You’ve got a great idea for a novel, and you can’t wait to get started hashing out your thoughts. Somewhere along the way, though, you’ll want to sit down and figure out the structure of your story. How do the events unfold? How do the characters interact with each other? What issues will arise? As you’re figuring out these details, novel structure is a tool you may not realize can actually help you write more effectively and efficiently. This article will cover four tips about novel structure that every writer needs to know.
There are several different types of novel structure.
While this may seem apparent, writers who don’t know novel structure may not understand that their story might work better in a different structure than they originally planned. Understanding how structure unfolds, what it looks like on the page and choosing the right structure you’re your story types ahead of time can save you time and headaches down the road. Two of the most common structures for commercial fiction are the three-act structure, which would apply to genres like romance, mystery, and historical fiction, and the hero’s journey which is commonly used in fantasy and even YA. Understanding even the basics about each story type can help you decide on the best structure to your novel even before you start writing.
Structure essentially answers the question How should this part of my book work?
If you’re thinking about structure as an outline or rigid plot grid, you can relax! Structure is a lot more than a thousand beats on a map or sticky notes all over a wall charting out where every word belongs. Writers who understand structure know that rather than simply thinking about the beginning, middle, and end of the book (which is location, rather than function), understanding structure means expanding the ways you think about the book from form to function. What should the beginning of the book accomplish? Knowing the function of each part of your novel will ensure that each of the parts fit together and come together smoothly.
Allow your characters to be your guide.
Sometimes a strong character can help you navigate your novel’s structure. Whether your character is brash and nosy and always finds herself in trouble, or unsure and insecure but can’t seem to avoid tough situations, deciding how your character changes and grows over the course of the novel is a great way to decide on the best structure for your story. For example, most novels broadly follow the three-act structure, but the hero’s journey is a much more refined format that follows the growth of a hero through a series of trials. If you’re writing a young adult or new adult fantasy romance with characters on a quest (in space, traveling through time, of even through dystopian settings) you may find that even a little of information about the hero’s journey can help you plan out the pathway your characters will take. Shmoop.com offers a fantastic study guide about The Hunger Games and how Katniss follows the hero’s journey.
You can see how the book and movies follow the various steps set out by the formula of the hero’s journey. Even if that structure is new to you, following the steps of the hero’s journey in your novel not only gives the character a path that can feel comfortable for the reader, but can help you as the writer create a believable and reliable path for your character to follow—which can be really helpful when you’re not sure what to write next!
The first 10-20% of your book should be your setup.
This sounds crazy, but it’s true! In order to create a successful storyline, you need readers to care enough to keep reading and find out what happens next. In order for that to happen, you’ll need to work hard to make them intrigued about your characters and the events that happen to them, which is why such a large portion of your book should be dedicated to setup. This includes introducing your cast of characters, establishing your setting (what kind of world are these characters in?), introducing your inciting event (what draws the character into this particular storyline?), and creating the build-up to the first plot point (a problem for your protagonist to react to). How you go about creating your setup is completely up to you, but make sure you take extra care in this step, as it influences whether or not your readers will stay interested enough to finish your story.
A novel structure can seem like an overwhelming and overly formulaic part of developing your story, but when you break it down it doesn’t need to be stressful. Using the correct novel structure and understanding what it means can make a huge difference in the development of your story, and can even help you figure out how you want to lay out the different events that take place. Have you tried taking a break from writing or brainstorming and started a basic structure map for your novel. Give it a try! You may find that the writing comes faster and easier not only when your characters have a map, but when you do.
Rachel is a travel writer based in Arizona. In addition to writing and publishing several guidebooks, she's written for Wander AZ, Narcity Media, and CNET. Working as both a copyeditor and writer, she specializes in road trip content and manuscript editing.