This week’s Refresher Friday takes an updated look at how structure can help you craft stronger stories.
Every novel has structure, whether you outline it or pants it, and stories have followed a basic structure since people started telling them. It’s familiar and comfortable for readers, and helps them lose themselves in the tale.
Structure is also a valuable tool for any writer. It helps us write, keeps our stories tight, and provides a framework for us to express ourselves. However…
Structure doesn't mean fitting your story into predetermined little boxes.
It's not an outline per se, and it doesn't require you to know everything about your story before you write it. Structure can be as simple as the beginning, the middle, and the ending. This is storytelling at its most basic—it starts with the introduction of a problem, character overcomes obstacles to resolve that problem, character resolves the problem. That’s structure. Which is why…
Structure is especially helpful for those just starting their first novels.
Writing a novel can be hard. It’s a lot of pieces that all have to line up perfectly to work. Get something out of alignment and the entire story can fall apart. Structure can help keep that story in alignment because it gives you a proven format for solid storytelling and provides a framework to work with.
I can't tell you how many rambling, bloated novels I wrote before I started following a solid structure. It helped me fine tune my plots and direct my creativity instead of letting it flow in all directions. My stories got better because I had plot targets to aim for.
Use structure to set the boundaries of your novel.
I like using a turning point structure to create a template for my novel. It gives me a rough guide for where traditional plot points will fall, and knowing these turning points helps me block out the entire plot. Questions I ask before every novel:
What word count am I aiming for? I base this on whatever the average word count is for that genre. For my young adult novels, I aim for 60,000 words. An adult novel might be between 80,000-100,000. The finished novel won’t be exactly that word count, but it’s a guide to work within. It shows me how much of the novel is beginning, middle, and ending.
How many chapters do I expect to have in that sized novel? This helps me identify where my major plot turning points will fall. My chapters tend to be around 2500 words, so I’ll have about twenty-four chapters in a 60,000-word novel. So right there I know my beginning is roughly six chapters, my middle is twelve chapters (with the midpoint hitting at chapter twelve), and my ending is the final six chapters.
What events will fall in what sections? Now I can set some plot targets on my basic twenty-four-chapter structure. I’ll have about 15,000 words and six chapters to setup my opening, establish my characters and their world, present the problems facing them, show the character arcs and how these characters need to grow, and toss in a few problems for them to solve. When I hit that 15K mark (remember, these are just loose guidelines so it might vary by a few thousands words), I know something big needs to happen to send my story into the middle, which is where all the problem solving occurs (and that sets up another 30K words to play with). The structure of the traditional middle will guide me to the ending (and the last set of 15K words).
What are my major turning points? Before I start planning the novel, I like to know four key points: the opening scene, the inciting event, the midpoint reversal, and the ending. In simple terms, these turning points tell me how the story opens, what pulls my protagonist into the story, what shakes the story up and changes things, and how it’s resolved. Those four moments are enough for me to plan the rest of the novel, because they give me specific things to plot (or write) toward.
I’m an outliner, so I go chapter by chapter and connect those points until I have a fully fleshed out plot. But another writer might take only those four points and start writing. Some writers might not look at structure at all until the first draft is done, and then rework the novel as needed so the right scenes fall at the right points. Use what you need to fit your writing process, when you need it.
Here’s a quick outline for those who might want to try a little structure:
- What's your opening scene?
- What's the inciting event?
- What is the first major event that goes wrong or changes the path of your protagonist?
- What major surprise can happen in the middle?
- What is the moment when it all looks hopeless?
- How does it end?
How much structure do you use? Do you prefer a clearly defined structure or more of a loose plan?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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