Guest Post by Jody Hedlund: 4 Steps For Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel

With NaNoWriMo looming, I decided Techie Tuesday’s post on 3-Act structure was just not enough this week to help everyone get ready to bang out a first draft in one month.

I have a treat for you today. The amazing Jody Hedlund is stopping off here at More Cowbell during her blog tour for her new book, The Doctor’s Lady. She’s going to share some of her tricks for writing a riveting story. Today while she’s with you, I’ll be over at Writers In The Storm discussing 10 Power Tips for Critique Groups.

Jody is giving away a copy of her new book to one lucky commenter on this post, so be sure to give her a rousing welcome.

4 Steps For Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel
By Jody Hedlund

Writers all have different methods for planning their novels. There’s no wrong or right way of doing it. With that said, I’ll share what I do with the hope that maybe you can glean something, even if only inspiration!

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 events that happen in our book. So after I finish brainstorming plot ideas and developing my characters (see my blog for my free Character Worksheet), 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 framework 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, with the book I most recently finished, the majority of the book cuts 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—something that will hook a reader into having to turn to the next page and keep reading.

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? Is there anything listed above that’s new to you? What else helps you in organizing all your plot ideas?

©Jody Hedlund, 2011

ALERT: Next week our pal, Bridgette Booth, is hosting Jody for an interview. Click here to read Bridgette’s post, Has Nancy Drew Shaped Your Writing Style?

Jody Hedlund is an award-winning historical romance novelist and author of the best-selling book, The Preacher’s Bride. She received a bachelor’s degree from Taylor University and a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, both in Social Work. Currently she makes her home in Michigan with her husband and five busy children. Her second book, The Doctor’s Lady released in September 2011.

Visit Jody’s Website & Blog
Follow Jody on Twitter & Facebook! 

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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45 Responses to Guest Post by Jody Hedlund: 4 Steps For Organizing Plot Ideas Into a Novel

  1. K.B. Owen says:

    Wow, Jody, these are great tips, and very straightforward. It’s nice to see that I’m doing some things right, especially the “set pieces” – which I didn’t know the name of before. Those are the bits that really get me excited about writing my novel.

    Thanks for sharing your pointers with us, Jody, and thanks to Jenny for hosting! Two cool gals in one place. 🙂



  2. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Jody, you are a mind reader! I realized that I’ve got to shorten my timeline for a book from a year to around 8 months. To do that, I need to move more to plotting, and a bit away from pantsing. The problem is, most plotting feels like drawing inside the lines to me, and I write mostly because it’s the only place in my life I can go outside the lines!!!

    But yours is perfect! Have to admit, I’m probably not going to outline, but the rest is the perfect answer! You’re the hero of my day!

    And you’d move to Goddess status if I won your new book! *nudge* 🙂


  3. Ditto what Kathy said. It also validated the ACT #, SCENE # strategy I recently launched for my WIP. Why am I mentally humming I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW…?

    Two great structure posts in as many days, Jenny. WOOT! Thanks for sharing your insight, Jody.

    Before organizing by discombobulated thoughts into a structure, I often tied plot threads into knicker knots. Which–if you check two posts back on Jenny’s blog–could spell disaster with an appended capital “G.”


  4. Hartford says:

    Thanks so much for the fabulous post Jody and to Jenny for hosting!
    I am just starting out – like JUST starting out on my first WIP so this post was a piece of heaven to me as I sort out how to plot and write my first novel. It’s intimidating and challenging to figure out a rhythm and process but it’s coming. I printed the entire post to put in my writing room because posts like this give me tried/tested/and true direction as well as something to draw from so it’s invaluable. Right now, knowing what works for others is all I have to go on as I carve out my own way…so thank you for sharing!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Good for you, Natalie! And be sure to write little snippets while you’re reading and learning because some of the story will come from your fingertips when you get your mind out of the way. 🙂


  5. Congrats on your new book! Very nice guest post. Here’s the thing with my writing development…I begin a chapter with a pretty clear idea of the major event and how it’s all going to go down, and then the characters go and do something surprising and I end up in a totally different place! So for me, I just cannot plan out my novels. They pretty much just write themselves. I often don’t even know how they are going to end until it’s done! Yes, this means a lot of editing because of all the surprising things that popped up later in the novel that now needs to be better integrated within the earlier parts, but I can’t seem to work it out any other way. What I do keep in mind, however, is all your plot/structure points during the EDITING phase! So, thanks again!! And good luck to your new book.


  6. I know i’m going to have to work on #4 big time during the revisions. I already know that I’m writing too much and maybe that “too much” comes from my feeling of needing to connect each scene. During revisions I’m going to need a few nasty red pens to chop, chop, chop.

    Thanks for the great advice as always Jody and Jenny ROCK on.


  7. Jody Hedlund says:

    Hey, everyone! So glad that the post is providing some helpful ideas! I realize that some people will do more “writing” during the editing stage. Whether a plotter or pantser, I think we all at some point have to move into some form of organizing our novels. I work better at having that in my first draft, but for others that works in the editing phase. Wishing everyone lots of happy writing vibes today!


  8. Anna Falcone says:

    I’ve been a long-time fan of Jody and her blog. Thank you for sharing this with the rest of us!


  9. Jody, Great tips! I haven’t heard of the term “set pieces” before, but I love that concept. And, thanks for sharing your character worksheets.


  10. Terrific post, Jody. I’m a big fan of organising ideas to get clarity and also to use them to their best advantage. What you’ve got here is a novel blueprint in a nutshell – who would have thought something so useful could be so condensed?! I’m tweeting this


  11. Jenny Hansen says:

    I needed this talk too, Jody! Not only to get this in my head before NaNoWriMo, but also because I’m a scene writer and the more overarching things and planning structure I keep in my head before starting, the better.

    Thank you for guest posting. Thank you even MORE for sending me a guest post that helps solve my problems. 🙂


  12. Thank you for this post, it is incredibly helpful. What a great way to get organized in the…uh oh…only 13 days I have left!


  13. Leslie Lynch says:

    Interesting concepts, Jody. I’ve been looking for ways to augment my ‘pantser’ approach to writing, and this is clear without being rigid. Thanks for sharing!


  14. Amy Kennedy says:

    What a great post — Thanks Jenny for bringing Jody here! — I’ve already printed your (Jody) character worksheet. I have heard of set pieces, I read lots of books and blogs on screenplays, the analysis of the story seems to work better for my brain.


  15. First, thanks for the shout-out Jenny! You’re too sweet!

    Jody — your organizational process is so straightforward and helpful. Even though I’m not familiar with “set pieces” I immediately grasped what you were doing. (And nodding and saying, yeah, yeah, hmm. . . I could do that. lol.)

    Thanks Jenny for hosting such a terrific post!!


  16. Good info. on #plot writing- especially “Goal of the scene, what trying to accomplish, moving plot forward?


  17. Ashlee Hartt says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these steps Jody! You’ve just helped me clarify everything that’s been jumbled up in my mind these past few days as I’ve been trying to brainstorm/outline/research my next project in time for for NaNoWriMo! I feel more confident now as I’ve been check-listing the items you’ve mentioned, such as external conflict, internal conflict, and relationship conflict.

    Now I will start thinking about some big “set piece” scenes to work into my “big picture” (not detailed for me!) outline. Thank you both for this great post!


  18. Excellent information and certainly going to prove helpful as I begin my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. Thanks for sharing this!


  19. Jody, great post. I’m writing my first novel and confess I wrote a rather detailed outline. I have to remind myself that it’s OK to let myself veer off the track if I feel it should once I’m actually writing the story. Maybe I’ll try your technique with the next one.

    Question: How long does your process take, from start to finish? I know that when you’re waiting on feedback from others, that can take awhile, but maybe give us a general overview of how long each step takes (on average)? I’m curious to know. Thank you!


    • Jody Hedlund says:

      Hi Lindsay!
      Let’s see. If I break down my process, I’d have to say my research can take anywhere from 6-8 weeks (sometimes longer depending upon the setting and time period). During that research phase, I develop my characters and plot (and do several of the things I mentioned in this post). But remember, I also write historicals, so the research is very intense. After research, I start my first draft. I write about 1000 words per day/6 days a week. Thus it takes me about 4 months to write a first draft (sometimes 5 depending on if I need to stop to do in-house edits on a book). Then it takes me several months after that to complete my editing, my critique partner’s, and then my rewrites from my publisher. Hope that gives you some idea of what works for me!


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  21. Although I’m a novel writing teacher, I absolutely LOVE reading the approaches to craft of other writers, and Jody’s piece is both easy to follow and full of solid advice. I like her concept of the “set-pieces” that really explode three-act structure; they seem to be where writers (and readers!) would get hooked emotionally on the story, thus fueling the desire to write it. I, too, use and recommend a detailed scene-design approach, so it’s nice to have another affirming voice on that score. Kudos, Jody. I liked this blog a lot.


  22. Jody Hedlund says:

    Hey everyone! Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad so many of you have enjoyed the post! I wish all of you NaNoWriMo’s all the best next month! And for those who aren’t doing NaNoWriMo (like me!), I wish you all the best in your writing too. 🙂


  23. Absolutely LOVE this post, Jody! It helps confirm some things I’d already been doing and actually wondering if I was nuts for doing it . . . writing pivotal scenes and not necessarily in order, but because I know they’ll be integral parts of the story. My first novel I wrote from start to finish. But this one, I’m finding it needs to be written just as you describe above. Thank you so much for sharing this invaluable post!


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  25. Great post! I read Jody’s blog but don’t remember reading about set pieces before either. Very interesting. I love writing in scenes, though I’m not sure if I’ve completely cut transitions. I think she’s onto something though. Thanks for sharing!


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  30. carrie m says:

    These are fantastic tips, especially with NaNoWriMo approaching. I had been planning to be a bit of a pantser this year, but you’ve motivated me to be more organized – thank you!


  31. Jamey says:

    This is a really excellent piece. I’m considering doing NaNoWriMo next month. I did it several times pre-children, but this would be my first time to try it since then and with my kids being 2, 3, and 4 I’m a little hesitant to commit myself. However, my inner novelist is screaming (just like my kids!) and so I think I’m going to go for it. I really liked your 2nd point about the 3 strands of conflict.


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  33. My writing process–spaghetti. Write everything and see what sticks. 😉


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