How to Plot Your Novel with Ulysses

Do you plot your novel before you write? Do you fly by the seat of your pants? Regular readers will know I’m a plotter — I like to set things out before I begin writing. Of course, the direction of my story may change as new ideas occur to me. But mapping out the bones of the narrative gives me a sense of structure and pacing. It lets me see the shape of my story.

Working on an outline also highlights any major plot problems, like weak character motivation or relying on coincidence to move the story forward. These are the kinds of problems that can require extensive re-writes if you don’t spot them until you’ve finished your first draft. I prefer to tidy them up at the planning stage. Maybe I’m just lazy that way.

What is story structure?

Before I dive in to how I configure Ulysses to help me wrangle my story structure, I should let you know what I’m talking about. There are all kinds of books and courses on story structure and plotting. Many of you will have heard of the hero’s journey as a way to lay out your story. Another popular structure comes from theatre — the three act structure. This is the way I lay out my stories.

Stage at TheatreOpinions in the three-act camp vary about how the acts are divided up. Some say each act should take about a third of the story. Others (especially those from a screenwriting background) say Act I should be about one quarter of the story, Act II about a half, and Act III the last quarter.

Despite this disagreement, there’s broad consensus about the role of each act in the story, and the transitions between the acts.

Act I

The first act is the set-up. It introduces your protagonist and sets the parameters of the story problem. You probably also introduce the antagonist, though if it’s something like a whodunnit you may withhold their actual identity.

Act I ends with the first plot point. It’s sometimes called the inciting incident, but different people use inciting incident to refer to different things at different stages of Act I. Helpful, I know.

The critical thing about the first plot point is that it represents a one-way door. Once the protagonist steps through that door there’s no turning back. This is one of those times when your protagonist’s motivation needs to be rock solid. There has to be a good reason to leave the comforting familiarity of Act I and enter the turmoil of Act II.

Act II

They say writing a story is easy. Get your character stuck up a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them back down again.

Act II is where you throw the rocks.

The term I see most often is progressive complications. Your protagonist can’t catch a break. Things just keep going wrong. And if for a moment they start to look as though they are winning — Bam! You pull the shag-pile out from under their feet.

“Writing a story is easy. Get your character stuck up a tree, throw rocks at them, then get them back down again. Act II is where you throw the rocks.”

Act II can be the hardest part of a story to write. Or at least to write well. You need to make the challenges facing your characters harder and harder. Raise the stakes higher and higher. And if you follow the 50% guideline for Act II, you should try to work in a mid-point reversal at about the half-way mark. This is usually a twist or turn that throws everything into a new perspective.

The problem of a saggy second act sets in when the middle of your manuscript doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It might mean you don’t have steadily escalating tension. Or there are no dramatic defeats or startling revelations to make the stakes vivid and immediate for your readers. The mid-point reversal can help prop up Act II and provide momentum towards your second plot point, the Act II climax.

You’ll know the Act II climax when you see it. It’s the point where your protagonist makes the decision to confront the antagonist in a final showdown. This might come on the back of a crushing defeat, or even a minor victory tinged with loss. Either way, it’s the second point-of-no-return for the story, so character motivation is crucial.


The third act is where the drama reaches its peak. Whatever your story problem is, this is where it gets resolved. (Or doesn’t, if you prefer unsettling, open-ended stories and the agonised groans of your readers.) The hero faces off against the villain. The underdog lawyer presents her closing argument. The romantic leads realise it was all a misunderstanding and they’re actually made for each other, those crazy kids.

The road to resolution is often potholed. There may be unexpected detours. But once you’re in Act III the stakes should be clear, and we should know what your protagonist is up against. This is where the darkest moment usually lies — that point in the story where all seems lost, making the final struggle more compelling.

And following the climax comes denouement. Your protagonist emerges a changed person, possibly taking a moment to reflect on the journey and lessons learned. As a writer you hope to strike a chord that resonates with your reader long after they close the book.

Making it work in Ulysses

In my previous post on story structure, I explained how I use Scrivener’s cork board to map out the flow of my story. Since then, I’ve switched to using Ulysses, which doesn’t have a cork board. How do I handle plotting and manage story structure? I use the flexibility of Ulysses to my advantage. I’ll go through a few of the key features and how I use them to marshal my three act structure and keep my plot pointing in the right direction, and describe how you can use them to help plot your novel.

The Library

Books in a libraryIndividual documents in Ulysses are called sheets. Don’t ask me why. Your sheets are all kept in one big Library, which you can organise any way you please. You can bundle sheets into groups, like dropping documents into a folder, and you can nest groups within groups. Also, you can choose how you want to sort sheets within a group — including arranging them manually.

This manual arrangement works particularly well for structuring a novel. I write each scene on a separate sheet. If I decide the scene should occur earlier or later in the story, I can just drag it into its new location. No cut-and-paste needed. Job done.

Another thing you should know is you can export all the sheets in a group as a single document. Just select the group, then choose the export format you want from the usual suspects (Word document, pdf, ePub, and so on). Ulysses does the hard work and glues all the pieces together for you.

How I use it

Here’s how I set up a new project in my Ulysses Library. First, I create a group to hold everything to do with my novel. Let’s call it My Amazing Novel. I set the icon to something memorable, like a book. Inside that group I create another group called Manuscript and one called Research, and give them different icons. I could add more groups if I feel the need, but let’s leave it at that for now.

The structure of My Amazing Novel as seen in the Ulysses Library.
The structure of My Amazing Novel as seen in the Ulysses Library. (Ulysses for iOS on iPhone pictured.)

The Manuscript group will hold all the sheets that make up my novel. That’s the group I’d select to export to Word or whatever. But I’m going to divide it up further.

I want my novel to follow a three act structure, with Act II taking up half the length of the story and punctuated with a mid-point climax. Inside the Manuscript group I create four more groups: Act I, Act II (Part 1), Act II (Part 2), and Act III. I want these four groups so I can leverage one of my favourite features: goals.


Goals in Ulysses
Setting goals in Ulysses.

I’m genuinely impressed with the way Ulysses handles goals. You can set a goal to be at least, at most, or about a certain number of words. And goals can apply to individual sheets, or to groups of sheets nested at any level.

Once you’ve set a goal from a sheet’s attachment pane, a small circle appears in the top right corner of the sheet. You set goals for a group from a context menu in the Library. In this case, the circle appears next to the name of the group. Wherever it sits, the circle tracks your progress towards your goal. It turns green when you reach the number of words you set, and turns red if you overshoot.

How I use them

Remember I said I divide my Manuscript group into four subgroups? Here’s why.

The structure of my current novel in Ulysses, with goal indicators showing that Act II (Part 2) needs to be trimmed. (Ulysses for iOS on iPhone pictured.)
The structure of my current novel in Ulysses, with goal indicators showing that Act II (Part 2) needs to be trimmed. (Ulysses for iOS on iPhone pictured.)

I want my novel to be about average length, so I select the Manuscript group and set a goal for around 80,000 words. That goal indicator will track the progress of my overall word count.

But I also want to track the tempo of my plot. I want each of the four sections to hold about a quarter of the story. Simple. For each of the subgroups within Manuscript I set a goal of around 20,000 words. In the first draft I’m not going to worry too much if one section blows out a bit. But as I come to edit the manuscript the goal indicators become invaluable guideposts, showing me where I need to cut or move scenes around to keep the pace lively.

The sheet list, keywords and comments

The sheet list shows a brief preview of all the sheets in a selected group, including any nested subgroups. You can configure how many lines of text show up in each sheet preview stacked up in the sheet list, from one line to six. You can also tell Ulysses to include things like the date the sheet was created, or any keywords you’ve assigned to the sheet from its attachment pane. Sheets with goals will have the familiar indicator in the preview as well.

Ulysses also supports comments in your text. Words in a comment don’t count towards your goals, and they aren’t exported into your final document.

How I use them

Using the sheet list in Ulysses as an outline, showing romantic sub plot and the first plot point at the climax of Act I.
Using the sheet list in Ulysses as an outline, showing romantic sub plot and the first plot point at the climax of Act I. (Ulysses for Mac pictured.)

When I map out my plot I create a sheet for each major scene I know my story needs, and any transitional scenes I’ve already decided on. I write a scene synopsis in a comment at the start of each sheet. If the scene is a plot point, I add a keyword. I also add keywords to note subplots and story arcs, or if a scene is from one point of view or another.

Because comments show up in the sheet preview, and I’ve configured Ulysses to show keywords in the preview as well, the sheet list becomes an outline of My Amazing Novel. Glancing down the sheet list gives you an overview of your story. It also shows the spread of keywords throughout your manuscript. You can see where all your plot points fall, and keep track of how often a particular point of view or subplot is appearing in the story.

Ulysses: simple, elegant, powerful

Despite it’s simple, elegant interface, Ulysses is powerful enough to help you plot and write your next novel. I’ve only skimmed over a handful of features in this post. If you’d like to know more about Ulysses and how it could help your writing, here are some places to look.

I’ve written previously about my introduction to Ulysses, and an overview of its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve also written in more detail about the way Ulysses handles goals. If you have an iPhone, you might like my piece on Ulysses for iOS. And of course you can always stop by the help section of the Ulysses website to check out the FAQ and lots of helpful tips and tricks.

Do you already use Ulysses? I’d love to know how you set it up to suit the way you write.