How to Structure a Novel

How to Structure a NovelThe first rule for writing a successful novel is to entertain. Otherwise, your reader isn’t going to keep reading. The foundation of an entertaining novel is structure. Plus, it must be emotionally engaging. To achieve this, a story is built, one scene at a time, on a three act skeletal frame. A successful novel also proves an enduring psychological truth.

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As a minimum, a novel will contain a main character who is driven to achieve an objective but faces conflict as someone, or something, attempts to stop him. Finally, a story concludes with an emotionally satisfying ending where the main character has dramatically changed or dramatically failed to change.

Basic Novel Structure.

First, let’s look at the basic three acts of a novel. Life is structured in three acts. We are born. We live. We die. Likewise, a novel has three acts: Act I, Act II and Act III.

Three Acts of Story with Border II

 

If we divide Act II in half, we’ll have four equal parts.

 

Four Parts of a Story with pages

So, if we plan to write a 300 page novel, each part will be 75 pages long. Now we have the most basic skeleton for writing a novel. As we plan and write, instead of trying to hold an entire 300 page novel in our head, we can focus on just 75 pages at a time.

A novel typically has several storylines. For example, the primary goal of the main character might be to save the world from nuclear holocaust, but he also wants to win the heart of the beautiful Swedish diplomat.

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In this example, saving the world is the A story and getting the girl is the B story. The B story and any additional storylines are not introduced until Act II, although they may be setup and foreshadowed in Act I.

Here’s a little trick to get the reader into the story faster. Move the break between Act I and Act II closer to the beginning of the story by about 15%.

In the case of our hypothetical 300 page novel, that means moving the break from page 75 to page 60. This adds about 15 pages to Act IIa.

 

Act I Small Adjustment

 

Now, I’ll add 15 generic story beats to the basic three acts. This is a general story pattern that can be used for most any novel. These story beats are universal, but are sometimes called different names. Here, I borrow of the names from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, which I highly recommend. It’s primary focus is screenplays, but it’s a goldmine for novelists as well. Story structure is the same regardless how the story is told, so what works for a movie will work for a novel.

Approximate page numbers are included for our hypothetical 300 page manuscript, but page numbers shift during rewrites, so let the pace and integrity of your story dictate where the story beat ultimately ends up.


How to Structure a Novel.

 

Act I good with border Revised

 

The Opening Scene (p.1-3):

A lot must be accomplished in this scene. It hooks the reader, establishes the tone of the story, introduces the main character, establishes point of view and shows the main character in her natural element.

At the end of your novel, the final scene will be contrasted with the opening scene to show how much the main character has changed or failed to change.

Don’t try to write the perfect opening scene before writing the rest of your novel. Until you know everything about your story, you won’t have the insight to write the best beginning. Many novelists write the opening scene last.

I usually cobble together an opening scene when I write the first draft and then continually improve on it as I write the rest of the story and subsequent drafts.

I like to begin a novel in the middle of a scene. This catches the reader off-guard and entices her to read further. Typically, I’ll also open a novel with a question in dialogue.

Here’s how I began Some Glad Morning:

“He’s dead, ain’t he?”

Theme Stated (p.15):

Somewhere around page 15 of a 300 page manuscript there is a clue to what the story is really about. A snippet of dialogue from someone other than the main character delivers this clue.

Your story is actually a dramatic argument which proves some principle of life is true, such as money doesn’t buy happiness or love is eternal or good prevails over evil.

The statement of the theme is indirect and will not be consciously noticed by most readers.

Here’s how I stated the theme in my novel Some Glad Morning. Ransom, the main character, is the son of a sharecropper, he’s about to leave for World War I and gives his mother some wild flowers he picked beside the road. He apologizes that the flowers aren’t as pretty as the flowers in the landlord’s garden. His mother replies:

“The prettiest flower ain’t always the sweetest.”

Some Glad Morning then proceeds to prove this is true. Although, I doubt most readers are consciously aware of the theme, the logic resonates with their subconscious to create a satisfying reading experience.

Later you’ll see that the theme is actually half of the moral premise. I’ll introduce you to the moral premise at the end of this module and we’ll explore it in more detail in Module III.

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Set-up (p.1-30):

By about page 30, the set-up for your story is complete. All of the primary characters have been introduced, either directly or indirectly. Direct introductions are preferred because they are more memorable.

This is also where you reveal the main character’s weakness or flaw, that one thing he must remedy before he can defeat the bad guys and reach the story’s objective.

Finally, the set-up establishes the main character in his natural environment before the Catalyst rocks his world and forces him into action.

Catalyst (p.36):

Woman with Red Pill by Sprout Creative 1280 wideThe catalyst creates a moral dilemma within the main character and sets the story in motion.

The catalyst might be the main character being served divorce papers or getting fired or framed for murder or the death of the love of his life. It could be a zombie apocalypse, winning the lottery or losing everything. It could be anything.

In Some Glad Morning it’s when Ransom’s falls in love with his commanders fiance.

At the moment of the Catalyst, life as the main character knows it is forever changed.

Debate (p.36-60):

It’s human nature to resist change. That’s why the main character must struggle with what the catalyst has caused.

The first response to change is usually to fixate on the past and how the world was before the great cataclysm.

Between the catalyst and the break into Act II, the main character resists the changes forced upon him.

Break into Act II(a):

After resisting the change caused by the catalyst, the main character, knowing the hazards and uncertainty he will face, chooses to take action and departs the old world.

It is essential that this is the main character’s choice.

Passing into Act II, it is as if the main character has stepped through a door that locks behind him. There is no going back. Nothing will ever be the same again.

There must be a clear and dramatic point of departure as the main character passes into Act II. The reader must have no doubt that something important has just occurred.

Furthermore, the reader must have no idea of what happens next as the story spins in a new direction.


 

Act IIa

Act IIa Revised Again

  

B Story:

In Act IIa, we introduce other story lines, such as the love story if there is one. This is also where all the main character’s relationships are examined as they relate to the story’s theme.

The theme itself is overtly explored here as well usually in dialogue.

Fun & Games:

This is the heart and soul of your story and where you deliver the goods.

If you promised the reader a story about a transgender ax murderer, this is where they see cross dressing, blood and guts.

Midpoint (Break into Act IIb-p.150):

Here the stakes are raised. Not only can the main character die if he fails to reach his objective, but now the love of his life might die with him.

On page 84 of Save the Cat, Snyder discusses how the midpoint scene is matched with the “All is Lost Scene” which comes later.

Understanding this matchup is essential to balancing your story.

The main character passes into Act IIb as if he steps through a door that locks behind him. There is no turning back. Again, the story spins in a new direction.


 

Act IIb

 

Act IIb Revised

 

Bad Guys Close In (p.150-225):

There’s more to this than meets the eye. Mr. Snyder’s casual use of “Bad Guys” means that force opposing the main character, otherwise known as the antagonist.

The antagonist might actually be bad guys like in the movie Home Alone. Or, it might be nature, like in the movie The Perfect Storm, or something within the lead character’s personality such as greed, selfishness or an obsession, or anything he must defeat before he can reach the story’s objective.

 

 All Is Lost (p.225):

This beat is a mirror image of the mid-point scene. Here it appears the main character is completely defeated and the reader cannot imagine how the main character can possibly win.

 

Break into Act III (p.225):

The main character passes into the Act III, stepping through yet another door which locks behind him, spinning the story in a new direction.


 

       

Act III

Act III revised III

 

Dark Night of the Soul (p.225-255):

In this beat, we go inside the main character’s head to experience “the All is Lost” and “Whiff of Death” as he is experiencing it.

This beat does not have to be long, but there is an advantage if it is. You want the reader to fully experience the main character’s despair.

This is a critical story beat. When I’m writing it, I want the reader to linger on the edge of the abyss.  By taking the reader to the brink of darkness, she is primed to have a deeply satisfying cathartic experience at the end of the novel.

I tend to overwrite this beat and then depend on my beta readers and editor to tell me if I need to dial it back.

Here’s a snippet from the “Dark Night of the Soul” beat in Some Glad Morning. My main character, Ransom, is lying in the bottom of a small wooden boat at night, drifting on an outgoing tide.

“Lord,” Ransom said to the stars, “why was I made to be so miserable? Give me to the ocean. Feed me to a whale. Strike me dead with a bolt of lightning.” He lay still, letting the tide take him as he tied his brain into ever tighter knots, each knot cinched with shame and self-loathing.

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Finale (p.255-300):

Here the A and B story lines intersect to reveal the secret for defeating the bad guys. The main character finally figures out what he must do. This is where the main character changes or fails to change. If he internalizes the change, he will confront whatever is blocking him from fulfilling the story’s objective and the story will end happily. However, if he fails to internalize the change the story will end in tragedy.

Maybe the main character realizes if he’d stop being so damn selfish he could save his marriage or he could use the photon transmogrifier to shrink the nuclear bomb into a firecracker and save the world. Or,  maybe he sinks back into the bottle and forces those around him to change in order to save themselves.

Regardless whether the main character changes or fails to change, this is the final point of no return. The main character is committed to action. There’s no going back.

 

Final Image (p.300):

The final image contrasts with the opening image to demonstrate unquestionable evidence that the world has indeed changed.

This is often the most memorable image of a novel. It must resonate emotionally with the reader to be effective and satisfying.

Before I begin writing a novel, I plan it out and have at least a rough idea of how my story will end. Once I know the ending, I can fashion every scene to serve the end, so the reader is delivered, scene by scene, to an ending that is surprising, yet believable, and emotionally satisfying.

There’s more…

Properly structuring a novel is a great start, but there’s more. I reveal everything I know about writing a successful novel in my free How to Write a Novel email course. Learn more about this free course and enroll here.

How to Structure a Novel

Comments

  1. jamesdanner says:

    Your site is very well put together. Although my writing skills tend to not stand out as a super power. I viewed you site as some one unfamiliar with the process of building a site and could find nothing that would make me want to bounce. You articles kept my interest and made me want to read more. Keep up the good work. Have a wonderful and productive day.

    • Hi James!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you analysis of my site. It’s good to know I’m doing it right.

      All the best…

      Gary

  2. Heather Grace says:

    This is an incredible and very detailed article! I have never written a novel and before reading your site, I never would have known where to start. But I do love to write. I love how you break down the ACTs and story lines so simply. A beginner would have no trouble at all following this. Thank you s much for sharing!

    • Hi Heather!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you found my article easy to understand. I hope to take as much of the headache out of writing a novel as possible so creativity can take over.

      All the best…

      Gary

  3. RSRDP22015 says:

    Gary-

    Interesting site! I have often thought about writing as a career, but the starving artist stereo type has always kept me away.

    Your site offers someone with the courage to go for it, a solid place to start and some confidence that success is within reach.

    I stop back in and keep up with your site and posts.

    Thanks

    B

    • Hi!

      Thanks so much for stopping by.

      Yes, I’m a veteran of the starving artist brigade and probably did everything wrong for too many years. I hope to save others from the misery, or to at least make their journey to publishing success short and sweet.

      All the best…

      Gary

  4. What a great article so nice and educative, I like the way how you put all things together. I never though that writing a Novel was something for me, but now after reading this article I can see that it’s possible following your blueprint. Thank you for your great work.

    • Hi SantyG!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I’m pleased you enjoyed my article and hope you will try your hand at writing a novel.

      All the best…

      Gary

  5. Hi, this is a very detailed account of how to write a novel. I never knew that there are so many parts of structuring a novel. I’m sure an aspiring writer will find all these information very useful. I love to read but I’m not sure if I’m a good writer. Lol. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi Yvonne!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you comment. You never know. Someday you might decide to write a novel, or maybe the story of your life.

      All the best…

      Gary

  6. Hi Gary,
    This is great. I love to write stories and I love how you have set up the structure of a novel. I never really gave much thought on structure until about 5 years ago when I really sat down with some stories and created basically what you have outlined. The flow of writing was so much easier when I had this structure because even if I left the novel for a few days and came back to it, I knew exactly what I had to do next. This is definitely something everyone who wants to write should do.

    • Hi Jessica!

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it’s amazing how much easier writing a novel can be once you understand the structure. For years I thought writing a novel was just typing out stuff I made up in my head. It was kind of crazy. My fiction improved greatly when I got the structure right first. Then I was free to create. It’s a lot more fun that way.

      All the best…

      Gary

  7. Iam a complete newbie to writing and I have decided to take up writing only recently. I would say that this article has explained the basics about how to write a article or a novel. The step by step guide is really good for any newbie to understand very quickly. I would also suggest you to add more such articles on how to write content for website kind of things.

    • Hi Sundar!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comment and also your suggestion for more articles.

      All the best…

      Gary

  8. Hello Gary.
    Thank you so much for this article.
    I always have ideas for novels in my head but so far I never succeeded to bring them on the paper.
    I think what I was missing was a real plan and structure.
    I bookmarked this blog and will keep reading your other posts, too.
    So far I only published an instructional book, but I would really love to start writing novels.

    You have so much great information on your site.
    I will learn a lot more from you, I am sure!

    Thanks again.

    Moritz

    • Hi Moritz!

      Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your kind words and I’m so glad you found my article useful.

      You may also be interested in my free novel writing course. The course is absolutely free and includes all the stuff I wish I had known about writing novels when I started out. To get the most out of the course, you’ll need to buy a few books that are written by various authors. None of the books are expensive and these are the same books I read over and over again as I plan and write a novel.

      All the best…

      Gary

      • Thanks for your recommendation.
        I will subscribe to your course when I have finished a few other projects and can get back to my writing plans.

        Moritz

  9. Hi Gary,

    This is a super-detailed structure I’ve ever seen for writing a novel. I usually build my structure with simple points and write key events for each point (chapters).

    However, my first novel never got realized because I was too busy with my job. I still have the draft and may continue to write after reading your article here 🙂

    Thanks.

    • Hi Alblue!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you found my article helpful. The free novel course I offer goes into much more detail. It also teaches how I use a storyboard to fully imagine my novel before I begin writing. There’s a lot to remember when planning a novel and the storyboard helps me remember it all.

      I hope you will get back to your novel. Yes, life and a thousand other distractions will get in the way, but keep working on it and call on me if ever I can help.

      All the best…

      Gary

  10. Wow 🙂 Since I was really little I’ve always aspired to be an author and I’ve always had hundreds of ideas running through my mind for different novels I wanted to write. As I got older and went through school though, I never had the time and never really researched a good outline or structure for writing a novel. I loved how you separated everything so clearly and tied it all together in a manner that someone who wanted to really could plan out a good story and structure it well 🙂

    I noticed is that the icon in your browser’s tab is still the wordpress icon. To change it you can go to your wordpress dashboard and select “Appearance” –> “Customize”–> “Site Identity” –> “Site Icon” and upload the icon you want 🙂

    • Hi jCamden!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment. I chuckled when I read that you had hundreds of ideas for different novels running through your head. Me too! In fact, I have a shelf full of three-ring binders and each binder is an outline for a novel.

      You might be interested in the free writing course I offer. The course is free, but there are some books you’ll need to get by other authors. You can check out the free novel writing course here.

      Thanks too for telling me about the wordpress icon on my site. I’m off to fix it now.

      All the best…

      Gary

  11. Enjoyed reading this – I have a 250,000 word novel that is 80% complete – must finish it and prune it in half to get around 150K words. Keep repvaericating. I know what to write next, but work that lpays always has to take priority. Sigh. Thanks for the structure guidelines.

    • Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Congratulations on all the work you’ve done on your novel. That’s terrific.

      I have the same issue with having to do work that pays the bills first. Much of my writing is for clients and that leaves very little creative juice for working on a novel. Such is life, but each year I’m a little closer to writing just for me.

      Hopefully, I’ll self-publish my second novel by the end of this year. I’ve had to set it aside as I worked on other things, but this is the year it gets published.

      All the best,
      Gary

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