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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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?