Writers are broken into two main groups: Plotters and Pantsers. You can probably guess the difference. Plotters strictly outline their books before writing a word. Pantsers find their plot through the process of writing, discovering it as they go.
My advice is to strive for a happy balance (this advice applies to most things in life). I suggest you outline your book beforehand—HOWEVER, be open to plot changes that will occur to you while you’re writing. You’ll suddenly discover that OH, the story makes more sense if the character does this instead. Go with the flow. Yes, it will mean rewriting and re-plotting. That’s okay—it means the story is getting better.
And if you’re writing a series, I suggest doing a rough outline of the whole series before you start book one. Again, things will change, but it’s not a waste of time. You don’t want to publish book #1 only to discover that you wrote yourself into a bad corner for the rest of the books.
More than one way exists to structure the plot of your story. I won’t teach you all the ways, but I will talk about my favorite, the three-act structure. Here is how you might break your story into three acts:
Act 1: The first 25-30% of the book. The point of Act 1 is to set the stage, to let the reader know what is “normal” for the main character. Then we feel the shift from normal when something odd happens. The character has to make a decision—stay in normal life, or pursue this new direction. Act 1 ends with the character’s decision, the point of no return.
Act 2: The middle 55-60% of the book, by far the largest act. The character experiences increasing struggles, both good and bad. Act 2 ends with a fork in the road—a difficult decision.
Act 3: The last 15% of the book, from the fork in the road to the rising climax, and then a short resolution at the very end. Act 3 is when we truly see how the character has grown and changed during the course of the book.
It’s not enough to simply have a three-act structure. You need to be constantly diligent about the pacing of the story so it doesn’t grow stagnant. Keep that tension throughout to make it a real page-turner. Here are a couple things to check for:
Does your first chapter introduce character and conflict, immediately setting the tone of the story? You don’t have to start with action in the first paragraph . . . but don’t wait too long. Use page one to ground the reader, and then jump into the exciting stuff. No chunks of backstory allowed!
Does every scene in the book have some type of conflict? My editor always tells me to delete a scene if it doesn’t have a point. The scene must either advance the plot or the character arc. If it doesn’t, then cut it from the book but save it as “Bonus Materials” on your website so readers can enjoy it later.
Let’s return to our analysis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I didn’t write it, obviously, so I’m just speculating here. But this will give you a rough idea of how the three-act structure works.
Act 1 shows us Harry’s “normal” life in the Muggle world. The inciting incident—the first real action—occurs on p. 27 when Harry talks to a snake. That doesn’t happen every day, right? Weird things continue to happen. Act 1 ends when Harry goes to King’s Cross Station and crosses the barrier into a magical world. NO GOING BACK NOW.
Act 2 brings us all the events at Hogwarts, growing in intensity as Harry, Ron, and Hermione pursue the mysteries of Snape, Quirrell, and Voldemort.
Act 3 begins around p. 265. The students have just finished their finals, and Harry has a realization about Hagrid and the three-headed dog. Dumbledore isn’t at Hogwarts, so Harry and his friends have to decide whether or not to do the job themselves (fork in the road). Their decision leads to action, leading to the climax—p. 295 when Harry fights Quirrell/Voldemort. After the climax, only fourteen pages are left to explain the resolution and tie up loose ends.
Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any questions! Come back next week for another writing workshop!