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Writing

How to Find the Right Structure for Your Novel in 5 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 30, 2020 • 4 min read

Narrative structure is the organizational framework of a story. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When all three of these story sections are individually compelling and also work well in concert, the narrative as a whole will be cohesive. In all forms of media, the stories that tend to stand the test of time are those with a strong narrative structure.

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How to Find the Perfect Structure for Your Novel in 5 Steps

If you’re working on your first book, figuring out the structure of your novel can be one of the trickiest and most time-consuming aspects of book writing. Here are some tips to help you select a structure for your novel:

  1. Think about character arc before determining structure. New authors sometimes make the mistake of committing to a book structure and locking in plot points before they’ve planned their character’s inner journey. Instead, begin by making fundamental decisions about your main character arc. Consider the change you want your protagonist to undergo. What series of events will make that change possible? Invest in character development before you get to the mechanics of how your story will be told.
  2. Select a narrative point of view. A novel’s structure will often be determined by its narrative point of view. Narrating in the third-person tends to provide authors with greater flexibility; it allows a degree of omniscience that makes parallel, circular, and nonlinear plot structures possible. If your story is best told from the first-person point of view, consider sticking with a linear story and scene structure—but remember you can still use flashbacks and internal dialogue to reveal necessary information. You may even find that your story requires multiple points of view. Writing different sequences of events through the eyes of different characters can make your story more engaging, but it also makes structuring your short story or novel more challenging.
  3. Familiarize yourself with three act structure. One of the most common story structures is the three act structure, which divides a story into three parts representing the beginning, middle, and end. The first act introduces the main character, provides their backstory, and concludes with an inciting incident (fantasy and science fiction novels will usually include worldbuilding in the first act as well). The second act includes rising action that leads to a midpoint that then devolves into a crisis. The third act contains a climactic confrontation, which is the point in the hero’s journey where they must prevail or perish. The story ends with the climax, followed by falling action and denouement, in which any subplots and loose ends are tied up and the events of the climax wind back into normal life. Whether or not you intend to use three act structure, it’s practical to familiarize yourself with this structure to ascertain whether it’s a good fit for your novel.
  4. Outline using the snowflake method. If you’re struggling to outline your novel within a rigid structure, you may want to consider the snowflake method, a creative writing technique that falls somewhere between freewriting and the formality of traditional outline structure. Created by author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson, the snowflake method is a novel writing technique for crafting a book from scratch by starting with a basic story summary or theme and adding elements from there. To employ this book writing method, jot down a one-sentence summary of your premise. Then, expand that one-sentence summary into a full paragraph, identifying core characters and the primary conflict. Expand further by writing character summaries, and use those summaries to inspire full profiles. Finally, take your premise and character summaries and develop them into a multi-page synopsis of your entire story. As you outline, an organic structure for your story may emerge.
  5. Understand and subvert genre conventions. Certain genres follow common structures, and fully understanding those structures allows you to subvert them. For instance, thrillers usually contain an abundance of plot twists, turning points, and cliffhangers. If you’re writing within a specific genre, read bestsellers that fall into that genre category. What happens in the first chapter? When are we introduced to important characters for the first time? How does the author build obstacles for the protagonists, and when in the story are those obstacles overcome? Look at the table of contents in the book’s front matter: How does the author break up his story, and do the chapter titles provide clues as to what plot moves are coming? Modeling your own structure after bestselling examples will give you a structural roadmap to follow for your first draft, and it will also give you a sense of common clichés that you can subvert to keep your reader guessing.

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