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Posted on Jun 13, 2024

How to Plot a Novel Like a NYT Bestselling Author

While some writers write stories by simply letting their creativity run wild, many authors find that plotting their novel beforehand allows them to channel their imagination in a more structured, productive manner. So if you’re in the second camp, how do you plot a novel?

In this post, we’ll share advice and wisdom from New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt, unpacking how she plotted her critically acclaimed novels like Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You, and how you can apply her tips to your own writing. 

How to plot a novel:

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1. Find the story’s core question

In the very first stages of plotting a novel, Caroline identifies a central question that her narrative will explore, even if she doesn’t have an answer for it yet. This will become the seed from which everything else grows.

For example, growing up as a Jewish girl in a Christian neighborhood, Caroline felt a strong connection to the question: How do you become part of a community when the community rejects you? This became the central theme of Is This Tomorrow, where the protagonist, Ava Lark, struggles for acceptance as a divorced working mother in 1950s Boston.

As Caroline points out, the central question should be meaningful to you on a personal level, rather than being crafted with the audience in mind. “You want to think about what is most meaningful to you personally. What questions do you want to know? That is a thing that's going to make your work really universal.”

Take inspiration from your own lived experiences 一 but here are a few examples to illustrate the idea: 

  • How do you get back on your feet after a tragic event?
  • Should one pursue their passion or stick to a safer career path?
  • How can someone rebuild trust after it has been broken?
  • How does one heal a broken heart?

After finding your story’s central question, you can start to sketch out the overall premise.

2. Establish the story premise

The story premise, also referred to as the story hook, is a sentence or two that covers what your book is about. Starting with your central question, you’ll want to unpack: 

  • The time and place in which you’re going to set your story;
  • Your main character(s), their background, and their goals;
  • The kind of ever-growing obstacles they must face to achieve their goals.

Then, you summarize everything into a short blurb. For example, here’s the premise of Caroline’s novel Is This Tomorrow:

Ava Lark lives in a 1950s suburb that she's dying to be a part of, but they don't like her because she's divorced and she's Jewish. But when her son's best friend goes missing, suspicions turn to her. Will they find this boy? Is she to blame? And how will she be a part of that community?

In a few sentences, this premise conveys the time and place (a suburb in the 1950s) and the main character and her background (Ava, Jewish, divorced). We also see her goal (to be accepted by her community) and the obstacles she’s up against (she’s already unpopular, and now a suspect of something heinous). All of this stems from the novel’s core question: How will she be a part of that community?

Caroline Leavitt with her novel 'Is This Tomorrow'
Caroline Leavitt, author of NYT bestselling novel 'Is This Tomorrow'

You can use the same approach with your own story idea. You may need to spend some time refining your story's protagonist, central friction or conflict, and narrative stakes before condensing them into a concise premise.

Remember that it doesn’t need to be perfect from the start 一 consider it a stepping stone to guide the rest of your plotting, which involves exploring your character’s wants and needs.

3. Identify your protagonist’s wants and needs

To further plot her novels, Caroline creates what she calls a "Wants and Needs Bible" that helps her sketch out character progression and arcs. This means identifying what the character thinks they want, the misconceptions they have about their desire, and what they actually need to be happy. 

To use an example, Caroline invites us to think about how this applies to Nick Carraway, the main character and narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

  • The want: Nick is haunted from growing up poor and so he desires money. He wants to be part of Gatsby's high-status society because he believes that will make him happy.
  • The misconception: Equating having money to being happy is the misconception that Nick needs to question and dispel. 
  • Action: The only way to get to the truth is through action. Nick sets out to meet Gatsby, enters his world, and finds a wealthy girlfriend. He gets what he thought he wanted, but he’s still unhappy.
  • The "we're all doomed" moment: This moment of disillusionment is what Caroline calls the "we're all doomed” or “all is lost” moment. Things go from bad to worse: his friend Gatsby is murdered and his girlfriend turns out to be so superficial that he can't stand being in the same room as her for another second. 
  • The realization: This is when he realizes that, while this is the life he wanted, it’s not the life he needs. Which leads him to change…
  • Starting fresh: Nick walks away from everything to seek something different. This brings his character’s arc to a close.
Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway in the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Image: Warner Bros)
Tobey Maguire playing Nick Carraway in the 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (Image: Warner Bros.)


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Mapping out these plot points will help you immensely as you build your story structure. Caroline notably points out that the end of your character’s journey should answer the central question of the story.

For Nick, his question is: "Does money make you happy?" By the end of The Great Gatsby, he has decided to move back to the Midwest, but we don’t know where he’ll go from there. All we can hope is that he'll look for deeper connections and more fulfilling pursuits going forwards.

With all of that in mind, let’s look closer at your character’s moral values…

4. Explore your character’s morality

Caroline is a strong believer that novels are all about characters and how they deal with difficult decisions. So, another component of plotting a great novel is to explore their morality. For example, you could consider what they’d do when confronted with a tough choice or investigate why they behave the way they do. 

Give them a tough choice to make 

One way to explore your character’s morality is by giving them a difficult problem that has two terrible solutions.

A powerful example of this can be found in William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice. A Nazi gives Sophie the choice of either giving up one of her children to a gas chamber while the others get to live, or commit them all to death instead. No matter what Sophie chooses in the end, her decision will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Meryl Streep in the 1982 film adaptation of Sophie’s Choice. (Image: Universal Pictures)
Meryl Streep in the 1982 film adaptation of Sophie’s Choice. (Image: Universal Pictures)

Unthinkable choices like the previously mentioned example are important because they add more depth to characters. They also get readers thinking about what they would do if faced with a similar situation — you’ll be hooking your readers with self-reflection.

Examine their moral blind spot

Characters often have moral blind spots that drive them to pursue their goals based on false beliefs and misconceptions. Caroline suggests digging deeper by sketching out their past to understand the “why” behind their actions.

Take an alcoholic character, for instance. Ask yourself questions like:

  • When did their alcoholism start?
  • What triggered it? What's the deeper, underlying reason?
  • What role does alcohol play for them now? What need does it fulfill?

The deeper reasons can reveal crucial insights about the character. Let's say this character was physically abused by their parents as a child. At 16, they stumbled upon their father's liquor stash, and drinking numbed their pain. Now, they falsely believe that the more they drink, the better they'll feel. They can't see that they're just trying to escape the lingering trauma. They just want relief.

Caroline emphasizes that the key is to put your character in a situation that forces them to confront their moral blind spot head-on, proving they need to change. 

Take our alcoholic character, for instance. Say he has an important custody hearing coming up. He's anxious, so he convinces himself a few drinks will calm his nerves. One leads to two, then six. By the time he shows up to get his kid, he's plastered, and no one will let him see his child, let alone grant him custody.

That's his rock bottom moment, the “we're all doomed” realization that he's lost everything that matters because of his addiction. But it also serves as a massive opportunity — it can make him think, “Maybe it's time I finally get sober. Maybe I should try AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). Maybe I can turn my life around.” That's where true, powerful character transformation happens.

Flight (2012) shows alcohol as a crutch for pilot William "Whip" Whitaker. (Image: Paramount Pictures).
Flight (2012) shows alcohol as a crutch for pilot William "Whip" Whitaker. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

After exploring your character’s morality, it's time to add twists and turns to your plot…

5. Layer in reveals and reversals

While many writers embrace the evergreen structure of three-acts, Caroline is of a different school of thought: “When I hear three acts, my head explodes because I don't believe that novels are in three acts. I think a novel has a beginning and it just rises up to the end.” 

She takes a different approach. On top of writing down her character’s “Wants and Needs Bible,” she uses an exercise called “Reveals and Reversals” that helps her further develop the narrative by adding unexpected twists and raising the stakes.

“Reveals and reversals just means that you get new information一 a reversal of expectations 一 and things get worse and worse. The stakes rise, so the character has to act more.” 

Let's make an example from Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales, which perfectly depicts how new information can subvert the plot, raise the stakes, and force characters to make important decisions.

The bride Romina is in the midst of her wedding ceremony, making toasts, and dancing with her new in-laws, when she notices the groom getting overly familiar with a colleague. Upon investigation, she discovers they're having an affair. Does she proceed with the ceremony or stop it right then and there? 

She chooses to confront him, then storms away enraged. He searches for her, eventually finding her shoes on the venue's rooftop. Did she jump? No, she's next to a ladder, venting her anger by making love to a random chef who was on a smoke break. What’s the groom going to do?

Damián Szifron’s 2014 film Wild Tales
Érica Rivas playing Romina in Wild Tales. (Image: Warner Bros)

Look at the story progression you’ve already sketched out, then think about where else you could reveal new information that subverts the character’s expectations and reverses the plot down an unexpected path. This should help you strengthen the overall story structure. 

Don’t forget that these twists and turns shouldn't just add drama. As Caroline says, they should also guide your main character to moments of realization. It’s all about what they learn, and at what cost.

“There always has to be a cost. Nick Carraway learns that money and Gatsby's world is not the magic kingdom he always thought it was. Nick loses his friend Gatsby to get that information. He has to suffer to learn that. But that's what's going to give your novel resonance.”

Once you’ve outlined all these plot points and story elements, you can finally condense them into a synopsis.

6. Finish your plan with a synopsis

Creating a strong synopsis is the final and fundamental part of the novel plotting process. During this step, you must put all the key story details in one place.

Even if you’re dreading the idea of it, Caroline believes that creating a synopsis is necessary to guides your work. “As you're writing, circle one scene every week and that's all you're going to work on. That way, it breaks your novel up into bite-size pieces and it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment.”

Your synopsis can be as long as twenty pages, or even more, if you’d like. Then, once you’re done tweaking it, consider showing what you’ve written to other authors, editors, or book coaches in your network like Caroline does.

“When I'm done with my synopsis, I'll show it to a bunch of people and have them read it, and I make sure that every point is in there. I look to answer these questions:

  • Are there moral choices?
  • Are there reversals and reveals?
  • Do I have wants versus needs?
  • Do I have the answer to the story?”


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Make sure the ending answers your central question 

Once she finally has her synopsis, Caroline starts writing her first chapters. “The final step before you really start digging into your novel is the first chapter. I always write my first chapter because everything in it has the seeds to the end. Your first chapter is the question, your last chapter is the answer to that question.” 

By the time Caroline finished the synopsis of Is This Tomorrow, she already knew the ending of her book. “Ava had a misconception. She didn't have to belong to that community. She needed to form her own community, which she did by making pies and opening a little shop where people gradually began coming to her. That was her ending.”

You might find the idea of writing a novel and already knowing how it’s going to end strange, but rest assured that it won’t spoil the experience of writing it. If anything, plotting will provide the safety guardrail you need to let your imagination and creativity run wild while staying organized and productive. For Caroline, it has been incredibly helpful, and she hopes it can help you as well. “You don't have to use it. You don't have to agree with it. [But] it saved my life, and I hope it will save yours.”

Caroline is an editor at Reedsy. To work with her on your next book, visit her profile and send her a request!

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