Diagramming a Novel

I’ve been promising for some months to teach you how to diagram a novel, and I figure I can’t keep putting it off, even though I feel like crud, which is why this is so late.  (One of the kids’ professors has had a recurrent bug, and has been kind enough to share.)

Diagramming a novel, like diagramming a sentence could be considered back-engineering.  You take something that’s already there and already works, and you figure out how the component parts interact, and how each of them contributes to the sentence – or novel – working.

It is a useful skill to the beginning novelist, the pure pantser, or a multipublished novelist who knows that plot her is weak point.  (Lifts hand.)

I’ve said in the past that I might have virtually no writing talent, at least not in English.  It’s possible this is the effect of changing language and culture.  But it’s also possible I’m just “stupid that way.”  We all have ways in which we’re dumb as rocks, and that might be mine.

What I do have is a strong drive to tell stories.  And since I wanted my stories to be read by the most people possible, I had to work at it.

So, when I got repeated rejections saying my characters were wonderful but I failed to have a plot, I decided to learn it.  The best way to learn it, I figured, was to get a novel that I knew worked and figure out how.

When I was cleaning my office, I came across piles of notebooks with these.

First let me say a word about your choice of novel to diagram: choose something in your genre that sells well.  (Note that it’s important, at least in the US to make sure the book REALLY sold well, on its own, for reasons intrinsic to the book, and not because it got pushed out the Wazoo – a place near Slice, where the sun don’t shine – by the publisher for reasons having NOTHING to do with the book itself.)

I didn’t realize this, so I diagrammed stuff like Simak’s book.  Useful, but the style and timing have changed since then, and something like Simak would be bloody useless for any sort of romantic fantasy who wants to hook fans who already like the genre.

Anyway.  So, first pick your book.  For our demonstration, I’m going to use the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, not because I intend to write like it – modes have changed though who knows, it might sell – but because most of us can grab a copy (free at Gutenberg!) and read the beginning, against what I do.

I recommend doing this in three stages, though I’m going to show it as one.  Usually the first pass is read only, with some notes.  The second pass is read and write down purpose of scene in the narrative, any foreshadowing encountered, and the “conflict” in the scene, (which doesn’t mean a fight, but one or more people wanting different things.)  THIRD pass allows you to put in refinements like new characters introduced and foreshadowing or illustration of character.

Do not try to do it all in one pass.  You will fail.

What you’ll be diagramming as smallest units is scenes.  These scenes are the Dwight Swain units of “conflict, resolution” and independent of chaptering.  In Jane Austen they often coincide.  For the purposes of this, we also consider “scenes” the little units that give back or forward information and which happen between the units of conflict and resolution.  (Mind you, Austen has very few of these.  But they allow you to do things like move your character upstairs, without his having a conflict about whether to go up or not – internal or external.)

So, the diagram would look like this.

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter one:

Purpose – to introduce the Bennet parents and also the overarching theme of the novel  (i.e. the fact that Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed away from the female line, which makes the marriages of his daughters of supreme importance.)

Precipitating event for the scene (aka, new information, but since the book is starting, everything is new): Mr. Bingley has leased Netherfield.

Conflict: Mrs. Bennet is already planning the marrying of one of her daughters to Mr. Bingley, while Mr. Bennet appears to be intent on ignoring it.  (He’s actually intent on teasing his wife, which introduces the character point that he’s much smarter than she is, and somewhat cruel about it.)

Foreshadowing: Mr. Bennet’s joke about Mr. Bingley perhaps liking Mrs. Bennet best of all is crass and shows a lax attitude towards morals in speech, which in turn foreshadows a lot of the troubles with the younger girls in particular (though with Lizzy’s uncontrolled tongue, too.)

Characters – I’m not going to sketch them here, but Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are masterfully drawn.

Chapter 2

Purpose: to introduce the daughters of the Bennet family.

Precipitating event: Mr. Bennet has visited Mr. Bingley and is now disposed to reveal it to the family.

Conflict: Mr. Bennet is determined to get his amusement by not saying outright that he visited Mr. Bingley, so his wife and daughters labor under the illusion he hasn’t and won’t do it, which will make it impossible for one of them to become acquainted with him.

Foreshadowing: Lydia’s misguided self confidence “I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I’m the tallest.”

Characters: the salient characteristics of the Bennet sisters are clear.

Okay – see, it goes like that, and you learn a bit by trial and error because writing is a very personal art, and my understanding of a book might not be the same as yours.  (This also assures you won’t actually sound like the books you’re diagramming.  It’s filtered through your mind.)

I know this is very sketchy, but I don’t know how to make it clearer, so if you have questions, ask away in comments.


  1. Beautiful timing for me–I’m in the middle of doing this with the WIP. Since I’m pure pantser, my second drafts are always a voyage of discovery 🙂

    A question: if a scene is a unit of conflict-resolution, how do you keep the tension up to move people to the next scene? I’ve been breaking scenes at breathless moments, but I don’t think that’s the way to do it.

    A comment: just bought AFGM, and the opening is as good as I remember from your blog. It’s been painful waiting for the end of work and the bus ride home, when I can indulge.

    1. You break scenes early — so you’re doing it fine. The scene as written is conflict/resolution/hint of next conflict. I call this a ‘rolling plot’ I’m not sure what other people call it.

      And thank you on AFGM!

    2. Just another approach — and I’ve forgotten who I stole it from — remember four phrases: yes, no, yes-but, no-and. The point of those is that there are four possible resolutions. But you’re probably going to use the last two most.

      Yes. Conflict is resolved, and the hero got what he wanted. Mary Sue, and it doesn’t go anywhere.

      No. Conflict is unresolved, the hero didn’t get what they wanted, and you’re back where you were before the scene started. It just eliminates an alternative, but doesn’t move things forward.

      Yes-but. The conflict is resolved, the hero got what they wanted,*but* there are complications. Yes, they got into the treasure chest, but all it contained was a cryptic map. Guess where they’re going to go next.

      No-and. The conflict is unresolved, the hero didn’t get what they wanted,*and* things are worse than they were before.

      The yes-but and the no-and both are ways to finish a scene, while dragging the reader kicking and screaming right into the next scene. It’s that hint of the next conflict.

      Hope that helps.

  2. When I get a plot all diagrammed, I no longer want to write the story, its like, okay, I’m done now. I still like the idea of the story, I like what is planned in the plot, I just have no desire to fill in the blanks, even though I know its not done, and I want other people to see it/read it. So, should I just try pantsing instead? This has happened several times now and I have 2 unfinished novels, where I decided to plot them out part way through to “be good”, and several not even started novels, because I plotted them out before I started. Am I weird?- Tiffanie

    1. Yep. Nope you’re not weird. I had that problem for years. Then I conquered it. Now I’m back to pantsing. However, I recommend diagramming OTHER PEOPLE’S novels and getting it in your subconscious.

  3. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t this what other authors would call “outlining” a story?

    Just wanna make sure I’m understanding both concepts properly, being that I am — as you know, Sarah — trying to write a story myself, and hoping and praying that it’ll be good enough to sell. 🙂

    1. I’m not telling you to outline your novel — I’m telling you to diagram SOMEONE else’s novel, so you see how the parts work together. I’ve talked about doing this in other posts and people got confused.
      I did this to study plot and pacing.

      Outlining… is different. I can post one of my outlines for comparison. It’s more “what happens” and doesn’t label parts. Other people might.

  4. I’ve been reading Swain and trying to apply him to the WIP, at least the second half. The first half flowed very well, but the second half needed better pacing, so I ended up finding three intermediate conflicts to lead to the final major conflict. (Which then sets up the conflict for at least one, and more likely two, subsequent books.) As a result, I’m going back and adding hints and foreshadowing earlier, the tweak the tension leading to the final conflict. Or should I say, I’m going back and highlighting the hints my characters were already giving me, so as to enhance the tension leading up to the final?

    FWIW, this story is 95% pantsed. It is based on the life of a historical character, so I have that much framework, but the details and changes are developing as I write.

  5. This is a fantastic idea! As an artist I copied other people’s art for years, and frequently learned more than doing my own. (no one liked my copies. I was “too accurate.”) I am not sure why I didn’t think of diagramming someone else’s novel. I think I still fall into romancing the creation of my craft.

    Worry not, dakorillon, you are not alone. We are roughly in the same place. Only I have five or six novels in various states of completion– and the ideas wait for no woman. I either ‘leave’ an idea when I have the resolution, or when it has tried to go in so many different directions (at once) that it is a seemingly unsalvageable muddle with frustrating flashes of “oh cool!” I love my characters. This is also a problem.

    I need discipline, but I also need to know what that means in a writer’s context. I have seen it said, and I mostly agree– it’s internalizing it to action that’s the problem. This seems like a meaningful tool toward resolution.

  6. Hi. The info about the first two chapters of “Pride and Prejudice” was very helpful to read, and I’d be interested to see even more on how to break down book. Do have any suggestions for sources with other examples, perhaps entire books? Thanks very much.

    1. Not that I know, but if enough people thought it worth it, I could write a booklet for publication. It would take me probably two or three days to do, so…

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