Plotting a Novel: Part 2 - Testing Novel Ideas

Throughout 2023 writing instructor and pre-published author Tracey Kathryn (T.K.) Sheffield and I will be offering a blog series on plotting from the beginning developmental stage through the messy middle and all the way to the end, including editing advice on how to fix plot problems in a completed manuscript. Last month, we brought you Part 1, "Plotting a Novel: Resources for Those Just Starting Out." This month Tracey tackles how to use plotlines, tropes, and conflict to test your story ideas. 

Story Inspiration: Using Plotlines, Tropes, and Conflict to Test Ideas for Novels

Happy March, Writers.

This month, I’m exploring ideas for stories. How do authors find compelling stories? What hero’s journey (human, robot, animal, ghost, or otherwise) works for a full-length novel?

The short answer is multiple choice. There are unlimited answers to the question!

To begin in a unique way, however, I’ll approach the concept from its opposing side and argue that knowing what does not work is the beginning of writing wisdom.

Writers should know the perils of writing a novel—what doesn’t work? What are some common writing pitfalls? One is the messy middle (MM). Another is lack of conflict. New writers get bogged down in what’s known as the messy middle of a novel. (The MM is where writers struggle and stories wander off course.) Having a solid story idea avoids this problem.

Also, note that in this month’s blog post title, I used the word “conflict.” There are no stories without conflict. A problem must occur for a tale to unfold. Otherwise, a narrative is merely a list of events, not a story.

Story inspiration can be found in multiple ways. But, to vet story ideas and know if they’ll work for a novel, consider:

•   Knowing basic plotlines

•   Studying story tropes

•   Free-writing or brainstorming

Also, I’m offering a bookstore of the month, a gift shop of the month, and an updated event calendar below. Enjoy!

The Seven Basic Plotlines (SBP) for Stories: Study Them

Before diving into the SBP, remember your goal is to avoid getting bogged down in the MM, and to include enough conflict to make an idea work for a full-length novel.

It is argued there are seven (or so) storylines for novels:

•   Hero overcomes monster

•   Rags to riches

•   Hero’s quest

•   Hero’s voyage and return home after learning a lesson

•   A comedy

•   A tragedy

•   Hero’s rebirth

By studying them, I don’t mean to take a test. I mean enjoy the process—you’re a writer! It’s difficult enough to write a novel. Sit down, read your favorite book, and deconstruct what happened. Think like a writing professor: Study characters, plot developments, and conflict.

For example, I love mysteries. A series I’ve enjoyed are the Archy McNally mysteries. The main character, or hero, solves mysteries in Palm Beach, Florida. The stories are Hero Overcomes Monster—the killer-villain is the monster—with comedic elements. Archy is a grown-up kid who changes only slightly during the series. The story conflicts are in the cagey villains, Archy’s emotional struggle with his father, and his on-off relationship with his girlfriend.

The mysteries I write are about a retired model who uses her skill at spotting “posers” to solve murders her touristy small town. The stories are a Hero’s Rebirth: My main character is struggling due to problems in her past. She heals by:

•   Retiring from the cutthroat modeling biz

•   Returning to her small town to open a craft-mall business

•   Solving murders (the villains are connected with her past)

The conflicts afflicting the MC include:

•   A murder occurs in her mall, and she’s considered a suspect!

•   She must prove herself to others who knew her from “back when.”

•   Confronting emotions she quashed while working in a subjective, gossipy industry that treated her like a mannequin.

Knowing basic plotlines helps vet story ideas. Try deconstructing a few of your favorite stories. Then, test the novel idea you’re thinking of writing.

Use Tropes to Boost Conflict

Before diving into tropes, remember your goal is to avoid getting bogged down in the MM, and include enough conflict to make an idea work for a novel.

Tropes affect stories like clouds affect sunrises. Sunrises are gorgeous—but they’re made more beautiful by clouds that interfere with them. Clouds offer conflict to sunrises: Water vapor refracts light, and horse-tail wisps swirl across the sky, contrasting the sun’s colors.

Tropes, or storytelling devices, similarly contrast and boost narratives. They can be cliche, but they’re unavoidable: Stories include events, or problems, that affect characters. Those problems fall into definitions. Those definitions can be described in phrases or tropes.

Common tropes include:

•   Gruff, lovable anti-hero

•   Friends to lovers

•   Mistaken identity

•   Lost heir to a fortune

•   Secret billionaire

The key to successful tropes, however, is to put your own twist on them. In the Romantic Comedy I’m writing, tropes include:

•   Will they or won’t they? (the MC and his love interest face difficulties)

•   Found family (the MC’s family is dysfunctional; he relocates and finds friends who are like family)

•   Wise older relative (the MC relies on his uncle for guidance)

To avoid cliche, I put my perspective on the tropes. For example, the wise older relative isn’t always wise. Sometimes, his advice his awful. I used the out-of-character moment to show how the fellow was being impacted by a major loss in his life.

Understanding common tropes—and adding personal twists to them—boosts conflict and develops ideas. Consider the story you want to tell, then ask what tropes will affect the characters. The process tests a novel idea—and makes the story yours.

Free-writing and Brainstorming: Ponder Ideas

Now that you know basic plots and familiar tropes, let your mind wander. Like drinking a protein shake before a workout, your mind has fuel to think.

Get outside. Wander a trail. Ride a bike. Take a drive to your favorite quiet spot, sit a spell, walk a spell. Ponder ideas.

Or, wash the dishes. Dust a room. Take a nap, even.

Let your subconscious consider ideas, stories, and conflict. Heroes and their journeys. What stories do you love? What story is calling you to write it?

Use free-writing or brainstorming time to envision a story. Then, overlay that concept onto a framework of plots and familiar tropes. By doing this, you’re testing ideas for viability. Also, you’re hedging against problems such as the messy middle and lack of conflict.

For example, you have an idea about a ghost dog that helps an amateur sleuth solve mysteries. Great. Now, plug the story into a standard plotline and add tropes:


•   Hero’s quest: A widowed career Army man discovers that a ghost dog from his past has arrived—why? What is this animal doing? And why, suddenly, are dead bodies showing up?

Tropes to enhance the Hero’s quest:

•   Man in uniform

•   Emotional scars

•   Friends to lovers rivalry

•   Widower finds romance again

I’m just guessing, plugging in ideas off the top of my head. But see how a framework of plot and tropes assists story development? It’s a formula for success!

By understanding plots and tropes, you can brainstorm a novel idea—and avoid problems such as the messy middle and lack of conflict, or story tension.

Resources for Writers:

The Wisconsin Writer’s Association: Jade Ring Contest is OPEN

The Wisconsin Writer’s Association has stepped up its game—consider joining! The group celebrates a milestone birthday this year. Watch for news of a conference happening this fall. As a member, you’ll get great resources such as monthly critique seminars, writing tips, and book review connections. Also, consider entering the Jade Ring writing contest, which opened March 6.

Bookstore of the Month

If you’re in the East Troy area, check out the charming Ink Link Books. It feels like a step back in time. Talk to its owner, Kayleen, who adores books. Afterward, stop for coffee and a treat at 2894 on Main. Enjoy a stroll around the East Troy square, and perhaps visit the East Troy Brewery, too. East Troy is located in southeast Wisconsin, about ten miles north of Lake Geneva.

Gift for Writers

If you enjoy the Wisconsin Northwoods near Minocqua, White Arrows Home, the Shop is a great place to stop. The store combines new items, vintage treasures, home goods, pies—and books, too! Check out the store if you’re in the area. (FYI: It has a new location as of December 2022. It’s a few miles south of Minocqua on Highway 51; visible from the road.) Or, visit White Arrows Home online where you’ll find everything from reclaimed furniture to plaid vests to cookbooks. Any writer would enjoy a gift from this unique store.

Upcoming Conferences: Dates Announced

I acquired a literary agent in part by attending conferences. I wrote about it on the Valerie Biel blog here.

Writers can’t exist in a vacuum. Like actors, we need feedback and guidance for our creative endeavors. If travel is a problem, consider one of the many excellent online opportunities.

Dates are being finalized for 2023 but subject to change or cancellation. Check the sites for more information.

Writing Day Workshops, online and in-person, ongoing

March 16-19 Left Coast Crime, Tucson, AZ

March 25-26 Let’s Just Write, Chicago

May 5-6, Lakefly Writer’s Conference, Oshkosh

May 30-June 3, 2023: Thrillerfest, NYC

Sat., June 24: Hedberg Book Fest, Janesville

June 20-25: Minnesota Northwoods Writer’s Conference, Bemidji, Minn.

July 19-22: Midwest Writer’s Workshop, Muncie, Indiana, and online

Aug. 30-Sept. 3: Bouchercon, San Diego, Calif.

Aug. 24-27 American Christian Fiction Writers Association Conference

Sept. 19-22 Washington Island Literary Festival, Door County

September 2023: Central Wisconsin Book Festival, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point

October 6 - 7, 2023: Wisconsin Writer’s Association Fall Conference, Brookfield & Waukesha, WI

October 2023: Door County Writer and Book Fair, Fish Creek

October 2024: Fox Cities Book Festival, Fox Cities area, HIATUS to 2024

October 2023: Wisconsin Book Festival, Madison

November 3-4: Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, Waukesha

November 2023: Great Lakes Writers Festival, Sheboygan

If you have recommendations about writing resources, conferences, or sources for gift ideas, please tell us in the comments.

In April, Valerie and I will continue this series about starting a novel, finding ideas, and plotting a story.

Happy spring, writers. ~ Tracey

T.K. Sheffield, MA

Pre-published author, The Seymour Agency

“I write books for readers who want to laugh and escape.”

The Backyard Model Cozy Mysteries: A retired fashion model uses her skill at spotting posers to solve murders in her touristy Wisconsin town. (The first book in the series is on submission to publishers.)

The Valentine Lines: Cupid, minor god of love, is upset by the dismal state of romance; he blames dating apps. The god persuades—tricks?—his Aunt Hera, temperamental CEO of Mt. Olympus Inc., into letting him move from drafty Olympus to a quaint small town. Ironically, the love god is struck by his own arrow and falls in love. The relationship surprises his romance-business clients and angers his aunt. It’s a magical, fun, romantic comedy.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for writing tips, author news, and to share my Wisconsin backyard.

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