Structuring a novel

I’ve had one of those realisations that initially seemed like an overnight bolt of lightning. But when I analysed it I realised that it’s been brewing in my subconscious for several months at least. Let me explain, I subscribe to various twitter and Facebook feeds aimed at independent and self-published authors and last night, have written a good number of words, I found myself browsing blogs talking about the skills you need to write. This particular series of posts was about how to structure a novel, how you have to follow the rules.

There’s nothing shocking or surprising in this but my reaction was unexpected. I just took this on board and could see the sense of it. I’m sure five or ten years ago I’d have bridled against it and seen it as constraining my creativity. But now I can see the light. This is essentially the same advice as I got from a workshop run by Maggie Gee on an Arvon course I went on six months back. And, recently I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series. What struck me most about these books is that they are beautifully written and very original. The initial premise is that the main character, Odd Thomas, is a fry-cook who can see spirits of the lingering dead. But if you work it out the plot of each of the first three books is relatively simple. I think that if I did a page count, it’d probably work out according to a fixed plan. We introduce characters and location, we find the problem, usually bad people doing bad things, and we roller-coaster up and down with more and more tension until we reach the big finish, leaving just about ten to twenty pages to wrap up and introduce the next in the series.

So, I’m now sold on the idea of structure. It’s just a question of taking my work in progress and trying to figure out where the plot has gone and how to bring it back on track. I’ve been most stuck on the opening chapter and I think that’s because I don’t have any structure. The first chapter has to introduce everyone, set the location and set up the main dilemma or problem for the book. Maybe it needs to be a couple of chapters. At least now I have a much clearer idea of where I should be going.

Anyway, what do you think? Do we need structure in a novel? Does it constrain an author or does it give them a secure framework on which they can demonstrate their flair and creativity?


  1. Both. I think if you’ve got a decent premise and plot, good characters and a good writing style, then following a tried and trusted and proven formula can’t hurt, and will probably produce a pretty good, readable book. After all, there has to be a reason why this structure is pleasing to the readers.

    But occasionally someone will write a book that doesn’t conform to the rules. Sometimes, (not very often!) this book will be a pleasing and readable work of genius, and in these cases, the breakdown of the structure is justified. More often, sadly, these books without the rules are not pleasing, not readable and not successful.

    I think if you have a very very good, solid reason to break the rules, and you’re convinced it works, do so, but remember that it’s a risk…

  2. I’ve been thinking about this and I think breaking the rules is a big enough subject that I’ll give it a proper treatment and do another post in a day or two about it!

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. I have thought about this a lot with my latest WIP. I would say – structure or freedom? – answer: both 🙂

    This WIP is different from my other ones in that I approached it with the decision to have a proper outline from beginning to end. I opened up a notepad file and bunged in a few details based on the emotional template in my head and filled in some real life events to hang the story around.

    Well into the second draft, I can confidently say that what I had then and what I have now are very different.

    Firstly, I was about thirty thousand words into the first draft when a supposedly minor character made a few witty comments and some kind readers who were seeing bits of my WIP here and there said, “Oh I like this guy” and I thought “God, so do I”.

    My entire plot structure took a turn left.

    The second draft I planned the outline with military precision. I took weeks trying to get every action down and ended up with 5000 words of treatment. Guess what? I’ve already changed it.

    So in conclusion, you need an outline, but don’t ever think it will be set in stone!

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