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19 of the Best Books of 2021
A bookworm is happiest when they’re surrounded by books — both old and new. Undoubtedly, 2021 was a great year for both fiction and nonfiction, with bestsellers like Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Second Place by Rachel Cusk. Whether you read memoirs or young-adult (YA) novels, 2021 was a fantastic year for book lovers. While we can’t squeeze in all of our favorites from 2021, we’ve rounded up a stellar sampling of must-reads. Here’s some of the year’s best books.
“Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner
In her profound memoir Crying in H Mart , Michelle Zauner shares an unflinching view of growing up as a Korean American person — all while reflecting on losing her mother to terminal cancer. Author Dani Shapiro notes that the Japanese Breakfast musician “has created a gripping, sensuous portrait of an indelible mother-daughter bond that hits all the notes: love, friction, loyalty, grief.”
“The Prophets” by Robert Jones, Jr.
In Robert Jones, Jr.’s lyrical debut novel, The Prophets , Isaiah and Samuel are two enslaved young men who find refuge in each other — and their love becomes both sustaining and heroic in the face of a vicious world. Entertainment Weekly writes that “While The Prophets’ dreamy realism recalls the work of Toni Morrison… Its penetrating focus on social dynamics stands out more singularly.” Now that’s a compliment.
“The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman
At President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman read her electrifying poem, “ The Hill We Climb .” Since then, it has been praised for its call for unity and healing. Vogue captures the feeling of reading the poem well, calling it “deeply rousing and uplifting.”
“Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney
New York Times bestselling author Sally Rooney has returned with a sharp, romantic drama, Beautiful World, Where Are You . Two separate relationships are in chaos, threatening to ruin friendships. Vogue declares that the author has “invented a sensibility entirely of her own: Sunny and sharp.”
“Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir” by Ashley C. Ford
Ashley C. Ford’s coming-of-age memoir, Somebody’s Daughter , centers on her childhood. Ford, a Black girl who grew up poor in Indiana, recounts how her family was fragmented by her father’s incarceration. With rich, unflinching writing, Ford has penned a debut for the ages. The memoir’s publisher perhaps puts the core of the book best, noting that Ford “embarks on a powerful journey to find the threads between who she is and what she was born into, and the complicated familial love that often binds them.”
“Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo
Everyone remembers their first all-consuming love — and for Lily Hu, the teenage protagonist of Malinda Lo’s queer YA novel, that love is Kathleen Miller. Set in the 1950s in San Francisco, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is not just one of the year’s best, but one of Lo’s best. O: The Oprah Magazine notes that the novel is “proof of Lo’s skill at creating darkly romantic tales of love in the face of danger.”
“¡Hola Papi!” by John Paul Brammer
In his memoir, ¡H ola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons , advice columnist John Paul Brammer delves into his experiences growing up as a queer, biracial person. The Los Angeles Times writes that “Brammer’s writing is incredibly funny, kind, and gracious to his readers, and deeply vulnerable in a way that makes it feel as if he’s talking to only you” — and we couldn’t agree more.
“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers
In Morgan Rogers’ novel Honey Girl , Grace Porter is an overachiever — and certainly not the type of person to marry a stranger in Las Vegas. Or, at least, she didn’t think she was that type of person. As Grace navigates the messiness of adulthood, Rogers takes us on a journey that’s both heartfelt and unflinching, illustrating that love is all about risks — even when it comes to loving ourselves.
“Aftershocks: A Memoir” by Nadia Owusu
Nadia Owusu’s memoir, Aftershocks , reflects on her experience of being abandoned by her parents at a young age. Entertainment Weekly notes that “Owusu dispatches all of this heartache with blistering honesty but does so with prose light enough that it never feels too much to bear.”
“Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro
What if an artificial intelligence (AI) assistant had feelings? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun , Klara is an Artificial Friend who wonders if friendship is possible. The Financial Times called the Never Let Me Go author’s latest “a deft dystopian fable about the innocence of a robot that asks big questions about existence.”
“100 Boyfriends” by Brontez Purnell
Brontez Purnell’s romantic, intoxicating book, 100 Boyfriends , is a look at the romantic lives of queer men who are striving to find out not just where they belong, but where they can shine. Author Bryan Washington praised the collection, writing that “Each story in 100 Boyfriends is a minor eclipse: stunning in scope, technically blinding, and entirely miraculous.”
“One Last Stop” by Casey McQuiston
In Casey McQuiston’s big-hearted romance novel, One Last Stop , August meets Jane on a New York City subway — but she doesn’t realize just how fateful their chance encounter is at first. New York Magazine called the novel “an earnest reminder that home — whether that means a time, a place, or a person — is worth fighting for,” and we wouldn’t expect anything less from the Red, White & Royal Blue author.
“Afterparties: Stories” by Anthony Veasna So
In Afterparties , Anthony Veasna So weaves together tenderhearted stories about the lives of several Cambodian American characters. Although the stories vary quite a bit in terms of content, author George Saunders writes that they are all “powered by So’s skill with the telling detail,” and are much like “…beams of wry, affectionate light, falling from different directions on a complicated, struggling, beloved American community.”
“Malibu Rising” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Malibu Rising , readers meet four famous siblings as they throw their annual end-of-summer party in Malibu. However, over the course of 24 hours, family drama ensues. The Washington Post calls this read “a fast-paced, engaging novel that smoothly transports readers.”
“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion
Between 1968 and 2000, award-winning journalist and essayist Joan Didion wrote 12 pieces about a variety of well-known figures, ranging from Ernest Hemingway and Nancy Reagan to Martha Stewart. Now, these works have been gathered in the essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean . Bret Easton Ellis writes that Didion’s “prose remains peerless,” so, if you’re a fan of the iconic writer, this is a must-read.
“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura
Intimacies is Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, following 2017’s critically acclaimed A Separation . In it, an interpreter for the International Court at the Hague gets drawn into a political scandal after agreeing to translate for a former world leader and potential criminal. The novel is a fascinating investigation into the instability of language and how it influences identity. Dana Spiotta describes Intimacies as “a haunting, precise, and morally astute novel that reads like a psychological thriller.”
“Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters
In Detransition, Baby , Torrey Peters tells a witty and nuanced story about partnership, parenthood and identity. About the novel, Ginny Hogan from the New York Times states “[Detransition, Baby upends] our traditional, gendered notions of what parenthood can look like.”
“Second Place” by Rachel Cusk
In Rachel Cusk’s novel Second Place , a follow up to her brilliant Outline trilogy, a woman invites an artist she admires to live in her remote guesthouse for the summer. As the stay unfolds, a series of unexpected events spurs revelations about womanhood, marriage and security. About Second Place , Jenny Singer from Glamour writes “there is mayhem; surprising sweetness and brilliant observations tumble from every page.”
“Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore ” by Dan Ozzi
In Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore , rock critic Dan Ozzi traces the stories of eleven separate bands that transitioned from the indie scene to achieve mainstream success in the ‘90s. Including interviews and anecdotes from bands like Green Day, Jimmy Eat World and Blink-182, this is a must-read for any music lover.
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100 Plot Ideas
[PLEASE NOTE: Back when I wrote this in 2014, I had no earthly clue that it would land on a Reddit forum years down the road and become my #1 most read blog post. So thank you to those who have come here via Reddit. You’ll notice Curiouser Editing mentioned, which was the name of my company before I rebranded to simply Shayla Raquel .]
Today marks the 100th blog post for Curiouser Editing. What better way to celebrate than with a list? (Thank you, Mandy, for helping!)
Try these plot ideas to get your brain a’storming. Some are wild. Some are realistic. Others are just ludicrous. Some have been done before. The point is for you to tell the story differently. Ask yourself why when reading these. Have fun!
A world wherein employees work nonstop with no vacation—a riot ensues.
Books are printed in only gibberish, and the only man in the world who can read gibberish just died/is dying.
The world split in half—right down the middle—and no one knows why. The only scientist with answers has been kidnapped.
The president banned all national holidays.
America now has a king.
Someone found the cure for cancer, but the government won’t fund it and wants it kept a secret.
The world’s richest man is robbed by a 13-year-old girl, and no one can find her.
A nun is charged with infidelity and exiled.
A politician wins the hearts of millions, only for his secretary to find out he’s in the middle of an underground human trafficking organization.
A hunter discovers a new kind of precious stone, its value worth more than that of diamonds—but it has a secret toxin.
A plague takes over a small town and turns them into geniuses—with one fatal side effect…
A schizophrenic man gets Alzheimer’s and forgets his voices.
A woman receives her inheritance and loses it all in 24 hours.
At their annual family reunion, the elite Truetts learn they’ve been given truth serum.
The last man in the world goes on an adventure with his one-eyed cat.
A love note from her deceased husband forces Wanda to investigate further, especially since Waldo has been dead for thirty years.
Villains become heroes.
The door to another world is found by a young boy, only to be locked days later by a mysterious thief.
People live in a world without light.
The most detestable man and the most kind woman fall in love.
Someone infects all the animals in a zoo with a rabid-like disease and lets them loose.
A thief has one day to get rid of a cursed idol before the love of his life turns to dust.
Music is banned in the US.
A toxic perfume is sprayed onto the neck of a prime minister, thereby controlling him like a robot.
Cats are really aliens and have been watching us since the beginning of time. And when they find someone intelligent enough, they steal their souls and reincarnate them into alien cats.
Tree houses are really wormholes.
Monsters overtake London in a series of strange events and capture the queen for one purpose.
An archaeologist finds the remains of a new dinosaur.
The black market is no more, and people now legally sell off kidneys.
A deadly virus infiltrates American soil, “kills” others—but is believed to be a hoax created by the government.
World War I never happened.
A modern-day Hitler carries out his plan to murder every single person under the age of 22 in the world.
Rats take over New York City.
Religion is illegal in one state.
A killer recreates famous murders from Sherlock Holmes.
A man on death row holds the key to saving the world.
A freak accident at Disney World leaves hundreds dead—one sinister teenager is to blame.
A successful stock broker gives money to a poor man on the streets and eventually develops feelings for him.
A computer programmer sees information he isn’t supposed to.
A business executive gives up her millions to become a vagrant and live in the woods.
An ex-marine finds himself back in combat—twenty years later.
A dirty cop changes his ways after meeting a woman (who secretly is a dirty cop).
A wacky scientist creates a perfect clone of himself; the clone takes over his life until he is forced to consider suicide.
A superhero gives up his life of valor to become evil.
A blind man hires a chauffer to take him around the world.
An unexpected tornado hits Chicago.
An abused teen escapes her home and finds refuge in India.
Hundreds of men escape from a prison—but they all travel to the same place: Australia.
Antarctica is now a ridiculously wonderful place to live and has a population of 2.3 million.
A man falls in love with a woman at a funeral—her husband’s funeral.
An 11-year-old girl writes a romance novel and wins a writing contest—but she lied about her age.
Alice meets Willy Wonka, and they go to Wonderland.
A pharmacist switches around medication for weeks before anyone notices. But it was all part of her plan.
A young man masters lucid dreaming.
The world’s most beautiful woman marries the world’s ugliest man.
A lowly janitor is abducted.
A robot falls in love with his creator—but his maker tries to destroy him.
Tired of her mundane life, Jenny takes her life savings and spends it all on strangers.
An excavator befriends a mummy.
A spoiled but bored housewife orders her mansion to be destroyed and replaced by a theme park.
A basketball team is kidnapped and thrown into a house of horrors.
A curious man takes another look at Roswell, only to find overlooked evidence.
A poor family crash-lands onto an island that bestows upon them all of their wildest dreams.
An asthmatic woman hikes up a mountain to find her dog.
All illicit drugs are now legal, but people must pay for them with hard labor.
A pregnant woman goes to her appointment to be induced, only to find that the baby has completely disappeared from her bulbous tummy.
A cannibal seeks professional help from an ex-cannibal.
Grabbing the wrong briefcase, an elderly man inherits a rare jewel that belongs to the mafia.
Bored in her bed all day, a sick child entertains herself by writing stories about people—but the people are real and experience everything she writes.
A quadriplegic creates bionic limbs with the help of his mailman.
A faithful church member commits a heinous crime.
When their lodge is threatened by a snarky trust-fund kid, a group of elderly men retaliate.
War ensues, and six teenagers fight to stop it.
An assassin takes the day off.
A heroin-addicted teacher inherits a diary.
A widow adopts four orphans.
A young cop goes undercover and becomes part of an LA gang.
A deaf man falls in love with a famous singer.
After housesitting for a week, Lola feels there is more to her neighbors than she once thought, thanks to some strange utterings from their pet parrot.
A disfigured child saves a whole town.
A tax lawyer sells a corpse.
An investigative reporter falls in love with the criminal she’s investigating.
Some bored teenagers speed their time researching the moon landing, only to find an interesting secret.
A retired hit man is summoned for one last job he can’t resist.
Looking for excitement and maybe just a little bit of trouble, a young woman forms a street gang.
An explorer finds what he believes to be the remains of Amelia Earhart.
Going against his family’s wishes, an elderly gentleman goes on a hunt for his lost journal.
In the future, museums are quite the anomaly, until a certain kind of museum makes headlines with its featured piece: a Bible.
A nerdy teenager is the victim of blackmail.
A quiet store manager has three days to set off a bomb in his town, or his family dies.
A mysterious illness created by an introverted young girl affects an entire town.
A terminally ill boy saves a restaurant.
A sister and brother go on a mission trip to China.
The Internet is shut down for an entire year.
Someone creates a successful drug for obesity.
A goldfish with a wonderful memory and a forgetful elephant team up.
People now live on Mars, and it’s going great—until they aren’t allowed to leave.
A misunderstood old lady is accused of murder.
Mythical creatures aren’t so mythical anymore after a scientist creates them.
A grown man has an imaginary friend.
An expert editor, best-selling author, and book marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with writers every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has been in the publishing industry for ten years and specializes in self-publishing.
Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books.
She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist , “The Rotting” (in Shivers in the Night ), The Suicide Tree , #1 bestseller The 10 Commandments of Author Branding , and her book of poetry, All the Things I Should’ve Told You . In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, studies all things true crime, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her dogs, Chanel, Wednesday, and Baker.
Self-Publishing Mentor. Author. Speaker. Editor. Book Marketer.
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100 Creative Plot Ideas Organized by Genre
by GetPublished | Sep 17, 2019 | Blog , Writing
Table of Contents
Here are one-hundred plot ideas for when your mind is feeling frazzled and the noggin empty. Some of the plot ideas here are completely out of this world while others are down to earth. From dystopia to romance, to the cliché and outlandish, this list is sure to kickstart your imagination!
Overcome Writer’s Block With Some Fresh New Plot Ideas for Your Genre
Fantasy plot ideas.
First off, we have some fantasy plot ideas for all your magical needs!
- A mortal has been accidentally placed onto Olympus.
- Everyone is born with three wishes in life that they are not allowed to use until (input age here).
- A contest for the queen after the sudden death of said queen from a magical realm.
- The bridge between the realm of the fae and mortal shrinks with each day while tensions run high.
- You are the first and last person to discover the fountain of youth.
- You have lived for (insert time) but have run into the option to finally be set to rest, but (blank) makes you question what you truly want.
- You have lived many lifetimes, always in an endless cycle of birth and death, you finally find someone the same though.
- Each night you are woken by the shouts of sailors and deckhands, the ringing of bells, and the light. But no one else has seen or heard such things.
- Luck has become a hereditary trait.
- Imaginary friends have gone too far, now that friend is real… but something is totally off.
- “Familiars” play pivotal roles in society, the strength of said creature determines your fate.
Live your fantasy writing dream, or find a genre that you should write for !
Romance Plot Ideas
Maybe love will always find a way with these romance plot ideas. Or will everything go down in flames?
- She’s a world-class thief, he’s the lead investigator. At each crime scene, there’s a note left just for him.
- He’s rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and no one has ever been able to get close to him. All he cares about in life is perfection which he always is looking for in artwork and whatnot. But then an unruly, perfectly imperfect girl bumps into him, ruining the vase he’s bought while at a show.
- She has no care for love, all she cares about is ruling with an iron fist, making her the fearsome but prosperous boss nationwide. Her newest hire has all the skills needed and perfect in every aspect, but then she’s discovered to be sent by her rival… what will she do?
- She’s motivated by blood and money and will take nearly any contract if there’s enough cash involved; he is to be the victim. But when one contract killer is trying to kill the other, what will occur?
- In his kingdom, it is to be a queen that always rules. However, when both his parents are murdered, to keep some unpleasant relatives off the throne he must change his entire identity to be the new queen. This includes marrying the prince of another kingdom…
- He ensures that everyone finds their soulmate, sometimes through much trial and error. All he’s ever done is watch idly by, but when he falls in love with a mortal meant for someone else, what is he to do?
- She’s a writer, one that writes about love and death. One night she gets a call from someone who says and acts exactly as one of her characters did… alarmed she continues to contact this person. Soon enough she finds herself in love with the character…
- She expects and wants everything to go exactly like all the fairytale stories she heard when she was younger, always with expectations high whilst being often the laughingstock. But then, she meets him…
- Everyone knows their fate, hers is quite bleak. She has no motivation and low expectations because of it, but then she is mistaken for someone else. And when she is mistaken to be who she’s not, he comes into her life and finds herself with everything she was never supposed to have.
- His father is quite literally (some well-known character that would cause problems, ex: the devil, Frankenstein/ doctor Frankenstein, Vampire/Werewolf, etc.), making him a total outcast. When a new girl who heeds no warnings approaches him, what will he do?
- Their relationship was fake or at least supposed to be anyhow.
- She began getting strange letters in her mail, they were yellowed and very old looking, but somehow well preserved all the same even though appearing to be from centuries ago. She eventually decides to write one back, and he receives it. They’re centuries apart but sure they’re soul mates.
Mystery Plot Ideas
What’s been stolen, who’s dead, what’s the motive? So much to ask for these mystery plot ideas.
- You can’t figure out whether you’re awake or asleep.
- You have woken up after a terrible accident, at least that’s what everyone has told you. No one seems to be willing to give any details and you can’t remember the last year of your life…
- You could’ve sworn that someone tapped you on the shoulder, but no one was there. As well you feel watched, and then you receive a letter.
- A few months ago, you began to sleepwalk, but it’s not only you, but it also seems the entire town is as well.
- As you’re restoring a painting you notice something strange, an engraving and the details seem to be changing.
- A crime has occurred, more specifically a murder. The victim was found poisoned at the scene and as if they were sleeping, next to a bitten apple… and they were dressed as snow white. Will more follow?
- A picture is worth a thousand words, or at least that’s what they say. This one was certainly worth more than that.
- A box of pictures fell onto you as you bumped a shelf, it showed a person in each and seemed to go back quite a long time… but in each, the same cat sat.
- People believed to be dead or lost for years have started to show up as if they never left with no recollection of where they went either.
Pro Tip: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook—don’t let distractions keep you from writing your first novel! Use different online writing tools to get the most out of your writing sessions.
Dystopian Plot Ideas
Suffering and injustice, the bread and butter of dystopian society, plenty of that in these dystopian plot ideas!
- People are now able to quite literally bet their lives when gambling now.
- In a desperate hope to cut down on crime and population, those convicted are now entered into a lottery of sorts, the prize? Death. Those with more convictions or worse crimes have a higher likelihood of being chosen.
- No one remembers why the walls were built, no one wishes to leave either though.
- Black Friday has turned into a “game” for the rich. They throw trinkets and cash to the crowds of those poorer to watch the bloodbath that ensues.
- Due to the high-cost and overcrowding of prisons, the government has sent prisoners to man-made islands of which there is no escape. Each island is for a certain level of prisoner, they are left to create their own society or kill each other, whichever works, I guess.
- It is now rare for twins to be born, and when they are born it most often is due to one that is meant to stop the other.
- A very rare few are born without emotions; it is possible though for others to donate emotions for a time.
- Physical traits are achieved through personality. Over time good deeds will create beauty.
- Reincarnation is a real thing, and there are bounty hunters to track down these people. They may have been lovers, criminals, etc.
- The ability to see color is a privilege of the aristocratic.
- Only the smart, strong, and stunningly gorgeous survive. Everyone else is put to death to control the population.
- Sometimes news stations find themselves lacking, that’s why you were born. You’re what they call a Joker, your entire purpose is to do all that will make for a great story.
- It is now possible to entirely swap bodies with someone else. Of course, this always results in the death of who you’re swapping with.
- It is illegal to look outside from the time 11:07 pm to 6:07 am. Each person is required to enter a windowless room for those times in which the government has the ability to lock and unlock the door.
- The earth turns out to be a sanctuary for an endangered species, humans. Today is the first day they are to be introduced back into the wild.
Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner—what do all of these books have in common? They are dystopian novels turned blockbuster movies! Read more about the best—and worst— movie adaptations of all time .
Horror Story Plot Ideas
Clowns with red balloons and masked killers, don’t go into the haunted house! Here are some horror story plot ideas!
- As an assassin with a sixth sense, you seek vengeance for the restless souls.
- You’re a sleepwalking murderer, but when you wake up, you’re a well-known and renowned detective. You’re hunting yourself and others.
- In the future virtual reality is more prevalent and even realistic than it’s ever been, an entirely new world and life. It’s often used on high profile criminals to make them live what they did from the victim’s view or their worst nightmare.
- You’re finally meeting your “soulmate’s” parents, thrilled and full of glee. But as they close the door behind you, they lean in to whisper, “I’m sorry” / “Forgive me”.
- You’ve been noticing strange things when you awake, new marks or stains, objects moved, new, or even missing. So, you set up a camera. After a few weeks of going over the footage, there’s something strange and unnerving.
~Idea to further this: You wake up, get out of bed, and look into the camera… and then you die. (You kill yourself, duplicate comes in, etc.), Then someone who looks like they could be an exact clone comes in and drags out the body, cleans up, and slips back into bed.
- She never seems to be able to get it right. She can’t seem to find “the one”, or someone even close to that. Little does she know it’s been the same… creature, a shapeshifter who at all costs will have her.
- Each night you heard a tapping on the glass or shrill noise. One night it was too loud to ignore and persisted… soon you realized it was coming from the…
- It’s 3:33 am, a blaring siren comes from your phone with an official notification: Do not look at the moon, do not even glance at it. As well there’s an unbelievable amount of texts and posts on social media saying in some way that it’s a must-see, stunningly beautiful, once in a lifetime view.
- “The human mind is truly the most horrifying and gruesome thing of all.”
- The crow counting rhyme: One for sorrow / Two for mirth / Three for a wedding / and Four for a birth / Five for silver / Six for gold / and Seven for a secret not to be told. There are also many variations of this rhyme that you could use instead, sets up for an interesting and creepy story though.
- The last thing I saw was the glow of my alarm clock, 3:00 am, and then (something scary, death, creature, etc.) ex: its long and sharp rotting nails slowly tore through my neck, its other “hand” muffling my screams. I then woke up in a cold sweat and glanced at the clock, 2:59 am… and that’s when I heard a creaking and smelled of rot.
- It is now possible to know some details of your past lives, how many, how long you lived, etc. As well it’s been linked that some of your phobias are how you died…
- You’re on edge, a few weeks ago you there would be some weird occurrence. Then it was a note with messy and illegible writing. Now you can hear shrill noises, screams, shouting, indistinct. Now at seemingly the source of a scratching noise etched is a clear warning.
- An anonymous admirer letter was slipped under your door at your college. It would seem cute and sweet if it hadn’t been from your closet.
- I found a dead body in my trunk today… I could’ve sworn that I had more than that in there just yesterday.
- Every night you visit me, sometimes in a dream, sometimes in my nightmares.
- I kissed my wife and darling daughter goodnight… and then I awoke in a white padded room with a straight jacket on. They told me it was all just a dream.
Plot Twist Ideas
There are some real turnarounds in this list of plot twist ideas!
- The princess saves the prince.
- Write a story where one of your characters either from the start or at some point in the book are dead or presumed dead. Then have it be that they never were to shake up the story.
- A character that keeps telling outlandish things, but it turns out they’re right.
- A main character or “essential” character killed out of nowhere.
- Have a very guilty and easy to hate a character in your story, have it be a double-cross or frame job.
- A character who is mistaken for someone else but goes along with it.
- A character is revealed to not be what they or the audience had thought.
- An important character throughout the plot is revealed to never have truly existed.
- Some devastating occurrence is caused by those whose entire goal was to fix it or keep it from occurring.
- A character believed to be unimportant to quite bland turns out to be essential and far from.
- Something the character has been searching for or desperately needed was right in front of their eyes the entire time.
- Have it turn out to be that the entire time some blackmail has been the cause for nearly all of a character’s actions.
- A character who is absolutely in love/ obsessed/ or infatuated with another learns it’s for the wrong reasons/ that they’re not at all what they seemed/ etc.
- It turns out the character or group of characters have been led to helping the enemy.
Other Creative Plot Ideas
Here are the last fifteen plot ideas, hopefully you’ll find some other creative plot ideas as well here!
- Make a hero or protagonist that most will hate, vice versa for an antagonist or villain.
- Truth or Dare, your character has a secret, or a truth. What are they willing to say or do to keep said truth secret.
- “I love you.”, “Lying isn’t a good look for you.”
- A bunch of short stories that end on major cliffhangers, but a final one. Once you’re done writing those maybe have them somehow all connect or give the ending to each.
- Everyone ages up until a certain age (ex: 18, 21, etc.) and will remain that age until they meet their soulmate. (Could be used as someone avoiding finding theirs to reign forever, or accidentally aging, or finding you aren’t aging even when with someone.)
- A high school group can’t agree on the meaning and interpretation of Romeo and Juliet , so of course they split into two groups. But then, one person from one group falls in love with the other. Even though it seems nearly every Shakespeare is going on in the group at the same time.
- The retelling of Snow White, if she truly had lips red as a rose, hair black as ebony, and skin white as snow.
- A world where everyone is born with a unique tattoo that gives a hint to fate, personality, each person they love their tattoos will begin to form somewhere on them. These tattoos cannot be removed and will not go away, though they can be hidden and covered. They will receive a tattoo or mark for each love they have, it does not matter if they no longer do or what happens.
- A customer-service worker (retail, support, etc.) who quits their day job to deal with demons, ghosts, and whatnot.
- A story on vampires, but not all are the usual sophisticated, well mannered, well spoken, and so on. Instead, they do their best to not seem outdated, may mercilessly mix multiple slang from way to many different eras, or talking in laughable applications of slang and references, etc.
- Vampires, but for once there are those who’ve been turned other than around nineteen or twenty. With some being turned as a child or while elderly.
- A world where all the mythical creatures or monsters, etc., exist and try to coexist. Each with their own job, talent, and so on. Trying to live “normally”.
- Cinderella went to the ball to murder the prince. Retellings of well-known fairy tales.
- A “superhero” and “villain” who are roommates and nemesis. (Could be they don’t know about the other so both are lying, they both know but don’t want to give away themselves, so on)
- A twist on the changeling stories. A mother caught a fair attempting to switch the child with a changeling soon after the arrival of her child. So she is unable to tell them apart, raises both. Both twins are exactly identical in voice and appearance.
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The Writer’s Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story
Great page-turning stories live or die by their plots.
“I took the dog to the park” doesn’t interest me.
“You won’t believe what happened when I took the dog to the park” interests me. I want to know what happened, so I’ll stick with you as long as your story holds me.
To keep me turning the pages of your book , you need a plot that grabs me by the throat and keeps me with you to the end.
- So What Is the Plot of a Story?
Plot is the sequence of events that makes up your story . It’s what compels your reader to either keep turning pages or set your book aside.
Think of Plot as the engine of your novel .
A successful story answers two questions:
1. W hat happens?
2. What does it mean?
What happens is your Plot.
What it means is your Theme.
For example, my novel Riven has two lead characters —Brady Wayne Darby (a no-account loser from a broken home) and Thomas Carey (a struggling small church pastor).
Their lives initially play out in separate settings , but eventually their stories intersect. My Theme ties the stories together : The extent of forgiveness for even the most heinous crime.
Can Thomas forgive those who’ve treated him so shabbily that his own daughter has abandoned her faith?
Can Brady Darby be forgiven for the ultimate mortal sin?
Ideally your readers think for days about your theme. They may remember the plot, but they should chew on the theme.
- Digging Deeper: 7 Plot Types
While stories seem limitless, most plots fall into these categories:
1. Adventure : A person goes to new places, tries new things, and faces myrid obstacles. Examples: Harry Potter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Chronicles of Narnia, Gulliver’s Travels, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
2. Change : A person undergoes a dramatic transformation. Examples: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Beauty and the Beast, A Little Princess, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings.
3. Romance : Jealousy and misunderstandings threaten lovers’ happiness. Examples: Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, The Fault in Our Stars, The Notebook, Wuthering Heights, Water for Elephants, Redeeming Love.
4. Mistake : An innocent person caught in a situation he doesn’t understand must overcome foes and dodge dangers he never expected. Examples: Indiana Jones, Finding Nemo, The Color Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, Left Behind.
5. Lure : A person must decide whether to give in to temptation, revenge, rage, or some other passion. He grows from discovering things about himself. Examples: The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption, Riven, A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, The Hobbit, MacBeth, The Pearl, Oliver Twist, The Secret Life of Bees, Animal Farm.
6. Race : Characters chase wealth or fame but must overcome others to succeed. Examples: The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Treasure Island, Chariots of Fire, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Devil Wears Prada.
7. Gift : An ordinary person sacrifices to aid someone else. The lead may not be aware of his own heroism until he rises to the occasion. Examples: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Odyssey, The Green Mile, Charlotte’s Web, Schindler’s List.
Regardless which basic plot you choose, your goal should be to grab your reader by the throat from the get-go and never let go.
- Plot Development Secrets
Ask yourself two questions: Is your story idea weighty enough to warrant 75,000 to 100,000 words, and Is it powerful enough to hold the reader to the end?
Discovering novelist Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure (in his How to Write Best-Selling Fiction ) was the best thing that ever happened to my career . I immersed myself in this book in the 1980s, and my writing has never been the same. It has informed every novel I’ve written since, and several have sold in the tens of millions.
If, like me, you’re not an Outliner but write by the seat of your pants (we call ourselves Pantsers), don’t panic—this is just a basic structure , not an outline . But, even we Pantsers need a basic idea where we’re headed.
Dean Koontz’s Classic Story Structure
1. Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible.
The terrible trouble depends on your genre, but in short it’s the worst possible dilemma you can think of for your main character . For a thriller it might be a life or death situation. In a romance novel, it could mean a young woman must decide between two equally qualified suitors—and then her choice is revealed a disaster.
Just remember, this trouble must bear stakes high enough to carry the entire novel.
One caveat: whatever the dilemma, it will mean little to readers if they don’t first find reasons to care about your character . The trouble is seen in an entirely different light once a reader is invested in the character.
2. Everything your character does to try to get out of that trouble makes it only worse…
Avoid the temptation to make life easy for your protagonist.
Every complication must be logical (not the result of coincidence), and things must grow progressively worse.
3. …until the situation appears hopeless.
Novelist Angela Hunt refers to this as The Bleakest Moment. Even you should wonder how you’re ever going to write your character out of this.
Make your predicament so hopeless that it forces your lead to take action, to use every new muscle and technique gained from facing a book full of obstacles to become heroic and prove that things only appeared beyond repair.
4. Finally, your hero learns to succeed against all odds.
Reward readers with the payoff they expected by keeping your hero on stage, taking action. Give them a finish that rivets them to the very last word .
- Beware These Deadly Plot Killers
Beginning with chapter one, page one, your singular mission is to make every word count.
Gone are the days when a reader enjoyed curling up with a book and spending the first hour or two by immersing herself in the beauty of the setting and culture . These are important, certainly, and must be woven into the narrative as seasoning.
But today’s readers have nanosecond attention spans. By the end of the first page, they should be hooked.
One final piece of advice: avoid main characters who can do no wrong.
Heroes should be fundamentally likable , but we need to see their struggles too. They shouldn’t be wimps or cowards, but they must have imperfections. Character arc is crucial to a successful plot.
Villains must be three-dimensional too . Yes, even bad guys need a soft side, a weak spot, maybe even a modicum of generosity. And their evil has to have some genuine motivation. No one is simply mean for no reason.
Adding dimension to your characters gives dimension to your plot.
- More in-depth plotting resources
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Secrets of Story Structure by K. M. Weiland
- The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
- Novels worth studying
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three by Morton Freedgood
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King
- Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
As novelists, you and I have one job: to invent a story for readers that delivers a satisfying experience. Readers love to be educated and entertained, but they never forget what moves them.
Stephen King advises , “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.” But you’ll find that a whole lot easier if you take the time to develop the plot of your story using the powerful tools above.
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It’s elusive, it’s shy, it’s frustratingly changeable, and it abandons you completely during a writer’s drought — it’s the perfect story idea. But that’s why we built this story generator: to try and give writers everywhere a bit of a power-up. All of the plots that you score are yours to use! But what exactly can you do with it now?
If you’re wondering what’s the best way to construct a story out of the plot that you’ve just generated,
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How to Structure a Novel Before You Write It . In this Reedsy Live video, NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt talks about plot structure — and a simple way to go about it.
How to Plot a Novel Using the 3-Act Story Structure . Kristen Kieffer, founder of Well-Storied.com, walks you step-by-step through one of the most popular story structures in this free 10-day course.
What is a Narrative Arc? Learn the intricacies of building a narrative arc, and how to attain a good beginning, middle, and end to your story in this blog post.
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Novel writing ,
How to plot a novel (using our easy plot template technique).
By Harry Bingham
All stories share a simple common structure – so the simplest way to outline your novel is to use that universal template by way of scaffolding.
Figuring out that template and how best to use it to create the best story possible for your readers is exactly what I’m going to do in this post. (Or – full disclosure – it’s what you’re going to do. I’ll just help a little on the way…)
In this step by step guide to plotting a novel I will be teaching you everything you need to know about novel plotting – from my favourite mind mapping method, to understanding character arcs and how to tie up loose ends.
Are you ready to learn the most important part of the writing process? Here we go…
The Best Way To Plot A Novel
Very few writers can have a load of story ideas and start writing without any clear direction as to where they are heading and what is going to happen.
The novel plotting template I will be demonstrating in this article is more of an outlining process. A simple but detailed plot outline for your book that will serve as a skeleton from which to hang the meat of your story (sorry for that rather macabre visual representation).
As you go further into your writing journey you can make this into a pretty bullet journal or a colour coded Excel spreadsheet if you want, but for now you just need a pen and a piece of paper.
Ready? Good. Let’s outline your novel together.
What A Story Template Looks Like
A story template is just a simple method for getting all those brilliant pictures out of your head and on to the page in a way that will help your story ideas make sense to your readers. To begin with we need to look at the key components of any story.
Write down the following headings:
- Main character (who leads the story)
- Status Quo (situation at the start)
- Motivation (what your character wants)
- Initiating incident (what disturbs the status quo – conflict)
- Developments (what happens next)
- Crisis (how things come to a head)
- Resolution (how things resolve)
And now sketch in your answers in as few words as possible – aim for 1-3 sentences.
It’s important to keep it simple at this stage as complex is our enemy. Fixating on intricate plot detail at drafting stage will only get in the way of finding the actual bones of your novel. And it’s those bones that will hook an agent/editor/reader.
The Novel Template: An Example
You probably want an example of what your outline should look like, right?
OK. Let’s say your name was Jane Austen and you had a great idea for a story about a prideful guy and a charming but somewhat prejudiced girl. If your were plotting Pride And Prejudice , the outline might look something like this:
Character Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet, one of five daughters in Regency England.
Status Quo Lizzy and her sisters will be plunged into poverty if her father dies, so they need to marry (and marry well).
Motivation Lizzy wants to marry for love.
Initiating Incident Two wealthy gentlemen, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, arrive.
Developments Lizzy meets proud Mr Darcy and dashing stranger Mr Wickham. She despises Mr Darcy and likes Mr Wickham. She discovers Darcy loves her and that Wickham isn’t all he seems.
Crisis Lizzy’s sister elopes, threatening the social ruin of her family. It now looks like Lizzy can’t marry anyone.
Resolution Mr Darcy helps Lizzy’s sister. Lizzy agrees to marry him, deciding now that she loves him, after all.
Now that’s easy, right? That’s the whole of Pride and Prejudice in a nutshell, and it was easy .
You just need to do the same with your book or your idea, and keep it really simple. In fact, if you struggle to know everything that goes in the ‘developments’ section, you can even drop in some placeholder type comments.
If you were Jane Austen you might, for example, start out by saying something like “Lizzy breaks with Wickham, because it turns out he’s a bad guy. He killed someone? Stole money? Something else? Something to think about.”
And that’s fine. Don’t worry about any blanks. It’s like you’re building a tower and you’re missing one of the girders. But by getting everything else in place and putting a “girder needs to go here” sign up, the structure is still brilliantly clear. That’s all you need (for now.)
Oh, and don’t bother separating those down into chapters just yet, you can worry about that later – but when you do, read this , it’s really useful!
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Developing Your Story Outline
You might feel that our template so far is just a little too basic.
Which it is.
So let’s develop the structure another notch. What we’re going to do now is add anything we know about subplots – or basically any story action that you DO know about, which doesn’t fit neatly into the above plot structure.
So if you were Jane Austen, and had a good handle on your story, you might put together something like this.
Subplot 1 Jane Bennet (Lizzy’s caring sister) and Mr Bingley fall in love, but Bingley moves away, then comes back. Jane and Bingley marry.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennet (Lizzy’s reckless sister) elopes with Wickham. She is later found and helped by Darcy.
Subplot 3 Odious Mr Collins proposes marriage to Lizzy. She says no. Her more pragmatic friend, Charlotte Lucas, says yes.
Notice that we’re not yet trying to mesh those things together. In fact, the way we’ve done it here, Subplot 3 (which happens in the middle of the book) comes after Subplot 2 (which comes at the end).
But again: don’t worry.
Sketch your additional story material down as swiftly as neatly as Miss Austen has just done it. The meshing together – the whole business of getting things in the right order, getting the character motivations perfectly aligned and filling in any plot holes – that’ll do your brain in.
Yes, you have to get to it at some stage. But not now. Keep it simple, and build up.
How To Use Subplots
If you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice , you’ll know perfectly well that our outline so far still misses out masses of stuff.
There’s nothing on where the novel is set. Or why or how events unfurl. It doesn’t say a thing about character relations, why each feels as they do. There’s nothing to say on character development, conflict, subtleties, supporting cast, and so on.
And that’s fine to start with. It’s actually good .
What does matter, however is your character’s motivation.
Taking one subplot above as example, Charlotte wants security through marriage to Mr Collins. Lizzy, however, rejects her friend’s rationale. Charlotte’s marriage reaffirms Lizzy’s romantic values and, crucially, also throws her in Mr Darcy’s way again later in the book.
Now that’s interesting stuff, but if a subplot doesn’t bear on a protagonist’s ability to achieve their goal or goals, that subplot must be deleted or revised. Luckily, though, our story structure template helps you avoid that pitfall in the first place.
In fact, here are two rules that you should obey religiously:
- If you’re outlining a plot for the first time. Pin down your basics, then build up subplots , conflicts, and so on.
- If you have already started your manuscript and you think you’re uncertain of your plot structure, stop – and follow the exercises in this post, exactly as you would if you hadn’t yet written a word.
And do actually do this. As in pen-and-paper do it, not just “think about it for a minute or two then go on Twitter.” The act of writing things out will be helpful just in itself.
How To Plot A Novel: The Template
Remember that every subplot has its own little journey. Maybe a very simple one, but it will have its own beginning, middle and end, its own structure of Initiating Incident / Developments / Crisis / Resolution.
Go ahead and drop everything you have into the grid below for every subplot as well as the main plot.
If you’ve got more complexity to accommodate than this allows, take care. No matter how sprawling an epic you’re writing, you need to be able to identify the essence or heart of the story you’re writing, so try paring your novel down – you can always add more details and columns after.
How To Further Develop Your Plot Outline
What happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid? If you give that exercise your very best go and just draw a blank?
You may have a great story idea, but that’s all it is – a basic idea. So how do you go from there to the plot points?
This is particularly hard when drafting your first novel. You may love the vibe of your story, have developed some cool characters, you may even know your rising action or character arcs, but that doesn’t mean you know how to plot a novel.
The basic problems here are twofold:
- You don’t yet understand your plot well enough, or
- You just don’t have enough plot to sustain a full-length novel.
Two different problems. Two different solutions. Let’s look at building a story from an initial idea…
The Snowflake Method
The snowflake method allows you to expand on an idea and flesh it out bit by bit.
This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces, like unnecessary drama just for the sake of it. It means adding depth and subplots, and developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story.
Here are four ways to grow your story idea into a full plot.
Method 1: Mirroring
Imagine your name is Harper Lee and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout. Let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.
One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.
A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout?
It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird .
Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature.
Method 2: Ram Your Genre Into Something Different
Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.
So take The Time Traveler’s Wife , by Audrey Niffenegger.
Without the time travel element it would be a standard issue romantic story, but by adding a fantasy element you have something shimmeringly new and exciting.
Or take Tipping the Velvet , by Sarah Waters.
Evocative Victorian historical novels are nothing new, but by adding a lesbian coming-of-age story in that context the result is a literary sensation.
Method 3: Take Your Character And Max Them Out
Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe?
Stieg Larsson took a basic story and made its complex character, Lisbeth Salander, the star. Lisbeth is an autistic bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor – this made the story unique and intriguing.
Method 4: Add Edge – A Glint Of Steel
A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness . The basic plot, main characters and final climax were strong, it wasn’t working. My solution?
A glint of steel.
I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist. The need to rescue the main character made the book!
Steel. Edge. Sex or violence.
Those things work in crime novels , but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died?
How To Plot A Novel: The Next Step
Now you have your plot, the next stage is to work on character development. I won’t delve any deeper on that as info on character building is an entire collection of articles, which you can find here . But it’s important to remember that plotting is merely the first stage of your writing process, because even with a strong plot a book without memorable main characters is nothing.
Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve learned…
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the 5 parts to a plot in a story.
- Introduce characters and setting
- Inciting incident
- Main story premise
How Do You Plot A Novel In One Day?
If you know roughly what your story is about, you can plot your novel in a matter of hours (in the most simplest of ways). Ask yourself what your character wants most in the world, and think about the incident that has turned their life upside down. Decide whether they achieve what they want by the end (or get what they NEED) and then show their journey.
Start with this simple list:
From here you can add all the details that will make your story shine.
What Makes A Good Novel Plot?
As a writer all you should care about is keeping your readers hooked. So make sure you understand your characters and their motivation, add lots of obstacles in their path to success, make them (and your readers) think all is lost, then show your character arc as they grow at the end (and if they don’t succeed, at least offer some hope).
Having completed this exercise you should have lots of notes on your plot and a very strong foundation from which to build your story. Which means now you can have the real fun and add all the details. Enjoy!
Jericho Writers is a global membership group for writers , providing everything you need to get published. Keep up with our news, membership offers, and updates by signing up to our newsletter . For more writing articles, take a look at our blog page .
About the author
Harry has written a variety of books over the years, notching up multiple six-figure deals and relationships with each of the world’s three largest trade publishers. His work has been critically acclaimed across the globe, has been adapted for TV, and is currently the subject of a major new screen deal. He’s also written non-fiction, short stories, and has worked as ghost/editor on a number of exciting projects. Harry also self-publishes some of his work, and loves doing so. His Fiona Griffiths series in particular has done really well in the US, where it’s been self-published since 2015. View his website , his Amazon profile , his Twitter . He's been reviewed in Kirkus, the Boston Globe , USA Today , The Seattle Times , The Washington Post , Library Journal , Publishers Weekly , CulturMag (Germany), Frankfurter Allgemeine , The Daily Mail , The Sunday Times , The Daily Telegraph , The Guardian , and many other places besides. His work has appeared on TV, via Bonafide . And go take a look at what he thinks about Blick Rothenberg . You might also want to watch our " Blick Rothenberg - The Truth " video, if you want to know how badly an accountancy firm can behave.
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The Seven...Actually Nine Basic Plots According to Christopher Booker
By Glen C. Strathy
Continuing our discussion of The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, this page presents a brief outline of the plots themselves. (For more detailed discussion and examples, you should probably read the book.)
1. Overcoming the Monster
2. rags to riches.
What Booker calls the “dark” version of this story is when the hero fails to win in the end, usually because he sought wealth and status for selfish reasons. Dramatica (and most other theorists) would call this a tragedy.
4. Voyage and Return
Basic plots booker dislikes..., 9. rebellion against 'the one'.
Though Booker doesn't mention it, a common variation is to have the hero refuse to submit and essentially win against the power of the One. In The Prisoner , the hero eventually earns the right to discover that the One is a twisted version of himself, after which he is set free. In The Matrix , Neo's resistance eventually leads to a better world. Another example is The Hunger Games series , where Katniss's continued rebellion eventually leads to the downfall of both the original tyrant and his potential successor, resulting in a freer world.
See the previous article for more discussion of Booker's The Seven Basic Plots.
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How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success
Learning how to plot a novel means first understanding the elements of great plots. Here are 7 tips for plotting a story that will engage readers from the first chapter:
- Post author By Jordan
- 27 Comments on How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success
First: What do we mean when we talk about ‘plot’?
The British author E.M. Forster described story as ‘a narrative of events arranged in … sequence’. Plot is the way story events are arranged sequentially to show cause and effect. In Forster’s words:
‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. Forster in Colin Bulman, Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing , p. 165
A plot is thus the ‘what’ plus the ‘why’ of a story, and how multiple whats and whys fit together in a larger chain.
Here are 7 ways to make sure you plot your novel well :
1. Understand the hallmarks of a great plot
When you’re focused on a particular element of a story, whether it’s mood and atmosphere or plot, it’s helpful to write a list of things to keep in mind as you write.
To remind yourself what your story needs, you can make a list of the elements of a winning plot:
Effective story plots:
- Create curiosity and raise questions readers want answered. Why did the man hide that gun? Why did the woman in the bridal gown get out of the car at that stop street and sprint away?
- Show cohesion: Different parts of the story relate to or illuminate each other enough (subject-wise, thematically, or in other ways) to sit within the same storytelling frame.
- Obey their own internal logic. In a fictional world where a powerful government is always watching (as in Orwell’s 1984), public demonstrations against the government will be quashed. If you give a tyrant complete power in your fictional universe, they have a reason for wanting said power and should try to use it.
- Avoid cliche and create surprise . Some genres use clichés by nature ( e.g. the character of the ‘chosen one’ in fantasy fiction ). Give common tropes such as these your own personal stamp so that the reader forgets they’re reading a particularly common story type.
- Give readers something worth the investment of time and effort it takes to read. Give readers an entertaining, exhilarating adventure, a mind-expanding introduction to an interesting or controversial subject, or an emotional journey with unforgettable characters.
Finishing our workbook How to Plot a Story: Plotting, plans and arcs is another good step to understanding how to plot stories well.
2. Create structured plot outlines
Not every writer plots by default. If you prefer to invent as you go (‘pantsing’), that might be what works for you. Yet if you tend to get stuck at some point during drafting, create a plot outline.
Creating a plot outline and character outline helps because it lets you step back and get a broader view of your narrative. You start to see clearer how it all might fit together.
To start thinking about the cause and effect that drives your story, you can simply extend your story idea. We could expand E.M. Forster’s ‘the queen is dead’ plot example:
The king dies under suspicious circumstances. The queen dies of grief shortly thereafter. Because their only son is still an infant, this creates a power vacuum and a struggle for succession between the queen’s two elder sisters. The one sees the son as an obstacle between herself and the throne, the other has vowed to protect him.
The example evokes curiosity: How will this conflict triangle play out between the squabbling sisters and the heir to the throne? What will happen to the prince?
There is already promise of plot cohesion – the action of the story relates to the opening premise . The story obeys its internal logic – a power vacuum is created and this attracts power-seeking characters.
There are many different ways to outline plot points. Try the ‘Central Plot’ section of our Story Dashboard for step-by-step plot development prompts .
3. Plan illustrative, interesting subplots
The main plot in the expanded example above is clear. In a monarchy, the ruler’s death occurs and this brings the central plot question, ‘ Who will ascend the throne?’
Yet secondary plots or subplots are useful too and key to understanding how to plot a novel of a little greater complexity. They help to create a more detailed story .
Subplots often extend, complicate, or give different insights into the main themes and events of the story.
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Example of a relevant subplot
In a subplot, the queen could have had a close confidant whose future is thrown into uncertainty when the queen dies. The attendant’s future is uncertain because the queen’s eldest sister envied their closeness. So the confidant assists the other sister vying for the throne.
This subplot would illustrate the complexity of deep ties of friendship alongside the ties and petty struggles that exist between family members. The subplot could show how the competing sisters’ poisonous personalities rope all around them into continuous conflict.
To condense, subplots should always:
- Help to explain or develop crucial plot points , heighten tensions and complications , or deepen our understanding of central characters
- Be relevant to the main narrative , avoiding unnecessary confusion or distraction
Subplots also arise out of characters having individual motivations:
4. Make every character in your novel want something and pursue it
As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, every character in your novel should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.
Character motivation is an important part of plotting a book. If your characters have clear motivations, they will inevitably lead to major story events and lesser subplots.
If two characters are driven by a burning desire to hold power and occupy the same throne, for example, they will face off at some point.
To plot your novel well, make sure whenever you introduce a character that you have an idea of what their main purpose is in the story. This will help you to create concrete, bold characters as opposed to characters who waft in and out of your narrative and seem to lack purpose.
5. Plot each scene’s purpose before you start
When you write a novel, you’re working at multiple scales. You need to plot both the broader story arcs – what happens from chapter to chapter – and the smaller ones (the courses of individual scenes and chapters).
Identify each scene’s purpose before you start . This is a key step in the Scene Builder tool in the Now Novel dashboard for a reason. Knowing why you’re including a scene helps you to find it’s purpose, focus and narrative drive.
You don’t necessarily need to outline precisely what will happen in full during the scene. Jot down a rough idea. Write down:
- What your scene will show in terms of why it is relevant to the wider story
- What the scene should achieve for your main story arc (e.g. ‘This scene brings my protagonist a step closer to their goal’)
When you plot each scene with purpose, you’ll have fewer sections of your book that meander down non-productive avenues. This makes rewriting and revising at a later stage easier, too.
6. Plot characters, story events and settings with equal care
Often as writers we are stronger in some areas than others.
We might love creating characters but hate trying to describe their homes. We might love writing the fast-paced action scenes but abhor dialogue.
Learning how to plot a novel means learning how to pay equal attention to each element of novel-writing, though. Make sure, as you plan your story, that each element is clear. Ask yourself:
- Is it clear to my reader who my characters are and what motivates them?
- Can the reader make an educated guess where my plot could be heading? (towards specific core conflicts or growing friendships or romances, for example)
- Do my characters or settings change in a way that logically fits unfolding events?
Change and the unexpected are two core elements of plot and a major part of what makes a great story gripping. People change, and places, too.
7. Use your plot outline as a guide, not an iron grid.
Creating a plot outline is crucial if you want to have an idea where the story is going. It helps you avoid getting stuck. That’s why we developed Now Novel’s Story Builder (try it now) . It’s a guided step-by-step process for fleshing out the central idea, core plot, setting, characters, scenes and world of your book.
Although a plot outline is helpful for structuring your story and staying on track, remember that it is a flexible blueprint rather than a rigid structure each element of your novel must bend to fit.
You could find, for example, that you expected characters A and B to become romantically involved in the course of your story. As you write, though, you discover there’s more romantic chemistry between characters B and C.
Go with what feels right as you write, and go back and alter your outline accordingly. Note down what you have to change in your outline and your reason for changing it, as this will help you to keep the scaffolding of your story clear in your mind and avoid having to repeatedly read through the details.
What is the best advice about plotting novels you’ve ever read or received? Start writing now using our easy, step-by-step outlining process.
- Plot hole pitfalls: 7 tips to avoid and fix
- Story planner success: How to organize your novel
- How to create a plot and guarantee a better story
- 38 plot ideas (plus 7 ways to find more)
- How to write a plot outline: 7 plotting techniques
- 6 plot development questions to build your story
Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.
27 replies on “How to plot a novel: 7 tips for success”
Very informative, thank you so much, suddenly the process of putting everything together is not so intimidating anymore.Thanks
Hi Dineo, I’m glad to hear that! You’ve got this ?. Thank you for reading our blog and for your feedback.
Loved this content Jordan,very well-written! Have you ever dreamt of becoming a best-selling author? Well, you indeed got a long way to go! Don’t back down, though. This blog The Golden Rules to Generate an Interesting Plot will help you with that. Writing a book can be the most rewarding work or habit you can have. However, developing a story can take effort and time. However, if you practice and read books in different genres, you can surely learn.
Thank you, Monique, and for sharing your blog with us too.
Creating curiosity, linking events to causality and explaining why a character does something are important parts of creating backstory, something many readers crave.
Thanks, this is great for getting focused. As well, I teach book study groups for older children and this is handy for talking to them about character arcs and such. Would you say that the word “scaffolding” is generally used to describe the necessary exposition which sets the plot in motion?
Hi Lona, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad to hear this is helpful to you in your teaching. I wouldn’t say it is a standardized term necessarily, no, but I use it here as a metaphor for the way pre-planning or plotting can support both your process and the development of a more robustly directed/intentional story. Thanks for reading our blog and all the best for your teaching.
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29 plot templates.
Continuing the series on plot : Plot templates are helpful in telling an author the possible events for different sections of the story.
Here are some of the most helpful.
The most simplistic plot template
- Adventure comes to you. A Stranger comes to town.
- You go to Adventure. You leave town.
- Quest. Character oriented story, the protagonist searches for something and winds up changing him/herself.
- Adventure. Plot oriented, this features a goal-oriented series of events.
- Pursuit. This is the typical Chase Plot. Definitely action-oriented.
- Rescue. Another easy to recognize action-oriented plot.
- Escape. A variation on the Rescue is when the protagonist escapes on his/her own.
- Revenge. Ah, character comes back in with this one. Someone is wronged and vows to take revenge.
- The Riddle. Love a good mystery? This is the plot for you.
- Rivalry. Character oriented, this story follows two main characters, one on a downward track and one on an upward track and their interactions.
- Underdog. Everyone is the US roots for the Underdog. This is the plot where the under-privileged (handicapped, poor, etc) triumphs despite overwhelming odds.
- Temptation. Pandora’s Box extended to novel form.
- Metamorphosis. This is a physical transformation of some kind. If you recently watched the movie, “District 9”, you’ll recognize this plot form. It’s Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, or the one I remember best is The Fly.
- Transformation. Similar to the previous, this plot features an inner change, instead of changing the outer form.
- Maturation. Bildungsroman , rite of passage, coming-of-age–these terms all refer to someone growing up morally, spiritually or emotionally. Often, it’s just a hint of growth, or a tiny change that hints at larger changes.
- Love. The classic Boy-meets-Girl plot.
- Forbidden Love. Oh, hasn’t Stephenie Meyer milked this one in her Twilight series? Brilliant use of the forces that keep her characters apart, while still attracting.
- Sacrifice. From the Biblical tale of Jesus to the story of parents sacrificing for their children, this is a staple of literature.
- Discovery. You know those secrets you’ve buried deep in your past? This story digs around, exposes secrets and watches them affect the characters.
- Wretched Excess. When a character is in a downward spiral from alcohol, drugs, greed, etc. this is the plot form.
- Ascension or Descension. A rise or fall from power puts a character into this plot form.
Hero’s Journey: Adapted from Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Hero
- Ordinary World – Limited awareness of problem
- Call to Adventure – increased awareness
- Refusal of Call – reluctance to change
- Meeting the Mentor – overcoming reluctance
- Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
- Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
- Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
- Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
- Reward – consequences of the attempt
- The Road Back – rededication to change
- Resurrection – final attempt at big change
- Return with Elixir – final mastery of the problem
- You write comedy or humor and want a plot for a novel? John Vorhaus, in The Comic Toolbox adapts the hero’s journey into a Comic Throughline.
Two Characters Interact.
- Similar to the Hero’s Journey is Peter Dunne’s adaptation to a story in which two main characters influence each other, or one character drastically changes a second. The Emotional Structure details how the characters interact. This could be a sort of Rivalry story from above, a Love story, a Forbidden Love story, or even one of Pursuit, Rescue, or Escape. The main thing here is that two characters act upon each other.
Card’s MICE quotient
- Taking a completely different tack, Orson Scott Card in his book, Characters and Viewpoint , asks what aspect of the story are you most interested in? One strength of this approach is that it tells you where to start and end your story.
- Milieu. When the setting is in the forefront, as it is in many sff stories, you have a milieu story. The setting, culture, world created is the focus of the story. This explains why Tolkein didn’t stop The Lord of the Rings when the battle against Mordor was won; instead, because the focus is on the milieu, he continues on, following the hobbits home, the leaving of the elves and so on, until the Age of Men is established.
- Idea. A question is posed and answered. The classic mystery plot.
- Character. This story begins and ends with pure character.
- Event. Here, Card says that something in the universe is out of balance and the protagonist must right-the-wrong, restore-the-rightful-king, restore justice, defeat evil, etc. If The Lord of the Rings had been this type story, it would have indeed ended when the evil was defeated.
Are there more plot templates? Probably. From these, though, you can see perhaps the usefulness and limitations of using a template. You don’t want a cookie-cutter plot; however, you need to meet the expectations of readers in a certain genre. Templates are the starting point for exploration of the events in a story.
20 responses to “29 Plot Templates”
Thanks, Darcy! This is extraordinarily useful.
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FANTASTIC list of plot templates! Thank you – looking forward to the rest of this series :)
Focusing on plot this weekend, this is _perfect_! Thanks!
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An Encyclopedia of Every Literary Plot, Ever
How many plots are there in fiction? Millions, two, or 36, depending on whom you ask. There’s William Wallace Cook’s chart-crazy Plotto , first published in 1928; there’s crisp guides like Christopher Booker’s The Basic Seven Plots and Ronald B. Tobias’s 20 Master Plots ; there’s even a couple of computer programs — many, over centuries, have tried to count the ways to tell a story. With a little help from those, here is a far-from-comprehensive encyclopedia of every archetypal plot we know.
Adultery Anna Karenina , by Leo Tolstoy; The End of the Affair , by Graham Greene; Little Children , by Tom Perrotta. A perennial plot device that has survived the weakening of social taboos. What once caused shame and suicide now often ends in reconciliation. (see also: Forbidden Love. )
Adventure, Allegorical The Chronicles of Narnia , by C. S. Lewis; The Master and Margarita , by Mikhail Bulgakov. The current is closer to the surface in stories rife with symbolism, though in modern times it tends to be less on the nose.
Adventure, Natural 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , by Jules Verne; The Sea-Wolf , by Jack London. A usually itinerant story in which action is the prime directive, even if deeper currents run below. (see also: Quest .)
Coming of Age Great Expectations , by Charles Dickens; Huckleberry Finn , by Mark Twain. The bildungsroman, as the Germans call it.
Coming of Age, Artistic A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man , by James Joyce; The Fortress of Solitude , by Jonathan Lethem. This subtype has its own German term, too: Künstlerroman .
Coming of Age, Group The Group , by Mary McCarthy; The Interestings , by Meg Wolitzer; Private Citizens , by Tony Tulathimutte. Characters converge — usually in high school or college — and then diverge. But changed!
The Con Dead Souls , by Nikolai Gogol; If Tomorrow Comes , by Sidney Sheldon. Who doesn’t want to root for a seasoned liar and criminal?
The Con Artist Gets Conned The Grifters , by Jim Thompson; The Mark Inside , by Amy Reading. A swindler is double-crossed, either out of vengeance or greed. (see also: the Impostor ; Spy-Versus-Spy Story .)
Death Plot The Death of Ivan Ilyich , by Leo Tolstoy. Facing a slow demise or a pending execution, the condemned seeks absolution or a reckoning with the universe.
Death As MacGuffin My Sister’s Keeper , by Jodi Picoult; The Fault in Our Stars , by John Green. The “wrong” person dies.
Descent Into Madness Tender Is the Night , by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Mrs. Dalloway , by Virginia Woolf. A character’s fall is described, sometimes luridly but often sympathetically.
Descent Into Addiction The Lost Weekend , by Charles Jackson; Trainspotting , by Irvine Welsh. Same trajectory as madness, just add problematic glamour.
Discovery of Hidden Parentage Great Expectations. One of the most reliable plot twists, this one often changes the character’s self-identity, for better or worse.
Discovery of Incest Dolores Claiborne , by Stephen King; A Song of Ice and Fire , by George R.R. Martin This tends to have grave plot consequences, like murder and succession crises.
Discovery of a Lie The Portrait of a Lady , by Henry James. The protagonist is deceived through much of the story until the scales fall from her eyes. Like coming-of-age stories, it pivots on a revelation, but here the knowledge was purposely hidden from the protagonist — or in some cases, as in Gone Girl , by the protagonist.
Discovery of the Secretly Alive Romeo and Juliet , by William Shakespeare; Our Mutual Friend , by Charles Dickens. It sounds like a happy surprise, but this late twist doesn’t always turn out to be a good thing.
Discovery of the Secretly Nonexistent Fight Club , by Chuck Palahniuk; Odd Thomas , by Dean Koontz. Wherein people turn out to see dead people — or imaginary ones.
Domesticity Meltdown A Doll’s House , by Henrik Ibsen; Revolutionary Road , by Richard Yates. Someone, usually a woman, finds her home life unbearable and takes or contemplates extreme measures. (see also: Wife As Phoenix .)
Estate Division A Perfectly Good Family , by Lionel Shriver. A family gathers in the wake of the death of parents to figure out what to do with their effects; old conflicts resurface. (see also: Family Reunion .)
The Fall’s Plottiest Books
Colson Whitehead’s magical-realist adventure, The Underground Railroad , is as propulsive as its titular metaphor-made-real. IQ , a debut by Joe Ide, stars an Asian-American detective, an L.A. rap mogul, and some sick twists. And T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts , about eight people sealed into a biodome, is the ultimate locked-room thriller.
Family Reunion This Is Where I Leave You , by Jonathan Tropper; Maine , by J. Courtney Sullivan. A vacation or a death brings a far-flung family together; old conflicts resurface.
Family Saga Buddenbrooks , by Thomas Mann; Homegoing , by Yaa Gyasi. Where many ambitious novels bring contemporaneous stories together, this megaplot tracks a single clan across a broad sweep of time. (see also: Rise and Fall .)
Forbidden Love, Tragic Romeo and Juliet; Anna Karenina . A deep infatuation whose obstacle is a feud or social taboo that ends very badly. (see also: Love Thwarted and Mourned .)
Forbidden Love, Triumphant Water for Elephants , by Sara Gruen; Fifty Shades Freed , by E. L. James. Love conquers all — abusive husbands and sad billionaires alike.
Good-Guy-Bad-Guy Alliance To Catch a Thief , by David Dodge; The Silence of the Lambs , by Thomas Harris. A cop or other white-hat teams up with a criminal to fight an even greater evil, forming an unstable and unpredictable team.
The Impostor The Talented Mr. Ripley , by Patricia Highsmith; Six Degrees of Separation , by John Guare. An anti-hero assumes a false identity and succeeds — to a point. Sometimes the question of whether he’ll evade detection is left unresolved (or deferred to sequels and/or film adaptations).
Innocent’s Tale Room , by Emma Donoghue; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , by Mark Haddon. A child (or childlike) narrator can only tell a part of the story, leaving the reader to figure out the rest. (see also: Coming of Age .)
Insane Narrator Fight Club ; Life of Pi , by Yann Martel. The unveiling of deception or hallucination by a seemingly trustworthy narrator becomes a perspective-shifting plot twist. There’s an open-ended version: Is she crazy? Was it a dream?
The Knausgaard My Struggle , by Karl Ove Knausgaard; The Waves , by Virginia Woolf . Here named for Knausgaard’s six-volume epic of seemingly unedited episodes from his life, this category of anti-narrative isn’t quite plotless. For Woolf, it meant following consciousness where it goes, tracking the way the mind jumbles and reorders time. For Knausgaard, it meant repeatedly making tea.
Love Story: The Hate Plot The Dance of Death , by August Strindberg; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , by Edward Albee A curdled kind of love creates tension, ambiguity, and great zingers. It’s the kind of tragedy you hate to love.
Love Story: The Marriage Plot Pride and Prejudice , by Jane Austen; Jane Eyre , by Charlotte Brontë. Traditionally, a woman turns down proposals of convenience and settles on an unexpected Mr. Right. While Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” — that marriage is the end-all and be-all — is on its way out, the plot seems to endure, albeit with an ironic gloss. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was only one of a slew of homages to the love plot, updated for a more confusing and equitable era — including Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot . (see also: Forbidden Love .)
Love Story: Obsession Othello , by William Shakespeare; Lolita , by Vladimir Nabokov. An excess of love, sometimes less than mutual, drives the lover to violence or corruption, damaging the lover and/or the beloved.
Love Thwarted and Mourned Love in the Time of Cholera , by Gabriel García Márquez; The Age of Innocence , by Edith Wharton. A doomed or stillborn affair ends not in tragedy but in compromise, regret, and many wistful looks. (see also: Forbidden Love .)
Me Against the Apocalypse The Stand , by Stephen King; The Road , by Cormac McCarthy. The universe being opposed is in rapid decline, and the struggle isn’t against order but disorder (whether in the form of environmental collapse, nuclear winter, plague, or some other global comeuppance).
Me Against Machine I, Robot , by Isaac Asimov; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , by Philip K. Dick. The technology we invented has broken loose and the resulting sci-fi adventure story usually doubles as a techno-skeptical dystopia.
Me Against the World The Hunger Games , by Suzanne Collins; Nineteen Eighty-Four , by George Orwell; The Stranger , by Albert Camus. One person resists an immovable power and either triumphs or submits. In dystopian fiction, that power tends to be an authoritarian government. The existentialists raised the stakes by pitting an individual against an unfeeling universe.
Metamorphosis, Internal Pygmalion , by George Bernard Shaw; Catch-22 , by Joseph Heller. Someone is put through a trial by transformation — which can yield unexpected results (Eliza Doolittle’s independent streak).
Metamorphosis, Magical Dracula , by Bram Stoker; The Metamorphosis , by Franz Kafka . The (anti-)hero suffers from a transformative curse — a spell that can only be broken by love or death.
Missing Person Where’d You Go, Bernadette , by Maria Semple. Lots of things can happen to people who disappear, which is also what you want from a plot.
Mistaken Identity Our Mutual Friend ; Scoop , by Evelyn Waugh. An essential misunderstanding or deliberate deception drives the story in surprising directions. (see also: Discovery of the Secretly Alive .)
Mystery: Locked Room Murder on the Orient Express , by Agatha Christie. Whodunits were often classified as “riddle plots” by early plot anatomists, and the Platonic exemplar of the riddle is the “locked room” variety: Owing to circumstances laid out by the author, there are a finite number of suspects to a crime, and the reader’s job is the same as the detective’s: Figure it out from the available clues.
Mystery: Existential The Trial , by Franz Kafka. The puzzle is unsolvable, because the riddle is our unknowable and often hostile universe. (see also: Me Against the World .)
Mystery: Mirror Version The Whites , by Richard Price. The criminal’s identity is revealed early on, so the reader knows more than the detective (but not enough to know what happens next).
Mystery: Open-Ended The Big Sleep , by Raymond Chandler. Chandler once wrote that half of all mystery books break the rule that all the tools for solving a murder should be clearly laid out. Enter the MacGuffin and other red herrings, complicated heroes who lie or mess up or just drink a lot. (see also: Quest , MacGuffin Variation ; Pursuit, Conflicted .)
Mystery: Ticking Clock The Silence of the Lambs . The riddle must be solved in time to prevent the next heist, murder, or terrorist attack.
How Much Does It Matter, Anyway?
For 60-plus years, the Paris Review has asked writers just what they do every day. Judging from the excerpts below, a whole lot of them spend their time thinking — and arguing — about plot
“ Common Prayer had a lot of plot and an awful lot of places and weather. I wanted a dense texture, and so I kept throwing stuff into it, making promises. For example, I promised a revolution. Finally, when I got within 20 pages of the end, I realized I still hadn’t delivered this revolution. I had a lot of threads, and I’d overlooked this one. So then I had to go back and lay in the preparation for the revolution. Putting in that revolution was like setting in a sleeve. Do you know what I mean? Do you sew? I mean I had to work that revolution in on the bias, had to ease out the wrinkles with my fingers.”
“I think no novel can please for very long without plot as the center of its argument. We get too many books full of meaning by innuendo.”
Bret Easton Ellis:
“In a novel that isn’t exactly plot-driven … you need a sense of mystery, tension, menace, whatever it is, to keep it driving forward. What’s around the corner? What’s going on in the hills? Who’s behind the wheel of that black Mercedes with the tinted windows?”
“Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.”
“I once started a detective story to make money — but I couldn’t get the murder to take place! At the end of three chapters I was still describing the characters and the milieu, so I thought, This is not going to work. No corpse! And that was all.”
“Plot is nothing ; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines.”
“Plots really matter only in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is — what is it? A hook. The reader is going to wonder how things turn out
“I’m old-fashioned. I believe in plot.”
– ILLUSTRATIONS BY MURPHY LIPPINCOTT
Pandora’s Box Frankenstein , by Mary Shelley; Jurassic Park , by Michael Crichton. Scientists aim to advance technology in some way, and of course it backfires, because nature can’t be tamed. (see also: Me Against the Apocalypse .)
Parallel Stories The comedies of Shakespeare; Kafka on the Shore , by Haruki Murakami. The plot is broken up among several sets of characters, whose conflicts are related but independent.
Picaresque Don Quixote , by Miguel de Cervantes; On the Road , by Jack Kerouac. Our (often roguish and working-class) hero moves from adventure to adventure or quest to quest, usually without maturing too much. Its modern American version favors the road trip. (see also: Tall Tales .)
Pursuit Jaws , by Peter Benchley; The Hunt for Red October , by Tom Clancy . Usually both a riddle and a chase, this action-heavy plot proceeds with a logical structure and noble, objective hero.
Pursuit, Moral-Ambiguity Variation Les Misérables , by Victor Hugo; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo , by Stieg Larsson . A procedural or law-and-order drama is heightened when the righteous pursuer blurs ethical lines. (see also: Mystery: Open-Ended .)
Don Quixote ; The Grapes of Wrath , by John Steinbeck. Both a pursuit and an adventure, but always with a tangible, redemptive goal.
Quest, MacGuffin Variation The Maltese Falcon , by Dashiell Hammett; The Goldfinch , by Donna Tartt. The object of the quest turns out to be a distraction, initiating the plot before giving way to the real drama. A MacGuffin can be any plot device that is superseded by a more important pursuit. (see also: Mystery: Open-ended .)
Rags to Riches Oliver Twist , by Charles Dickens; The Fountainhead , by Ayn Rand; What Makes Sammy Run? , by Budd Schulberg. Older examples might have involved sheer luck, but in more modern stories, the driver of mobility is ambition, whether celebrated or satirized.
Rashomon The Sound and the Fury , by William Faulkner; Imagine Me Gone , by Adam Haslett. Named for the Kurosawa movie, in which four witnesses offer conflicting versions of a murder, it’s the same narrative retold from different perspectives. (see also: Symphony Story .)
Rescue The Princess Bride , by William Goldman; The Hard Way , by Lee Child. Essentially a quest with a person at the end of it — a prisoner who has little agency in the story. (see also: Pursuit ; Quest .)
Revenge Hamlet , by William Shakespeare; The Count of Monte Cristo , by Alexandre Dumas. The wronged protagonist finds his way to avenging injustice, usually by extralegal means.
Revenge, Excessive The Cask of Amontillado , by Edgar Allan Poe; Medea , by Euripides. The revenge plot with a heavy dose of crazy. Either the original slight is invented or magnified, or the vengeance is so out of whack (Medea’s murder of her own children) that all reason is left behind.
Rise and Fall The Godfather , by Mario Puzo; One Hundred Years of Solitude , by Gabriel García Márquez. A long story arc follows a person or a family to great heights and depths, often as the result of morally questionable choices along the way. (See also: Tragedy ; Family Saga .)
The Rise of One, the Fall of Another Sister Carrie , by Theodore Dreiser; The Prince and the Pauper , by Mark Twain. The wheel of fortune turns, and one hero is brought low, the other high. If the one raised up is good, the moral is bright; if vice versa, we end up in a dark place.
Rivalry of Equals Paradise Lost , by John Milton; Moby-Dick , by Herman Melville. The fighters in the story need not be physically evenly matched; in fact, they work best when strengths are complementary (brains versus brawn, darkness versus light).
Rivalry of Unequals “Cinderella”; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , by Ken Kesey. Underdog plots go back at least to the Bible. They’re rivalry stories in which one (usually more righteous) party is weaker in almost all respects.
Rivalry of Unequals, Jealousy Variation The Information , by Martin Amis; Amadeus , by Peter Shaffer. Envy is at the root of such rivalries, and the underdog isn’t the noble hero but the embittered loser.
Romantic Comedy Shakespeare’s comedies; Can You Keep a Secret? , by Sophie Kinsella. Overcoming obstacles, the right people find each other and the mismatched are realigned. (see also: The Marriage Plot .)
Spy Story The Quiet American , by Graham Greene; Martin Cruz Smith’s novels . Espionage thrillers contain plenty of riddles and ticking clocks, but they also encompass other story elements: globe-trotting pursuit, geopolitical intrigue, and layers of social history.
Spy-Versus-Spy Story Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , by John le Carré. Spies often fight to outsmart and set traps for each other, and here the rivalry might even supersede the greater goal of intelligence gathering.
Symphony Story White Teeth , by Zadie Smith; Underworld , by Don DeLillo; Ragtime , by E. L. Doctorow. Several narratives intersect, collide, and sometimes culminate in a grand resolution meant to capture a larger societal moment. James Wood derided some of it as “hysterical realism.”
Stalker Into the Darkest Corner , by Elizabeth Haynes; Sweet Lamb of Heaven , by Lydia Millet. The Lifetime staple of story lines is diabolically simple: A man won’t stop tormenting a woman until one of them dies. But there are variations …
Stalker, Caretaker Variation Misery , by Stephen King; Notes on a Scandal , by Zoë Heller. Often the predator is a single woman who becomes enmeshed with a man or family in a caretaking situation, then begins entertaining fantasies of making things permanent — sometimes by lethal force. (see also: Love Story: Obsession .)
‘The Scarlet Letter’ in the Tinder Era
What hath modernity wrought for plot devices progress has disrupted quite a few. for instance….
Time spent fretting about how to reach your love in Elizabethan dramas or Restoration novels is a lot less necessary when you can reach Helena or Philander by text (or with a quick Snap).
A good adventure used to involve getting so lost no map could describe the locale. Not so today, with a network of 31 or so GPS satellites that tell us, within a few feet, exactly where we are.
The Existential Train Wreck
Trains still crash from time to time, but in the early days of rail travel, every town set its clock differently. Misaligned schedules led to train wrecks, which popped up frequently as plot devices.
The Undelivered Letter
In Tess of the d’Urbervilles , Tess confesses everything to her lover in a letter she slips under the door. When he’s acting normal the next day, she thinks he’s read it and forgiven her. Then she discovers it, under a rug, unread. Read receipts can help in times like these, and we can count on email to not snag on the carpet.
Rather than wearing that scarlet ‘A’ to let the people of the village that she was an adulterer, as Hester Prynne does in The Scarlet Letter , she might’ve slipped into her Tinder profile that she’s looking to keep things on the DL—or poly or divorced or just not so keen on monogamy.
The Car Accident
The self-driving car neatly takes care of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero insight that “people are afraid to merge” on freeways. Let the robots do it for you!
The Sudden Weather Event
With a forecast at his fingertips, Heathcliff might’ve chosen to run away across the moors at less of a stormy moment in Wuthering Heights , for instance.
Sherman “Master of The Universe” McCoy’s $48,000 roadster in Bonfire of the Vanities probably would’ve had a dash cam, even if Henry Lamb and his friend didn’t manage to get anything on their smartphones.
Death at Home
Peter Featherstone takes days to die in his bed in Middlemarch . He rewrites his will a few times, and gathers family. Deaths like these haven’t disappeared entirely, but an audience of IVs, Nebulizers, heart monitors, and other machines accompany family members in impersonal beige hospital interiors during our final moments these days.
The Unwanted Pregnancy
In Age of Innocence , Edith Wharton’s society bro Newland Archer is about to run away to Europe with Ellen, his wife May’s weirdo countess cousin, when May drops that she’s pregnant. But in our era of condoms, birth control pills, and the rest of modern contraception, such a reveal no longer lands like a lightning bolt. Nor do we have to fear that having an abortion, as Charlotte does in Faulkner’s The Wild Palms , will kill the patient.
On the Road ’s cross-country binge would be pretty different as Uber the Road .
The Mysterious Stranger
When Edgar Allan Poe’s Prince Prospero throws a masquerade ball in “The Masque of the Red Death,” a mysterious stranger arrives. But what if he’d done a Facebook search for mutual friends?
– IAN EPSTEIN
Tall Tales The Decameron , by Giovanni Boccaccio; One Thousand and One Nights; The Canterbury Tales , by Geoffrey Chaucer. Many “nested stories” are told or written by characters within the larger narrative, often becoming more important than the loose plot that frames them.
Tragedy Hamlet; Oedipus Rex , by Sophocles. Tragedies in the Aristotelian sense involve the downfall of a hero whose greatest weakness (which also may be a strength) makes defeat and disaster inevitable.
Trial To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee; A Time to Kill , by John Grisham. Somewhere between a genre and a plot device, the court case can be the central story or an event that clarifies social issues surrounding the alleged crime.
Trial by Suffering The Book of Job; A Little Life , by Hanya Yanagihara. Troubles are heaped upon our protagonist until he is left irreparably disillusioned or dead — perhaps with just a hint of redemption at the end. (see also: Rise and Fall .)
Trial, Show The Crucible , by Arthur Miller; Darkness at Noon , by Arthur Koestler. Stories of witch hunts, literal and otherwise, might revolve around a courtroom trial or may more broadly feature mob justice, like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery .
Voyage and Return Typee , by Herman Melville; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland , by Lewis Carroll; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , by L. Frank Baum. A kind of accidental quest: The goal is return, but the pleasure is in exploring a strange new world. (see also: Adventure .)
Voyage, Return As MacGuffin Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe; The Martian , by Andy Weir; Lord of the Flies , by William Golding. The stranded adventurer’s escape is deferred and the plot stalls into a sort of social locked-room mystery. Will the hero survive? Can he remake society? (see also: Quest , MacGuffin Variation .)
War at the Front Catch-22 ; For Whom the Bell Tolls , by Ernest Hemingway; War and Peace , by Leo Tolstoy. Bloody conflict gives the story its structure, whether the attitude toward it is heroic, comic, or deeply critical (or all three!).
War on the Home Front Cold Mountain , by Charles Frazier; War and Peace. The effects of war and revolution are felt by those left behind; families are torn asunder and/or reunited.
Wife As Phoenix Gone Girl , by Gillian Flynn ; Fates and Furies , by Lauren Groff. The story might begin with the wife mute or absent, or in any event cast in the role of long-suffering innocent. Then the narrative pivots, and as she tells her story, someone stronger and more calculating emerges.
*A version of this article appears in the August 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
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