Skip to content

The Roots – Determining the structure of your novel: Novel Writing Prep-Series

Whether you are a planner or a pantser, you’re going to need a few key elements to make your novel successful.  Like it or not, every story has a structure.  It may take multiple drafts to find these elements, or it may take some careful planning up front. Either way, the elements of a good story establish the stakes (what your main character has to lose), build tension, force your main character to change in some way (character arc) and take your reader on the vicarious journey you’ve promised them.

Everyone calls this structure something different.  Some will talk about the 5-part narrative structure.

Rumor has it that this pyramid was created by German playwright Gustav Freytag in the late 1800s. Freytag identified a five act structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement.  This structure was in use long before Freytag formalized it in 1863.  In fact, Freytag’s analysis was created to explain the structure of the Greek tragedies and Shakespearean drama.

Here’s a brief explanation of the five parts of the pyramid:

  1. Exposition or Introduction: The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the problem in the beginning of the story.  This is where readers meet the main character and get a glimpse at the MC’s norm before the “storms” of the story’s main conflict sweep in.
  2. Rising Action: During the rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of the related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal.
  3. Climax:  The third act is the climax, or turning point, which marks a change, for the better or worse in the protagonist’s affairs.  If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn and things will begin to go well for him or her.  If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.  Simply put, this is where the most dramatic part of the story happens.
  4. Falling Action: During the falling action the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.  The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt.  The falling action is the part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the resolution.
  5. Denouément or Resolution:  The dénouement comprsies the events between the falling action and the actual ending scene of the narrative and thus serves as the conclusion of the story.  Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader.

Screenwriters have become exceptionally adept at writing in the 3-act structure.  The 3-act structure is basically a simplification of the 5-part narrative – with the same components occuring within three acts.  Watch any movie, and you’re sure to recognize the point at which acts transition and rising action, climax and falling action occur.

William P. Coleman uses Stars Wars to explain the 3-act structure on his blog:

In a nutshell, screenwriters create three acts:

  1. Set Up: During the set-up, we meet the characters and recevie any key information that we need to process upcoming events.  There is often foreshadowing of events yet to come. The end of of Act One contains the Inciting Incident.  The Inciting Incident is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance.  This affects the protagonist’s status, plans and/or beliefs, focing him or her to take action in response.
  2. Confrontation: Act Two, or the Confrontation, sees the protagonist facing the conflict to resolve the situtation.  There are several unsuccessful attempts to overcome the conflicts.  Often there are moments of retreat when the main character fails to overcome the conflict and retreats to sulk, scowl and regroup.  The stakes get higher and higher as the protagonist’s inner demons and the intensity of the protagonist’s problems increases.
  3. Resolution:  In Act Three, the Resolution, the protagonist has learned from his/her failed attempts, has faced inner demons which have prevented him/her from overcoming the main conflict, and the Inciting Incident is resolved.  This resolution isn’t always pretty – oftentimes the resolution is a surprising solution which the audience/reader didn’t see coming. During Act Three, we also see other loose ends and sub-plot tied up.  This act is a combination of the Falling Action and Dénouement from Freytag’s pyramid.

(Credit is due to Bubblecow and wikipedia for help in some of the verbiage for these definitions.)

You can see that whether the story is comprised of five acts or three acts, the elements of dramatic tension and resolution are the same.  This structure allows a writer take her readers on a journey.  The journey is filled with Conflict.  I had a writing teacher who used to pace around the classroom, smacking his hand on his forehead, saying, “Conflict, conflict, conflict, my children!”  If you don’t have conflict (and ever more increasing conflict with each turn), you don’t have a story.  This conflict doesn’t have to include car chases and serial killers.  Some conflict is subtle and emotional and gets to the heart of the human experience.  Perhaps two days before her wedding, Jane decides she doesn’t want to get married.  Conflict!  Perhaps Joe loses his job and is forced to come up with another way to support his family. Conflict!  Perhaps John is secretly jealous of his roommate and decides to tamper with his grades to get him kicked out of school. Conflict!

With all of this conflict, the protagonist needs a chance to experiment, challenge the antagonist, fail and regroup for another “fight.” Along the way, the protagonist is changing.  His relationships with the story’s secondary characters develop and change, too.  At the end of it all, the conflict is resolved, for better or worse, and Jane or Joe or John are different in some way.

We’ve already established that I’m a planner.  I like a road map to follow before I start writing.  But, this doesn’t mean that I plan out every scene in painstaking detail.  I simply put together a blueprint that includes all of the key elements needed to keep my story on track and appropriately paced.  Then when I sit down to write, I can let my right brain take over and add all of the creative elements that make the story a novel rather than an outline.

My planning tends to follow a four-act structure.  It’s really three acts, but Act Two is broken into two parts to make the MC’s emotional journey more clear.  Two very good resources for learning more about this structure are Evan Marshall’s book The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and Larry Brooks’ book Story Engineering (in particular the section on structure). These books have great tidbits of advice for someone planning a novel.  I’ve adapted parts from each of their books and created a process that works for me. Here’s a look:

A novel of 80,000 – 100,000 words has approximately 60 scenes.  I divide the scenes up like this:

Some of the verbiage in the above diagram was adapted from Larry Brooks’ blog. Rebecca Berto also offers a great analysis of Brooks’ Story Engineering over at her blog.

Remember, this isn’t a paint-by-number approach to novel writing.  This approach may not work for everyone.  For me (a planner), this structure doesn’t result in a painstaking outline of each scene. There needs to be room for a lot of creative discovery along the way.  Rather than an outline, the result is more like a map.  A novel is a scary prospect, especially when you’re halfway done and you’re trapped in the murky middle.  With this approach I know what my two Plot Points and my Mid-Point scenes will be before I start writing.  I plug everything into Scrivener* (my choice for drafting software), and I have a map.  When I’m trapped in the middle of the forest, I know the next point to which I need to make it to find my way out.  I may not know what pitfalls and discoveries the route will hold for me, but I do know that I will have quite an adventure getting from Point A to Point B.  It’s rare that I know how the story will end when I set out to write it.  But, with Plot Point #2 pencilled in, I know how I’m going to get there.  By the time I get to the second Plot Point, the ending flows pretty organically.  At that point, the Main Character has taken over and is making choices of her own – organic choices which make sense within the confines of my map.

This approach may not work for everyone.  Some need to set out in the wilderness without a map – making all of the discoveries along way.  For me though, the safety of the map leads to success.  What is success?  In my mind it is finishing the novel.  Then I need a completely different map to guide me through the murky world of rewrites and revisions. But that’s another post, isn’t it?

*Tune in tomorrow. I’ll been pulling together some screenshots and samples from my Scrivener novel template.  They may be helpful if you use Scrivener for drafting.

What about you?  Do you create an outline? A map? Or do you set off wandering in the novel-writing wilderness armed with nothing more than your story idea and a keyboard?

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Truth is I don’t really make a plan when I write a novel. At first, I have a general picture in my mind, some scenes, maybe some parts of a dialogue between my characters, and this is why it is always hard for me to start writing a story. But I mostly enjoy the writing process when it ‘flows’ by itself, and when the story unfolds right at the moment I am writing it. It is then, when I know that I have been completely honest with my readers.

    February 14, 2012
    • I’m so jealous of people who can jump in with no plan and come out on the other end with an amazing story! Kudos to you, K.D. I love that flow and the magic that occurs when you let loose and see where the characters take you. That’s why a blueprint (instead of an outline) works for me. I know the general direction I need to go and the characters and story take over in getting me there.

      February 14, 2012
  2. This is a great post, Sara.
    I wrote my first novel without a plan, and then rewrote and rewrote until I think it works pretty well. I am still waiting for more of my beta readers to comment, but the ones who have say they couldn’t put it down. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I love taking prompts and going with them, but I want to start with a roadmap for the next novel (even if I end up tearing it up). I recently read Larry Brook’s Story Engineering and am enamored of the concept.
    I am curious to learn about Scrivener. I just looked at their WEB site, and it looks better to me than writing an outline or dealing with stacks of index cards or yellow stickies. I am curious to see how you use it for your plot points and scenes.

    February 14, 2012
    • Stay tuned tomorrow, Ann. I LOVE, LOVE Scrivener. (And they don’t pay me to say that! I forked over my own $40 [very reasonable] for my copy). I’ll fill you in on how I use it and hopefully can upload the Novel Template that I’ve created. Still working out the technical details for tomorrow’s post. Congratulations on such positive feedback from your Beta readers. “I couldn’t put it down,” is a wonderful sentiment to hear after you pour your heart into a piece of writing.

      February 14, 2012
      • I downloaded the trial version and will go through the tutorial as I have time. Looks really useful. Thanks so much for the reference. I know I will love the post tomorrow.

        February 14, 2012
      • Scrivener is a great tool. It’s like moving virtual notecards and post-it notes around. The great part is you can rearrange scenes and the manuscript reorders at the same time, too.

        February 14, 2012
  3. I am working on my first novel and have been a wanderer. I think about where I want things to go, I think about the underlying story. It is getting it down that is the hard part.

    February 14, 2012
    • I agree, notesfrom rumbleycottage. The ideas come fast and furious. It’s capturing those ideas and then forcing yourself to sit down and actually write the novel that is the tricky part. Keep me posted on your progress on the novel.

      February 14, 2012
  4. Interesting what you say about the third act being more organic. It is, isn’t it? I’ve got very detailed scene outlines up until the second plot point. After that it’s very broad brush strokes. At the end of writing the first draft – up to Act 2 – I take a breath and see what additional hurdles make sense for my protagonist (and his cohorts) between there and the end. It’s a waste of time doing that until I’ve written the first two acts.

    February 16, 2012
  5. Great advice, Sara. It’s not only good ‘left brain’ advice in terms of planning, but good ‘right brain’ advice in terms of inspiration. Before I was halfway through reading, I had to pause to write a poem. Thank you!
    Best wishes, Dave.

    March 14, 2012
    • Thanks, Dave. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Would love to read the poem that stopped you in your tracks while reading my post. Happy writing.

      March 19, 2012
  6. SuJo #

    Quick question – does one scene equal a chapter in your 4-act model?

    May 24, 2012
    • Hi SuJo. Usually for me, my scenes tend to be a little shorter, so I average 2-3 scenes per chapter. Everyone is different though.

      August 27, 2012
  7. jthomps260 #

    Reblogged this on Julia Thompson and commented:
    Great article on Templates

    January 9, 2014
  8. Never mind. I just hopped over to your blog and realized that you have it posted. I LOVE IT! So proud to say I inspired a poem that made me smile from ear to ear. I think that many time I am the Antagonist in my own life story as well. Keep up the great work.

    March 19, 2012
  9. Thanks for the link to the post!

    March 21, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Using Scrivener to Write a Novel | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer
  2. A Novel Process – The Inevitable Caveat | Tony McFadden
  3. Planner or Pantser? A novel writing prep series that might help… | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer
  4. Writing Prompts: Day Four « Writing Tips
  5. The Mind Map – Give your ideas a visual form: Novel Writing Prep Series | Sara Toole Miller – Fiction & Non-Fiction Writer
  6. The Protagonist | Thereisnocavalry
  7. Writer Wednesday: Novel Structure « conchsaladesque
  8. How to write a novel « Mike10613's Blog
  9. How to write a novel | Planning « Mike10613's Blog
  10. Three or Four Acts? | One Writer's Journey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: