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Writing Magazine

Get in shape

Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2015   |   2450 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) Structure your novel for maximum effect and engagement with tips from author and lecturer James McCreet

What’s the hardest part of writing a novel? Some might say it’s finding the great idea. Others might say it’s finding the time. For me, it’s having to be patient when I just want it all to come out at once. Experience shows, however, that structure is the thing most people get wrong.

The problem is usually that we just want to write. That’s the creative part. The fun part. Structure can seem like a block on the flow of our juices. But without it, there can be no novel – only an agglomeration of words. Structure is writing, albeit the most arduous and tedious part of it.

It needn’t be this way. There are tricks and techniques to whip your novel into shape and allow you to enjoy the writing. Here are a few tips to speed you on your way.

Speculate to accumulate

A novel has a lot of stuff in it: a lot of characters, storylines, locations, themes and occurrences. You can help yourself by gathering as many of these as possible before you begin writing. They are your building blocks, which will combine to make a structure.

Spend some time jotting ideas for scenes or characters. Do some research into subjects and places that you plan to write about. The longer you spend on this process, the more ideas you’ll have and the more possibilities you’ll see. Too many writers begin a novel never to finish it. They ran out of juice. They didn’t have enough narrative fuel to get them through to the end.
Draw a border
How many words do you expect your novel to be? You might think it’s fine to just start and see where you end up, but this often leads to disaster. For example, the first 10-20% of a novel tends to be groundwork for what’s to follow. It establishes storylines, characters and themes. But if you don’t know how many words you’re writing, how do you know if you’ve done too much (the reader becomes bored) or too little (the reader’s confused) groundwork?

You could go the multi-draft route and write your novel five times, but why do that if you can get it right first time? Set yourself a notional word limit of, say, 80,000 words. Now you know how many words you need to start up and round off your novel. You know roughly where the mid-point is. You can divide your novel into thirds or fifths or tenths, the better to start structuring it. You are controlling the process.
Choose a pattern
Pattern is the next stage. All novels (should) have one. At the generic level, we’re talking about such established structures as the investigation, the romance, the quest or the journey. These patterns are easy to follow and help you to structure. For example, the investigation begins with the discovery of a body, then the clues, the pursuit of suspects, another body, more clues, a twist etc. The reader expects these things and you must deliver.

A pattern might be many things. It could be the consecutive parts of the story you’ve already mapped out. It could be the stages of your main character’s arc. It could be nothing more complex than a specific period of time, carefully marked off in increments as you proceed (in a historical novel, say). Decide on your pattern and you already have a framework for your structure.

Think in pieces
Conceive your novel as pieces. Only the reader should see it as an inextricable, organic whole. The structural pieces should begin big (thirds, fifths), then get smaller (pieces of the pattern), then smaller still (chapters), and even smaller (scenes within the chapter).

This might look like terrifying micromanagement, but it’s nothing more than child’s play once you have your pieces to hand. It allows you to examine each part of your novel as a discrete element and to focus on it with your fullest attention rather than getting lost in the maze of your own complexity.

For example, your second chapter is an establishing chapter, featuring one of your main characters at work. It also kicks off one of your three storylines. In it, you will follow the character from waking up to going home, showing how they get through their day and how they interact. Easy. Now imagine you have thirty chapters planned like this. How easy your novel will be to write!
The chapter
It’s worth considering the chapter further, since it’s the most helpful structural tool the novelist has. Knowing how many words you’re going to write, you can make a general stab at how many chapters (of roughly equal length) you’re going to have. Now you have a framework on which to stretch your story and characters.

This means you’ll able to map out the introduction, the denouement and the core and see at a glance how your story is developing. Are there any bare areas where not much is happening? It also allows you to divide your story and character arcs into clearly numerical parts. For example, you now know that you have twenty steps to tell the story or map the journey or conclude the investigation. You can foresee at every stage what your reader will be thinking or feeling.

The chapter is also a microcosm of the novel as a whole. Consider it a mini-novel, with its own introduction, arc and conclusion. What really happens within, and how does that mirror the bigger movements going on throughout? Every chapter must contribute evenly and equally to the whole.

Non-linear plotting
Just because we read in a linear way doesn’t mean we should write or structure that way. The great advantage of conceiving your novel as a grid of pieces and chapters is that you can plot movements in a non-linear fashion.

For example, one of your main characters, John, does not appear in every chapter. You know from your plotting that he’s going to appear in chapters 1-6, eight, eleven and 13-16 before he dies in a grisly lawnmower accident (it’s a twist). Therefore, you can plot his separate storyline and character arc independently of the rest of the story, ensuring that he remains consistent and relevant throughout. This way, you won’t forget him or change him once you’re caught up in the helter-skelter writing period. Everything is planned so you don’t have to worry about it later.

The same goes for storylines. There’s nothing worse than a slow or inconsistent storyline, so use your structural grid to get an aerial view of development. You can audition or reorder story elements on your grid before you write them, saving time and stress.

Pace and engagement
It goes without saying that this structural approach allows you to keep a close eye on pace and engagement: exactly how, when and why your reader is excited/shocked/expectant. You hook them in the first three chapters with a fast-moving development then digress briefly (once you’ve got their attention) to do some more serious character work. By halfway, there’s a dilemma that needs solving and the last 40% of the book is a pell-mell race to the conclusion. The reader will inhale this without a thought, but you will have planned each stage.

The structural grid will also allow you to use such techniques as conflict, tension, subplots and twists to greater effect because you’ll be able to see at a glance where the reader is. For example, you made a vague reference to a man in black in chapter three. Maybe the reader missed it, but you purposefully add it again in chapters five and seven so that in chapter ten it doesn’t look like a groundless twist when his identity is revealed.

The end
Too many first-time novelists arrive at the end of their novel a nervous and physical wreck, washing up on its shore like a torpedoed mariner and knowing that, inevitably, they’ll have to get straight back in the water. If you’ve approached your novel structurally, however, the end novel will be the end.

Sure, you’ll have diverged from your original plan. This is to be expected. Characters will have grown and stories will have developed. But you will have been in control the whole time because you have been able – at cruci

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Writing Magazine is the UK’s biggest and bestselling magazine for ALL writers. Whether you write for pleasure or publication, whatever your style or genre, this magazine has something to help you.

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