How to Plot & Structure a Novel: An Author's Guide
Updated: Sep 9, 2022
The latest blog in my #writingcommunity series covers plot and different types of novel structures. I also cover different types of plot structure in plays because, as the adage goes, ‘knowledge is power’. So, whatever your writing project, if you are searching for information about #howto develop or improve your plotting, this blog might help. Happy writing!
When you Google plot, words like ‘unfolds’ ‘peaks’ ‘climactic’ and ‘tension’ appear. All of these words are important when considering how to structure your story. My favourite word here is ‘tension’ but I’d like to add one more – conflict. For me, a good story has conflict. That conflict might present itself internally or externally, it might be resolved, or kill off the story and the characters as the story unfolds… but whatever your genre, whether you are writing romance books or sci-fi, conflict is an author’s friend.
You may also like How to Write a Romance Book Series | Beth Linton
Once you have an idea, your characters and setting will evolve to include themes within – dramatic drum roll – a plot. While there’s no magic solution, no ‘one size fits all’, by understanding some of the ways successful novels or novellas have been structured can help a writer to plot their own. And, for those writers out there who struggle to finish a story, plotting might make all the difference.
So, What Exactly is Structure?
Structure is the journey you create throughout your story to get your main character (whether dashing alpha male hero or strong female character 😊) to their conclusion (or in my romance novel world, their happily ever after. Swoon!).
Depending on the source you read, many terms are used for the twists and turns created within a plot structure. There are also terms for the different character types your hero or heroine (protagonist) encounter along the way (for example, hero, mentor and so on). Below I’ve broken down types of structure and their features into easy-to-understand chunks of information.
A Place to Start: Rags to Riches
There are several types of established structures. The Rags to Riches plot is a classic story structure and is loved by the Brother Grimm and Disney, alike. Think Cinderella and Pretty Woman. This kind of story is a good place to start in terms of understanding conventions of plot and vocabulary linked to structuring a text.
In short, the Rags to Riches story goes on an upward journey from the starting point of unhappiness, or low-point, to the happy conclusion. Along the way the character encounters positive moments of hope or advancement that lifts him or her toward the conclusion. However, these positive moments are followed by moments of reversal and setbacks where the character dips back down again – although not as far down as the opening low-point. Eventually, they overcome the setbacks to reach the happy ending.
Not a fan of helpless female characters who need the rich man to save them? You might like to read: Heroines that kick ass | Beth Linton OR Paranormal Romance Books: Strong Females & Consent | Beth Linton
All Things Must Begin:
The beginning of a story is especially important. This is the hook, the grab, that introduces your world and characters. For many writers, there is exposition. This is the where writers establish characters and setting. But the exposition needs to be followed by some rising action – an increase of tension that will bring the reader along on your journey. Rising action may come in waves, peaks and troughs, or it could just take us to the climax – the big reveal or showdown, if you will. After that comes the decrease in tension, the falling action, and resolution – the ending.
What About the Middle?
By this point you’ve created your exposition and the reader has a sense of your characters, their world and what they want. Now we need some obstacles. This is also the part where secondary characters come into play. Another device used by some authors is that of the false protagonist. Huh? For those of us who watched Game of Thrones you should have a good grasp of what the false protagonist is: this type of character seems to be the protagonist for the story but actually leaves (or gets killed off brutally!). This is a great way of creating tension and unexpected twists… not so helpful for romance authors like me, though!
Happily Ever After?
The conclusion is the necessary resolution of the story and usually follows the climax of the tension created throughout the story. The murderer may have been caught, or the battle won, or finally, finally, a couple admit their love and decide to get married after a close call. In essence, the goals set at the start are met.
1. The Three-Act Structure
Whether used to structure a play into three acts, or used to shape a novel into multiple chapters, the three-act structure is a tried and tested way to successfully plot your story.
This structure does what you imagine: it breaks a plot down into three sections and these three sections feature many of the features already discussed.
Part one contains the exposition and the inciting- incident. The reader/audience meet the protagonist(s), and the setting is, well, set. The first act often ends with some sort of problem that will lead to the rising action.
Part two is the middle chunk and contains event(s) of rising action and increased tension. This is the big part; the twists and turns, the moments of conflict, reversal and possible setbacks.
Part three has the climax and the falling action that leads to the resolution. The end!
But isn’t the Three-Act structure just for the theatre? Er, no. If it is good enough for Harry Potter, a writer shouldn’t turn their nose up at this traditional form of plotting.
1. Milieu? What’s Milieu With You?
Okay, this form of structure sounds scary, but it really isn’t. The way I think about it is by thinking about world building.
If you’d like to read more about world building, read Paranormal Romance Books: World Building | Beth Linton
A milieu story is focussed on place. The reader and the characters explore that strange, wonderful world together – an easy example to get your head around is The Wizard of Oz. Yes, Dorothy has a journey to make and problems to overcome, but her journey is very much an exploration of the strange world she finds herself in. The weather, the character, the events within the story are all firmly rooted within the terrain of Oz. Gulliver’s Travels is another good example – the films give us a glimpse of this structure, but for those of us who have read the book think about the flying islands and Yahoos.
Time For My Last Act:
So, as an author, where do you start? How do you begin to pick the right kind of structure for your story? The Three-Act structure is undoubtedly the most common structure, but should you be using it? Perhaps, a good way forward is to consider your genre and your characters. Action and adventure, crime, even romance, suit a Three-Act structure very well, but fantasies are often written as a Milieu plot.
What is beautiful about writing is that you don’t have to feel bound by these conventions – I often write in a Milieu style, and that’s before I knew academically that one existed! Writers are creative souls, they invent. It is perfectly possible to mix and match, or do something totally knew. Anyone who added through James Joyce’s Ulysses at University will know exactly what I mean by that!
While I’ve covered some important structural information in this blog, there’s plenty more to learn! Click here to find out information about a few more types of novel structure: Novel Structure: Create One That Works [+Checklist] – Squibler
Here are a few links to posts that might help you hone your craft: