Structuring Your Novel: A Craft of Writing Post by Martyn Bedford
One of the big challenges for novelists is: structure. How to shape your narrative over 200 (300, 400) pages so that it all hangs together. Even if you’ve written a novel before, the next one won’t necessarily be any easier – each book poses its own set of structural problems. But it’s all the more daunting if you are tackling one for the first time, especially if you’re used to writing short fiction.
That was the case for me when I started out as a novelist. I’d only ever written short stories until then, or the openings of novels that never made it beyond chapter 2. I had no idea how to construct a narrative longer than three or four thousand words, let alone 60,000 or more. All that storyline to unfold! All those characters and relationships to develop! All those settings! The students on the creative writing programme at the university where I teach, face a similar difficulty as they make the transition from short fiction at undergraduate level to tackling their first full-length novel for a master’s course.
The two most common outcomes are: a) your plot is a mess and doesn’t make sense; or b) there is no discernible plot, just hundreds of pages of ‘stuff happening’ – as one of my old tutors described it, “You just fill up the bath with words and eventually turn off the taps.”
To plan or not to plan?
Some novelists try to avoid structural problems by making an elaborate plan before they start writing, outlining the entire narrative in detail. Others plunge right in with no plan and figure out the structure as they go, or use the second draft to pull it all into shape. Most writers, including me, are in between, sketching a rough plan that allows the flexibility to make changes along the way if a better structure suggests itself.
We each find our own best way of working. But, whatever kind of writer you are – however much planning you do (or don’t do), however experienced or inexperienced you are at writing novels – it can often be helpful to go back to basics when it comes to structure. And there’s nothing more basic than . . .
The three-part structure
One of the best-known creative-writing mantras is that a narrative should have a beginning, middle and end. This somewhat rudimentary concept might seem too prescriptive or reductive, and might not apply to every type of narrative, but it serves as a useful foundation from which we can begin to build more complex narrative structures. After all, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that all stories and novels, even the most experimental, must start somewhere, then develop, then end somewhere.
The classic beginning-middle-end outline is:
Boy meets girl.
Boy loses girl.
Boy gets girl back.
We can see a beginning-middle-end structure in fairy tales, too, and in myths and legends, as well as in the tales from the days of oral storytelling . . . in other words, in all of the traditional stories in which our contemporary literary and dramatic forms have their roots.
Here are some examples:
|The Pied Piper of Hamelin||...||Cinderella|
|Musician rids city of rats.||...||Cinderella can’t go to the ball.|
|People refuse to pay him.||...||She finds a way to go.|
|Musician takes their children.||...||She marries the prince.|
And here’s the same structure applied to more complex stories:
|Romeo and Juliet||...||The Trial|
|Boy and girl from enemy families fall in love.||...||A man is arrested for no reason.|
|They marry in secret.||...||He protests his innocence.|
|Escape plan goes wrong and they both die.||...||The man is executed.|
Now, clearly, a lot more is going on in all of these stories – the basic ones as well as the complex – than can be conveyed in these summaries. In each case, however, these elements form a framework on which the rest of the story is assembled.
Variations on the three-part structure
One way to approach this, in relation to your own novel, is to answer three basic questions:
- What is the story about?
- What is the problem?
- What happens (i.e. how is the problem resolved)?
Using Cinderella as an example (and trying to keep the answers down to a single sentence):
- The story is about . . . a girl who wants to go to a ball at the palace and meet the prince.
- The problem is . . . her wicked stepsisters won’t let her go and, in any case, she’s dressed in rags.
- What happens is . . . a fairy godmother enables Cinderella to go to the ball, where the prince falls in love with her (*and they get married.)
In this example, answers 1 and 2 form the beginning, establishing what the story is about and what the problem is, while answer 3 forms the middle and end, resolving the problem so that the heroine gets what she wants.
(*Of course, the latter part of the story contains a twist which nicely complicates things. You could add: 4. The next problem is . . . Cinderella has to leave before the prince knows who she is. 5. What happens then is . . . the prince eventually finds her and they get married.)
So we can see how a simple beginning-middle-end story structure can become more complex while still maintaining a basic “through-line” of situation-problem-resolution to take the plot (and the characters) forwards. It is this forward momentum of the narrative that invites the reader to keep turning the pages to discover how things turn out.
ConclusionAs writers, when planning (or not planning!) a novel, or even after completing a rough first draft, it can be helpful to reduce your story to a beginning-middle-end or situation-problem-resolution summary. It provides you with a clear, uncluttered sense of the story’s narrative “spine”, which in turn enables you to complicate things without losing focus. Think of it like a ball of string guiding you through a maze.
This doesn’t only apply to plot-driven stories. Franz Kafka’s The Trial, cited above, is hardly an action-packed thriller but, even though much of the narrative is centred on the hero’s internal thought-processes and conversations with other characters, the situation-problem-resolution framework is plain to see as the novel’s organising scheme.
This approach might seem formulaic but – done properly – it should be liberating, not constricting. By clarifying in your mind the story’s essential plotline or structure, you are free to concentrate on applying the layers of complexity (of storyline, character, theme etc) that will make the piece more interesting and textured. I’ve used it myself for more than one novel – at both the pre-writing/planning stage and between first and second drafts – and have found it invaluable at helping me to make sense of the narrative and of what I’m trying to do with it.
Why not give it a go and see if it works for you?
About the Book:
Gloria is tired of her ordinary life. An unadventurous teenager, she barely remembers the free-spirited child she used to be. So when a mysterious new boy strolls into school, bent on breaking all the rules, Gloria is ready to fall under his spell.
Uman is funny, confident and smart. He does what he likes without a care for what anyone thinks. The only people for him, he says, are the mad ones, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.
He is everything Gloria wants to be. He can whisk her away and show her a more daring, more exciting life – one in which the only limits are the boundaries of her own boldness.
But Uman is not all he seems. And by the time she learns the truth about him, she’s a long way from home . . . and the whole country wants to know: Where’s Gloria?
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-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers