25 Must-Read Tips on Plotting from Top Authors and Editors

We have a special post for the holidays, compiled by freelance editor M. J. Bush.  

I first met M. J. when she included Ruth and me in one of her great quote compilations: "99 Essential Quotes on Character Creation". I appreciated all the work that went into her post and asked if she'd like to do a quote post for us. 

I'm especially grateful that she was able to get it done early and move it up to this month. I'm just now clawing my way back to health after a month-long Virus from Hell. It's a huge help that she's going to be at the helm while I'm madly wrapping gifts, addressing cards, and packing for a Christmas visit to my family.  

I'm so glad she decided to tackle the subject of plotting. Mastering the art of the plot is probably the toughest part of learning to write novels. We can have too much going on, or too little. Or have it going on in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Even seasoned professionals usually need an editor's help to make sure the plot doesn't rush or sag anywhere. 

Without a compelling plot, the most beautifully drawn characters, brilliant insights, and lyrical prose are lost on most readers. 

Plot is the engine that drives your novel. M. J. brings us some tips to help you keep that engine fine-tuned. And if you follow all the links she provides, you will have a superb mini-course in how to plot your novel. Many thanks to her for compiling this excellent list! 

Ruth and I wish you all a very happy holiday season...Anne

25 Penetrating Quotes on Plot 

Compiled by M.J. Bush

Plot is story; story is plot. Without something happening, your characters aren’t pushed to grow and you can’t show their carefully crafted complexities.

With a well-formed plot, you pull in the reader with flawless tension handling, robust arcs, and vibrant themes.

Brush up with 25 quotes from plot-savvy writers:

1. Structure is required in all of art. Dancing, painting, singing, you name it–all art forms require structure. Writing is no different. To bring a story to its full potential, authors must understand the form’s limitations, as well as put its many parts into proper order to achieve maximum effect.

K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel

2. The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline—the driving force of the book—and refuse to let go.

Nancy Lamb, What is the Throughline of a Novel? (And Why It’s Important You Have One)

3. Unless your story is very basic and simple, the throughline is something you will consciously have to look for and adjust.

Mooderino, Throughline: Tying Your Story Together

4. When you are mind mapping, you don’t need to think linearly yet. You just want to throw ideas onto the paper to let your story start gelling. Try to come up with ten strong scenes that will be the pivotal moments in your story.

C.S. Lakin, Ways Novelists Can Brainstorm Plot and Scenes

5. The fix for most script problems is to give serious attention to the movement from one narrative moment to the next. The easiest way to understand what a narrative moment is, is to ask two questions: What does this action or this line of dialogue force the audience to question? How does that information relate to previous questions raised by the story?

Clive Davies-Frayne, Why I Don’t Read “How To” Screenwriting Articles Anymore

6. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader.

Roz Morris, Story structure: why plot milestones might not be equally spaced – and why that’s good

7. Plotting with mini arcs can be a handy tool to break your novel into smaller, more manageable pieces that keep the story moving and the ideas coming. 

Janice Hardy, Plot Your Novel With Mini Arcs

8. As you are working out the plot for your book (or, for you pantsers, as you are trying to figure out what happens next,) make a list of all the things that could happen next.

Kara Lennox, The Plot Fixer #8 – Is Your Plot Too Predictible?  

Tweetable: "Don’t go with the obvious next move in your story. Brainstorm and see what else you could do."

9. Make coincidences add complications, not take them away.

Jami Gold, The Green Lantern Movie: How *Not* to Plot a Story

10. Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock.

Kristen Lamb, Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel

11. Is there any point where a reader might feel like putting the book down?

James Scott Bell, 6 Common Plot Fixes

12. Subplots matter far more than their name implies. If a screenplay dies in Act 2 or Act 3, it’s just as likely the problem lies in the subplots as in the main narrative.

Allen Palmer, The secret to subplots

13. If a story goes too long without new information being revealed, the reader can get bored and feel that nothing is happening.

Janice Hardy, A Trick for Keeping Your Plot (and Story) on Target

14. What stirs our hearts isn’t the grand sweep of a plot but the piercing effect of moments along the way.

Donald Maass, Plot vs. Heart

15. It’s important to remember that your hook isn’t just the first line of a story, but a concert of parts acting together – the first line that pulls you in soundlessly or with a bang, the follow-up that adds depth and meaning to that first line making it as real as the Velveteen Rabbit, and the moment of clarity that connects the starting point to the rest of the novel.

Natalie C. Parker, The Anatomy of a Good Hook

16. The inciting incident is, by no means, an optional plot point. Without a life-altering event to catapult our characters in one direction or another, there isn’t a story.

Ava Jae, Plot Essentials: Inciting Incident

17. The pre-middle consists of the time period between receiving the invitation and the start of the “meaty” action. This is a great time for your hero to take a short trip, where he can naturally observe new things without “information-dumping” on the reader.

Christine H., What Every Writer Should Know About Their Novel’s Pre-Middle

18. Antagonists rule the middle and are there to teach the protagonist what she needs to know in order to prevail at the climax at the end.

Martha Alderson, How to Turn a Lackluster Middle into Page-turning Excitement

19. Before the Mid-Point both the hero and the reader experience the story with limited awareness of the real truth behind what’s going on. Because it reveals significant new information, everything after the Mid-Point carries new weight and dramatic tension.

Larry Brooks, Story Structure Series: #6 — Wrapping Your Head Around the Mid-Point Milestone

20. The midpoint moment is the moment that tells us what the novel or movie is all about.

James Scott Bell, Write from the Middle

Tweetable: The midpoint shift and the mirror moment are scene and sequel. Revelation and realization. External and internal.

21. At the Second Plot Point you can smell the ending just around the corner, whereas in the scene before you couldn’t. And yet, you’re not sure what it will be.

Larry Brooks, Story Structure Series: #8 – The Second Plot Point

22. The All Is Lost moment is powerful because it is primal. It reaches down into the core of our beings and takes what we fear in our lives and makes those things real.

Cory Milles, When All Is Lost, Your Story Succeeds

23. Your black moment isn’t black enough until the reader, and possibly even you as the writer, can’t see a way out.

Kara Lennox, Plot Fixer: Weak Black Moment and The End Does Not Satisfy

24. In many stories, the characters change a little bit at a time, but they won’t really change—deep down where it counts (and where it will stick)—until they realize how their beliefs are false. This revelation often happens all at once, right as they’re facing the biggest obstacle during the Climax.

Jami Gold, Building a Character Arc: Start at the End

25. The strategic purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives.

Jason Black, Does your denouement murder your characters?

There are many names for the different points. To avoid confusion, I suggest picking one paradigm and sticking to it (with the addition of James Scott Bell’s mirror moment). But no matter which you choose, all the advice here should be easy enough to apply to the appropriate points in the your story.

Let’s recap. In a well-formed plot…

  • The midpoint shift and mirror moment embody your main theme. 
  • Tension is escalated with the use of well-timed conflict, obstacles, and complicating coincidences.
  • Your characters arc naturally because of the revelations, realizations, and crises they go through. In the process, they show more of themselves.

Creating a plot takes the courage to trust your choices, the stomach to nuke what isn’t working, and the perseverance to keep plugging away.

I won’t claim it’s easy. Sometimes I have to set a plot aside for a few days to see where it isn’t working. The problem might be in the themes or the plot points or the reactions. It might be that I’m unconsciously protecting my characters from the worst. There are a lot of areas to consider.

...The point is: a healthy plot is worth the effort.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you have any questions for M.J. ? Additional insights to add to the list? Chime in! What's the toughest part of plotting for you? 

If you'd like to join M.J.'s mailing list, she'll provide this post as a PDF here: 25 Penetrating Quotes on Plot PDF.

M. J. Bush blogs at WritinGeekery . She is a full-time writing coach, editor, and fantasy writer. She wants to "help writers climb through the jungle of conflicting advice and overwhelming information to find their personal perspective, true voice, and unique writing process."


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