Novel Diagnosis–Plot

Novel Diagnosis Series

After a couple days off for the Phoenix retreat, I’m returning today to the Novel Diagnosis series with a discussion identifying major plot elements.

Plot consists of the story’s events that build upon each other to lead to a resolution of a conflict. This means it should start with a conflict and end with a resolution of that conflict.


Read through your chapter and mark the five strongest chapters. Five is arbitrary, of course, but it works well for novels up to about 40,000 words. After that, you can add about one more chapter per 5000 words–more or less. Do the Shrunken Manuscript exercise, looking at how the five strong chapters pace out across the novel.

Instructions for Shrunken Mss

  1. Take out the chapter breaks, so there is no white space between chapters.
  2. Single space the entire mss.
  3. Reduce the font of the mss until the mss takes up about 30 pages. This is arbitrary, of course, but I find that I can see about 30 pages at a time. It doesn’t matter if the font is readable; what you’re trying to do is shrink the mss so you can mark certain things and you won’t be reading it but evaluating how these things fit into the big picture. If your mss runs over 40,000 words, you can try putting it into two columns in order for it to fit into 30 pages. If your mss is over 50,000 pages, you may need to divide it into two sections and evaluate 30-shrunken pages at a time.
  4. Use a bright, wide marker and put an X over the five strongest chapters.
  5. Lay out the mss pages on the floor in about three rows of ten. (Adjust layout to your page count, of course.)
  6. Stand back and evaluate.


Generally, you want a strong introductory chapter that sets up a conflict. In Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, the conflict between the Buckminster family and the Maine community to which they have moved is laid out from the beginning. Turner plays Boston-style baseball and is a loser at Maine-style baseball. A series of strong chapters lays out an increasingly difficult conflict as Turner befriends Lizzie Bright, a young black girl who lives on an island off-shore. But the town leaders want to build tourist homes along the shore and decide that those wealthy tourists won’t want to look out to an island inhabited by blacks. Turner tries to help Lizzie and her community survive this attempt to oust them. But he and his father find nothing but trouble. In the tragic ending, Turner fails to change the community, but finds a place where he can live and grow anyway.

Schmidt’s narrative arc is strong and never falters in making each scene, each chapter increase the tension and the stakes.


Are there large gaps between chapters marked on the Shrunken Mss?
Is there a climax? Does the climax resolve what you set up at the beginning?
If you resolved a different problem at the end, you must decide if you want to change the beginning or the end to make them match up!
Do each of the major plot points (the strong chapters) increase tension and raise the stakes?
Does the main character have an epiphany at some point?
If all the big plot points are right, then look at a finer level and decide if the minor plot points also feed into the main plot and increase tension.

Rate Yourself on Plot

(see Introduction for explanation)
Unconsciously Incompetent
Consciously Incompetent
Consciously Competent
Unconsciously Competent

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to subscribe to my RSS feed.
Sign up for my ocassional newsletter.

2 responses to “Novel Diagnosis–Plot”