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Plotting a Novel When You Haven’t Figured Out the Details Yet – by Janice Hardy

When I saw the title of today’s post by Janice Hardy, I said to myself “I think this is true for most writers.” Janice shares insightful plotting advice and as always, great examples. 

I’ve been writing, writing about, and teaching writing for over a decade, and one of the most common questions I get is on how to plot a novel. This is something many writers struggle with on a regular basis, with “where do I start?” often at the top of the list.

I’m in the early stages of developing a novel right now, and this one is a slight departure from what I usually write. I have two fantasy series (a teen fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and an urban fantasy for adults, the Grace Harper series), but my current project is science fiction for adults—and a detective novel at that, which I’ve never written before. It’s also a project I’m writing with my husband (who’s not a writer, but a walking muse), which adds another layer to the process as we work out how to best work as a team.

As you can imagine, plotting this book isn’t the easy thing it unusually is for me, a hardcore outliner and planner.

One of the challenges with this particular novel has been to create a plot based on a world I didn’t create with characters I don’t yet know (this world is my husband’s baby). So while I know X needs to happen at certain key turning points, I don’t always know what they’ll be until we brainstorm how the characters and world work.

As a result, this book is developing much more conceptually than my others. Luckily, it’s a detective novel, so it has certain tropes and a solid structure with what should happen at certain points of the tale. I just don’t know the details yet.

For example, I know the novel’s opening crime and how that escalates to murder, but I also know I don’t want the book to open with the client hiring my PI. That jumps in too fast, and with a science fiction world I need time to set the scene and ground readers in that world first. I want to show his normal life and him on the job (including his special skills), but I need to know what that life is like before I can write it.

Naturally, my first outline looked pretty vague, with “Protagonist is doing his job using his special skills.” A good concept to start with, but without details, I didn’t know how that turned into, “Client enters the PI agency and hires protagonist to do X.”

I needed to come up with a bridge that accomplished all my world building and setup, and got my PI where he needed to be. This is just like many other writers who have an idea, but no clear view of how to write that idea yet.

Although I’m working with a detective novel, this technique can work with any novel that has a clear structure and expected turning points, including romance. With these “formula” novels, we know certain things will happen in a general order, even if we don’t know how or what they’ll be. Such as:

  • In romance, there’s a meet-cute
  • In mysteries, there’s a body or crime
  • In other novels, there’s a problem

These clear turning points and expectations make it easier to plot out a rough concept of how the plot will unfold. For me, I know my detective story will generally go like:

  • Protagonist and world introduced
  • Client hired protagonist to solve original problem
  • Protagonist investigates
  • Crime escalates and new problem occurs (in most mysteries, this is a body)
  • Protagonist investigates new crime and tries to figure out the connections
  • Suspects stack up and are investigated
  • Perpetrator is revealed
  • Perpetrator is apprehended, case solved

A romance novel will have a similar conceptual outline that begins with the two love interests and their problems, the meet-cute, the attraction dance, problems with getting together, getting closer and then being torn apart, working things out, and then finally getting that happily ever after.

They’re rough outlines, but both of these are a good foundation to build upon (which is why story structure is so handy). Once we know these conceptual turning points, it’s just a matter of brainstorming until we find the right scenes to put there.

Let’s look a little closer at my detective outline to see this in action (sorry, no spoilers):

Protagonist and world introduced: My husband and I thought about how our PI’s day went and what he routinely did on the job. I knew I didn’t want this opening issue to be a major case that could set the wrong expectations and make readers think this is what the book was about, but I also wanted it to connect to the actual crime in some teeny way. I didn’t want it to be a throwaway scene that didn’t go anywhere. It also needed some conflict to drive the plot.

My husband and I put our heads together and came up with a common job our PI did for the police, but there was a problem this time and the PI’s police detective friend on the force asks our PI to look into it as a favor. Our PI does, and something is indeed amiss here. During this routine investigation for his friend, he witnesses something that will be relevant later. Even better, this favor gives our PI a reason to follow up and give his junior associate something to do—which allows me to introduce her and show their working relationship in the next chapter, typing the two scenes together in multiple, plot-driving ways.

This vague description is pretty much what I had before we started filling in the details. No specifics, but a conceptual idea of how the story should open and lead to the inciting event. It didn’t take long before we found the right would-building pieces to fit into this puzzle and create a compelling opening scene that did everything I wanted it to do.

I targeted the rest of the rough outline the same way.

I knew the case (adultery), which let me know the types of things our PI would have to do to solve it. I knew it ended up with a murder by the end of Act One, and that raised the stakes. The murder gave me a whole new set of issues and clues to work with to create new plot goals and scenes. I knew the murder was more than just the adultery, so that would come out at the midpoint and set up the second half of the plot. Much of my brainstorming was simply asking, “how would my PI investigate this case?” The unique science fiction aspects gave me even more to work with.

I had a rough outline for the major turning points of the plot without knowing more than “this is a case of adultery that turns into murder.” All I had to do was connect the conceptual dots.

How You Can Use Conceptual Plotting in Your Own Writing

If you’re stuck with an idea but no plot, take a step back and look at your novel’s structure. Do you have a classic formula, such as romance or mystery? Are there expected tropes and issues that appear in this type of story? If not, don’t fret—classic story structure can provide those turning points for you to start with. []

Think about how your story would generally unfold, and the types of scenes you might like to see happen. This is all macro and big picture, so don’t worry about the specific details yet. When they start falling into place, then slip them into the general plot and build from there.

I you get really stuck, try going right to your ending (even if that’s vague right now) and working backward. What has to happen for the ending to happen? What steps get the protagonist there? What happens to get to that point? Keep going backward until you’re at the beginning and have a clearer picture on how this story starts.

Plotting conceptually is a fun and handy way to brainstorm a novel without getting bogged down in the details of the story. It gives you permission to block out the rough lines of the novel until you have a solid framework to color and shade with the specifics of your idea.

Have you ever plotting a novel conceptually? Do you think it might help you the next time you get stuck on a plot?



Are you thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Are you getting ready for your next novel? If so, then you might want to visit Fiction University. Janice Hardy is giving away her Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure ebook for free until October 15 just for subscribing to the site (and if you want to learn more about writing, you’ll want to anyway). Check out the details here.

PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL takes you step-by-step through finding and developing ideas, brainstorming stories, and crafting a solid plan for your novel—including a one-sentence pitch, summary hook blurb, and working synopsis. Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing.


Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she’s not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.