Where Should You Start Plotting Your Story?

Where should you start plotting your story? Why, at the beginning of course! Except… when it comes to fiction, it’s not always that simple, is it?

One of the key principles of story theory is “the ending is in the beginning.” What this means is that any consideration of how best to begin a story must always include considerations of how best to end it—not to mention all the stuff in between that gets you to the ending. So “where should you start plotting your story?” is a legitimately thoughtful question for any writer to ask—as did Max from Australia:

I went back to a redraft of an earlier redraft of a novel and started at the end. I am working backwards to the middle section—which I was never quite happy with—and see how I can do a better structural job. So maybe one day you could post about where to start the story: back-end, middle or front-end.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

First off, let me just distinguish that what we’re discussing here today is not so much the question of whether you should write your story chronologically, but whether you should plot your story chronologically. Of course, for writers who prefer to discover plot as they write, this distinction won’t matter. But for the rest of us, it can often be helpful to realize that while we may be at our best writing the scenes of the first draft in chronological order, we can—and probably should—consider our plot from a perspective that lets us jump outside the story’s chronological time and space so we can gain a big-picture view.

The Bird’s Eye View: Structure in Outline

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

Some writers prefer to outline the story’s plot before writing the first draft; others prefer to analyze the plot after winging the whole thing in a rough draft. Either way, every writer must eventually step back and examine the plot from a bird’s-eye view.

When we do this, what are we looking for? One of the first things to examine is the structure of the plot. And how do you do this? Start by identifying the structural throughline. This will include all of the major structural moments in the story. As I teach them, they look this:

1. Hook – 1%

2. Inciting Event – 12%

3. First Plot Point – 25%

4. First Pinch Point – 37%

5. Midpoint/Second Plot Point – 50%

6. Second Pinch Point – 62%

7. Third Plot Point – 75%

8. Climax – 88%

 

(^In this interview with Studio Binder, I break down the eight beats of structure and talk about how they show up in Jurassic Park.)

No matter how complex your story, these eight beats should always come together to create a unified whole. Aside from their own unique structural roles, they should all be about the same thing. They should all feature your protagonist as the primary actor. And they should all function together to tell a unified story.

Indeed, if you’re uncertain how to summarize your huge sprawling novel for a query synopsis, just focus on the structural beats. What happens in these beats is what’s most important to your story. You should be able to tell someone the entire story just by describing these eight beats. If any one of these beats sticks out as “the one that doesn’t belong,” that’s a sign that the structure has gone astray in at least that one place. (Need some examples of how to do this? Check out the Story Structure Database.)

This is how you troubleshoot a plot after you’ve already created it. But what if you haven’t yet created it? In that case, as Max asks, is there a specific structural beat that offers the single best starting place for creating cohesion and resonance in all the other beats?

The short answer is: no. You can begin crafting your plot anywhere within the story’s chronology. The when and the where isn’t important, as long as you make sure all the other beats come together to create a unified whole.

Largely, the best approach will come down to two factors:

1. The Author’s Own Preference

How does your brain like to work? Those who are linear-brained generally do best when we can work as chronologically as possible. Those who prefer the mind-mapping approach may do better to jump around more. Sooner or later, however, we all have to hone both skills. Linearity is clearly important in the art of writing fiction, but so too is the flexibility required to repeatedly zoom in and out to make sure everything is working on both the micro and macro levels.

2. What Idea First Comes to You

Personally, I’ve never plotted any two novels in quite the same way. Every story is, as I like to say, its own adventure. How I approach figuring out a story’s structure always depends on what ideas come to me first. Sometimes the ending will be the clearest; sometimes the beginning. Other times, it will be the First Plot Point or Third Plot Point that comes as the formative idea—and everything else is shaped around that.

Where Should You Start Plotting Your Story? It Depends

The longer answer to the question of “where should you start plotting your story?” is: it depends. Following is a quick overview of the main concerns when plotting a story depending on where it makes the most sense for you to start brainstorming according to what scene ideas are already in the bank.

Beginning at the Beginning (Premise)

The most obvious place to begin is always at the beginning. If you need to begin planning your plot structure based on an idea for an opening scene, then the good news is that you get to work (or at least start out working) in chronological order, an approach that lends itself to an organic unfolding of cause and effect in your own imagination.

The “bad” news is that you still have everything to figure out about the rest of the structure. Usually, the best place to start this process is by using what you know about your opening scene to build your story’s premise. Even if all you have at this point is an opening scenario, you can start intuiting the structure that will follow by imagining what sort of premise will arise from this scenario.

At its simplest, the premise is a short summation of what the story is about. I prefer working with a one- or two-sentence premise that distills specific aspects of the story, allowing me to quickly identify the major mechanics I will be utilizing going forward. Although you can always modify your premise sentence as you go, having this as a starting place offers a useful touchstone for creating cohesion as you dream up the structural beats that will follow. (You can find guidelines for this in my Outlining Your Novel Workbook and the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software.)

For Example: The premise sentence I’m working with at the moment for my fantasy Wildblood is “An immortal knight cursed to protect the realm forever must journey with a dying queen to an ancient well, in hopes that her magical bloodline may be able to end the apocalypse of eternal winter before a fabled sorcerer can steal all their powers.”

What Makes a Good Premise?

Beginning With the First Plot Point (Conflict)

Personally, one of my favorite places to begin plotting is with the First Plot Point. This is the first major structural moment in the story, providing the turning point between the Normal World of the First Act and the Adventure World of the Second Act. It’s a big moment in any story. If you know what you want to have happen here, then you will already know quite a bit about the story.

The First Plot Point is the moment in the story when your protagonist fully engages with the story’s main conflict. The setup of the First Act is now over and the story’s conflict will now be full-on (whether that means drama, romance, or action). By examining how the conflict functions in your story’s First Plot Point, you can figure out how it will progress from here.

Behold the Dawn (Amazon affiliate link)

For Example: I started with the First Plot Point when plotting my historical love story Behold the Dawn, which is about a marriage of convenience between a mercenary knight and an on-the-run widow. Even before I knew anything else about this story, I knew this beat would have to happen, since it features the wedding that kicks off both aspects of the main conflict—their marriage and their escape from those who are trying to kill them both.

Beginning With the Midpoint (Moment of Truth)

In many ways, the Midpoint is the most crucial moment of the story. Everything (literally) hangs upon this central moment, not least because it thematically features a Moment of Truth, in which the characters will be faced with a difficult realization about themselves and their best path forward toward their goals.

No matter how you look at the Midpoint, it is a loaded moment for the plot, character, and theme in your story. This makes it a prime place to begin plotting your story. The main gift the Midpoint gives you is the Moment of Truth. If you know what huge realization your characters will have—one that will both change their direction in the plot and their own internal perspectives within the character arc—you will know a lot about your story. Its central location means you can then extrapolate a lot about both what’s come before and what will come after.

One of my favorite models for thinking about the Midpoint is James Scott Bell’s concept of the “Mirror Moment”—in which the protagonist is brought face to face with himself, perhaps literally via a mirror or perhaps only symbolically in a way that forces him to an internal reckoning between the Lie he has so far believed and the Truth that is now knocking at the door.

Storming (Amazon affiliate link)

For Example: One of the earliest scenes that came to me for my historical dieselpunk adventure Storming was the Midpoint. In this story, [kinda a spoiler, but not really because the back cover will tell you as much] a barnstorming biplane pilot clashes with air pirates in a dirigible. The Midpoint is the first moment when the pirates stop skulking in the clouds and make themselves known during a spectacular battle at an airshow. Knowing the story was building toward this allowed me to plan all the scenes leading up to the battle—and all those leading away.

Beginning With the Ending (Climax)

Next to beginning with the beginning, probably one of the most popular choices is beginning with the ending. This is a sound choice. As mentioned at the top of the post, if you know how to end the story, then you have all the material you need to know how to properly begin it.

Your idea for your story’s ending might focus on the final moments of the Resolution, after the main conflict has been resolved. Or it might focus on the high action of the Climax, which does the resolving. Either way, knowing how things will turn out for your protagonist will give you sound ideas for how to set up everything that comes before. Knowing how your story ends gives you insight into what kind of character arc your protagonist is following, what thematic premise your story is “proving,” and how the conflict will be resolved (i.e., in the protagonist’s favor or not). Using this info, you can then circle back to the beginning to make sure you are properly setting up and foreshadowing everything that will come.

Wayfarer 165 Weiland

Wayfarer (Amazon affiliate link)

For Example: Although I don’t always know the events of my story’s Climax right away, I do usually know how I want the story to end. With my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, about a young man in Georgian England who gains superpowers and fights crime in the Dickensian underbelly of London, I knew I wanted (spoiler) a poignant ending that showed him, now an outlaw, nobly leaving his would-be love interest in order to continue “wayfaring.” (/end spoiler) From this, I began to figure out what type of character arc he would be following (one in which he started out with not so noble motives) and what sort of conflict would create the circumstances of this final scene.

***

The reason it really doesn’t matter where you start plotting is simply that eventually you’ll have to bounce around and cover everything else anyway—and then bounce back to the place where you started to make sure it still fits with all the other plot pieces you’ve created. This is the great challenge of writing longform fiction—making sure all the many, many pieces hang together in a neat row that resonates with readers on all levels. Plotting is rarely a simple proposition, no matter how you do it. The secret is two-fold:

1. Understand structure, so you know what each piece is designed to do and how it affects all the other pieces.

2. Rely on your own instincts to guide you to the scenes and ideas that feel rich enough to propel your exploration of everything else in the story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Where do you start plotting your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. First, thank you for another interesting column, though you keep making me think and that may not be the best thing for the world.
    My preference is start with the end, because I spent many years writing software, and designing software from its output and working backward tends to keep it from suffering from the ever dreaded “code bloat.” Something of a concern in fiction as it happens. However, after reading this and reflecting on it, I wonder if the middle doesn’t make a lot of sense. If not starting there, at least jumping into it with both feet early to make it unique and interesting. My reasoning is that when you are writing the middle is the tough part. So, if you make it something you’re excited about as a writer, maybe that helps you along.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As I say, there’s no “wrong” place to begin. Sooner or later, you have to think about all the parts anyway! Although some writers are capable of sitting down to pants a complete draft that doesn’t require major alterations, most of us will either have to circle back to do revisions or do our own version of circling back in the outline phase.

  2. A lot to think about, thanks!

    All of these are likely places we might start a story from — in fact, the first breakthrough we might have is deciding whether that essential moment works best as which of those key moments. (How would Storming have been if those pirates had show up at the start, or at the first plot point? Probably less explaining and getting to know each other, and more action and dealing with things in the context of danger already around them.)

    Also, I think that climax always matters. If a story plan starts with a scene besides its ending, then one of the first steps after that is probably to pick an ending that goes with it, and fill in the lines between them so that characters who did This earlier will spend the rest of the story Trying Everything Else, and end up with no option left except The Big Choice at the end. Or at least, if we plot in straight lines, we should see them as tests and something to redo if they don’t end with a good climax: “The first plot point could come from that beginning, and lead to that midpoint and that second point… but no, it doesn’t end big enough, time to back up a few steps…”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When I sit down to outline, I usually come to the table with a handful of scene ideas, and I don’t always know which will go where. One of the early tasks is figuring out which idea makes the most sense at which structural beat, and then filling in the blanks in between.

  3. Felicia Johnson says

    You wrote, “No matter how complex your story, these eight beats should always come together to create a unified whole. Aside from their own unique structural roles, they should all be about the same thing. They should all feature your protagonist as the primary actor.”

    Is it necessary to use the protagonist in the opening chapter? As in Game of Thrones, I have multiple characters and would be switching back and forth between them. The protagonist doesn’t appear right away. Is this a bad idea?

    • Heather Willis says

      A really interesting example of this is Star Wars: A New Hope. One of the most popular stories of our time, and the protagonist (Luke) isn’t introduced until halfway through the First Act. We spend a lot of time with the droids and even meet Leia before Luke, I think. So – generally it’s not a great idea to wait this long, but Lucas shows that it can be done, as long as we have a reason to care about the story before the protagonist arrives and the opening material demonstrates the conflict.

      Sometimes it feels like every writing rule has at least one hugely successful counterexample!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The general rule is that it’s best to start with your protagonist. There are two reasons for this:

      1) It immediately sets up the chain of cohesion that indicates what the story will continue to be about at all the important structural moments.

      2) It gives readers the opportunity to be hooked in right away by what is, presumably, the most interesting character in the story.

      However, there are always exceptions. In a complex story, such as Game of Thrones, opening with a scene that sets up that complexity is sometimes the best bet for initiation cohesion.

      As Heather mentioned, Star Wars: A New Hope is another example, although this kind of opening is often much easier to accomplish in a movie. If readers have to wait through 25% of a book before they meet the protagonist, that’s a lot of pages for them to get through.

    • While I agree it’s best to introduce the main character right away, there are several movies that don’t. “Star Wars,” of course, also the Terminator movies, and “Switchback” with Dennis Quaid. What they do (and the prologue to “Game of Thrones” as well) is set up the Big Bad and inform you of what sort of story you’re getting yourself into. If you think about it, how dull would Star Wars have been if we followed Luke through his morning chores before Uncle Owen sent him to get the droids?

      “Switchback” is an interesting case because you spend the first act focusing on a hitchhiker and the man he’s traveling with. It seems unrelated to the main story and until Dennis Quaid shows up you don’t really know where it’s going, but that mystery is part of what draws you in.

  4. Heather Willis says

    This is really interesting. Since I got converted from a pantser to a plotter, I’ve plotted two novels. One started at the beginning; I had no idea how it was going to end and I’ve had some serious structure cleanup to do, including rewriting most of the Second Act to get the character arc right. I’ve been tinkering quite a bit with the Midpoint, having that dreaded “this point sticks out as not belonging” feel. This week I finally figured out how to tie the MC’s decisions in that beat to the character flaws that loomed large at the Catalyst and the First Plot Point, creating a sense of continuity and cause and effect while allowing him to take the first reluctant steps toward the Truth.
    The other book isn’t fully drafted yet, but the plot outline started with the Third Plot Point and Climax. I had a clear sense of what I wanted those scenes to look like and roughly knew the starting situation, so it was a matter of creating a logical chain of events that allowed the characters to develop in the ways they needed. Which was an interesting process – at one point I realized that a revelation at the Third Plot Point, the scene that started it all, was going to leave one character unable to make the decision I planned for him in the Climax. Had to set up earlier scenes such that the revelation wasn’t a shock to him, then realized that given his arc, the climactic decision wasn’t the right culmination. So that had to get changed. It was a “kill your darlings” moment… I could have either the Third Plot Point or the Climax I wanted, but not both!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Writing a novel is such a complex mind puzzle! There are just so many pieces to keep track of at any given moment. I’ve experienced everything you’ve mentioned here. Just when you think you’ve got everything as seamless as it can be, you realize there’s a thread sticking out somewhere! All part of the game though. 🙂

  5. The majority of story ideas I come up with have to do with the main character and something they’re doing or wanting. For example, a recent idea I had was the image of a girl reading a book she loved and tearing each page out as she read it before flushing it down the toilet. I thought, why is she doing this? So far the scene has become the midpoint, and I have 3 storylines between her, her mother, and the heroine in the book.

    Another story I’m working on features the main character sitting in his car before work, dreading his shift and wishing for the days when he was a masked vigilante. This was meant to be an opening scene but has since fallen by the wayside since I’ve found other ways to convey it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wow, both are great ideas!

    • That’s an interesting image! As a teenager I was a busser in a restaurant, and I saw a man reading a book with a bunch of perfectly torn out pages on the table in front of him. Each page he read he just tore out. I should have asked him what he was up to, but it was just so *weird* that I didn’t. And I normally loved talking to people about the books they were reading, but it was hard to imagine he liked a book he was doing that to. I like to re-read books, and this was how I discovered that not everyone re-reads a book.

      Now I’m wondering if your heroine is doing a “burn the ships because I’m never going back” deal (think Cortez coming to the New World). Will she never re-read this book? Is it the only copy, and she will allow no one else to read it? Is she a Jack Vancian (Dungeons & Dragons) wizard who is memorizing a spell that should only be uttered once, and never again, not even by another wizard?

      Carry on, that image just arrested me 🙂

      • Thank you both! I thought it was a pretty powerful image, too. I forgot to mention that she’s crying as she’s doing it. I didn’t go in the directions you did, Jamie, and now that you have it makes we reconsider what I thought up lol.

        What struck me was why would someone destroy a book like that, much less one you care so deeply about. Once I figured out what the book was about and why it was so important it helped me determine both what the girl’s motivations were and the majority of the themes. Ironically it has a lot to do with feminine self-empowerment which isn’t really something I’m qualified to write about lol.

  6. While doing my 3rd or 4th rewrite of a serial killer for profit novel–a black widower scheme, I had a sudden idea for a new opening that would change everything: I got this image of one partner phoning the other and asking, “Did you kill my wife?” (The plot involved many wives killed for profit. But this wife was killed by someone else.) Opening this way meant I would have to write the book from the POV of the killers–which totally upended my concept–and solved a major problem I’d been having with the plot! So I re-plotted from the very beginning.

  7. On another crime novel–a legal drama–my midpoint happens when a crucial witness is finally located. She’s the linchpin of the defense, the person the defendant insists is the guilty party–but as the lawyer (my main character) prepares to accuse this woman, the subplot about the relationship between him and his long-time (married) girlfriend starts to go south. So it’s a bit more complex than the usual midpoint. (The irony is, his girlfriend originally encouraged him on this path–but when she meets the woman and gets to know her, she changes her mind–and begins to reassess her relationship–judging her boyfriend, wondering if he’s the sweet guy she’d always thought.) While plotting this novel, I wasn’t sure when to introduce this woman–and kept deferring it until the –aha–midpoint.

  8. I now realise that I have been avoiding restructuring my novel. I’ve had this niggling feeling that something in the middle just doesn’t fit. I wrote the thing by the seat-of-my-pants type of thing, in a linear way, but I’m beginning to work out a plot structure and the story doesn’t fit. It’s how can I say -woolly!
    I have a couple of ideas bubbling in the pot so-to-speak, but feel I cannot go forward until I have sorted the book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, heavy-duty revisions can often feel like you can’t see the forest for the trees at first. Just pull it one string at a time. Ask enough questions, and you’ll find the answers.

  9. I had a moment in my current story when I discovered my midpoint was actually my first pinch point.

  10. I started this one with the climax because that was the image that came to me that finally gave me a story for the three characters I’d had in mind for probably a few years by then. Two news stories, one of a pastor keeping secret that he was allowing/encouraging a pedophile to volunteer with children and one of a teacher quitting her job while making a speech at a school board meeting, came together in my mind with my main character walking down the aisle of her church and up on stage to announce some sort of nefarious dealings to the entire service. Then I had to figure out what shady stuff was going on, why my character had to out it this way, what the stakes were for her, and all the other details. I have about a chapter and a half left to go to connect the first 90% to the last 10% and finally finish this draft. That birds-eye view of the major points is where I plan to start with making sure everything fits together, where I need to adjust pacing, and what changes need to be made. This has been a whole new experience for me because with my first two attempts, I pantsed from beginning to end, discovering the story as I went. This is my first time not starting at the beginning and actually doing some (admittedly loose) plotting before starting. It’s been helpful to have an idea of what I was aiming toward while writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Every story teaches us something new. Just when we think we have our process all figured out, new inspiration comes in that changes everything!

  11. Petra Veenstra says

    What a difficult question!
    My first 4 books, they are one story, I wrote like a pantser, I believed. But the protagonist, antagonist, three plotpoints and the end were in my head already before I started writing. It was, as if Ihad an inner compass that guided me. So I found out that I had been outlining before I knew what that was. The strukture, the skeletton was in my head, I fleshed it out and it became a person.
    The second book I tried to follow the rules. After I read a lot of books about plotting I startet plotting in advance. I gave it up because it ended unstructured. I feld like I had a lot of jig saw pieces without an overall picture. If you see the structure as a skeletton again, I had a lot of bones but in the end it didn’t became a living human.
    I found out that to be able to write, I need the plot points to see where the story is going, i need a protagonist and antagonist and I need to write in chronical order, so that I am able to follow the development and transformation of my people. Plotting is helpfull, but I can do it only after I know my staff, beginning, ending and the three plot points. Plotting is also very useful to know if I am still on track, to see what is still missing, not to wander around too much and to fill out the dots. But it seems I cant use it to design a story from point zero. What did I do wrong?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In my own personal experience, I never do very well with story ideas if I haven’t given them enough time to gel in my head before I sit down to try to stat piecing everything together. I need to have a good handful of ideas and concrete sense of where it’s heading. Otherwise, my brainstorming usually gets me nowhere.

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