How to Structure a Novel
Welcome to part 1 of a new series on how to write bestselling fiction! I don’t care who you are or what you are writing, if you don’t know how to structure a novel your story will not be a gorgeous sand castle on the beach; it will be nothing more than a mushy pile of sand.
But you really shouldn’t build your house upon the sand…
…build it upon the rock. Just as every house needs a solid foundation, so does your story. Some people mistakenly think that structure means following the same boring formula that every other author follows resulting in a formulaic story no different than any other. “Where’s the creativity in following a formula?”, they might ask. Or “where’s the originality?” Well, the creativity and the originality comes in the story telling, not in the structure. Like I said, every house starts with a foundation: whether it’s a ranch style or a Victorian or a tree house. Neither of those styles are even remotely similar, but they all began with a foundation.
So, what structural foundation should you choose?
Which structural foundation you use is totally up to you but my personal favorites come from the books Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master by John Truby.
Let’s begin with Save the Cat.
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT:
The Three-Act Structure.
The Save the Cat structure is a three act structure with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. Even if you don’t like rigid, formulaic structure, you need to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story. Save the Cat makes it so easy to clearly see those lines between the acts and how they are separate from, but intrinsically tied to, each other.
If pacing is something that you struggle with, Save the Cat helps you craft your story with a quicker beginning, a cozy longer middle section, and a fast-paced ending.
Opening Image and Final Image.
Oh, this one is gold. If you love symbolism in a story as much as I do, these two aspects of Save the Cat are pure gold. Open your story with a striking image and end the story with a mirror of that image showcasing how your character has grown throughout the story…chef’s kiss!
I definitely utilized this in Heed the Wind: In the opening scenes, Staletta’s family is on the brink of starvation and the brink of separating forever. In the final scene she stands in a new home about to start a whole new family with Daniel. Similarly, Book 1 begins with Staletta in the blighted potato fields of Ireland symbolizing death and decay is ahead. In the final image of Book 3 she plants a potato in fertile soil symbolizing the life and growth ahead.
How Midpoint and Bad Guys Close In work together.
I love how the Midpoint culminates in a “false victory” or a “false defeat” based on what was happening in the fun and games section, as well as how that affects the next section. This is a turning point for the character, if things are going well, things need to start going downhill. If things were going downhill before, they need to start going uphill for a while. This is so helpful for keeping the story realistic, interesting, and multi-faceted. Not everything can go terribly wrong for your character all the time…how depressing! Similarly, not everything can go peachy keen for your character all the time…how boring! And here is yet another opportunity for you as the author to add in your creative touch. It’s up to you to decide which direction you want your character to go, but you NEED the up hills and the downhills if you want a compelling story.
Break Into… Sections.
This goes back to those clearly defined boundaries of the beginning, middle, and end sections. The Break Into Two and Break Into Three Sections are turning points where your character is about to embark on their plans or they have just realized what they need to do to win the game. The energy picks up in these single scene beats and prepares the reader for the adventure ahead.
Works for a Series.
Save the Cat method works just as well for a series as it does for a stand alone- It is so easy to structure a series using this plot structure. Book 1 is the first act of the series. Book 2 is the middle act. Book 3 is the final act. Boom. Done. Got more than three books in your series? No problem. Just make sure that whatever book is in the middle represents the middle act and your golden.
Third act is hard for me to plan.
Whereas the other acts are quick and easy to plan, I find the third act to be more episodic and hard to foresee. This could possibly just be a personal problem with trying to break out each section into so many scenes to keep the pacing straight…I get a little lost in that. The elements themselves are fine: for instance, you absolutely need a high tower surprise or some sort of twist at the end. That’s just plain fun! And your characters will need to dig deep down to finally overcome their weaknesses/fears/lies that have plagued them the whole story through.
People think they have to stick to the formula rigidly, but really there is lots of opportunity for fluidity in this structure. For instance, the B story character doesn’t necessarily have to come right after the break into two. It can go anywhere in act 2 or even act 1. You can probably find a way to throw it into act 3, but that’s pretty late in the story so unless it’s done very well, I don’t think that B character would have enough time to influence the main character. The third act could also be swapped around: maybe they execute their plan, but it fails, making that the high tower surprise, and then they gather a team that comes up with the final plan.
Now, let’s chat a little about John Truby. I say a little because this would be an exceptionally long article if I went into all the details. Here are the highlights:
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT:
Whereas Save the Cat is quick and easy to throw together, Truby is not. It is extremely thorough planning that takes careful consideration. This is why I love to pair them both together. Save the Cat makes sure you have your solid foundation, but Truby helps you define all of the lines, make sure the walls are plumb and dead level. With Truby you will flesh out characters, theme, plot, scenes, symbolism, story world, everything!
You gotta boil your story down to a one-line premise. I thought that was just important for pitching the novel to agents, but oh no, my friend. It is an essential building block for starting your story. It is pure gold and something that is not easy to do. Truby helps to really hone down that story idea to get it as precise and interesting as possible.
Weakness, need, desire.
Truby focuses heavily on helping you formulate weaknesses, needs, and desires for your characters. All of them. Not just the main character, but the opponents and the side characters, as well. If you are looking to build a firm foundation for each and every character, this is the way to go. He not only helps you develop those weaknesses, needs, and desires, he also helps you to see how they change over the course of the novel and how the characters themselves play off of or even mirror the weaknesses, needs, and desires of the other characters. So good!
Worried about your theme sounding preachy? No worries with Truby’s method. He helps you craft a central moral problem that each and every character will have to tackle in some part of the story. A theme is another foundational building block that every story needs, but it can also make or break your story. If you begin a story with a theme in mind, chances are, it’s going to come out in your writing as preachy. In reality, your central moral problem develops out of the weaknesses and needs of your character, and culminates in the minds of the audience. That’s right. You’ve heard of characters having self-revelations, but Truby takes it one step further and helps you develop an audience revelation on the theme.
Compelling side characters.
Truby helps you go much deeper than your side characters favorite color or their personality. His structural method helps you craft side characters that are important for the development of the main character. When I read this section in his book, all of the problems that I have had with side characters in Heed the Wind, just blew away. I had mistakenly thought that side characters were just thrown into books for fun – you know, the goofy sidekick, the love interest, yada yada. Au contraire, my friend. Side characters should only be in the story if they a.) have weaknesses, needs, and desires of their own and b.) attack the main character. I don’t mean attack as in physically attack – although that could be done – what Truby means is the side character is there to point out when the main character is doing something wrong. The main character has a bad plan, enter the side character to point it out. The main character says something horribly rude to an innocent bystander, the side character is there to point it out to them. Get the idea? Side characters are intrinsically tied to the development and success of the main character.
One of my favorite aspects of writing is symbolism. Symbols are most definitely an intrinsic part of the foundation of any good story, in my opinion. Truby’s method helps you to clearly define the symbols that exist in your story world, in your characters, in your theme, in any actions or objects that exist in your story world – it is a thorough and all-encompassing symbol web that helps you add that extra level of foundational support as well as that extra spark of creativity that will set you apart from every other writer out there. Oh yeah!
Yes, the first thing I like about it also happens to be a pitfall! It’s incredibly difficult to plan through every detail of the story ahead of time. This method takes a long time and a lot of thought. I still love it for that reason, though. It helps you avoid a lot of common pitfalls that occur in a first draft and I feel confident starting a story knowing how much I have figured out already. It is painstaking, but also immensely profitable.
2. Loosey goosey.
Knowing exactly where to put all 22 steps within the story. This is difficult in Truby’s method. Save the Cat makes it so easy, but Truby’s method is more loosey goosey. If you think Save the Cat is too rigid, you’ll probably like Truby’s method more. But if you like the no-nonsense approach, Save the Cat is for you. For me, I like both. I like using Save the Cat as the framework of the foundation and Truby’s method to really flesh it out. All twenty two steps of Truby’s method can find a home within the Save the Cat framework and the two together make a masterpiece!
The foundation is complete!
Now, go write that epic story on top of your rock solid foundation. You will be so pleasantly surprised at how great a novel you can create.
Need an extra eye on your story?
If after all of this planning and writing, you have been so immersed in your story you can no longer see the forest for the trees, I get it! You need an extra pair of eyes on your story. That’s where I would love to step in and help you out. I have written and published three novels using the Save the Cat and John Truby methods and I am here to help you with yours.
I LOVE doing manuscript critiques so don’t hesitate to contact me today. I can’t wait to dig in, enjoy the story world you have crafted, and help it shine.
Or maybe you are confident that you are sitting on a gold mine and are ready to publish, but would like an extra eye on the grammar. I am here for that, as well.