Monday, March 22, 2010

36 How to Create a Book that Will Keep Readers Reading - Plot Worksheet

A great resource!
Want to create a book readers can't put down? A book you'll itch to write? A protagonist you'll love? An antagonist who will give you shivers? And (simultaneously) the first draft of a synopsis you can send to literary agents?

Like many writers struggling with the question of how to create a good book, I've spun my mental wheels researching and experimenting with different methods of plotting: outlining versus free writing versus turning points versus notecards versus snowflake method etc. Since I've finally found something that works for me, I thought I'd share my Complications Worksheet here to help you simultaneously develop action, motivation and character depth by piling trouble on your poor protagonist. It will help you create a book that keeps readers turning pages.

It works equally well in developing a first draft and in checking that the draft you've written has enough story behind it to hold together. While I'm using it to plot my new novel, The Dream Weaver, Marissa and I just did a cross-check on The Wind Walker to make sure I hadn't missed anything in the last few drafts. Checking Marissa's answers to the questions really helped me understand what she was reading into my story, as opposed to what I believed I'd put there. (Am I lucky in my critique partner, or what?)

Try the Complications Worksheet as a thinking tool. Before you start, I encourage you to cruise through the links at the end of the post so you add or subtract whatever you need. Then answer the questions in the worksheet with your story and characters in mind.

ACT ONE – Separation

(Adult, Long YA: 30 to 35K Words/YA: 20K Words/MG: 6.5K to 13K)

1. The Jump Start
The first scene in the story where a protagonist with limited knowledge of a problem is drop-kicked into action on page one as conflict begins.
  • What is the opening image that will stick in the reader’s mind?
  • What is the opening mood?
  • What is the opening tone?
  • What is the opening conflict?
  • What is the protagonist’s outer desire?
  • What is the protagonist’s hidden need that she will fill at the end of the book or series?
  • How does the protagonist demonstrate that she doesn’t really understand the problem?
  • What is the central theme of the book and how does it relate to the opening scene?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • How is the antag introduced or foreshadowed?
  • If the antag is only foreshadowed, is there a main minion who appears? Is this main minion a recurring character central to the overall plot?
  • Prior to the opening, what internal and external forces have been at work to make the protag suffer?
  • How are these tied to the protag’s hidden need?
2. Introducing Trouble – The Call to Action
Rightly or wrongly, the protagonist makes an action-based plan and takes the first steps to cope with the trouble.
  • How is the protagonist called or propelled into action and moved out of her usual world?
  • Why is the situation urgent?
  • What are the overall consequences if she refuses to act?
  • What is the potential overall payoff if she accepts the call to action?
  • How does the call to action conflict with what she wants?
  • Why does she believe she is unwilling to change the status quo?
  • How does this conflict what she needs?
  • What does she personally stand to lose?
  • What could she gain and how does this relate to her hidden need?
  • How does she demonstrate a slight, new awareness of her needs?
  • Have both of the following important characters been introduced:
  • Love Interest/Main Mentor?
  • Antagonist’s Main Minion?
  • Foil?
  • How does the protagonist actively demonstrate her reluctance to change the status quo?
  • What action does the protag take in an attempt to evade or compromise? 
3. First Threshold - Trouble Gets Worse
Something happens to thwart the protagonist’s plan, the stakes get higher, and the protagonist does something she wouldn’t have done or been able to do at the beginning.
  • How do the protag’s attempts to refuse change make the immediate trouble worse?
  • What happens to overcome her reluctance to accept the call to action and commit to change?
  • How does she get over the first threshold and demonstrate she is already changing?
  • Is there a threshold guardian? Who is it and how does it bar her way?
  • How does crossing the first threshold thwart the protagonist’s immediate wants?
  • How does that push her toward what she really needs?
  • How does it increase the overall stakes?
  • What is the overall story problem as it has now been introduced?
  • What is the theme of the story?
  • What should the reader hope for the protagonist?
  • What should the reader fear on her behalf?
ACT TWO - Descent  

 (Adult, Long YA: 25 to 30K Words/YA: Words 16K Words/MG: 5.5K to 11K)

1. New Reality, Self-sacrifice and Still More Roadblocks
The protagonist accepts (or is forced to accept) the new status quo and amasses the helpers and resources to help her fight in the escalating conflict and experiment with the first change. She learns that she must sacrifice or delay getting what she wants.
  • Who are the following characters:
  • Additional Allies?
  • Additional Mentors?
  • Threshold Guardians?
  • What is the antagonist’s goal?
  • What is the antag’s plan to achieve his/her goal?
  • What training or knowledge does the protag receive or what does she learn to help her set her plan in action?
  • Who (or what) is the threshold guardian she must win past?
  • What tests must she pass to demonstrate her fitness for her stated goals (her overall mission, not necessarily the plan she has just made)?
  • What does she do to win over new allies?
2. Experimenting with First Change - Increased Determination but the Plan Goes Wrong
The protagonist makes a plan to deal with the escalating conflict as she understands it, but either doesn’t have sufficient understanding of the problem or isn’t yet willing to make a large enough permanent change, sacrifice, or commitment. As a result, she makes things worse and narrowly escapes disaster.
  • What is the protagonist’s plan to cope with the new reality and get back to her usual world?
  • How does she prepare to put her plan into action?
  • How does the antag’s plan thwart the protag’s plan?
  • What does she do in executing her plan that makes the antag’s job a little easier?
  • How does the antag take advantage of the error?
  • What does the protag do in response to the antag’s move?
  • How does the protag demonstrate heroic or admirable qualities in her response? (This is especially necessary if a mentor provides assists!) 
3. Burning the Bridge – Tiptoeing toward Big Change
As the stakes get even higher, the protagonist shows that she has changed too much to go back to the same environment/outlook/cubbyhole in which she began the story. She knuckles down and continues training, amassing knowledge and allies, and working toward the ordeal ahead.
  • How does the attack increase the overall stakes?
  • How does the protag change in response to the attack and failure?
  • What does the protag now know or understand that she didn’t know or understand before?
  • Who is the new threshold guardian and what does the protag do to get over the threshold?
  • Once over the threshold what does the protag do to foreshadow acceptance of self-sacrifice?
  • How has the protag changed?
  • How has the protag demonstrated a greater awareness of her needs?
  • How does she demonstrate that she has not completely relinquished the desires with which she began the book?

(Adult, Long YA: 20 to 25K Words/YA: Words 14K Words/MG: 4.5K to 9K)

1. Striding off Toward Doom –Testing the New Resolve
Taking the first actions in a new plan that takes the full reality of the situation into account, the protagonist is now aware of the stakes and accepts the real or potential sacrifice. She is pushed to the edge of her endurance, resolve, and skills, and struggles to prepare herself for the upcoming confrontation with what she believes is everything she has. She is defeated by the antagonist or a chief minion in a prelude to the climax, but vows to continue fighting.
  • What does the protag do to prepare herself?
  • How does she demonstrate courage and determination?
  • Do these win her any additional allies?
  • What does she do to demonstrate that she has accepted participation in the struggle?
  • What tools is she given in reward to help her in her fight?
  • How is her new resolve and knowledge tested?
  • What propels the protagonist into the test?
  • What hard choices does she have to make?
  • How does she break the rules, cross moral lines, compromise her integrity, or otherwise set herself up for failure?
  • How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
  • What does the protagonist rely on that fails her?
  • What does she do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
  • How does she demonstrate that she has changed?
  • How does she demonstrate a greater awareness of her true needs?
  • How do we know she hasn’t completely given up her stated goals?
  • Is there a sense of escalating action?
2. Attempting the Change – The Midpoint Confrontation or Ordeal
The protagonist encounters the antagonist in the big ordeal, engages, and fails spectacularly.
  • How does the antagonist’s plan manipulate the battle to throw more obstacles into the protagonist’s plan?
  • What shows the protagonist’s rededication to the ordeal?
  • What twist sheds light on a previously misunderstood situation?
  • What shortens the timeline or propels her into the battle before she is truly ready?
  • How does the antagonist take advantage of it?
  • How does the protagonist lose allies?
  • How is the protagonist injured?
  • How does she display heroism and selflessness she didn’t even know she had?
  • What does the protag do to temporarily drive the antagonist away?
  • How have the stakes increased?
3. The Dark Moment – Abandon All Hope
The protagonist is knocked down, wrung out, and soon to be beyond recovery. She can't imagine surving this much pain or loss.
  • What steps has she taken toward further understanding or achieving her true need?
  • What new revelations start to make her believe she can’t ultimately win?
  • What new understanding helps her understand the consequences of losing?
  • What does she realize she is losing that she cannot bear to lose?
  • What demonstrates her renewed dedication to defeating the antagonist?
  • Why does she do it?
ACT FOUR (Or ACT THREE) - Resolution

(Adult, Long YA: 15 to 20K Words/YA: Words 10K Words/MG: 3.5K to 7K)

1. No Alternative Except Fighting On
Finally understanding the full consequences of losing, the protagonist cannot live with them. She finds a new plan, a new weapon, or a twist on something she has already done that will allow her another, probably futile, crack at the conflict.

  • What does she do that will throw away her chance at happiness in favor of pursuing her stated desire and simultaneously fulfilling the task she has accepted?
  • How does she demonstrate she understands the magnitude of her loss but believes she has no choice?
  • Who else understands or pushes her into making that sacrifice?
  • Does that individual have the protag’s best interests at heart?
  • Does that individual want the same outcome the protag and her allies have been fighting toward?
2. Resurrection: The Ultimate Showdown
The protagonist rejoins the struggle and attacks the antagonist head on in a gamble for all or nothing. They fight and only one of them emerges victorious. The other may, possibly, live to fight another day but the goal set forth his/her goal has been thwarted.

  • En route to the battle, does the protag demonstrate any character development that will improve or hinder her ability to fight the antagonist?
  • How has she changed since the beginning of the book?
  • How does the final battle tie back to something the she feared or hated in Act One?
  • How do the location and the battle circle back toward the beginning conflict?
  • How has the antag changed (if at all)?
  • What has the protag failed to consider in her battle preparations?
  • How does the antag capitalize on it?
  • What surprising revelations or twists emerge during the battle?
3. The Hero’s Return - Loose Ends & Wrap Up
The vision of the new world order, either positive or negative, that suggests how things will fare for the protag and antag after the battle.

  • How does the protag reunite with her allies?
  • How do they respond?
  • Is there more conflict to come? (A sequel?)
  • Is there ultimately potential for a happy ending?
  • Did the protag get what she wanted?
  • Did she get what she needed?
  • Is the overall goal accomplished?
  • If not, what suggests a small hope that it can still be accomplished?
  • What has the protagonist learned?
  • What is the closing visual that will stick in the reader’s mind?
Here's to creating trouble! Happy complications....


Sources and Additional Information:
Alexandra Sokoloff: The Index Card Method
Diana Peterfreund: In Which the Author Contemplates Structure
Jennifer Cruisie: The Not-Really-An-Outline for Plots
Jennifer Cruisie: It's the Structure Stupid
Johanna Harness: Phase Drafting
Randy Ingermanson: How to Write a Novel: The Snowflake Method
Writer Unboxed: The Three-Act Structure

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. This is incredible! I'm gearing up for revisions, and this is a fantastic check-list to help me organize my thoughts -- and my book!

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  2. This is really good. But I won't follow it lol

  3. Sarah, my pleasure! Please let us know how it works out for you and good luck with your revisions....

    Glen, thanks -- hope you found something in it that will apply to your writing though....

    Cheers, Martina

  4. This is exactly what I needed right now!! I was getting lost in my WIP and doubting where I was going, but this is like gold. It's got me all excited again and back on track. So thank you!

  5. I'm really glad to hear that, Lisa. Hope your WIP goes well!

  6. Holy cow! Thanks for the great tips!

  7. Definitely a good resource-thank you! I am just excited to see how my WIP is actually (sorta) following this outline already :)

  8. Wow - this is very nice. I was having a discussion the other day on Twitter about "writing by numbers" and it looks like you have broken this down quite a bit. I had intended to research various books with some educational reading and figuring out the math on various books per genre, but this is a great jump start.

  9. This post is amazing! And so useful! Thank you for taking the time to break it all down...I think of those things, but never have I plotted it out in written form. I feel much better now about my journey with having a road map at my side!

    Thank you again Martina!

  10. What a great worksheet! I'm about to start plotting a new novel, so this was very timely.

  11. This is absolutely terrific! Thank you so much.

  12. Loving this article. Just wrote on my own blog how I felt like I was just crashing through my work in progress with little direction. This is an excellent format, just enough meat to guide & inspire but not so rigid as to feel like a math quiz. Thanks so much!

  13. holy WOW.

    incredible! thanks a million for all of your hard work!!

  14. Oh my gosh. Thank you SO MUCH! You are a life saver! Can't wait to put some of this into practice with my revision. Bless you!

  15. This looks absolutely wonderful. I can't wait to apply it to my WIP, to see how it matches up.

    Thank you for sharing!

  16. Jane Friedman's "best tweets of the week" directed me to your article--and I'm so excited and grateful. I have recently completed my second draft of my novel, but the ending has completely fallen flat. That's because I didn't do a lot of the things on the checklist for Act Three. I think I was impatient to skip to the end. Nevertheless, I now have a very useful guide for fleshing out my story. Thank you very, very much!

  17. Amazing post - just wanted to say thanks!

  18. OMG. The email from our blog has been down, so I haven't seen comments on previous posts. Thank you so much, everyone, for being kind! I really hope this helps you as much as I think it has helped me. Please let me know how it works when you apply it, or if you have any suggestions for tweaks.

  19. What an awesome breakdown! Thank you for this!!

  20. Love it!! Thank you so much for this. I know it will be an invaluable tool for me.

  21. As a prize for making it to the quarter finals in the "Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards" contest with my novel, "Between Now and Forever," I received a Publisher’s Weekly review, which pointed out that I still had some plot issues to resolve. For that, I plan to use your Complications Worksheet. I also plan to use your worksheet to tighten my synopsis. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Thank you for your generosity in sharing it with all of us writers in the blogosphere. I plan to include your Complications Worksheet in a post sometime in July when I “officially” launch my blog, ENTER THE BETWEEN. I will be sure to credit you as the author and also mention that one needn't be a children's writer to gain valuable information from your blog. Again, thank you for your generosity.

  22. Angela and Joan, thank you so much for your kind words! And Margaret, congratulations on making the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finals. I'm doing a happy dance for you. That's huge. I'm especially impressed that after that you are listening to feedback and willing to go back to the hard revisions on your novel. It sounds like you are close and the additional revisions will only make it stronger. I'm honored to have you include the Complications Worksheet in that process. I not only did it as I was writing my recently finished novel but also again once I finished, and I had my crit partner -- the wonderful Marissa -- do it independently so I could ensure what I wanted to say was coming across correctly. It's a lot of work, but it sure helped to clarify things for me! Good luck and please let us know about your progress!

  23. Wow what a great post! I especially liked the word count breakdown - really helpful. I'm going to give this a go!

  24. I definitely agree with everyone here. As someone who is taking his first baby steps into the world of writing, I find this extremely useful. I have experimented with the Snowflake Method and general outlining, but this works very well for me and answering these questions has me ready to jump right into chapter one.

    Thank you so much for posting this. All new writers ought to give it a thorough read and apply it to their work.

  25. All writers can benefit greatly from your knowledge. Thanks for sharing, Martina.

  26. Awesome!
    I've been trying to introduce some plot into my last attempt at writing and I've had no luck so far (which has had the unfortunate effect of driving me straight into writer's block. Ouch). Your method seems pretty nice and useful, so I'll give it a try and hope for the best!
    Thanks for sharing!

  27. Wow, thanks for sharing this! I'm working on a novel over at WVU and this is just the help I needed. You're so generous.

  28. What an amazing checklist! You guys rock!

  29. Thank you so much! This method is wonderful, and of all the methods I've tried before, this one seems to work the best for me!

    I do have a query that I'd like to get your opinion on, however. After reading Joesph Campbell's works and again, you mention here, how the hero must be reluctant, in a way, to "change the status quo", as you say. I really do see how that can add greatly to a story, but I wonder if a story can be just as alluring without that element. For instance, I'm writing a story (just for fun) where the protagonist absolutely wants to change the "status quo". She was once a hero that defended her world, but after she had fallen, evil began to possess the land once again. The only way to really fight back against it is to reclaim her heroic power. Therefore, she doesn't seem at all reluctant to dive into the issue at hand and work to get it solved, but if this makes the story too generic and bland, I would most definitely work to adjust it.

    In any case, I can't thank you enough for this. I really have a hard time organizing my thoughts in the beginning stages of writing, and like I said, this method has absolutely worked the best for me!

  30. Now this is a thoroughly useful post, Martina! I might even print it out to show my non-writing friends so they understand why it takes a looonnngggggg time to write a story. lol
    Thank you very much!
    cheers from Australia

  31. I want to thank you - great idea to post these points as questions (questions always beg an answer so how appropriate!)

  32. Thanks for the link to The Index Card Method! Too many articles which I read on plot make it seem so neat and simple, when the reality is plotting can be messy and tough. The Index Card Method shows how complicated plots are, which ironically reassures me. :-) I also love that how visual the method is. As I move forward with my novel, I'll be trying out The Index Card Method.

  33. How great to have such an extensive list!

  34. A great resource (would be even more fab as a PDF) - have shared with my writers group, thank you! (from Oz)

  35. Yes! I'm sending you virtual hugs and chocolate cupcakes!!! I really struggle with plotting in advance, but I have a lot of this in my head when I start and as I write. I'm going to give this a shot as it seems to organize what I know and I desperately need that organization!! THANKS!

  36. I cannot get enough of ways to spark my mind when plotting. This is one of the best I've seen. Much thanks!


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