Have you had problems finishing your novel? Writing takes a lot of work and getting to the end is hard. From the mushy middle to losing steam, there are a lot of hurdles for a writer (as well as the characters!). So you don’t get stuck in a never-ending writing lull and instead successfully make it to that soul tingling moment of writing “The End,” we suggest following a very simple structure to map out your story. It is always easier to get somewhere when you have a road map, after all!
Whether you pants (write without an outline) or are a plotter, dividing your novel into strategic sections that each serve a unique purpose in telling your story will give you a subset of smaller goals to conquer. And as for that mushy middle that so often swallows writers whole? Hah! This method turns it into a turning point for the entire story—the sharper the better. No quicksand to sink your book into oblivion here!
I’ve written over 20 novels, including award winning and best selling books and this is the technique I use to get me through EVERY TIME. It works and that is why I’m sharing it here for you!
You can get a feel for each of the seven steps in a very quick overview here. And read on for an explanation of what each of the seven stages are, how long they should be, and an example to get you started.
What You'll Learn
First Step: the Introduction
The introduction really does what it says: it introduces a reader to your story, world, and characters. There is a lot going on here!
From a reader’s perspective, it should be exciting, informative, spark a connection with the main character, and at the very least make them curious about the rest of the book. All of that must exist without overwhelming or being too unfamiliar. And, of course, it has to be grammatically strong enough they aren’t groaning on every page as they roll their eyes at obvious mistakes. Miss any of those things in your introduction, and you’ll lose the reader—if not the sale.
Wait! What? The sale???
Yes, the introduction comprises the first one to three chapters, or about the first 15%, of your novel. So, this is a large part of what readers can download as a free sample or see online. Suave readers will be looking at this piece of your book to decide if they want to buy it. Keeping that in mind is an important part of the final stages of edits to the introduction.
And yes, final stages—Plural! Absolutely do not try to make your introduction perfect before you finish writing your darn novel.
I’ve witnessed way too many novice authors get lost and bogged down creating the perfect introduction because nailing this part is such a huge aspect to writing a story. Don’t get lost in a cycle of edits to improve something that you won’t really be able to judge how it relates to the ending until, well, you write the end!
What Should Happen in the Introduction?
As writers, our perspective of what should happen in an introduction is a list of advice and ideals to hit:
- Have a great opening line
- But don’t make it about the weather or description
- Start with action
- Introduce the main character
- Introduce your awesome world
- Introduce a problem
- Provide background so the reader isn’t lost
- Make sure you describe things well enough the reader has some visuals
- Don’t info dump
Are you hyperventilating yet? Don’t worry! You’ll be okay!
It can feel completely overwhelming to tackle even two of those items in an average chapter. Try stuffing it all in a chapter or three and you might just never finish writing. Which is part of why I say don’t worry about it. Not until you finish your story.
Until you finish writing, you might not know really how the story should begin, especially if this is your first novel. I know for my first novel, I cut off three chapters before I found the beginning that I thought worked. The other three made sense, but they were too boring, too slow, filled with too much background. They didn’t matter, and they certainly didn’t hook a reader.
You have to trust that the reader will be able to catch on if you provide enough clues. All you need to do is provide that bread trail that leads them onward. Give them enough so they are curious to see where the path goes, but not so much that they know the end or every detail of every leaf they are walking over. Either of those will lose them.
And for a first time writer (especially if you are a pantser), you might not realize who actually is the main character, what events are pivotal, or how your character needs to change until you get your first draft finished. A lot of having confidence in what you are writing is what needs to be there comes after you’ve written many, many stories. For your first few, just write, plot, and pay attention to see how things develop. You’ll get the hang of it!
Advice for Your Intro
Whether you plot out the Intro before you write or come back to it to edit after finishing, there are a few things that can help you lay the foundation to something solid.
My biggest and best advice for a great intro is to think of it as a short story. Actually, think of it as a mini-short story that is the setup for the REST of the novel.
In other words, it doesn’t deal with the big novel plot, the major events of the character arc, or any of that. It is, instead, a snapshot of the character before anything overwhelming happens to set them off on the realizations and troubles that occur in the rest of the novel.
If your main character hopes and pines for a way to leave their dreary life, that is what the reader should see. If she is a perfectly content and happy child, that is what you should reveal. If there is hidden injustice, discontent, or something amiss, it should leak around the edges of your character’s average day (unless their entire life is dedicated to fighting it, which is a bit of an odd and heavy start to a fantasy story, but you could manage it with a bit of practice!).
The issues giving some action and moving the plot forward in the Intro aren’t the key events that the novel plot revolves around; they just lay clues the reader shouldn’t even realize are important until later events bring them to the fore.
Like a short story, there should be something going on that the character needs to solve. It shouldn’t be anything earth shattering or be connected to the over-arching novel plot about to unfold. Instead, it is on the level of the goats that the farm girl is responsible for got out because her childhood arch-nemesis unlatched the gate just to make the girl late for school. Why? Because this girl, our little heroine, is the favorite pupil in the arch-nemesis’ favorite subject and favorite teacher. You know, the one class the arch-nemesis wants to be the best at.
And in that brief outline, what did I give you? Can you feel what this girl’s average day is like? A bit about what her world is like? Who she is? That is the level you want to give your reader.
The world should be the backdrop to this completely ordinary day and not center stage. Only share what you must so that the reader knows the girl’s age, how many goats she is responsible for, if her mother or father blames her for their escape. Does her brother laugh as he skips off to school while she trudges off along the muddy road with a rope?
Show the character is kind, decent, interesting, whatever she is well enough that the reader cares for him or her. Reveal enough of the world that it feels real, but also familiar despite it being somewhere fantastical. You have the entire novel to show the differences. In the first few pages, focus on commonalities to this world and not the differences. In the above example, that is:
- mud (weather)
- irritating siblings
With those foundation stones, you assure the reader that this world is amazingly vivid while soothing them that it is also familiar and won’t leave them so confused they feel lost. They’ll care for and understand the character while glimpsing the world at large.
And, if you write it real enough, they’ll be curious to see how this little adventure goes so that they’ll read a few more pages to find…
Step Two: the Inciting Incident
This is where something big happens! The character’s life gets turned upside down.
It is the first turning point of your story. Sure, that sounds like solid advice, but what do I mean by upside down and how does it relate to the Intro?
What’s in the Inciting Incident?
While the Intro should be a snapshot of an average day for the main character, it is centered on a specific action. I call this a mini-short story where the main character is attempting to resolve a problem that most readers would relate to on some level. It isn’t earth shatteringly huge or difficult to grasp. Plus, it allows the main character to interact with the world and other characters in a very real way, one that feels like it has been going on, well, for every day of the character’s life!
All of this allows the reader to gain a sense of familiarity as well as some curiosity to see the result of the mini-story that you’ve laid out. All the while, they are gaining compassion for the quirkiness, earnestness, or whatever qualities you displayed in the main character.
The Inciting Incident then is the natural progression to this mini-story. It is its conclusion, and it doesn’t go at all as expected!
Building on the Intro
For our little farm girl from our example who is searching for the goats her school arch-nemesis has released so that she will miss the subject where they compete, this means the inciting incident will begin with her finding the goats.
There are several possibilities with this scenario:
- She finds the goats a great distance from the village in a sacred circle/forest/etc that leads to a new world
- She finds the goats but while she is gone something happens to the village
- She finds the goats but because she missed school, she also missed something important
- She doesn’t find the goats (or they are eaten by something) and must return empty-handed to face the consequences
Any of these will work, but which would work best?
It really depends on where you want the story to go AND what you’ve already shared so far. You start a reader at a single point, with a single word, and then begin to pull them onward with the story. As it spirals out, new layers of familiarity created a foundation. The more often you can refer to the previous incidents in the story, the tighter the weave plot will be and the stronger it will resonate with readers.
So, in this case, since I’ve already mentioned a school nemesis, the strongest ending to the mini-story is something to do with missing the day of school. The weakest of the four choices is the first, where she ends up in another world that hasn’t been hinted at yet (unless you build in clues during the mini-story of not crossing the stones or wandering into the forest, etc.).
You absolutely want the story to grow logically and with cause and effect that is quickly revealed and easily understood. Such as: if you cross the threshold and into the woods, the witch woman will steal you and change one goat into a doppelganger to return in your place. That would absolutely work and if you laid out hints and warnings prior to the event, it will be a quickly accepted conclusion for the reader.
Or, for the strongest result as I’ve laid out, the girl misses a surprise visit from an arch-mage who is testing the students for abilities in the subject where the goat girl excels. Because she wasn’t there, her arch-nemesis wins the single spot to study something advanced and amazing.
How does the Inciting Incident start the rest of the novel?
The incident incident ends the mini-story of the Intro, but you aren’t writing a short story! This is a novel and the result of the inciting incident launches the full novel plot. So, this conclusion MUST be a twist. It must reveal something huge and pack a wallop that the character cannot recover from.
Obviously, if the main character is captured by a witch and taken from everything she knows, that is a pretty big change. So if we go with the idea she finds the goats but because she is absent from school she misses becoming an apprentice to a great mage, what is the part that changes her life? How or why will she not be waking up to deal with the goats the next day, just like she did that morning? That piece will be what links the intro and inciting incident to the rest of the novel.
Does she run after the mage and her arch-nemesis to prove she is better? Does she end up with a different mentor where she doesn’t really belong? Is the wrong rectified but sets up the young arch-nemesis to become the future antagonist to the young main character? Any of these choices could create a solid cause-and-effect scenario that changes the girl’s life.
In fact, that last idea has some strong possibilities. It creates a cause and effect that ripples through the entire book, even if we don’t talk about the arch-nemesis for the next twenty chapters, at least by name.
Some things that you should avoid doing with the inciting incident.
Absolutely, do not:
- Have a repetition of events
- Introduce something unrelated to the mini-story
- Have nothing change from the beginning of the story
For example, don’t have the girl come back with the goats and have them get out again. Once is enough.
For the second item, don’t have a troll come out of the woods, eat a goat, and scoop up the girl to take back to its lair without having at least mentioned that trolls existed and lived nearby and that they eat children before all of that happens. You want your story to build off each prior word and event, not run off in quick jumps that seem exciting, but where nothing grows out of the beginning.
And for the last advice, do not have the girl waking up and sullenly going about tending the goats the next day as her rival gets to head off to a life of adventure. Something far more exciting needs to happen or you’ll lose some readers. The character cannot go about living their ordinary life.
Whatever happens is all-consuming. Either everyone they know is dead and the village burned to the ground, they are caught somewhere far from home and unable to return, they must flee everything they know for the safety of others, or they simply have been awakened to something far greater than they knew was possible and they cannot go on with how life was previously.
THAT is what is meant by an earth shattering event.
How long is the Inciting Incident?
The Inciting Incident is one of the turning points of the novel and in most cases, turning points are short. In most cases, the Inciting Incident only makes up 1% of your novel, or around a chapter. That’s it.
So this is one you are going to knock off quickly!
Inciting Incident Example
So for our example in the intro, we sent a young girl out after goats her arch-rival let loose on purpose. The result, the end of the mini-story and beginning of the inciting incident, is that the girl then misses the visit of a great mage who chooses the nemesis as a new apprentice, as the goat girl’s little brother happily tells her. The girl loses the chance to gain the knowledge and guidance she desperately wants, as well as is robbed of the acknowledgement that she is extremely gifted.
That injustice, really all the petty injustices she has put up with up until this point, culminate with the fact that her arch-rival was just awarded the spot she should have gotten and not even her favorite teacher stood up for her. That pushes her just one step too far.
The final result, the full inciting incident, is that the girl dashes to the school and demands to see the arch mage; she demands to be tested too. And as they tell her it is too late, the budding power she is harboring blazes to life, resulting in a force she can’t control — nor can her smug (and suddenly very scared) rival.
The arch mage manages to cool things down with only a few injuries, like the external (and internal) scars the rival will carry. Wondering where the girl has been spills enough of the story that the girl will be awarded her place, but… she’s pushed too far too soon and injured others.
The result cannot be what is expected — that all is made right, and she is the apprentice. THAT would too easy and the one thing you can never hand a reader is a solution that is too easy.
Instead, the girl is sent far away where her wild gifts will not harm others. The rival is left home to heal and maybe will be selected for a different spot… After all, she didn’t do anything really that wrong and was the second most talented at the school.
As long as there were hints about rules in this society that could not be broken (such as harming others) and magic that could not be used (in an uncontrolled manner) in the beginning, this will all make sense. Well, not to the little goat girl who just lost everything and has to deal with that fact.
Which will bring us to the next phase and the next step in writing your novel!
Step Three: the Reaction Phase
After tackling the Intro, we brought the reader on a journey from becoming familiar enough with the world to feel comfortable and beginning to forge a relationship with the main character. Then, with the Inciting Incident, we upended that carefully laid out world to leave the reader truly concerned for the welfare, and ability to survive, of the protagonist.
Where do we go from here? Straight into the Reaction Phase!
What is the Reaction Phase?
Well, just like any life event, a big upheaval tends to leave us… lost. The same is true of your main character. The inciting incident must be so great that the main character cannot simply resume ordinary life, no matter if s/he hated it or loved it. There is no waking up in a familiar bed in known surroundings.
Instead, the protagonist is kicked out the door and the passage back is sealed behind them. This leaves your main character reeling.
And probably completely unable to survive, much less excel, on her/his own.
Yes, survival is in doubt! Do not launch the reader straight into just wondering if the character will be top of the heap. THAT is for much later.
Instead, the new journey starts with the character feeling lost as much as in shock of what just happened. And that overwhelm results in personal cloudiness, which slows reactions just when the character needs to gather their wits to survive.
So how does your main character survive?
It should all come down to a bit of luck (but not too much or the reader will be rolling her eyes) and help. The help could come from friends who are along on the journey, newly discovered allies, or a grudgingly assigned guardian to an equally lost companion (like a baby dragon…). That all depends on your story.
How long is the Reaction Phase?
The reaction phase is one of the longest parts of your novel, sometimes up to 20%. In a 100,000 word novel with chapters around 2,500 words, that is about 8 chapters. You can’t just fill all of those with near misses and lucky breaks! Instead, you need to plan out a series of hurdles along with some lulls, each needing to be different as well as serving a purpose.
What purpose? Well, it is to help the character with her/his character arc!
Adding in the Character Arc to the Reaction Phase
Yes, we are finally linking the character arc to the plot. This is when it all gets exciting!
You can review some previous discussions on character arc, but what we need are four basic arc things:
- Inner motivation: what the character truly needs
- Outer motivation: what the character wants
- Inner conflict: what stops the character from pursuing the inner motivation
- Outer conflict: what stops the character from pursuing the outer motivation (and realizing that there is an inner motivation)
The Inciting Incident kicks off the character arc. In the Reaction Phase, the character is left scrambling to cling to some safety or a reason to survive; these, naturally, align with the outer motivation. S/he just wants to return to how things were before the Inciting Incident.
Or maybe your character has run away from a dull life or a life that didn’t suit them. Still, something happened in the Inciting Incident to shatter the dream of an exciting new life… it just got a little too exciting too fast for them! So they are still seeking an outer motivation that is naive to how the world operates—which is just not a good way to go about operating in a dangerous world.
Where Hurdles and Lulls Fit In to the Reaction Phase
Now, in the reaction phase, the main character tries to pursue the outer motivation and is thwarted at every attempt, which are the outer conflicts listed above. Those missteps could be caused by being pursued, reacting badly to the current situation (because they don’t really want to be there doing that, they want to be back home in chapter 1), weather obstacles, angry gods, etc.
Each hurdle results in the character being pretty much smacked in the face and knocked on her ass. All the while, the main character also glimpses that there is so much more going on in the world around her. Those glimpses are at once the main book plot and theme, like good versus evil, and the main character’s inner motivation—something like you should be good even if that means giving up a cherished dream (that would require you to do something bad).
The two (the plot and inner motivation) are parallel, because the inner motivation is also tied to the book plot and climax. Otherwise, the stakes of the novel will not feel personal and readers will feel disconnected to the story and not believe in the stakes. All the action should have the reader, already invested in caring for the main character through the curiosity created during the mini-story, worried the character won’t make it out of the next scrape while wondering how s/he does.
Meanwhile, the lulls will deepen the character with emotional moments, so don’t spend too many on whining or the reader might just toss the away book and character out of annoyance. The reader wants to see some understandable confusion but also some pluck and bravery! And don’t forget to keep building little hints that there is more going on, something underlying the surface that the character sees.
Curiosity is a great page turner from creating exciting chapter endings to seeking to understand the mysterious drive of the unfolding book plot.
Example of the Reaction Phase
Ok, all the advice on the Reaction Phase sounds either like a complicated mess you will never hope to solve or like it makes the absolute most sense (until you sit down to try and write it). What does it all mean and look like?
Which brings us back to our goat girl!
Remember, instead of winning over the mage to take our young heroine in the place of her arch-rival, our goat girl has managed to get herself banished to some remote island school for those who cannot control their rebellious brand of magic. All she wanted, her outer motivation, was to win that spot in her favorite subject (and maybe show up her rival once and for all).
She doesn’t want to be sent away to a harsh place with difficult rules that she won’t know.
It is easy to come up with some obstacles she’ll find at a tightly run school full of boys and girls containing powerful magic that they aren’t supposed to use and who ended up there by hurting someone … think Azkaban for the young and powerfully gifted. Our innocent goat girl will be lucky to survive the day!
BUT … all should not be as it seems. This isn’t just about her surviving amidst the rebellious and rough teenagers who “greet” her arrival. There must be more to this story than that. Instead, what if this is a good versus evil theme where what seemed good (working with the arch mage) was really the evil path? What if her inner motivation is to not only be all she can but also to be more than she ever dared dream?
So, there will be the quiet teacher who stands in the shadows, watching the girl with patience and interest. The potential new friend, also a new arrival but with a few more days under his belt, who can show her the quick paths to escape the watchful eyes of teachers or the fists of frustrated students. And, of course, the wild beauty of the remote island that she wants to hate but that the boy already loves.
Away from the walls where magic is blocked, they find a few others who challenge themselves to learn the magic that is forbidden to them now, discovering friends whose stories don’t fit with the ruthless, unruly, and unwanted kids they are told live in this place.
So what, really, is the truth of who they are and why they can’t use their magic?
That is a discovery for when we tackle the New Info/Dark Night of the Soul!
Step Four: the Dark Night of the Soul
We are tackling the second pivot point of the novel with the New Info Phase—which is often referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul! 😱
The first plot turning was during the Inciting Incident. This is why it is so important that the mini-short story of the Intro DOESN’T have the result that is anticipated. It must cast the character forward into the unknown and drag the reader along with her/him.
After that, the character moves into the Reaction Phase, which is the very poor attempt of the main character to adapt to (or at least survive!) the changed circumstances of her/his life. Not much positive happens in this phase, unless you count managing to survive as a plus! During it, there are usually new friends, helpers, and allies who appear. They keep the character from stumbling too far into the abyss. But the overall tone is one of struggle and barely scraping by.
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
As I hinted at above, this phase really has two faces. It can also be called the New Info phase, but how can I not use “The Dark Night of the Soul” as a dramatic title to introduce you to it? 🤣
The name(s) hint at what this important moment in the story is about—something dramatic occurs. Specifically, news that is so earth shattering or a tragedy so soul that it shaking sends the main character in a new direction. It is that simple… well, nothing in writing is ever that simple. This moment ties in a lot with character arcs as well as the plot. And, just as importantly… it cannot go on too long!
How long is the Dark Night of the Soul?
How long is too long?
The reaction phase is important, but it is exhausting. You don’t want your main character to become the “victim” who can never succeed without tons of mentors and guides. How boring! Plus, it doesn’t fulfill the character arc!
All the events during the reaction phase are designed to thwart the main character from getting an easy win of their outer motivation. Instead, life keeps batting them down until they realize their true purpose and meaning of their hidden inner motivation.
And this turning point, the 4th step in writing your novel, is the revelation of the inner motivation and the enlightenment of the main character to how foolish and lost they have acted since the inciting incident, both in blindly pursuing the outer motivation AND in just wanting to go back to whatever it is they are yearning for from their life prior to the inciting incident (security, family, friends, recognition, etc).
But because it is a turning point, the moment doesn’t go on too long. Instead, it is something incredibly impactful that leaves the main character reeling, whether because it is a startling revelation or the loss of someone dear. This shouldn’t take chapters to accomplish but come swiftly and overwhelming in just one chapter, comprising just 1% of your total novel.
Should you write a New Info or Dark Night of the Soul?
How the revelation comes is the heart of what type of phase this is, and a bit about what type of story you are writing.
If you are writing noblebright, this fourth step often comes as New Info. It may be exciting! It might be a bucket of cold water in the face as a wake-up call. In other words, it runs from pieces of the puzzle clicking into place for the main character to a big reveal that launches the next part of the journey.
If you are writing something a bit darker or are dealing with a deeper subject matter (or a really stubborn character that will need a BIG pivot to change), this stage is often called the Dark Night of the Soul and is brought about by terrible, tragic, and stupid loss. The character’s best friend or mentor on the journey dies from either an ill conceived action (like not listening to good advice) or as a sacrifice to save the main character. And it HURTS.
The character breaks down, recognizes their demons, their shallow pursuits, and vows to change. They might not have full awareness of the inner motivation, but they are put on the right path to recognizing it.
You have to pick which revelation fits your story, the plot, its tone, and is enough to spur the main character forward with a plan toward the newly understood inner motivation. What does that phase look like? That is the Planning Phase and we’ll look at next.
Dark Night of the Soul Example
For now, let’s jump back to our goat girl. This story is feeling a bit YA to me. That doesn’t preclude death or other deep moments (look at Harry Potter!) BUT, I’m leaning toward a New Info sort of discovery instead of a Dark Night of the Soul Moment. Plus, I think it should be something not quite as obvious as untutored kids conjuring something in the woods and causing chaos. The goal is to tie this turning point with the larger arc of the story as well as propelling the character forward to become a new person and complete their arc.
So instead of childish shenanigans, the arch-mage from the beginning of the story comes to the island to check on the students, especially the main character, whose abilities intrigues him. Along with him comes his new protege, the girl’s arch-nemesis from her previous school.
At first, the main character is incredibly jealous, seeing her arch-nemesis standing serenely behind this master mage. But our heroine’s new friend points out the arch-nemesis looks almost zombie like. The arch-mage’s new protege doesn’t actually recognize her old “friend,” nor remember anything about life in the town.
When the arch-mage’s attention lands squarely on the main character, the teacher who had remained in the background protects her. For once, our intrepid main character, sensing something amiss, accepts the teacher’s help to appear unskilled and unruly—something she never would have done in the past.
This one chapter, because this is all that the New Info or Dark Night of the Soul should encompass, ends with the teacher joining the band of renegade students to help hide their magic as well as to train them, so they don’t become the mindless zombies that exist simply to feed their power to the arch-mage, who grows stronger with each apprentice claimed and sucked dry.
And that is it for this short but impactful turning point of the novel!
Step Five: the Planning Phase
Things are starting to come together in our plotting!
Launching out of the New Info/Dark Night of the Soul is the Planning Phase. This is one of my favorite parts of a novel to write! Why?
Well, this is step 5 of 7. That means we are getting really close to the climax. All the plot threads are coming together to force a major confrontation in this section. Tension is ramping up until there is no where to go … and creating that is your job in this section!
How long is the Planning Phase?
On the surface, the Planning Phase mimics the Reaction Phase. It too averages around 20 to 30% of the entire novel, or around 8 chapters in a 100,000 word novel with chapters around 2,500 words long) and it is filled with hurdles and lulls. What is different between the two phases is that HERE the character has a plan and a direction.
What happens in the Planning Phase?
In the Reaction Phase, the main character was simply reacting to the Inciting Incident, which was an incredibly upsetting and life altering moment. The New Info or Dark Night of the Soul is also a pivot point, but one that brings the character out of the blind emotions and stupid mistakes of the
Reaction Phase and into a desire to move forward.
This does NOT mean:
- The character is 100% ready to face the antagonist
- The character has all the tools and resources to win
- The character has no doubts
- The character is 100% committed to achieving the inner motivation over the outer
How the Planning Phase unfolds is dependent on your character and your story. A small piece of new information might just give the character the focus she was lacking and be more of a stepping stone into gaining more skills and resources to achieve a very clear goal (with very dire events if she does not). Or, it could be such a soul shattering moment that the character is launched into action out of grief and might just end up making another stupid mistake (just one not quite as stupid as the ones in the Reaction Phase!).
Tying the Character Arc to the Planning Phase
The goal here in the Planning Phase is that the main character has a revelation about what they truly want: the inner motivation. Achieving this motivation will bring them into contention with the antagonist (even if they, at first, try to avoid that) and it will also bring about the underlying story plot or novel theme.
In other words, if the character’s outer motivation was just to go home and ignore all the atrocities that the current king is committing, they will, at this point, realize that they actually need to help save the local village so it doesn’t undergo the same fate as his home town (inner motivation). He realizes that he can never go back because home, even if it survived the attack, isn’t the same, and he couldn’t live with himself for letting it happen again. Saving the town will become such a big deal and event that the king will send everything against it to destroy it, pitting the antagonist and protagonist actively against each other in the climax of a massive battle where one must prevail.
In this example, the Planning Phase is how the spoiled, wealthy merchant’s son goes from a sniveling child who wants to go home to a warrior who has the resources and skills to save a town. That doesn’t happen overnight!
How the Planning Phase Leads to the Final Confrontation
So, the Planning Phase is filled with the character(s) learning new skills, seeking out allies and/or special talismans and weapons, and proving their worth. All the while, as the characters become more adept and start to achieve a few wins, the antagonist becomes more aware of the existence of this little band of rebels.
This results in the antagonist sending greater and greater obstacles to quash the main character. Friends and foes may be killed. The main character gains greater notoriety for surviving and being that much of a pain to the antagonist, which brings more allies and help … this is a positive feedback loop that increases the tension with each rotation. The lulls are increasingly shorter and more emotionally packed, the stakes become higher and higher, and the reader can’t help but flip the pages.
By the end of this phase, the character has fully embraced the inner motivation as their own (OK, always exceptions, but in general!) and a confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is the only pathway left to achieve both the inner motivation and the story plot.
Plus, by the end of this phase, you’ve catapulted your writing into literally the last handful or so of chapters! The end is in sight for both the reader and for the first draft. A big congratulations are in order too, because you just worked your way through the mushy middle which is a huge sticking point for most authors. So many writers get lost in the middle of the story, lose interest, and never finish the WIP. But once you’ve finished the Planning Phase (so aptly named, right?), you are beyond that.
Example of the Planning Phase
OK, example time. Back to our goat girl, who hasn’t seen a goat in quite a while! 🤣 To recap, the arch-mage she admired just showed up with her schoolyard arch-nemesis in tow in the Dark Night of the Soul. The goat girl’s jealously evolved to perplexity at her arch-nemesis’ lack of memory and non-reaction to full out panic. Meanwhile, a teacher came out of the background to protect our main character. All of that sets in motion the Planning Phase.
After the arch-mage leaves, the goat girl and her friends demand to know what is really going on with magic. But, in order to protect them, the teacher demands they no longer go to the woods and practice, instead offering them lessons in the confines of the school’s ancient foundation. They must do as they are told.
But you know how forbidding something works with teenagers, especially rebellious ones already confined to a school for criminals. Of course, they sneak out!
While talking and practicing magic, they hear a noise and scatter, thinking the teacher has found them. It turns out to be the arch-mage, who hasn’t left the island. They barely make it out of the woods without being caught by the zombie-like apprentice.
The tickle of magic in the woods keeps the arch-mage on the island. He arrives at the school just after their return and claims a student the apprentice indicates to “tell him about life in the school.” Curious to know more, the goat girl and her best friend manage to sneak into the manor where the arch-mage steals the magical life force of the student. Horrified, they go back to the school to tell their friends and the teacher.
But the arch-mage is waiting. He’d used the student as bait to trap those with magic he’d sensed earlier. The teacher manages to hide the goat girl, but her best friend is claimed by the arch-mage as a new “apprentice.”
The goat girl is gifted but still relatively unschooled. She isn’t ready to face the arch-mage yet. Not alone. But she needs to act now to save her friend. She begs for help from the teachers and students, all of them, to stand against the arch-mage, not just to rescue her friend but to stop the atrocities.
If they don’t join her, will she go alone?
And that is the end of the Planning Phase and a good hint at what comes next: the Decision and Climax!
Step Six: the Decision and Climax
It all comes together now!
I love reaching the climax of the novel, because I know I’m almost done writing at that point. I just need to get through the big event that everything has been leading up to and that I’m so excited to write!
And just about then I remember how complicated the climax is to write. 🤣
So, yeah, this isn’t the phase where everything is easy, breezy and you’ll be on your way with a skip in your step. This is the phase that pulls you (and the reader) through the wringer and why you feel exhausted as you reach for the bottle of wine as you type “The End.”
If you’ve written a climactic scene and it left you feeling like you’d run a marathon with the flu, the good news is you are probably doing it right. Who said writing was easy?
What’s in the Decision Part of the Climax?
So, with a counter weight of excitement and a lot of work ahead, how do you tackle the climax?
It all starts with a decision. No, not yours, the main character’s.
The Decision isn’t considered a full “step” here as it doesn’t even take a chapter, more like a paragraph. But the transition from the Planning Phase to the Climax happens not by accident but on purpose.
This is important because the Decision is in many ways the third turning point of the novel and it sits opposite the Inciting Incident. Where the Inciting Incident happens to the main character and forces change, the Decision is the moment the main character steps up to embrace their inner motivation fully and is ready to confront the antagonist, even if it means death. The character now leads the change instead of being swept up into it.
And, it is a fantastic moment for the character to reflect on the stakes!
Decisions take many forms from speeches before battle (ahem, Braveheart) to the offering of a chance to escape the coming war which the main character turns down. Dialogue is often important as well as internal thoughts. Somehow, as characters panic at the thought of death and others panic at what will continue to happen if they do nothing, the main character must galvanize her teammates to go forward to do the right thing.
From there, we step into the full Climax Phase!
What Happens in the Climax?
The Climax is the point where all the plot threads come together for the final resolution. Everything is in play and the reader should feel like the outcome could go either way. In fact, you need for the reader to be hoping the main character wins, and terrified that she won’t (with a deep sense of dread that there is no way she can). And it ends … not quite as expected.
Putting all of that together in a way that is at once engaging as well as not confusing is why the climax is so hard. I really think it is the most challenging part of the novel to write and the only reason writers get through it is because the end is in sight!
So how do you deliver everything you need? There are a few simple steps that can help you map out and then write your climax, and I HIGHLY suggest mapping it out, even if you are a pantser.
- Events should start off in favor of the protagonist
- Then turn toward near victory for the antagonist
- Before a final confrontation between the main character and antagonist
To make this happen:
- Focus on one character at a time
- Create a timeline of significant events
- Don’t throw in a “Holy Hand Grenade”
- Have the ending be something unexpected
You don’t want to bore the reader with a wide scale, detached view. Honestly, I skipped reading parts of the LOTR because of the wide scale battles.
I don’t want to read about fronts moving forward or retreating. I want to be in the thick of the battle and most readers do too. Which is why you should …
Focus on One Character at a Time
This works great if you are using multiple POVs in your writing. Break up the battle and make it very personal from the point of view of a single character in each scene or chapter. The character will be fighting for his or her life while also attempting to win a small part to uphold their part of the larger plan. Their success is pivotal and feeds into the climax, puts into play subplots that affect them and what they are doing, and keeps the reader gripping her ereader as the scene unfolds.
To help heighten the tension, the POV character won’t know what is happening to friends. Her worries will suffuse the scene and remind the reader about the larger battle. All the while life and death stakes as well as the overall victory will be very immediate to the reader through the character’s experience. As you can see, this is very much a show versus tell dynamic. An overarching and distant battle feels like a tell; coming from a character experiencing the battle is a show.
If you have several characters, this is also a great way to break up a few successes, followed by defeats, delays, and even deaths. Tension mounts as things go awry and the reader (and main character) doubt success is possible. This is also the time for the reader to know about events other characters haven’t learned about yet, heightening the worry and emotional impact.
However, to pull this off well, you do need to thread the main character’s POV throughout the climax. You might start off with a chapter from the main character that holds the decision, jump to two chapters from other characters, then back to the main character, then to two characters, then the final chapter in the main character’s POV. This keeps the reader connected to the main character and the larger stakes as the fighting becomes more intense and pivotal.
Create a Timeline of Events
Of course, breaking up major battle or event into smaller portions has one big problem: time. Many smaller pieces may be happening at the same time. So how do you portray that to the reader as you focus on different characters while leapfrogging backward in time? With a timeline of significant events.
These should be things that can be either seen across the battlefield or the news of which is so significant that the characters will pass it along and the reader will recognize it. Explosions, aerial attacks, the appearance of large forces (or monstrous beasts), and feats of magic all make great timeline events. If you tie one of them to the outcome of a character’s success or failure, it will cause an even greater ripple effect as other characters witness them and know a friend succeeded … or failed (and may have died).
Don’t Throw in the Holy Hand Grenade
Sorry (not sorry) for the Monty Python reference! But this is a very valid point and one where a lot of new authors fail. They read that the outcome should be something unexpected and so create a horde that pours out of the portal from a parallel universe, that the reader hadn’t known about until this point, and comes to wreck havoc at just the moment of victory or defeat. What?!?! Don’t do this!
No outside force should come in and save the day or claim it for their own. Victory or defeat must be accomplished by the main character, preferably one on one against the antagonist (though I have seen some post-heroic arcs where teamwork is the key and they work too).
This method of pulling the rug out from under the reader’s (and character’s) feet with something 100% unexpected is a cop out to tight writing (and a way to shirk the difficulties the climax presents just so you can wrap up the novel).
Have the Climax Ending be Something Unexpected
The outcome should be something 100% realistic, potentially hinted about earlier, and be a third path that the characters and reader didn’t really see coming. This is Ned expecting to go back to Winterfell or be imprisoned and instead getting beheaded in Game of Thrones.
If this is the final book in your series or a stand-alone, the ending might just be a shade off what is hoped for. The final to the Hunger Games trilogy is a good example: Katniss lives, she rejects Gale (finally!), but her sister, Primrose, dies, and the leaders of the resistance are shown to be as corrupt as Snow. It isn’t 100% victory or defeat and is framed as “it’s just life.”
The best endings to climaxes are unforeseen but make sense. No victory is ever 100% perfect. No defeat will be 100% unchallenged. Find somewhere in-between and write that.
How long is the Climax?
I’ve been hinting at this above, so this should’t come as a surprise. Just like the Reaction and Planning phases, the Climax together with the Decision can range between 20 to 30% of your novel. So you might be looking at 8 to 10 chapters here.
These are exciting, impactful, busy, and tough chapters to write. There may be downturns in the climax, but there are no real “lulls.” It is all out emotion, action, and impact. No wonder writing a good climax leaves you feeling like you fought the antagonist yourself!
Example of a Climax
So where does this leave our goat girl and our example story?
We left her at the end of the planning phase asking for help. A few of the students and three teachers agree to join her. The rest plan on fleeing from the wrath of arch-mage that will assuredly come and a few are locked up to keep them from telling the arch-mage. The decision comes then with the goat-girl choosing to go forward and confront the arch-mage to save her friend with less help then she really needs to succeed.
To break up the climax, I’d use chapters in the goat girl’s POV, her best friend who is facing life as a zombie in the clutches of the arch-mage, and maybe one other character’s like the teacher (these would be character POVs used throughout the novel).
Looking at this little example story, I don’t think the goat girl has the training to defeat this arch-mage! How can a bold but unskilled girl defeat someone whose magic stems from hundred’s of individuals? Her biggest tools are a few friends and some wild magic that she unleashed in the Inciting Incident.
So, I’d have one of the teacher’s show up at the arch-mage’s mansion with a volunteer “caught” as one of those in the woods. The goat girl would use this distraction as a chance to sneak in with the most skilled of those in tow.
As the teacher goes rogue with the help of the volunteer student and tries to kill the arch-mage, the goat girl finds her friend guarded by her old schoolyard enemy. The apprentice alerts the arch-mage just as he stabs the teacher and the goat girl knocks the apprentice on the head.
And that gives them an idea. What if they break the connection to the arch-mage’s apprentices? Could they defeat him then?
They grab the unconscious apprentice to experiment on her and flee. But the arch-mage is after them. The goat girl leads him on chase and away from her friends, dodging his attacks while also fumbling with her great potential, but entirely untrained, magic. She is disintegrating the stones of the building with her raw potential. The arch-mage is more intrigued and hungry than frightened. With her, he would be unstoppable.
And she knows it and knows she can’t escape him and save her friends. She yanks on her power and brings the building tumbling while jumping from one of the crumbling towers, hoping that the arch-mage will be buried long enough for her friends to escape as she falls toward the rocks.
Is that the end? No! We jump into the wrap-up from here!
Step Seven: the Wrap Up
We are there! The final step of writing your novel. 🎉 Are you ready to finish up and celebrate? Then let’s see what is ahead in the Wrap Up.
How Long is the Wrap Up?
This is a small section again, just a section that is one to three chapters – maybe up to five if you are ending a series. Considering the big sections of the Reaction Phase, Planning Phase, and Climax are about 20 to 30% of the novel each, this section at only 7 to 10%, is a light weight that will push you across the finish line to a finished rough draft!
And this is one that many authors, new and experienced, tend to rush through or skip this one. But you should resist that urge—the Wrap Up plays a very important part of the story!
Why is the Wrap Up Important?
I honestly think that most authors don’t mean to rush the Wrap Up. It is just… you are so close to finishing the first phase of writing. And all the excitement just occurred in the Climax. Not to mention, writing the Climax leaves most authors feeling like they climbed Everest backward and without oxygen. So, the desire to just be done is very real and persuasive.
Admittedly, if you are writing a cliffhanger story line, then you won’t have a Wrap Up. But traditional story arcs and soft cliffhangers (typical in books in a series) DO have Wrap Ups. So, that tells you if your books should or shouldn’t have one and how long it should be, but what is a Wrap Up?
What’s in the Wrap Up?
The function of a Wrap Up is:
- To tie up any last subplots
- Project the future for characters to the reader (for stand alone and final books)
- Introduce new plot lines (for books in a series)
- Bring down the tension from the climax
- Create a lingering emotion/feel for the reader
A well written Wrap Up will leave a reader with an emotional glow that lingers like the aftertaste of a good scotch. What emotion you want to convey is up to you and your writing. Do characters round out the book with hope, fear, anticipation, or happiness? Will there be marriages, funerals, or a bit of both?
Homecomings, celebrations, marriages, and coronations can all mark new beginnings and a sense of closure, assuming you write them to be positive. Just as easily, a homecoming can bring sadness at the changes and rejection from people who disagree or don’t believe a character really became a hero. Let’s not forget jealousy!
Celebrations can be forced charades or military parades by the victor, who might not be exactly whom anyone was expecting. Marriages… well, that is always a double edged sword, especially if it is political! And there is a lot of weight to the crown during coronation. Is your character really up to the task?
If Your Book Is the Last in a Series or Is a Stand Alone
If this is the final book in a series, a leap forward in time is often used to show the character sometime in the future. Think of the end of Harry Potter where we see Harry watching his child board the train to Hogwarts. This method provides an even greater sense of closure and peace for knowing what will happen to favorite characters.
How to Wrap Up a Book in a Series
If you are writing a series and the story goes on, the ending usually holds a new problem bubbling up or one of those minor plot threads, instead of being tied up, actually bursts its way to big problem status—you know, becomes the plot of the next book.
In this case, the tension comes down from the high of the climax, rests briefly as friends rejoin and realize they survived and won (or didn’t), and then quickly begins escalating to a new high as a new Inciting Incident. This means the next book will begin very quickly and be action packed as the reader is already excited to find out what is going on and how the characters will solve this next problem.
The Emotional Power of the Wrap Up
The Wrap Up is actually very powerful and so easily overlooked. It is your chance to fully hook the reader, tying them emotionally to the characters. It is a chance to pull them to the next book or inspire them to leave a review.
A good Wrap Up will leave the reader tingling, in tears, and unwilling to turn the final page. Deliver that, and you’ll have not just a reader, but a fan.
The good thing is that most Wrap Ups are fairly easy to write and what needs to happen in them isn’t too terribly difficult to figure out. Just be sure to put in the time and effort. Step back and take a look for any emotions you can draw out to give a multi-layered impact. The best endings have some sadness to contrast with joy and some laughter with the tears.
A Wrap Up Example
So, how do we end things with our goat girl story?
She has just collapsed a building to kill the arch-mage and to save her friends. She expects to die but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? I’m very tempted to go for the easy wrap up where her friends find her wounded but alive. The arch-mage is missing. On to book 2, but …
To really make an impact and put the reader’s heart in her throat, I think instead the girl does survive, though barely. Vision blurry, she fades in and out of consciousness, not knowing who the kind caretaker is who fights to keep her alive so hard. Not until she wakes up in the afternoon sunlight one day to have her benefactor limp into the room; it is the arch-mage. 😱
I may just contrast that ending with the friends not knowing the goat girl lives but discovering a way to detach the apprentice from the mind and power control of the arch mage … but maybe I’ll just save that for book 2! 😉
Congratulations! You just wrote an entire novel. 🥳
Writing a novel is a daunting task, one that it is easy to get lost in or feel overwhelmed. That is why breaking it down into smaller pieces can really help. You will know where you are in the process, what should happen next, and how much further you have to go. When you have a road map, it is so much easier to cross the finish line.
There are several other methods of breaking down your novel such as using a 3 Act or 5 Act structure, but I’ve never found that they align the character arc and the plot as well as these 7 steps. Without that, you risk creating a plot driven novel where it feels the character is forced to act a certain way to move the story forward. By tying the character arc and actions to the novel plot, you create a character driven story that feels more believable, no matter what genre you right.
Plus, other methods would leave me feeling lost in the middle. Here, the middle is a game changing moment. It is impactful and I know what needs to happen next to move the story forward. That is so much better than a nebulous “Act 2.”
Even though I used fantasy throughout this example, these 7 steps fit any genre and will help you to reach your goal of gleefully writing “The End!”
Whether you write by the seat of your pants (pantsing) or outline, these steps will help keep you on track.
If you overlay the 7 steps, where are you in your writing right now? Does it help knowing what should be going on and what you are building toward? Let me know in the comments!
For more tips on plotting, check out our Plot Development Book! Learn not only how to plot, but how to create characters, align them with character arcs, and tie the character’s journey with your plot to create tension filled, character-driven fiction!
Want to hear a great example of these 7 steps being used to create a story? Listen in to the Write the Story Podcast! This behind-the-scenes podcast allows you to join two best selling authors develop a story from a bare bones idea to a full outline, including covering these steps in episodes 4, 5, and 6.
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Keep the 7 Steps handy at your writing desk with this cheat sheet!