We spoke to writer and creative writing tutor Ian Nettleton for The Writing Life podcast on the topic of how to structure a novel. This is an edited transcript of that podcast.
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What do we mean by structure?
There is a structure to any story. When we tell a story in the pub, we don’t just talk about having some breakfast and brushing our teeth because it’s not interesting. There has to be a point.
Structure starts with an idea, an idea that will go somewhere – whether it’s a short story or novel.
In basic terms, the structure of a story looks like this:
- Something disrupts the equilibrium – a trigger or catalyst
- We follow the journey of the character as they try to gain control or resolve or fix the situation. It’s a quest.
- Basic structure is climbing tension, building towards a climax. And that should be true of a short story, a chapter, even a scene. There will be peaks and troughs: moments of drama punctuated by reflection. There may also be turning points.
- Then there’s the battle or the worst thing that can happen in the story
- Then there’s the resolution and, usually, with some sort of reversal to surprise the reader.
Story vs structure
So, structure is not just taking a story, and chopping it up into chapters? Is structure something that needs to come at the beginning when you’re conceiving how the story will unfold?
Well, before I start, I would say that different writers will use different approaches and their different projects may need different things. Many people say, ‘it’s all about passion, if you don’t have passion, then you’re not a writer… You need to write every day’, or ‘you need to write in this or that way’. I don’t think that’s true. Each writer has their own way of writing, you just need to listen to writers and take the advice that resonates with you. What I offer here is just guidance, not a one-size-fits-all template.
Personally, I don’t tend to apply any structure in the beginning – it’s just an idea. Sometimes there might be a point you’re moving towards – different writers will do it differently. Stephen King famously says he doesn’t plot: he just puts his characters in a situation and sees where it goes. Many writers write that way. Brian Aldiss said: ‘When I plot, I’m telling myself the story, so I’m plotting as I go’.
Can genre affect structure?
One of the things to bear in mind is that the genre of novel you’re writing will have a big impact on your structure. Broadly, there are two types of novel: the plot-driven novel and the character-driven novel. The former is usually genre fiction – even popular fiction – and the latter is often more literary fiction. And there are expectations based on those genres.
For example, in a whodunnit, there’s a body and the mystery has to be solved. It’s the working out of a puzzle. In a romance, two people meet, they don’t fall in love straight away, you can tell there’s something between them and there are obstacles but eventually they get together.
Structure is useful in that sense, as genre fiction gives you that framework.
If you move more towards character-based fiction – which is often but not always literary fiction – there can be a looser and less defined plot. Nevertheless, readers tend to look for the promise of a story – they want to know what’s going to happen.
Some people will come up with a ‘treatment’. A treatment for a film is a synopsis, written in prose form. I know a lot of writers who will write a chapter breakdown in prose form.
When to tackle structure
Many writers sit down and write a story, and while it is a story, it may lack the elements that make it an interesting or compelling story. How do we ensure that our story has the structural elements that make it compelling?
The first draft is often just getting it down. My advice to people who may have written a first draft and realized that there isn’t enough narrative tension, would be to draw the reader further into the story.
Many writers say that the first draft is the hardest part, so once you have that first draft, then you can begin playing with that material. Don’t stop yourself from writing your first draft by worrying about your structure. Of course, by keeping it in mind, you will save yourself legwork further down the line, but don’t let it hinder your progress.
Stephen King says that he keeps the door closed for his first draft – that’s for him, but once he has a second draft, he will share it with a trusted reader for feedback.
A great question to ask is, what do you look for as a reader? Write down all the things you love about the books you enjoy. You may see that there are things on that list that aren’t in your draft. Why would you expect someone to read your book if you haven’t even made it something that you would want to read?
There are some hard questions to ask when it comes to second and third drafts – and that’s where structure comes in.
Character and conflict
So we’re bringing together two elements: the story, and then the structure, and we may have to change aspects of the former as we do so. How do we tell the story we want to tell, but also ensure that it has the elements in it that will drive people through it? For example, the beginning of the book sets out what the person wants to achieve and the rest of the book is about them not achieving it… until they do.
That’s a good way of looking at it, because one thing we haven’t talked about is character. It’s key to any story. A character usually has a want and a need – and these won’t be the same. In fact, they’re often in conflict. For example, a character might want money, but what they really need is to find love. Conflict is vital to any story, if there’s no real conflict then there’s no real story.
Then you need obstacles – things that are in the way of the character achieving their goal.
It’s possible to be too mathematical with structure. If you dissect an animal, yes you can see how it works, but in so doing, you kill it. And stories can be the same: if you’re overly scientific, you can kill the whole thing.
Building structure scene by scene
Start with scene. Every scene needs to work on its own terms. If a scene works, you can build from there. Whenever you’re editing, make sure every scene has conflict: the character wants something, there’s a problem, they need something, there’s an emotional element to the story. Two characters is more interesting than a single character on their own, so get other characters in there with them. From there you have a situation, and that will drive the story because two characters won’t want the same things: they’ll be in conflict.
If you make sure that the characters are in conflict with each other and/or the situation, that should drive the scene forwards. That will then follow into the next scene and if you get it right you’ll have a chapter. Build up from there. If you start at the micro level, the macro level will take care of itself.
Structure and software
But… you also have to have an idea of the whole story as well. I use a piece of software called Scrivener which allows you to break you novel up into scenes. I will usually write a first draft, then put it into Scrivener and then start to move scenes around as I need to. For example, to check that John has a scene, then Mary has a scene, then John again; not, Diana then Diana then Diana. It is a bit more of a mathematical approach. If you’re moving scenes or chapters around, you just have to make sure that the story still makes linear sense.
It is a balancing act. You can tell when a story feels procedural. You can tell when it’s been written to a formula. It feels too clean, as if its guts or heart is missing.
So the structure of our story is usually something that should/can be tweaked later, rather than building a story around a predefined structure?
When conceiving of and then writing a story, I usually have a point I’m moving towards but the direction I’m moving towards might change so I allow for that all the time. I don’t impose structure.
I probably think about it more when I’m editing: well actually, this chase scene needs to be cut down; I need something to draw the reader in in the first chapter; I need some sort of Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen towards the end.
We look for stories with structure and even if we’re just telling a story down the pub, we tell them with a structure that’s going to heighten the drama – it’s a natural inclination to impose some sort of structure on them, even if you’re not thinking this needs to happen on page 30.
What is the three-act structure?
The three-act structure is the same as the plot/resolution model which is used a lot in screenwriting – where structure is particularly important.
- The first act
- You start with the catalyst: something that breaks the equilibrium or stasis, something that changes or disrupts the way the world is. You establish the characters and the situation and the genre, so the characters respond to the disruption which leads to what is often called the Big Event – a turning point, usually about a quarter of the way through – which takes us into the main body of the story.
- The second act
- This is the longest part of the story. A buildup of tension. There’s usually another turning point midway through this – often called The Pinch – where the character has to commit. This is important because we’re always looking for characters to change and in The Pinch they go from being active to being proactive. They go from responding to circumstances to deciding to take action – and we like that, just as we do in real life.
- While there are some passive characters in fiction, they’re rare, because they’re hard to care about and so we’re not as interested in them. Paul Pennyfeather in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is passive, he just gets pushed around, but that’s what makes it funny and he just ends up back where he started.
- The third act
- This builds up to what I call, The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen, where everything seems hopeless. Everything’s defeated. This means you can surprise the reader by solving the problem one way or another – not always in a positive way, but emotionally satisfying according to the story. Then we return to some sense of equilibrium.
The key elements of novel structure
Are there other, more detailed models? Or other devices/milestones of structure that we should be aware of?
The outline I usually give students is this, and of course, this is just a guide, not a template.
- Establishing the world – the status quo. This can be done on the very first page.
- The promise of events; a story that’s going to go somewhere. I regularly read stories and I’ll often get halfway down page two and I’ll know that I’m being drawn in. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock opens with a description of the seaside town. That doesn’t promise me much, it’s not that interesting. But then he writes ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong…’ Now I’m hooked. Who is Hale? Why do they intend to murder him? Are they going to succeed? There are some great opening lines at the beginning of novels that just promise to take you somewhere. It’s exciting. Kingsley Amis said, ‘If a gun hasn’t gone off on the first page, I don’t want to read it’.
- The Quest
- What’s your character’s desire and how does it drive the story? From Ulysses through to Gatsby. Gatsby arrives and wants to reclaim his past, but his past has passed so he’s in conflict with reality. He can’t get his past back but he fights to get it back and it destroys him.
- There’ll be surprises along the way – unexpected events that heighten the drama. Robert McKee says that, in the cinema, the audience are ahead of the story. They’re always anticipating what will happen, and if they’re right, they’ll feel disappointed.
- When I write I know what might happen, but then I ask the What If? question. What if this happened? The What If? question helps you to undermine your own expectations of where the story is going and how things will unfold. How about this? How about that? And because they’re surprises for the writer, they’re surprises for the reader – because they can guess what happens no more than you can. And that’s at the scene and chapter level.
- Even if you’re writing a piece of genre fiction, you still have to undermine the reader’s expectations. You can still take the reader to where you want them to go but not in the way they expect to get there.
- Critical Choice
- This is where the protagonist makes a critical choice and commits to the quest or accepts the new reality.
- The Climax
- A novel will usually build up to some sort of crescendo. It doesn’t have to be a big battle or a matter of life and death, it can just be something intimate between two people but it needs to be consequential for the characters on some level.
- This is where we’re surprising the reader again. The Great Gatsby is a good example of this. Gatsby is losing Daisy to Tom Buchanan and it’s all gone wrong. Then the worst thing that could happen, happens: Myrtle gets hit by the car. That’s the climax. The reversal is that Myrtle’s husband thinks that Gatsby killed her so he shoots Gatsby – even though it wasn’t him.
- A resolution doesn’t always have to be happy, but it must be emotionally satisfying.
- Sometimes it’s a reflection. The end of No Country For Old Men is the old policeman reflecting on how history has been corrupted and that this is no country for old men, and so he gives up.
- This is where theme comes in. Structure is important and it makes you think: how am I going to finish this? But theme is how you make the ending stay with the reader long after they close the book. It’s also where a reader’s passions and interests come out, and that might not come out straight away, it may not be there at the beginning when you conceive of your story idea. What’s important to you as the writer will come out as you write and as you edit and ponder and have more time to think about it because you’re not having to think about the plot.
More content about structure.
- Click here to read Rob Shearman’s article on structure.
- Listen to Rebecca Watson talk to Chitra Ramaswamy about the structure of her novel Little Scratch.
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