If you’re a new writer, a plot formula is your shortcut to writing a great story. A plot formula can…
- Help you get an overview of your story.
- Help you figure out where to begin and end your story.
- Help you decide what happens next.
- Help you keep on track, know where you are, and how far you still have to go.
- Help you find and fix weak points in your story.
- Speed up plotting, writing, and editing.
Many writers, especially prolific writers of genre fiction, use plot formulas, although they may not have systematised, written, or perhaps even elaborated it to themselves.
However simple it may be, a plot formula is a powerful tool for crafting stories.
I ♥ plot formulas
I love them because they simplify something that can be very complicated and overwhelming.
I love them because I love the idea of a universal story that unites us all.
I love them because they help me turn ideas into stories fast (and the faster I progress with a project, the less likely I am to flake out).
I love them because I love to (try to) understand how things work.
I love them because they allowed me to finish (and publish) a story for the first time in my life.
What is a plot formula?
So… what IS a plot formula?
I’m sure everyone has their own definition, but for the purposes of this post, I’d like to define a plot formula as: any simplified story framework that helps you create your own story.
In this post I’ve included two additional categories of “plot helpers”:
1 | PLOT FORMULAS: methods designed to help writers structure a story.
2 | PLOT CATALOGUES: lists (usually hoped to be exhaustive) of plots or plot elements that have been collated for readers or (less frequently) for writers.
3 | PLOT STUDIES: examinations of plots or plot elements, often with an anthropological bent, for the benefit of scholars, critics, or readers.
I’ll be detailing some of my favourite “purpose-built” plot formulas below, but your favourite novel, fairy tale, anecdote, triad, or mantra can also act as a story framework.
For example, one triad I really love is this one that my writing buddy, Andreea, shared with me one day:
- Something for beginners/first-timers/everyone
- Something for your tribe/frequent readers
- Something for yourself
I used it to write this post, and I use it in all of my stories too. It’s so simple, but it helps me in several ways:
- It reminds me to think of my audience and their specific needs.
- It reminds me that I need to guide readers through the levels of information or training that I’m providing.
- It reminds me to add my own personal touch.
- It reminds me to enjoy what I’m doing by including something for me, even if I’m the only one who understands or appreciates it.
A recent study found that literary works exhibited a fractal quality. I think good plot formulas also have this “fractal” trait – they can be applied at the macro or the micro level, or anywhere in between.
And if you use them to their fullest potential, you can take them beyond the written story. You can start shaping your life story too.
Won’t a plot formula make my story formulaic?
If by formulaic you mean, “predictable”, then no. How predictable your story is depends on how well you know the context you’re writing in, and how good you are at understanding your reader’s expectations and then thwarting them.
If by formulaic you mean, “unoriginal”, again, I would argue: no. Complete freedom in any creative project can be difficult or even paralysing. That’s why many writers fear the blank page.
All writers work within the arguably “formulaic” constraints of form, genre, and even formatting, and yet the variety of stories they generate is seemingly endless. Plot formulas, when used well, work to aid creativity, not to hinder it.
When to use a plot formula
The best plot formulas help you at all stages of creating a story:
– Problem solving
And you can never consult them too early or too late. We make much ado of being “plotters” or “pantsers”, but really everyone plots, whether before, during, or after writing the story.
Turn to your plot formula whenever you need guidance. But don’t be afraid to trust your own judgement and bend the “rules” of the plot formula, either!
How to Choose a Plot Formula
- Go with whichever one sparks more ideas.
- Go with whichever one helps with problems you’re facing.
- Choose one at random.
- Combine several together.
Once you’ve chosen a plot formula… stick with it. Don’t look for an alternative as soon as you start to become frustrated with your first choice. You’ll only end up wasting time. As with everything else, there is no single perfect choice. And it may be the case that different projects need different formulas.
Keep experimenting. Keep writing. Keep improving.
How to use a plot formula
You will probably be tempted to dive straight in and start applying your chosen plot formula to your current work in progress. Here’s how you might proceed:
- Create a detailed outline of your WIP. You might want to use a spreadsheet or outlining app. If you’d like to see an example of a completed novel outline, you can click here to download one I’ve prepared.
- Study your chosen plot formula, and see how your scenes (or beats) fit into the structure.
- Identify scenes that don’t fit. For each one ask:
- Would this scene work better at another part of the story?
- Is this scene unnecessary?
- If this scene feels right, do I need to adapt the plot formula?
- Check to see you haven’t skipped any stages. If you have, ask:
- What is the purpose of this stage?
- Does my story really need this stage?
- If it does, how can I incorporate this stage into my story?
To become more proficient with your chosen plot formula, it really helps to use it frequently.
- Practice plotting your own stories. Even if you never write any of them, just sit down and create plot outlines. If you don’t go into too much detail, you can easily create a plot in a few hours. Spend a week repeating this exercise and really putting the formula through its paces.
- Practice plotting other people’s stories. When you sit down to watch a film, or your favourite TV series, or even a music video, think about how closely it follows your chosen plot structure. Ask…
- How do the scenes fit into the various stages?
- What problems do you have assigning the scenes to stages, and why?
- Are any stages skipped?
- Are there any extra stages that your story structure doesn’t seem to account for?
- Do any stages seem to be in a different order?
Please note, this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve tried to fit as many as I can onto the cheatsheet, so don’t forget to pick it up here.
Lester Dent’s Plot Formula
This was the first plot formula I ever came across. It was a huge revelation for me that novels (or stories) could be written by numbers, and that doing so could provide the writer with a simple framework for checking pacing and action, among other things. Read More