24 May 2019
Start your novel smoothly with our definitive guide to structuring and plotting a novel
You’re writing a novel. You’ve had a great idea and, fired with enthusiasm, you’ve hit the screen running, bashing out a great chunk of writing. And then your flurry of inspiration dries up, and the inevitable thought hits you: What happens next? Where am I going with this? How am I going to plot a novel? Here's how:
How to structure a novel
A novel is a long and complicated piece of writing and the vast majority of writers can’t wing it through 100,000 words. Whatever kind of novel you’re writing – literary, contemporary, crime, historical, romantic, fantasy – it needs to have a structure. You know the beginning of your novel and you probably know, very early on in the process, what the end will be. But you don’t know how to get from A to B, and how can you? Writing a novel is very like heading off into the unknown. You have a start point and a destination. You’ve never been in this particular territory before. How are you going to get where you want to go? What lies ahead? Who will you meet? What obstacles will you face? And, thinking ahead, how are you going to plot your novel to make sure your reader gets the best possible experience?
This is where novel plot structure is useful. As a writer, you will benefit from having a map through your story, just as you would benefit from having a map to guide you through an unknown stretch of territory.
A lot of writers get overwhelmed with how to plot a novel. How can you plot something when you have just started writing it? You might not know yourself what is going to happen. You might worry that imposing a rigid structure on your idea will inhibit your creative flow. But don’t worry. You don’t have to work it all out in fine detail straight away. Start with the basics.
On a piece of paper, make brief notes. Genre, beginning and end.
eg ‘It’s a crime thriller where inner city detective Shara Lee, investigating an online grooming ring, is drawn into people trafficking and ultimately takes down evil gangmaster Erik Eriksson.
It’s a start. Now you can really get going, and begin to create the structure of a story.
Make notes about:
• Character: Who is your central character?
• Setting: Where is the novel set and how does your character function in that setting?
• Motive: What does your character want to achieve in the course of the novel?
• Inciting incident: What is the significant development that sparks your character’s desire to achieve whatever it is they want?
• Change: What is the fundamental change that has to happen in the novel?
• Plot developments: What are the basic incidents that need to happen to move your plot along?
• Crisis point: What is the worst thing that happens in your plot, the point at which everything seems lost?
• Resolution: What happens at the end to draw your plot to a satisfying ending?
• Theme: Is there an underlying theme to what you are writing? It’s good to realise what it is as it will help you to create the best structure for the book.
As you jot down your ideas under each of these headings, you’ll notice that you don’t know the answer to everything. This is fine – all part of the process. Where there’s a gap in your knowledge, or something you don’t know yet, make a note of it so that you can remember to go back to it and fill it in. It’s better to realise now that you don’t know why your lead character is obsessed by military hardware/cupcakes/the colour blue rather than be faced with a massive plothole at a crucial point in your narrative.
Want more advice on how to start your story? Here are ten good ways to get into the action
How to structure a novel: Choosing a narrative format
For some writers and some kinds of novel, getting all those basic ideas assembled in one place might give you enough basic structure for you to get writing with confidence. You might prefer to establish your basic narrative and consider its overall structure later. But some novels may require more of an initial framework, and how you structure it may depend what kind of novel it is. Different kinds of story structure include:
The Three-Act Structure
Based on the classic three-act play, the basic three-act structure is a classic template for novels and screenplays as well as theatre scripts. In Act One, we meet the lead character, encounter the inciting incident and discover some internal resistance to it. In Act Two, which occupies roughly half of the narrative space, the lead character reacts to the inciting incident, which leads to action and conflict. In Act Three, conflict mounts, there may well be a plot twist and then after this crisis/climax there is narrative resolution. Other story structures may be layered over the basic three-act structure to help you map out your story.
The Hero’s Journey
This name was given in 1949 by Joseph Campbell to the classic story structure where the hero leaves their everyday world (Act 1) and heads out into the unknown where they face challenges (Act 2) before returning, having triumphed over the odds (Act 3). There are twelve steps in the Hero’s Journey: Act I: ordinary world; call to adventure; refusal of the call; meeting the mentor; Act 2: crossing the threshold; tests, allies and enemies; approach the inmost cave; the ordeal; reward: Act 3: road back; resurrection; return.
The 7-Point Story Structure
Horror writer Dan Wells created a 7-point structure that many writers find useful. It comprises:
- Hook, or starting point
- Plot turn one – the events that set the story in motion
- Pinch point one – where you introduce tension/the antagonist
- Midpoint, where you character stops being reactive and becomes active to solve the story’s central problem
- Pinch point two – where you pile on the pressure and looks as if all is lost
- Plot turn two – your character discovers the information they need to compete the action they decided on at the midpoint
- Resolution – the climax of the story where the character succeeds (or fails, depending on the ending you want) at what they set out to achieve.
In terms of the Three-Act Structure, Act One is points 1 and 2; Act Two is everything up to point 6, and Act Three is point 7.
There are five turning points in this plot structure that visually mimics the shape of a letter W. Start with the top of the W with the trigger event. The first turning point is at the bottom of the W’s first downward stroke. Act One takes place between these two points. The next upward stroke, Act Two is about recovering from the problem and leads to the second triggering point, in the middle of the W. The next stroke goes downwards as the problem worsens, leading to the second turning point. The final act is an upward stroke leading to the final point which completes the W-shape, which is resolving the problem towards the end.
For more insight into plot structure and different techniques, see Plot devices and how to use them
Structure for pantsers
What happens to your story’s structure if you’re a pantser, not a plotter? Perhaps you aren’t a graph-following, template-loving kind of writer and feel that imposing any of the logical structures above on your storyline would restrict your creative process. What then?
We’re not saying that a writer has to simply plot out a story, then start at the beginning and work through to the end. That works for some writers, but not for others. There is a good point to be made for writing furiously during the initial creative outburst that has fired your enthusiasm for this novel, and seeing where it takes you and what ideas it leads you to. Once you’ve got a decent block written – for instance, 10,000 words produced in the early, wildly enthusiastic stages of bringing a new story into being – that could be a very good point to step back and consider what the next steps might be for you and your novel.
There is no reason why you should not write what you want when you’re inspired to create it, and fit it all together at some point in the future. All we’re suggesting is that giving some thought in advance to your story’s plot, or structure will help you weave it together. Setting yourself a pattern and following it will help you avoid having to do too much unravelling. No matter how organic you prefer your writing process to be, your story still requires some sort of structure to stop it from becoming a baggy, unhandleable mess – and to stop you from having to deal with creative paralysis because you’ve written yourself into a corner and don’t know what happens next.
Here are some points that may help you to have an overview of the shape of the novel you’re writing by the seat of your pants:
• All stories need a character with an issue that will be tackled in the novel. Who is your character? What is their issue? How will it be resolved?
• All stories need to involve conflict and change. What are the problems (conflict) in the novel and where do they need to occur for best dramatic effect? What is the change that needs to happen? How is it effected and when?
• A novel needs to have light and shade: dramatic passages contrasted with reflective moments; intense action opposed to comic relief. Where in your novel will these contrasts need to be placed?
• Things need to happen in a novel in such a way that the reader isn’t bored and doesn’t know what to expect. So you need to be aware of embedding narrative twists and turns into your book. Where will you place them? And how will you set them up?
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, this step-by-step advice on how to start writing a novel will come in handy
Once you have assembled all your plot elements and assigned a structural framework that suits your story to your novel-in-progress, you might want to break it down even further, into a chapter plan.
One benefit of having a chapter-by chapter plan is that it breaks down your plot into manageable bite-sized chunks. It’s easier to tackle 6,000 words than it is to tackle 70,000. But more importantly, not only do you know where you are in the novel, a chapter plan also enables you to look at the structure of each chapter. Every chapter should have its own dramatic arc. Think of it like watching an episode in a TV series: it’s telling part of a longer story but it is also a satisfying narrative in itself, with its own internal developments.
If we imagine a 12-chapter YA novel plotted according to a straightforward three-act structure, a basic chapter plan might look something like:
Act one (set up):
Chapter 1: Introduce lead character in their setting, ie. Tara’s first job after school is in a mobile phone shop, but her dreams are of making her band a success.
Chapter 2: The dramatic development occurs that will alter the character’s life over the course of the novel. Tara overhears a customer on his phone at work, mentioning Leah, a one-time friend who Tara dropped when she got in with a rough crowd, in a hostile way.
Chapter 3: Withholding action. Tara sends Leah a What’sApp message but her band is playing a support slot at a local venue and caught up in the excitement, she forgets about Leah.
Act two (rising action):
Chapter 4: Obstacle. Tara picks up her phone after the gig and realises that there has been no reply from Leah. No-one else has heard from her either.
Chapter 5: Obstacle: Tara sets out to find Leah, going to all the usual places her one-time friend used to hang out. Asking questions, she gets warned off.
Chapter 6: Midpoint twist. Tara carries on her search. She’s pulled off the streets and bundled into a van. When they get to their destination she’s thrown into a room with two mattresses. The girl on one of them is Leah.
Chapter 7: Obstacle: The gang of kidnappers tell Tara that she will have to run drugs for them and send her out on the street with one of their enforcers. Leah shares her survival strategies and helps Tara, and the girls begin to mend their broken friendship. Leah and Tara plan to escape.
Chapter 8: Disaster. They manage to escape but the gang catch them, drug them and bundle them in the back of a van.
Chapter 9: Crisis/twist. Tara comes to in a flimsy boat adrift at sea with the coast in the far distance. Leah is still unconscious. There is no-one they can call for help and the boat is taking in water.
Act three (climax and resolution)
Chapter 10: Obstacle. Tara uses the boat’s single oar and heads for the coast, but Leah is still unconscious.
Chapter 11: Denouement. Finally the boat reaches the shore where a dogwalker finds the two girls in the morning: Leah finally coming round and Tara collapsed from exhaustion. It’s touch and go as the Air Ambulance helicopters them off the beach.
Chapter 12: Resolution. Both girls are finally safe and the gang is being investigated by the police. Tara asks Leah if she wants to sing backing vocals in her band.
Under these chapter headings and plot summaries, you could add notes about what the characters are like, snippets of dialogue, impressions of the locations, ideas about how the relationship between the main characters develops etc, to put flesh on the bones of your novel. You could also make notes about how the structure of the book helps to develop its themes. In our sample, above, one theme is mending a broken friendship and another is girls helping each other escape from a shared experience of men who want to exploit them. How does the structure build these ideas up so that the themes become a rewarding take-away for the reader?
You can see that approximately half of the structure is taken up with Act Two, which is where the bulk of the developments and reversals happen. Act One is all about setting up the story, and whilst it needs to provide enough information to hook the reader’s interest, its purpose is to be a launchpad so your characters can set off on their story. Act Three is all about providing a satisfactory conclusion so that readers are satisfied that the story is complete and the dramatic change that has been crucial to the storyline affected.
Make sure you know the difference between plot and story
Use what you don’t know to structure your novel
It’s very unlikely that you will know everything about the characters and world of your novel in the early stages of your writing process. As you set out with your characters along their journey, you will get to know them just as you would with a real-world acquaintance. You can use what you find out to add to or alter your novel’s structure – for instance, in our example YA novel, what is Tara’s family background? What originally led her to cut off her friendship with Leah? Questions like this can be developed into potential story strands that you will want to incorporate into the structure of your novel.
Structure is not set in stone
Just because you have written a structure for your novel in the early stages of the writing process does not mean you have to stick to it rigidly if it’s not right for your book. It may turn out that you have plotted an obstacle or crisis into your structure that feels forced, or just not right for that character. Be prepared to periodically re-evaluate your novel structure to make sure that you are writing the best book you can. View the structure as a guideline to help you, and scaffolding to support your creative writing, rather than a blueprint that has to be followed even if it results in something unwieldy.
Does your novel involve subplots featuring secondary characters? These may provide light and shade, light relief, or in some way mirror the book’s main storyline, ie the one involving your lead character. Subplots need to be woven into the structure of your novel with great care. The reader needs to care about what happens in them, but not quite as much as they care about your lead character. Structure your sub-plots so they have their own dramatic arc, which can be used to complement or counterbalance the arc of the main plot.
Even though your novel should contain quieter passages and moments where the reader gets to draw their breath, everything in your novel should have a point and move the story along. One of the benefits of structuring your novel on a chapter-by-chapter basis is that it enables you to see what the pace is: if there is enough movement so that something is always happening to keep the reader interested – and conversely, if there is too much happening. Even if you’re writing an action-packed thriller where events happen in fast-paced succession, there needs to be an element of contrast built in to your narrative structure so that your writing doesn’t feel one-note. It’s the same if you’re writing comedy – if every line of every paragraph in every chapter is a joke, the overall effect wears thin. Thinking about structure on a chapter-by-chapter level will allow you to ensure that your reader has chance to draw breath before the next car chase or gag set-up.
So now it’s time to get writing, and put flesh on the bones of your structure – good luck!