Ten Tenets of Novel Writing: Structure
In every novel there are multiple aspects that the writer must get right and, with those, plenty of places to make mistakes. In this series I’m going to be looking at these different parts. This essay is going to be looking at my eighth tenet: structure.
To boil it down to its most simplistic idea, a book needs a beginning, middle and end. There are different formal structures you can use like the three or five-act structure, but you don’t have to. Before I move on, I do want to talk a bit about these structures as there is a lot of conflicting opinion about them out there. Some people say that these structures are only for film or television; that’s what they were designed for. That’s demonstrably not true. The three-act structure was developed from Aristotle’s ideas that a drama was structured like a basic triangle in about 300BC, long before television was invented. Having said that, plays were the precursor to film so there is an element of truth in that statement. At its core, however, the act structures are a formula for storytelling in whatever medium that you choose to tell that story. Films are telling a story in the same way that a book is, they just use a different medium. Learning the formal structures is an important part of being a writer as it is a natural way that we fall back into when telling stories. That doesn’t mean that we need to use them when writing a book. But, if you choose to eschew something as well established as the structures you really need to know them inside out so you can replace them with something else.
Now, you need to have some rough idea of the structure of your novel, no matter what you decide to do with it. That doesn’t mean that you have to have the entire thing plotted out with every story beat figured out before you start. If you want to that’s okay but you don’t have to. Even if you do choose to not use a formal structure, you still need to have some kind of structure to the book and figuring that out earlier in the process will definitely make the writing easier further down the line. What is quite helpful in understanding structure is to look at what others have done, or don’t do and try to figure out why. There’s also a wealth of information and analysis of written works online these days. It wouldn’t take much looking to find a detailed analysis of The Shining’s structure. Have a look at what American Gods’ structure looks like and think about why those story beats work the way that they do to make a good book. Try moving some things around in Murder on the Orient Express or Interview With a Vampire or the Hunger Games and think about the differences it would make to the final story. Also, look at books that don’t use the traditional structures and see what they did differently and what that meant for the book.
© 2020 David Chitty
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.