Amplify Your Main Plot: How to Create Your Plot Map (Part 3)

Plot Map

During the development phase of your novel, it’s okay to let your characters have their way with the narrative, but then organize the storyline with a plot map.

Plot Map: A Refresher from Part 2

Before we jump into creating a plot map, you may recall Part 2 of this series focused on subplot premises and story spines for the blockbuster film Toy Story 3.

I used this film to illustrate the beauty of a story with a main plot woven tightly with six subplots. However, given the complexity of that film, I’ll use a cozy mystery to show how you can sort your story plots. If in the past you’ve resisted using a spreadsheet to help you write, I encourage you to try this method.

Instead of using post-it-notes, index cards, or printed scenes, a simple spreadsheet can speed up making sense of multiple story threads.

Use a Plot Map to Nail Jello to a Tree

A long time ago, I attended a course where the instructor asked, “How do you nail Jello to a tree?”

Huh? As eager students, our furrowed brows framed blank stares, but the exercise got the little gray cells moving, mine included. There was a big groan when the instructor gave the answer. “You freeze dry the Jello!”

The teacher asked a followup question. “How do you stack greasy BBs left-handed?” After a brief wait, the instructor elicited more groans with his common-sense answer. “Use the freeze-drying machine to gel the grease, and you can stack the BBs easily.”

That management course taught me to:

  • Figure out the best of what works,
  • Build reusable systems, and
  • Focus on creating consistent results.

Writing Principle: Adopt and adapt a process and use it repeatedly to produce consistent results.

A Plot Map Does Not Start Linear

All pantsers know their characters don’t follow linear paths, and those writers love how the story unfolds organically.

The story’s organic growth gives pantsers great happiness as the characters determine their own plots. But the good times decline as the moving parts multiply. The chaotic mess of disconnected story threads makes it difficult to envision how the story plots work together, and all too often, the writing grinds to a halt.

This is when the writer’s dinner table becomes the place to sort out the mess, littering the surface with either post-it-notes, index cards, or printed scenes.

Writing Principle: Story ideas and scenes come to writers randomly, but readers expect a linear narrative, and that’s why you need a plot map.

How to Create a Plot Map

If you would rather use your dinner table for eating instead of sorting story threads, then here’s your 8-step guide to using a spreadsheet to create a plot map that organizes everything.

  1. Identify the conventions and key scenes for your genre.

    Your readers know what they like and this step helps you identify what to include in your story.

  2. Create a premise for each story plot.

    The premise for each story plot keeps writers focused strategically.

  3. Build a story spine for the main plot and subplots.

    A story spine helps you envision the entire narrative.

  4. Define the story body for each story plot.

    The story body fleshes out the story spine for all 18 story beats.

  5. Create the plot-map spreadsheet by aligning story body beats.

    After listing the main plot, arrange the subplots based on their beats.

  6. Rearrange the story body beats to create a linear narrative.

    Then you rearrange the beats to best tell the story expected by readers.

  7. Evaluate whether the story satisfies readers’ expectations.

    An objective review of the story identifies opportunities to improve.

  8. Reorder the story body beats as needed to please readers.

    The spreadsheet proves useful because it’s easy to edit.

Step 1: Use the Plot Map to Satisfy Readers

Readers typically buy books they believe will meet or exceed their expectations.

They may not know how to spell genre, but after a lifetime of consuming books, TV shows, and films, they have pre-established expectations of story conventions and key scenes. Tell your target audience a great story based on those expectations and you’ll write a book readers will love. But if you ignore what the audience expects, you’ll end up with poor reviews and few sales.

The Genres Development Workbook and its worksheet prompts you to identify what readers expect from their preferred genres.

Step 2: Treat the Premise as a Strategic Guide

As shown in Part 2 of this series, I created a premise for the main plot and each subplot.

The central premise serves as a strategic guide for your main plot, keeping you on the path toward fulfilling the story’s potential. But I also recommend creating a premise for each subplot, which will guide you strategically to fulfill its purpose.

Bottom line, update the main plot and subplot premises as needed, so that when combined, they work together to move the overall narrative forward.

Step 3: Build the Plot Map with Story Spines

Although some might think it’s unnecessary to build a story spine for the main plot and each subplot, you’ll appreciate the way this information helps you weave the many threads into a cohesive narrative.

Each story spine gives you a glimpse of that narrative’s beginning to end. As you sequence the scenes, connecting those threads in the right order makes all the difference. The story spines for subplots are like backstories, and while not all the information will make it into the book, the writer’s detailed knowledge of those events will influence the shape and order of the plot map.

To save you time and frustration, I highly recommend creating a story spine for each plot because individually and collectively, they will help you determine the best sequence of plot events.

Note: The worksheet that comes with the Story Spine, Body, & Beats Workbook simplifies this process because it prompts for the information you’ll need to create your plot map.

Step 4: Align the Story Bodies in the Plot Map

Each story body fleshes out its story spine, and when loaded into the plot map, empowers you to align the order of subplot content to support your main plot.

I used the worksheet that comes with Story Spine, Body, & Beats Workbook to create a beat-by-beat summary of the main plot and one for each of the subplots. This enabled me to determine how to best order and connect the main and subplot threads.

Step 4 helps you identify the type of subplots you can use to support the main plot, which includes:


An excellent way to start and end a book. The bookend subplot shows up at the beginning and only reappears at the novel’s conclusion. Bestselling authors like Clive Cussler have used this technique to delight fans.


This subplot can take the form of a person, place, or event that complicates the life of the chief protagonist, often the “cause” that later “effects” the outcome of a scene.


Similar to the complicating subplot, the conflict subplot differs because it’s important to show how the chief protagonist overcomes the challenge. This adds tension and suspense, and can make the character more relatable to readers.


The foil character reflects the chief protagonist’s thoughts, choices, words, and actions. The foil subplot can emphasize these traits and behaviors in a positive or negative light to make key points in the novel.


Often used to share a character’s backstory, this subplot is usually subtle and many not immediately register as a subplot. However, the information shared proves essential to the overall narrative.


The chief protagonist learns from a parallel event or a character, something essential to resolving the story’s primary challenge. Without this insight, the lead character could not resolve the story problem.


What may at first seem like an event or person unrelated to the main plot, and that incident or individual, becomes embedded into the primary storyline. The narrative subplot is like a thread that links events from the moment of the occurrence or the character’s entry point to the end of the novel.


The storyline includes secondary story (or more) that parallel the primary narrative, useful for emphasizing the overall theme and educating the chief protagonist on how to solve the story problem. Typically, the parallel subplot merges with the main plot at one or more critical junctures in the story.


Writers pair romantic subplots with many popular genres, including mysteries, thrillers, and action adventures. The relationship can bring out the chief protagonist’s relatable qualities, upping the potential to turn casual readers into loyal fans.

Note: The Toy Story 3 and cozy mystery spreadsheet examples combine subplot types. To be clear, there’s not a single best choice, and you can combine a mixture of subplot types based on your preferences, genre, and story.

Step 5: Create a Plot Map Spreadsheet

Creating a plot map using a spreadsheet allows you to see at a glance how the story beats for the main plot and subplots overlap or run separately.

Here’s a spreadsheet template we could use to map the 7 story spines created for Toy Story 3.

However, given the complexity of the film, I’ll avoid getting caught up in the hundreds of details Michael Arndt and the team at Pixar spent three years sorting out.

Instead, to help you can create a plot map, I’ll switch to a narrative with fewer subplots. Here’s what the story arc looks like for the cozy mystery genre, and it shows the conventions and key scenes expected by the target audience:

Click to Enlarge

And I’ll base the plot map on this central premise:

When the murder of a client disrupts an introverted gallery owner’s peaceful life in the Texas Hill Country, she uses her researching skills to identify the killer and discovers the intriguing odyssey of a priceless painting looted in World War II.

Given this premise, here’s the start of a plot-map spreadsheet based on the conventions and key scenes for the cozy mystery subgenre. The main plot is a murder mystery, and there are four subplots:

  • Subplot 1: The “expository” character arc for the chief protagonist.
  • Subplot 2: The “bookend” story to showcase chief antagonist’s MacGuffin.
  • Subplot 3: The “parallel” community conflicts for interest and texture.
  • Subplot 4: The “narrative” small town setting for cozy mystery fans.
Click to Enlarge

In this cozy mystery example, I’m only showing the HOOK and SETUP, but the overall spreadsheet includes the 18 story beats aligned with the 73 scenes. Also, in the comments section, I record notes reminding me of ways to enhance the overall story.

Step 6: Arrange the Plot Map Sequence

An important principle of storytelling is to avoid anything that might confuse your audience.

To accomplish that goal, writers order their subplot scenes to:

  • Minimize confusion,
  • Increase tension and suspense, and
  • Adjust the story’s pacing.

Here’s an example from a prior series based on the plot and subplots for Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

Click to Enlarge

Step 7: Evaluate the Story

At this point in writing, set aside all the technical aspects of plotting and focus on whether the story will satisfy readers.

For example:

  • Do each of the subplots move the story forward?
  • Does the order of the scenes pace the narrative with the expected ebb and flow of events, building the suspense and tension toward the story’s climax?
  • Have the characters, plot events, and settings elicited the desired emotions from your target audience?

During this evaluation, use the comment section of the plot-map spreadsheet to record your ideas for enhancing the story.

Step 8: Reorder the Plot Map as Needed

The beauty of using a spreadsheet is the ease of editing the order of the content.

Throughout the construction of the plot map, you control the content and order. You can add, delete, and move text. However, before updating the content or shifting the order, consider making a backup copy.

Later, if desired, you can use the back-up copy to restore a section of the plot-map spreadsheet.


When writing a novel with subplots, a plot map proves highly useful to:

  • Optimize the scene order.
  • Control the story’s pacing.
  • Increase the narrative’s tension and suspense.
  • Release characters’ backstories incrementally.
  • Engage and maintain readers’ interests.
  • Evoke the desired emotions from readers.
  • Satisfy pre-established expectations for the genre.

Although I prefer to use a spreadsheet, you can achieve similar results using several old-school methods, such as manually sorting 3X5 cards, post-it-notes, and printed scenes. One-size never fits all, so use the method that best helps you tell your story.

Regardless of which method you choose, I encourage you to add the plot map to your writer’s toolbox.

Plot Structure Insights

Check out these posts to learn more about Story Plot:

And take a look at these plot development tools:

Leave a Reply

How do you map your main plot and subplots?

6 responses to “Amplify Your Main Plot: How to Create Your Plot Map (Part 3)”

  1. Vera Day Avatar

    I love this cozy mystery plot analysis! Bookmarking to study it deeper!

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks for stopping by, Vera. I’ve created similar infographics for thrillers, differentiating from mysteries, and look forward to sharing those images in future posts. It’s amazing how the visual aids help to highlight the techniques used by the top authors.

  2. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    Wonderful detailed information, Grant. I’ve realized recently that one of my main characters is rather lame (in the boring sense). He needs better goals, higher stakes, and a subplot of his own to weave into the main plot. I’ve added this post to my collection as I start of rework my story. Thanks for boosting the fun.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      It’s amazing what subplots can do. I’d love to see how you use the technique in your editing, Diana. Once I started thinking in terms of plot and subplots, I’ve discovered so many examples of how top writers and screenwriters use them in clever ways. Often the subplots are so subtle they’re hard to discern until you reverse-engineer the story.

  3. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Really clear analysis, Grant. I love the spreadsheet approach.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      So true, Jacqui! The spreadsheet is so easy to change as needed, making it an indispensable tool for writers.

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