How to Structure a Novel
Why do you structure a novel? Why can’t you just skip this step and write the darn book? With even a perfunctory scroll of this topic online, I got lost in information that left me with more questions than answers (and a headache, too). Yet after digging deeper and experimenting with some popular structuring methods, I discovered what works best for me, which I’m happy to share with you. But first—some general remarks about novel structure are necessary for clarity.
The structure of a story is important because it contributes to the intelligibility and the flow of your story. Some writers build stories around significant points. The seven-point story structure by bestselling horror writer Dan Wells is popular, for example; while others organize their work around a story-structure type.
Although their methods may differ, writing experts often use similar terminology when referring to story structure, as listed below:
Plot Point. A plot Point is an incident that directly affects what happens next in a story. It gives a point to the plot, forcing the story in a different direction, where otherwise it might have wandered all over the page. It is an exciting event. But each exciting event in the book is not a plot Point. The plot is a sequence of events in a storyline. If one of these events does not have a tangible effect on the main character, it is not a plot Point. Think of a plot Point as something that drives the story in a different direction.
Exposition. The exposition (sometimes called backstory) refers to the character, setting, and background details needed for readers to understand the context of the novel.
Call-to-Action. The hero is called to leave the ordinary world to take part in an otherworldly adventure. We usually associate this with fantasy and science fiction novels.
Rising Action. The string of events leading up to the novel’s climax is called the rising action.
Crises. Crises are the peaks in conflict that occur during the rising action in the novel.
Climax. The climax is the most intense crisis in the story, which usually occurs near the end.
Falling Action. The falling action relates to events that follow the climax, when questions are answered, loose ends tied up, and remaining crises resolved.
Journey Home. This is a specific falling action seen in fantasy and science fiction novels; the hero returns to his or her ordinary world with a keepsake of his or her otherworldly journey.
Resolution. All tension is resolved during the last moments of the novel.
There are many story-structure types—stories built around a central idea or a theme. The three-act structure, for one, can be traced back hundreds of years to Aristotle, and is still widely used among screenwriters and novelists today. It is based on the notion that a story must have a definitive beginning, middle, and end (which is story structure at the basic level) as well as specific plot events at each stage. In the first act, the exposition takes place, in the second, the rising action, and in the third, the resolution. Classic novels of home-away-home again follow the three-act structure. For example, think of the books in the fantasy series Twilight by Stephanie Meyer.
In Writer’s Digest, writer Orson Scott Card describes other popular story-structure types, including:
The Milieu Story: In the milieu story, such as Gulliver’s Travels, the emphasis is on the world the author has created. “It mattered little to Jonathan Swift whether we came to care about Gulliver as a character. The whole point of the story was for the audience to see all the strange lands where Gulliver traveled and then compare the societies he found there with the society of England in Swift’s own day—and the societies of all the tale’s readers, in all times and places.”
The Idea Story: In the idea story, the novel begins with a question and ends when the question is answered. Mystery writers often use this structure type. Once the crime or mystery is solved, with the who-done-it revealed, the story is over.
The Character Story: With the character story, the focus is on the main character, specifically the character’s transformation, rather than the events in the novel. “The story begins when the main character becomes so unhappy, impatient or angry in her present role that she begins the process of change; it ends when the character either settles into a new role (happily or not) or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role (happily or not).” Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—Scrooge realizes that money doesn’t buy happiness—is an example of this type of story.
The Event Story: The world is out of order in the event story. Most fantasy and science fiction follow an event-story structure. “Nowhere is it better handled than in J.R.R. Tolkien’s great trilogy. The Lord of the Rings begins when Frodo discovers that the ring Bilbo gave him is the key to the overthrow of Sauron, the great adversary of the world’s order; it ends not with the destruction of Sauron, but with the complete reestablishment of the new order—which includes the departure of Frodo and all other magical people from middle earth.”
(Card, “The 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels,” Aug. 24, 2010.)
Regardless of what story-structure method you use—or even if you choose the template approach at all—give yourself the freedom to change it as you see fit. Your structure should be flexible. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck on the first draft and shove it into a drawer somewhere, then forget it!
I have developed stories around central ideas, and I’ve followed a four, a five, a seven, and even a twenty-seven-point structure, recognizing the merits of each method. But Steve Alcorn’s guideline has worked best for me.
“Beginning writers are often presented with a variety of ways to structure their work,” he told me. “Historically, three-act structure has been popular, but it doesn’t necessarily offer enough guidance to provide a useful roadmap. At the other end of the spectrum, The Hero’s Journey is popular, but I find its detailed prescription of physical events can be formulaic and constraining. My approach is to focus on the main character’s emotional journey of change. By breaking this down into checkpoints that every character must navigate to find success, beginning writers can make a plan that guarantees an emotionally satisfying story without being constrained by any specific physical requirements.”
Alcorn’s approach resonates with me because of its emphasis on characterization, which is the heart of a story. Writers strive to create interesting characters so readers will bond with the characters and care when they reach their goals. If readers don’t care, they’ll put the book down. It’s that simple! Writers should connect with their characters to make them seem real. Sidney Sheldon, one of the top ten best-selling fiction writers of all time, said, “If there is any secret to my success, I think it’s that my characters are very real to me. I feel everything they feel, and therefore I think my readers care about them.”
After a male character had died in one of my young adult titles, I got lost in a funk for three long days! Strange, yes, but I was attached to this man, and according to feedback from my readers, they were too.
In How to Fix Your Novel, Alcorn describes a three-act structure that has nine checkpoints (key points), with three checkpoints per act. See below how I structured an adult title, Moonshadow, following his guide:
About the Book: Lauren Prescott’s family secrets were buried long before she was born, during the sixties era when her great-grandparents took in a runaway girl from an Indian residential school. Her ailing granddad, who was a teenager back then, now longs to find the girl—Rose Hill—to right wrong before he dies. He’s ashamed of how he treated her because he recoiled from the racist climate of colonialism of the time. Haunted by the past, Lauren risks everything to go after the truth for her granddad—even her life!
Describe an incident that creates a question in readers’ minds to hook them into reading further.
From her bedroom window, Lauren discovers Uncle Charlie digging up something mysterious on the shores of the bay at night.
Introduce setting, characters, and backstories through dialogue and narrative.
Lauren, a journalist, moves to the family cottage for the summer to help look after her ailing grandfather, Albert. He discloses shocking secrets about his past that haunt Lauren.
Plot rises to the inciting moment that causes a crisis for the main character.
Albert urges Lauren to look for his long-lost love, a runaway from an Indian residential school.
The crisis is connected to the Trigger.
Despite facing impossible circumstances and her own limitations, Lauren is determined to find Rose Hill before it’s too late.
Act 2 is usually the longest part of the novel. The action rises even more than in Act 1. Antagonistic forces are driving the plot. The main character(s) is fighting against a flaw. The drama is intense.
Rose Hill’s heartbreaking life at the residential school is revealed. Moving back and forth between the sixties era and the present day, the plot and subplots unfold connecting Albert’s past and present, including:
* Rose’s escape from the residential school.
* Despite outrage from his family, Albert’s son, Charlie, plans to sell the family cottage to dig himself out of his past mistakes.
* Lauren is in danger after she writes an article for the paper about her search for Rose.
* Albert’s wife Jean could face criminal charges in connection with Rose while Uncle Charlie intervenes.
* Complications get worse for Lauren and Albert as they try to reach their common goal. Meanwhile, Uncle Charlie and Jean are struggling to meet their individual goals.
* Working against his flaw, Albert tries to right a wrong while forces, including his failing health, conspire against him.
An epiphany is a reaction in the scene that ends the struggle.
Their problems continue to intensify until both Albert and Lauren reach an epiphany that links the past to the present.
Act 3, which is usually the shortest act, is more about the action rather than the reaction to events. It begins with a plan involving something the main character couldn’t do until she (he) confronted her (his) flaw.
Lauren plans to take drastic measures to help her grandfather, despite her misgivings.
The climax is the most exciting part of the story. After the struggle is over, the action falls, and it is time to wrap up the novel. Prolonging the story will only jeopardize the readers’ satisfied feeling at the end.
Readers prefer that the main character reach his or her goal, at least in some sense.
In a highly emotional scene, Albert’s struggle ends when he meets his past head on—but it is far from what he expected or can control.
The ending must give the reader a satisfied feeling without being trite.
All plot threads are tied up and questions answered through dialogue or narrative.
Previous foreshadowing now makes sense.
Excerpt from Write Right: Novel Writing for Beginners
by Joy Lynn Goddard