further familiarity renders it somewhat ill-defined. So, in light of that, I hope you don’t mind me speaking in other (and in my view more graspable) terms.

You mention that you’ve come to the point where you “no longer know how to go forward”. This statement should preferably be re-defined in terms of what point your character(s) have come to: At least one of them has most likely been facing some kind of problem, the severity of which is not really relevant. It is, perhaps, a commonplace experience for Western World citizens to have some sort of epiphany about how shamefully trivial their own predicaments are, compared to the life-threatening perils elsewhere in the world that they read about in the news, but a novel is not journalism. And that’s partly the magic of literature: how it can turn the trivial to thrilling. It may be a magic of disputable value, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

Erk has already pointed out that structure-conformity is more decisive in movies than it is in [written] fiction. But let’s face it: it does offer certain “cheats” that can facilitate the aforementioned effect. Standardized character types, for example: protagonist, hero, antagonist, secondary characters that do not evolve, some deux ex machina, maybe. I’m not sure whether these are the same terms that are used in English texts about drama and narration theory, but the important thing is not to agree on terminology; rather to develop an understanding of the traits that define each type of character, function-wise.

I mentioned earlier that at least one of them is most likely facing some kind of problem: That’s your protagonist, right there. P, for brevity’s sake. If you want to go “by the book” (which will be my presumption for all “shoulds” and recommendations offered in this paragraph), the problem should be introduced after first having offered a somewhat “factual”, albeit fragmentary, perhaps, presentation of P’s identity. One chapter should suffice, just like five to ten minutes do in a movie. Then, as mentioned, comes the problem, which should gradually start culminating. This culmination should span throughout most of your story. Trivialities will do just as fine: Even my annoyance at not getting along with my neighbor can culminate into something unbearable. Of course, the focus may shift to other characters, or there may even be passages where P is entirely absent, but the reader/viewer should be… well… looking forward to hearing from him/her.

Whether or not your protagonist is also your hero is up to you. A hero is defined as having certain unchanging traits that somehow drive the story forward and, ultimately, contribute to the resolution of the protagonist’s troubles. Marvel’s superheroes, with their superpowers, is probably as close to a stereotypical example as one can conceivably come. In short, at the end of your story, the protagonist emerges as a “changed man”. The hero does not. What makes it even more interesting, though, is that these terms don’t actually refer to characters. They are mere functions, that can be either embedded into the same character (who, in that case, will emerge both changed and unchanged, depending on how you look at it), or allocated to different ones, as is the case, for example, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, where McMurphy is more of a hero, whereas chief Bromden is the actual protagonist.

So, have a look at your main character, and try to determine which of these two functions s/he serves. Or is it both? Even if your main character is just a hero, it is the protagonist’s culminating troubles that provide a time-axis, so to speak, for your story. In other words, an easy, “by the book” answer as to “how to go forward” is you go toward the resolution of whatever problem has been presented, be it trivial or severe; focal or, in less conventional structures, peripheral. Your main character, even if s/he is not the one facing the problem, should most likely play a part in resolving it. If that’s already done, then closing time is probably approaching. Just allow for some “breathing space” for a finish, where the reader can get a reassurance of normality having been restored, or perhaps even refined.

Disclaimer: The above should be read with a pinch of salt. And some popcorn.

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It seems Freytag's Pyramid and the Hero's Journey may not work for you. That's ok. They are quite specific theories anyway.

One way to go is to just write the first draft. That would mean you'd spend more time editing your text after you've written it rather than planning it before.

Once you have the text you can start thinking about structure.

Or, if you want to continue outlining, I suggest looking at the text using the three-act structure, as in; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That pretty much describes every text out there... perhaps with the exception of 69-word flashes.

It also describes most other methods, Freytag's Pyramid as well as the Hero's Journey. (Those just add more meat to the three-act skeleton).

The link above suggests the acts should have certain sizes (of course that's always secondary to the quality of the text). These sizes help create a text that isn't glossing over important setup, development, or resolution, nor lingers there for too long.

Worth noting is that the idea of the very strict sizing in the three-act structure comes from cinema and theatre where the audience is kept "hostage" in their seats until the whole thing is over. I.e. if you don't get interesting at certain intervals it will be a very painful experience indeed.

A novel is less dependent on structure. Of course, if a novel doesn't keep the pace up a reader may put it down and never come back ...

If you need help creating a three-act structure from your plot material, I suggest using the Snowflake Method. It will help you build plot and character (equally important) in increasingly complex increments. This allows for backtracking and fixing while the material is of a more manageable size. Me being critically allergic to a chaotic first draft finds this to be splendid.

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  • I actually tried the Snowflake Method once before, but that ended up becoming the failed plotting attempt, though I’ve since reworked the plot so I may take it up again. Also, I followed the three-act structure link you provided and kept reading, where I discovered the Two Halves of Each of the Major Plot Points… thing, which I found to be very helpful, though I haven’t finished reading about it.
    – Lea
    Nov 15, 2022 at 2:54
  • @Lea, I hope you enjoy it. She has a lot to say about the subject and tons of links to get lost in. (I don't think you'll ever finish reading about these things...) With regards to the Snowflake, I think your best bet is to pick what you find works, discard what doesn't work, and just come up with your own method. Pretty much everyone has to if they want to finish a book.
    – Erk
    Nov 17, 2022 at 2:26
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If you are worried about pacing, go with the 3 act structure.

This is not a prescription, the 3 act structure is a description. It was derived by analyzing hundreds of successful stories, and noting where the turning points are, when things happen basically. It is all about pacing, and that is what you are worried about.

It really isn't exactly three acts; it divides the story into 8 roughly equal parts. Act I, Act IIa, Act IIb, Act III, each divided in two.

The first half of Act I introduces our hero(es) in her normal world, and lasts about 1/8 of the book. We (readers) learn how the normal world works, how the hero approaches minor problems, we get to like her. At that point, there is an "inciting incident", a problem for the Hero, a discovery, an event or accident, a murder, whatever.

The second half of Act I is our hero dealing with the inciting incident, but their initial attempts fail and the problem escalates: The hero is forced to leave her normal world in order to solve the problem.

We progress through the story in this fashion, Act IIA introduces complications, the hero must learn the new world, and at the midpoint of the story, things look pretty bad. Act IIB, we start de-complexifying, problems are solved, or do their worst. Often near the end of Act IIb, it seems all is lost, and the hero must risk everything in some heroic effort to succeed.

That happens in Act III, the conclusion, which itself usually ends with the hero victorious, and either returning to her Normal World, or if that was impossible or destroyed, we see her established in her new Normal. Either way, the big bad introduced by the Inciting Incident has been put to rest.

In a series, that is not always true, it may be put to rest "for now".

For example, at the end of the first Star Wars (in filming order) Darth Vader is not completely dealt with, he goes off spinning out of control in his fighter. So the next movie, Darth is back, and the Resistance is put on its heels ("all is lost" or seems to be). And in the third movie, the Resistance is back and emerges victorious.

You don't have to look at the 3 act structure as an ironclad rule; it isn't. It is a statistical description of what best selling stories tend to look like. All the rules of the three act structure have been successfully broken; but in terms of pacing and story flow, it is one of the best guidelines for a beginner to use, as what consumers find entertaining, and how to avoid being boring.

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    I feel our answers complement each other nicely. (And I say this respectfully.)
    – m.a.a.
    Nov 15, 2022 at 22:12

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