5 Plotting Tips for Aspiring Christian Fiction Authors
In my years of experience as a mystery author, writing coach, and education lead for the visual outlining software Plottr, I’ve found—like many others—that there are two main types of writers. There are writers who plot every aspect of their story, who are often called “story architects” or “story engineers”, and there are those who wing it the entire way, known as discovery writers or pantsers. 5 Plotting Tips for Aspiring Christian Fiction Authors.
While it could be argued that all writers plot at some point (whether before the first draft or after), most of us fall somewhere in the middle of a broader spectrum. But no matter when you plot or where exactly you find yourself on the plotting spectrum, plotting comes with some great benefits for aspiring Christian fiction authors, including:
- Developing a more efficient writing workflow
- Finishing first drafts more quickly
- Earning more from their writing in the long run
But how do you do this plotting thing, and how do you get better at it? Here are five plotting tips for aspiring Christian fiction authors.
Pin for Later
1 ) Read Great Christian Fiction
The advice to read in your genre is universal, and no matter what genre of Christian fiction you want to write, you should also be a reader of this genre. Many interpret this as part of the advice to “write what you know.”
In order to know your genre, one of the best ways is to read great Christian fiction and to study what is trending and selling in your genre. There are a lot of prominent writers out there to choose from, and here are just a few of them:
- Ted Dekker: author of Christian thriller, mystery, and fantasy novels.
- Lori Wick: author of Christian romance novels.
- Patrick W. Carr: author of character-driven Christian fantasy.
- Frank Peretti: author of Christian novels that focus on the supernatural.
- Elizabeth Camden: author of historical Christian novels.
And these are just a few examples—you can search the Christian fiction best sellers list on Amazon to find many more.
The point is to find a few great writers in your genre and then read and study their books. What kind of plot structures do they use? How are the stories organized? What are some tips and tricks you can pick up from their fiction?
Once you are well-read in your genre, you will find the next tip much easier to do.
2) Study and Understand Basic Plot Structure
The more you read and observe stories in many forms, from books to movies, television, and even music, the greater the similarity you will find between various plot structures. Kurt Vonnegut referred to this often in his classic lecture on the shape of stories.
In fact, if you study C.S. Lewis and other masterful Christian authors, you will find that they all follow similar story structures.
There are several basic parts of plot structure common to a variety of templates created for different genres and styles. For example, if you look at the Hero’s Journey, which is geared towards action, adventure, and even fantasy plots, or Jami Gold’s Romance Beat Sheet, you will find several common structural elements.
First, you will see stories organized in the three or four-act plot structure, and there is only a minor difference between these two classic ways to organize a story.
The three-act structure has a beginning (Act 1) that makes up 25percent of the story, a middle (Act 2) that takes up 50percent of the story, and an ending (Act 3) that comprises the last 25percent of the story.
Meanwhile, the four-act structure divides the story into four equal parts, each comprising 25percent of the story. Both stories have a midpoint, which happens at the 50percent mark in the story. The four-act structure simply divides the middle act into two parts, and the three-act structure uses the midpoint as the center of act two.
The structure you prefer depends on you, and there are even writers that divide a story even further into five and even seven acts. No matter what the overall act structure looks like, there are always some common elements inside, even if they go by different names from one plot structure method to the next:
- The Inciting Incident: This is the event that really kicks off your story, and that usually happens around the 10-15 percent point in your story, or halfway through Act 1.
- Plot Points: A plot point is where a change happens in the story. While a story may be made up of several events, these are always a turning point either for better or worse, and happen at several intervals in your story.
- Try/Fail: A try/fail is a specific type of plot point. For a detective, this may be where a suspect is cleared or another victim dies. It is a change for the worse in the plot for a character. It is a place where they fail to accomplish what they set out to do, although they usually learn something important in the process.
- Climax: The pinnacle of your story, this is where everything you have promised the reader in your story to this point is resolved either for the good (a happy ending) or the bad. This is also where your subplots are wrapped up as well. This usually happens about 85-95 percent of the way through your story.
- Denouement: This can also be called the cleanup part of your novel. It is where you show, usually briefly, the outcome after the climax of your story. It happens in about the last 5 percent of your story, and can hint at what is next if you are writing a series.
Once you understand the basics of plot structure, you can start creating your own plot based on your idea. Remember, to move on to creating a plot for your own Christian fiction, you don’t have to be a master of these techniques, and you don’t have to plan everything out. You should, however, have an idea of the beginning, middle, and end of your story.
3) Create a Basic Plot Outline
The next step is to create a basic plot outline, which you can do using index cards or a book outlining program like Plottr. Let’s go over a few simple ideas you can follow, even if you have never intentionally plotted a book before.
To start, write down your “Big Idea.” This is the overall concept of your story. You should be able to summarize this in a single sentence or at most a single paragraph. Usually, at this point, you will have an idea of who will be in your story as well.
The three elements of your Big Idea are the same three elements every story should have:
- Interesting people in…
- An interesting place…
- Doing interesting things.
Once you have your big idea, separate it into three different parts: the beginning, middle, and end.
It can also be helpful at this point to understand the midpoint of your story, or the place where things are going to be the worst for your main character. This is sometimes called the Dark Night of the Soul. You don’t have to know details, just what the worst thing your character will face.
(Note that this is often related to the conflict between what your character wants and needs. Perhaps, for example, they desire to be free of the church community and the restrictions they feel might come with it, whereas in reality, that’s the exact opposite of what they need. Use this conflict to create the midpoint of your story.)
Once you have the beginning, middle, and end of your book figured out, you can figure out all the scenes that go between those events. You can make this part of your plot outline as detailed as you want. A good rule of thumb is to stop before your outline feels like it is stifling your creativity. And bingo, you have your first outline, or at least a rough version of it. However, now it is time to go deeper.
4) Allow Goal, Motivation, and Conflict to Drive Your Plot
There are three elements to every good scene, and they carry overall to the entire plot of your novel: goal, motivation, and conflict.
- Goal: What does your main character want or need? That is their goal. As I said above, they might be wrong about what they need, but getting it is still their goal. That goal may change partway through the story, but in each scene, your character needs to have something they are striving for.
- Motivation: Why is your character pursuing their goal? What are their deep-seated reasons? Even someone who is pursuing riches usually has a deeper motive, like the desire for security or even a desire to prove their worth to friends or family. Allow your character’s motive to drive their actions and help you write their story in a genuine way.
- Conflict: What is stopping your character from getting what they want or need? This can be anything from their own feelings to an actual mountain or ocean separating them from what they want. The conflict in a romance often comes from a couple being separated and is only resolved when they find a way to get back together.
There is one more element to all of these things that adds another layer of depth to your plot, and that is the emotion your character feels about these things. What is their reaction to conflict? What emotions are associated with their motivation?
The key is to keep this in mind as you plan to write your next Christian fiction project—and use the right verbs and adjectives to evoke that emotion in your reader.
5) Include Subplots to Raise Tension
Finally, one of the biggest issues in writing a story is often the “sagging middle.” This is usually that part of the journey where the characters must get from one place to the other, and not much is happening that interests the reader.
There are all kinds of plotting solutions to prevent this, but one of the most common and the easiest is the introduction of a subplot.
In Christian fiction, there is often one of two types: (1) a romance subplot or (2) a salvation subplot.
The romance subplot is exactly what it sounds like: two people fall in love, and the complications of that relationship impact your main plot to make up the subplot.
In this case of the salvation subplot, the main character, their love interest, or someone else in the story has either turned away from the church or is not a Christian. The tension of their returning to the church or coming to Christ becomes the salvation subplot.
The key is to remember that any subplot must relate to and impact the main plot. Make sure these events have a goal, the character has a motivation related to them, and they produce both conflict and emotion.
Plotting Takeaways for Aspiring Christian Fiction Authors
Plotting done well can make a vast difference in many aspects of your writing life, from your efficiency as a writer to how quickly you can produce new material.
By reading and understanding your genre and basic plot structure, you can come to a better understanding of how story structure works. You can then create your own plotlines, and work on using the principles of goal, motivation, and conflict to take your writing to the next level. Finally, you can use subplots to make your story even stronger. By using these tips, you’ll significantly improve your ability to write Christian fiction and establish yourself as an author.
About the Author
Troy Lambert is a mystery author, editor, and publisher who has written over 25 novels. An associate member of the International Thriller Writers Association, he has spoken at LTUE, Westercon, the Plotting Summit, and often presents for the Idaho Writers Guild. He’s currently the Education Lead for Plottr, a popular visual outlining tool for writers. You can learn more at troylambertwrites.com.