How Plot is Like a 3 Strand Braid

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

For my traditionally published books, I'm required to send a synopsis to my publisher before I start a new book. While the mere mention of writing a synopsis gives many writers hives, I've actually grown to appreciate the pre-writing synopsis.

For one, the synopsis gives my editors some ideas about the direction I'm planning to take the book. If they spot any red flags, they can let me know upfront which saves me from having to do some rewriting later.

Second, the synopsis forces me to come up with a road map for my book, how to get from Point A to Point Z. Of course, as I write my book, invariably detours crop up and the story path takes me places I never imagined. However, because of my synopsis, I still end up at Point Z.

Recently, I sent a 5-paged synopsis to one of my editors and my agent to get their feedback. After reading through my synopsis, my agent called me with her concerns, primarily the fact that my synopsis was a retelling of my external plot and had no other dimensions to it.

I quickly assured her that my plot was multi-faceted, that I generally separate my plot into three main parts. In fact, I like to think of my plot like a three-stranded braid having distinct but interwoven parts:

1. External plot: A struggle/conflict that occurs against another person, group of people, nature, or even with self. The four common types of literary conflict are usually summarized as: man against man, man against society, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Traditionally this involves a villain/antagonist pitted against the heroine.

2. Internal plot: Involves an interior character issue or spiritual struggle that the heroine must work through. She starts off flawed in this particular area, and as the book unfolds, she becomes more self-aware of her internal problem and begins to work toward change. This inner struggle is also known as the character arc.

3. Relational plot: The relational plot is critically important in a romance, but it can also apply to other types of relationships that are central to the book including parent-child relationships, friendships, etc. Basically the relational plot consists of the relational dynamics and obstacles that the pair must overcome throughout the book.

If our story involves more than one character (like the typical hero and heroine found in a romance novel), then we would develop all three plot strands for both of our main characters.

In other words we would give our heroine an outer plot problem or foe (like a failing business). We would also give our hero an outer challenge (like he has to expand his business or lose his job). Both of their external problems may have some overlap (perhaps he's buying her building and shutting her down). They may even be facing the same antagonist. In fact, they may be each other's worst nightmare.

We would also give each of our main characters an internal or character issue that they need to work through. Each one needs to have separate and distinct flaws. They can be unaware of the flaw or keenly in tune to their issue. Either way, they must take steps to become a better person so that by the end of the book they have grown. (Notice I didn't say they became perfect!)

Finally, they each need to have barriers that are keeping them from developing their relationship (whether that's a romance relationship or otherwise). Each one should have their own issues that prevent them from having a flourishing and truly satisfying relationship with the other person. They need to overcome the barriers by the end of the book so that they are finally "together."

Our story becomes more cohesive and fulfilling if we're able to intertwine and relate our three strands as much as possible. Those strands, when interdependent and woven together, end up being much stronger and thicker and deeper than if we had only one of them.

In balancing the three strands, writers can err in several ways:

1. Err by neglecting/minimizing an external plot. If the only conflict is the romance plot, then it can become hard to maintain the reader's interest. Or if the plot is mainly character driven, it can also be difficult to keep our reader's attention. Obviously for shorter category romances or YA, the external plot can't be too complicated. But it still needs to be there nonetheless.

2. Err by neglecting/minimizing a character plot. The writer may throw a worry or fear or some other surface issue, but fail to take character development to a deeper level where the MC is grappling with real issues that stem from their past and often serve to drive their present decisions.

3. Err by neglecting/minimizing the relational plot. This plot is particularly essential in a romance where it should be the thickest strand and stick out the most. But even in other genres, our readers empathize best with our characters when they're facing the same struggles that we all have in relationships. And our readers draw hope and inspiration when they see the characters overcoming obstacles to have the fulfilling relationships that we all desire but that often elude us.

What about YOU? Do you have any organizational methods to your plotting? What helps you make your plot stronger and thicker and deeper?


  1. Thank you so much for telling of your advice, methods, and technics for writing! I hope to become a published author someday and I really appreciate that you, as a author, take the time to do this. You are a big encouragement to me! And I love your books by the way! :)

  2. As I've become more experienced in my writing I find that I have become much more organized in my plotting. I used to basically just start writing and see where the story took me. I don't know that this is particularly wrong (is there really a wrong way to write?) but it did require a lot more editing and shifting later on.

    Now I spend a lot more time doing character and plot development before I ever start writing. Most importantly I make sure my two main characters have something, usually something from their past, that is driving them. The decisions they make and the behavior they display need to have a reason behind it.

    Thank you for sharing your writing methods! It's nice to see these three parts to the plot separated and explained so clearly.

  3. I am glad you posted this this week, Jody! I am starting on writing a new book and have just finished my synopsis. It was a great reminded to go through and make sure there was enough conflict for both my main and secondary character!

  4. Thanks for this post Jody. I'm in the thick of trying to edit and the way you described the differed strands was spot on. It makes so much sense.
    And Thanks for being so inspirational. How you manage to do all you do is astounding.
    MaryAnna Rose

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  7. Great content the way you use three braided analogy was really on spot i have read several articles on Google but no one explained the way you have. It will surely help me to kick start my writing


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