4 Steps for Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I recently finished brainstorming for a new book. I had lists of ideas, pages full of "what ifs," and beginning character sketches.

As I sat back and looked at all of my initial work, I did what I always do before I jump into the writing process. I spent some time organizing my ideas. I've found that doing a little organizing at the forefront can save me a lot of time later with rewriting.

Here are four ways I organize all of those initial brainstorms into a workable novel:

1. Establish Set Pieces.

The term set piece is a screenwriting term that means, “The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie” (according to screenwriter Doug Eboch in his post Set Pieces Sell Scripts).

In fiction writing, set pieces are the unforgettable, major turning-points or events that happen in our book. So after I finish brainstorming plot ideas and developing my characters, I make a list of set pieces—the biggest and most critical events I want to include in my book.

I usually try to put them in the general order in which they’ll appear in the book—particularly into a basic 3-Act structure: a beginning with an inciting incident that pushes my character out of ordinary life; a middle crisis that works toward the black moment; then the final climax that eventually leads to resolution.

2. Develop a Three-Strand Conflict.

I give my stories three distinct strands of conflict. First, I look for an over-arching external conflict—a problem or obstacle that my character must face during the entire length of the novel, and it usually involves an antagonist of some kind.

Second, I give my characters internal conflicts—character weaknesses, flaws they must work through as the story progresses. Of course they won’t become perfect, but they need to grow in self-awareness.

And third, I develop relationship conflicts—tension and problems that will keep my main characters emotionally apart for the entire book (which is especially critical in a romance).

My goal is to have all three of my conflict strands relate to each other. The more intertwined they are, the better. It’s my job as the story unfolds to braid all of the strands together as smoothly as possible, until by the end, the reader can’t easily distinguish where one starts and one stops.

3. Jot Down a Short Chapter-by-Chapter Outline.

Once I have my set pieces organized and my three levels of conflicts outlined, then it’s easier for me to think of the overall frame work of where I need to go with the book. I generally determine approximately how many chapters I want and how many words per chapter. (Very roughly, mind you! It’s just a guide to help me stay somewhat on track!)

Then in my spiral notebook, I use my set pieces and three-strand conflict outline to make a few notes about what I hope to accomplish in each chapter—no more than a couple sentences.

4. Plan Scenes.

Over the years of writing, I’ve come to rely more and more upon the technique of writing by scenes. In fact, in most of my books, I cut from one scene to the next with very few transitional links.

As I’ve pondered why I like writing this way, I’ve realized that ultimately writing by scenes is one of the best ways to SHOW our story. We place our characters on the stage, have them act things out. When it’s over, we drop the curtain and open it again with the next scene. We’re continually showing the action of our story without having an intrusive narrator come out between acts and fill us in on what happens between times—as if we need to know every detail to be entertained.

Before I start the actual writing of each scene, I make notes on the scene including: Time/Date, Setting, POV (looking back to make sure I’m varying these well enough). Then I ask myself these questions: What is the goal of the scene? What am I trying to accomplish? How am I moving the plot forward?

Once I finish the outline of a scene, I write it (on my laptop). I try to end the scene with a Read-On-Prompt. After I’m done, I jot down my outline for my next scene in my notebook, write it, and repeat the process until the book is done. (Incidentally, the scene-by-scene outline later serves as a great tool for organizing rewrites.)

There you have it. That’s a quick overview of my process for organizing a novel.

What’s your process? Do you follow any of my steps? What else helps you in organizing all your plot ideas?


  1. Your plotting post really spoke to me, especially the *set pieces* section. The concept sounds intuitive, but I hadn't thought of structuring via memorable sets before. Thanks!

  2. My writing process varies from novel to novel but there are a few steps that most of them take.

    I start with a basic concept, something I can describe in 25 words or less. A single sentence that describes the character, the primary goal, and the primary obstacle.

    That sentence is expanded into a paragraph of five sentences. A sentence each for the opening, the first act, first half of the second act, the second half of the second act, and the third act.

    From there, I continue expanding the summary from one page to two page, then more.

    At some point, the summary begins to break down into scenes and I write a scene list.

    The last thing I do is a chapter outline.

    At that point, it's a matter of fleshing out chapters until the novel is a complete first draft.

    As I say, not all stories develop this way, but this is my favorite method.

  3. You're always so helpful, Jody. Sharing!

  4. Do you think that software like Scrivener would help with this?

  5. Wow. Your so organised. No wonder your books are so compelling with that amout of prep. I am such a novice and tend get inspiration that compels me to write and if It doesn't strike I don't write a word... Not too good. Keep up the good work!

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  7. Organizing is very a good idea before anything else. It really helps you with your story in making it a more better story. This is really a good idea.

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