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Can an Onion Help You Write a Better Novel? (Introducing, the Plot Onion!)

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Hi, everyone! So, here I am again with another blog post on plotting... this time with a twinge of coffee-induced mania. But hey, that’s most of my work these days, because I have children.

Anyway, this newest resource is for fiction-writers who – like me – struggle to keep the big-picture story neatly in mind while writing. If your story ideas sprawl out and morph during writing like mine, it can be easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the heart of the story.

I’ve created something I think will help.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on plotting a novel, you may remember that I’m a bit obsessed with studying story structure. I taught novel writing to high schoolers for several years, and I was on a continual quest to find new approaches to plotting stories, not only for my own benefit, but so I’d have more options to share with my students. After all, every writer’s brain is different, and a plotting method that clicks perfectly for one writer may fall flat for another. Over the past five years, I’ve gathered a small collection of favorite plotting methods, but I’ve also realized something – some stories require more than one. In fact, it’s fairly common for me to plan a story in layers, beginning with whichever plotting method I have in my tool belt that seems to best fit that story’s concept, and then doing multiple passes over my ideas with additional plotting methods, just to be sure I’ve really considered my story from every angle.

So, the other night as I was getting ready to plan a brand-new story using a combination of old favorites and some newer (to me) plotting methods I’d discovered, I suddenly realized – These could all be combined into one master plot chart.

This is how I ended up pulling out graphing paper and Sharpie pens at 11 PM, and after some feedback from friends and some more manic sketching sessions in between my work the next day, by midnight the following night I had...

The Plot Onion.

I know, I know. It looks crazy.

But hear me out.

One of the biggest problems I encounter when planning a novel is difficulty holding the whole story in my head as it grows and develops. This is why I was so attracted to The Plot Embryo concept when I encountered it late last year. It was brand-new to me then (though it’s been around a while), and I loved the ability to plan an entire novel on one page. But there were aspects of other plotting systems I loved, too. Each had certain nuances which highlighted concepts in a way which clicked for me, and as much as I loved The Plot Embryo concept, I didn’t want to lose the benefit of those other systems.

The Plot Onion aims to solve that problem.

This tear-free plot-structure mashup combines six of my go-to plotting methods all on one chart, so that you can see your entire story at a glance. And it’s not just the one-page chart – I’ve created a 15-page workbook which walks through each plotting system in The Plot Onion, then combines them into a handy, one-page reference sheet so I can see my entire story at a glance. Important details of my plot are captured in the individual pages, while the at-a-glance chart keeps me focused on the big picture as I write.

In the hopes that some of you also find The Plot Onion helpful, I’m making the entire workbook free to download... more info on that in a moment!

Here is where I pause to emphasize the very important fact that I do not own nor do I claim any rights to the individual plotting methods referenced in The Plot Onion. The Plot Onion is simply a resource I created, which suggests a new way to use those existing plotting methods by approaching them in layers to enhance your novel-plotting experience. Most plotting systems are based around the same basic story structure, but each has its own terminology and specific insights or contributions. I have borrowed some of these for the Plot Onion layers, but again – the terminology used in each layer is not my original creation... though I did have to modify a couple of the plotting methods by turning them circular so they would work with the overall Plot Onion setup. I credit the source for each layer in the 15-page workbook, but I will also give a brief explanation (and link to the original creator) of each of these plotting methods below.

So, to reiterate... I own only the concept of the Plot Onion approach and the specific layered design presented here. I do not own the plotting methods within it. In fact, you could probably swap out the specific language for some of the Plot Onion layers with different plot systems and still have a functional Onion. I chose these six plotting methods as my layers because they are all plotting methods which have been helpful to me.

Now that’s out of the way...

Here’s what’s in this crazy Plot Onion.

The Plot Onion is structured where you can use as many or as few of the layers as you’d like. The printable workbook I created has pages for each layer, plus a blank Plot Onion page where you can jot the important aspects of whichever layers you choose to use. If any layers seem unhelpful or irrelevant for a particular story, you can simply omit them and leave them blank.

Layer 1 (the core of the Plot Onion): Dan Harmon’s Plot Embryo

The Plot Embryo is a brilliant concept which allows the entire story of a novel to be outlined on one page. I used it as the core for the Plot Onion because it lends well as the foundation of the entire approach. It is layered itself, and provides probably the most in-depth aspect of the Plot Onion, if you fill out every aspect of it. If you want more info on the Plot Embryo, YouTuber Rachael Stephen has a lot of great videos on the topic.

This layer pulls the main “tentpole moments” from K.M. Weiland’s story structure system to add additional details to your story concept. These don’t replace the elements of the Plot Embryo, but provide an opportunity to add additional complexity to your story plan and ensure there are no gaps or sagging bits to your story’s arc. There is plenty of free info on her blog, but she also wrote a fabulous book, Structuring Your Novel, which covers her specific plotting system in detail. I found it really helpful when I was first learning how to structure novels. On my Plot Onion layer, I’ve also included notations for the Lie and the final Truth. These are concepts she discusses in detail in many of her blog posts, and in her book Creating Character Arcs, which is really helpful for understanding how to set up a character arc that threads a solid theme throughout your entire story (something I also discussed in detail in my previous plotting series on this blog).

This video was shared with me by a fellow writer in an online writers' chat we have, and I found his method of viewing story really insightful. This is basically a simplified version of Weiland’s Plot Circle, but some writers may find Pueyo’s terminology easier to grasp, or helpful as a way to double-check your overall structure from Layers 1 & 2.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screenwriting beats are one of my favorite ways to plot novels. I’ve used them with my novel-writing students for years. I’ve always approached them linearly, but for purposes of the Plot Onion, I adapted them into a circular structure. Items which span entire sections of the book are in the purple ring, while items which are more self-contained story moments are marked by lines coming off that ring. I talk some more about the Beat Sheet plotting system in my Plot Onion video (available here but also embedded further down in this post), if you want further explanation for how it works. I also highly recommend his book Save the Cat. I read the original screenwriting guide and then applied it to novel writing, but there's a version specifically for writing novels, as well. You can also see him break down other stories into beats on the "Beat Sheets" page on his website.

Layer 5: Three-Act Structure

This layer visually marks out the traditional three-act story structure. This system of story plotting can be helpful as a big-picture reminder of the overall movement of the story, from a reaction phase to a midpoint change and into an action phase barreling toward the climax, then a resolution. There’s no specific source to credit for Three-Act Structure, since it literally dates back to Aristotle and has been built upon by countless authors with multiple variations since then. In fact, every layer before this one is actually a variation of the Three-Act Structure, just with emphasis on particular aspects or terminology which highlights certain elements of the structure in more detail. If you want more info on Three-Act Structure, there is a wealth of writing resources on it, but one good place to start might be here.

Layer 6: Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient

This layer of the onion serves to top off all the others by providing a way to confirm you are starting and ending your story in the correct places, and presenting all your story elements in the best order. The MICE Quotient is really about identifying your story’s core function – Is it a story which centers on a unique setting? A question which needs an answer? A character in need of a change? A major, life-altering event? Once you know what type of story you have (or which of these is primary, and which might be present but secondary or tertiary or... quadrutiary? What is the term for fourth?), you then know which element needs to take the lead in your story. This tells you not only what to open with, but also what to close with to ensure a satisfying story arc and a solid thematic loop. I go into more detail on this in my Plot Onion video below, or you can read it from the source himself in his book Characters and Viewpoint. There is also a very helpful discussion about it on some of the Writing Excuses podcast episodes.

So now that I’ve explained the layers, let’s get down to how to use the Plot Onion:

Anyway you want to.

Seriously, it’s just a tool. You can scratch out layers or ignore layers or use them all; you can go through the workbook page by page and fill out the details for each system before filling out the Onion, or you can jump straight to the Plot Onion page and get to work. It’s meant to be helpful for you, whatever that looks like.

That said, my suggestion is to go through each layer one by one. If you’re unfamiliar with any of the plotting systems used in the Plot Onion, I highly suggest that you refer to the resources linked above to learn more about each so you can determine which layers are the most useful, and how they all function together. And they do all function together – they are all based on the same basic Three-Act Story Structure, and can all be adapted to a circular/mirrored view of story. If you just need a quick overview or reminder, I also go a bit more into each of the layers of the Plot Onion in the YouTube video below.

Because the Plot Onion chart can look a little overwhelming at first, I thought I’d share an example of what it looks like in action. (Some spoilers are redacted because this was an actual planning session for a new book series I’m working on!) But the details of what I wrote aren’t really the main point anyway – I just wanted to show you how the charts can each be filled out, and then how it all looks combined into the master Plot Onion at the end. There is some repetition from layer to layer, but it’s all about refining and clarifying your thoughts. I actually had some new ideas come to me as I moved from layer to layer that gave me more insight into my story, but... that was the whole point of creating this system; that usually does happen! The Plot Onion just gives you a methodical way to move through this process and line up your ideas to ensure everything works as it should. And remember, you can always skip a layer if you feel you don’t need it.

So that’s how it works! As you see on my pages above, the process is pretty simple: you move through each layer, then combine them by bringing over the most vital info from each layer into your combined Full Onion chart. That way, you can have the big-picture reminders of your story all on one page, while still referencing the additional pages for details as needed.

And don't forget, if you want some more explanation of how the Plot Onion and its layers function, I also go into more detail about the creation of the Plot Onion and some of its layers in this YouTube video (the same one embedded above).

Ready to give it a try?

The Plot Onion Novel Planning Packet (which includes all the pages shown above plus some additional Notes pages and a labeled Plot Onion reference page) is available free to my subscribers! Get your copy here.

The Plot Onion is a layered approach to visualizing how story functions, because stories are circular, and onions are...layered. Okay, that fell flat. But you get the point. The Plot Onion is meant to help you brainstorm your story, isolate its core components, and then distill them into a one-page, at-a-glance reminder of what your story’s truly about, where you’re going with it, and how to get there.

I hope you find it helpful.

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