HOW-TO: Turn a ‘Brilliant Idea’ into a Plot

October 2, 2013

If I had a dollar for every person who has said to me, ‘I’ve got this brilliant idea for a novel!’, my piggy bank would be overflowing. So why haven’t all these people written that novel? Because they haven’t known how to translate that one idea into about 80-100,000 words. So how do you start to turn an idea into a plot? Here are my tips.

1. IdeaBrainstorm (finding the pieces):  Write your idea or premise down in the middle of a large sheet of paper and circle it. Then write around it all the thoughts you have on characters, events, settings, etc, relating back to the circle when you get stuck. Just get all your thoughts on paper at this stage – don’t worry about how plausible they are or if they don’t fit together. You might not even know how the novel will begin or end at this stage.

2. Research (fleshing out the pieces): List all the subject areas from your brainstorming session that you need to find out more about. This may include procedures, locations, psychological issues for characters.  Add any additional ideas to your brainstorm chart that spring from your research. For tips on where and how to research for your plot see my blog post In the name of research – Plot  

3. Outline (putting the pieces together): A plot has three parts – a beginning, a middle and an end – and two main transition points. T1 is the ‘epiphany moment’ where the story is moving along and something happens to change everything. T2 is the ‘point of no return’ where something happens to force an ending either way. The rest of the structure, in basic terms, looks something like this:


 Beginning              |                          Middle                      |                 End

  20-30%                 |                            50%                         |              20-30%

Set up conflict          |            Flesh out/add complications       |        Resolve the conflict

                             T1                                            T2

Split a sheet of paper into three columns as above. Take your ideas from your brainstorm chart and start slotting them into the section where they fit best, including identifying your two main transition points.  Leave gaps between your ideas so you can create more linking ideas. At this stage your ideas can still be quite abstract, but this will form the basis for creating the scenes that will make up your novel. If you are a ‘pantser’ (ie. someone who prefers to write by the seat of their pants rather than creating a full plot outline) you might like to stop plotting here and just start writing your novel, filling in the gaps as you go.  If you are a serious ‘plotter’, read on…

4. Map (connecting the pieces): Create a scene map from your outline by fleshing out your ideas into scenes. Include all the information you need to keep your plot on track (I use a one line description, date/time, setting, name of your Point of View character for that scene in italics). Group your scenes by chapter. None of this is set in stone. Your scene map is a living document and can be changed as you write. Think of scenes as the building blocks of your novel. Once written, they can be moved around to change the pace and structure ie. you might write them in chronological order then decide to move one as a flash back or flash forward to increase suspense.  You might also think up new scenes to add in as your write (particularly if you develop a new subplot) or move scenes between chapters.

I use an Excel spreadsheet (see example below) to do this because it is easy to create columns and cut and paste the lines when moving scenes. But you can write them down manually, use index cards, the tables function in a word processing program, or you might like to have a go in writing programs like Scrivener, which allows you to break up your text into re-locatable sections.  

Scene map


This may seem like a lot of work initially, but it is much easier to keep track of your plot in this way than to go back through 80-100,000 words looking for a particular scene that you want to change or move during the edit process. It is also a good way, at a glance, to make sure your plot will keep the reader’s interest. Check that there is enough variety in the settings (is this the most dramatic place for the scene?), and the POV character is the one with the most at stake in that scene.

Once you have your plot in order, writing your novel should be a breeze. As Ernest Hemingway said…There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. 

Happy plotting, Lea


11 Responses to “HOW-TO: Turn a ‘Brilliant Idea’ into a Plot”

  1. Dave Baker on October 4th, 2013 7:46 am

    Thanks for that Lea. It all looks great to me – and is pretty close to what I did with my first novel, ‘Watersheds’, which is currently in the 4th draft stage. I confess I didn’t dream up the procedures on my own – they were suggested by my mentors, Amanda Patterson of Writers Write and my old school pal and wellknown author, John Gordon Davis.

  2. Michael "Duke" Davis on October 5th, 2013 1:41 pm

    Nicely done. You lay out a couple of very good and easy ways to lay out a story line. I imagine most of us need help in that area. I’m an off the cuff writer, and that makes me a rarity. Most folks cannot write like that. My process has always beem totally linear. I think I am going to try your circles plan and see if I can lay out the story line for my nr xt novel.
    Keep up the good work!
    The Dukester

  3. Jim Sellers on October 5th, 2013 1:44 pm

    I agree, good points Lea. You are not addressing any of the “Pantsies” in the crowd when you talk about plotting but the whole concept of writing 100k words is daunting for anyone who thinks they can wing it. It’s good that you point out the need to plan things out. I have recently stared using a program called Scapple in place of traditional index cards. ( It’s only available for Mac right now. I have found this to be great when building the plot and trying some “what if’s”.

  4. Ken R. Wells on October 7th, 2013 1:20 pm

    I start with a carefully and thoughtfully crafted detailed outline of the story and of every major character. This is then modified, added to, or subtracted from as the story progresses. It’s the starting point for all my “brilliant ideas.”

  5. Lea on October 7th, 2013 1:23 pm

    Thanks for the tip Jim, I’ll check out Scapple as I have a Mac.
    Michael, I wrote my first two novels off the cuff, but I’ve learnt that a little bit of planning up front saves a lot of editing long term. I sit somewhere in the middle now. I plan quite loosely so it still allows a lot of the discovery to happen as I’m writing.

  6. Michael "Duke" Davis on October 7th, 2013 1:26 pm

    I have eight novels out, writing using Dragon Naturally Speaking, and it works well for me. I do have a basic idea in my head where I want to go. Sometimes I only have a beginning that is screaming to be written, sometimes it’s a middle, but never an ending. I have characters all fleshed out and ready to rip it up — I usually write Adventure in either War or SF Genre, and it works well for me.

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Lea Scott