So you want to write a novel? Welcome to hell.
Not really, writing a novel can be a lot of fun but it is far from easy. If it was easy, all those people who say everyone has a novel in them would have written one by now.
It’s hard to know where to start, but that’s what this post will all be about. I’ll be covering different methods of how to structure a novel as outlined by the experts. Each method or story structure will work differently for different people and you might need a little experimenting to find one that’s right for you.
So, let’s dive into it.
Key Elements of a Story
Let’s start with the first step of how to structure a novel. I guess a good question to start off with is what makes a story a story? Each story is made up of several different elements that slot together to create something (hopefully) worth reading. Most stories will have pretty common elements like the following:
- A plot – This is simply everything that happens in your story from the first to the last page.
- Setting(s) – Where your story takes place will shape the narrative, characters and everything in between.
- Characters – They carry your narrative and make readers actually care about it
- Conflict – There’s no story without conflict, whether it’s the end of the world or a romantic breakup
- A resolution – While it doesn’t need to be a happy ending, the story needs some resolution.
These elements, the order they go in and the way they’re presented will be key to you structuring your story in a way that maintains interest.
6 Different Ways to Structure a Story
How you tie all the above elements in your story together is entirely up to you. Some people don’t like traditional structures but some people could use the guidance. Here are some methods of how to structure a novel:
Classic Story Structure
Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction outlines a simple and easy way to approach story structure.
His method of how to structure a novel consists of three parts:
- First of all, throw your main character into trouble as soon as possible
- The second step is to make everything that they do to improve their situation actually make it worse. The last thing you want is to make life easy for your characters
- The final step is to ensure that your hero can only succeed by taking action from everything they’ve learned previously in the story. Make them learn from their mistakes and challenges they’ve faced throughout the story.
The good thing about this method is it’s so simple it can be applied to any type of story, no matter the genre. What it highlights is conflict every step of the way.
In Media Res
While not a rigid story structure, In Media Res or “in the midst of things” is a method of starting a story that gets to the point quickly. Rather than taking your time setting the scene and describing everything to ease your reader into the story, they’re dropped quickly into the action.
Now, this doesn’t mean it has to start with an explosion or a high-speed car chase. It just means you start in the middle of something – which can be a great way to get readers interested quickly. If you’re stuck on how to best begin your story, don’t be afraid to skip the beginning.
7-Point Story Structure
Moving onto a slightly more complex story structure, the 7-point story structure breaks the journey into 7 different key points. It emphasises that there needs to be plot turns that break each section up.
The seven points are:
- The Hook – Where your story begins and you introduce the main characters
- Plot Turn 1 – An event introduces conflict into the character’s world and begins the journey
- Pinch Point 1 – Now is the time to apply some pressure to your characters. The most common way is to introduce the main antagonist
- Midpoint – This is where the main characters stop simply reacting to everything around them and finally take action.
- Pinch Point 2 – More pressure should be applied and the story takes a dark turn. Commonly, the characters lose something here and the stakes increase.
- Plot Turn 2 – This is where the character moves towards the resolution – now they know what they need to do and how to stop the antagonist.
- Resolution – This is the final climax of the story and everything falls into place. Either your main characters succeed or fail.
This is a pretty solid structure to follow that I think helps you keep things interesting throughout. There’s a lot of adaptation you could do here to tweak it into something that’s yours.
Three Act Structure
If you prefer a more basic method of how to structure a novel, the three-act structure is a classic. Discussed as early as in ancient Greece, the three-act structure is a way of looking at storytelling in three beats with a chain of cause and effect moments.
- Act 1, The Setup – Here we get some exposition and an introduction to characters. There will also be some kind of inciting incident that sets up the story.
- Act 2, Confrontation – Rising action raises the stakes and gets the story in motion.
- Act 3, Resolution – There’s a final climax of the story which is followed by a fall in action and a resolution of everything at the end.
It’s essentially a beginning, middle and end structure but with a bit more direction.
James Scott Bell’s Two Pillars structure involves imagining a story structure on a suspension bridge. The story is held up by two pillars at either end.
Stories must support the reader’s interest during the middle of the novel. Act 1 will take your reader up to the first pillar, Act 2 is between the two pillars and Act 3 comes after the second pillar.
The first pillar is the real beginning of the novel where your characters are already introduced and everything is set up. Once they have crossed the first pillar, there is no turning back. The second pillar has a similar function and acts as a final tipping point which forces the characters towards the resolution or final battle of the story.
This method of how to structure a novel is good to visualise because sagging middles is a common problem that a lot of writers have, particularly when writing longer novels.
The Hero’s Journey
Finally, the more long-winded one to explain is the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. If you have delved into learning about story structure at all, you’ll have no doubt come across this.
The Hero’s Journey goes like this:
1. Ordinary World
The story starts showing the hero in their natural world, oblivious to the adventure and conflict to come. You get a glimpse into their normal life, see them interact with characters and friends and this step makes the hero more identifiable.
2. Call to Adventure
In some way, the hero’s typical life is interrupted. This could be an unusual phone call, a death or getting fired. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it needs to disrupt the hero’s life in some way.
3. Refusal of the Call
The hero is faced with a decision and knows what they should do but fear settles in and this means that the hero is on the fence about the best way forward. The hero wants to go back to their ordinary life but there will be consequences.
4. Meeting the Mentor
Along the way, the hero meets a mentor-type figure who helps them on their way to make the right decisions, to instil knowledge and wisdom or provide some special training they’ll need later. This gives the hero confidence to start their quest.
5. Crossing the Threshold
This is the part where the hero finally crosses into the rest of the story, via a narrative threshold of some kind. They have left their Ordinary World and there is no going back.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
Now that the hero is fully out of their comfort zone, they will be thrown into a series of challenges which test them. They may be tested by the people and allies around them and wonder who they can trust. They may find that their allies are enemies and vice versa.
7. Approach the Inmost Cave
This can represent a number of things in the narrative and doesn’t necessarily refer to an actual cave. It can of course, if you have a literal cave in your story.
The cave typically refers to a location where there’s a danger or some kind of inner conflict. The hero has so far managed to avoid it but must face it now and prepare to walk into the unknown. This is a great place to elevate the tension and highlight the hero’s doubts and anxiety.
8. The Ordeal
The ordeal in question is the height of the narrative’s conflict and where the hero must face the ultimate danger or an inner crisis which threatens the rest of their quest.
This could refer to defeating an antagonist or it could be working through some inner turmoil that has been holding your character back. At this stage, the hero should use some of what they have learned throughout their journey so far to face this challenge.
9. Seizing the Sword
Once the enemy has been defeated or your character has broken through their ultimate challenge, the hero will typically receive some kind of prize. It can be an object, a title, position of power, a reconciliation with a loved one or something else entirely.
10. The Road Back
Where there was a journey in the beginning, this must be mirrored with the hero returning towards their ordinary world or trying to get there. They may not be the same person they were when they left though.
Even after the bad guy has been defeated, there’s another climax in the story. This is where the hero has a final encounter with death (physical or otherwise) and they are faced with their actions up until now. The hero must defeat a final enemy in some way and emerge reborn and victorious.
12. Return with the Elixir
Finally, the hero gets to return home and brings tales or objects to others. They may be thanked for saving the world or they may settle into ordinary life as if nothing changed (except themselves).
This overall story structure is pretty rigid but the thing to remember here is that the whole thing is a process from the status quo to ultimate change. There is a moment where the hero crosses the point of no return and life is not the same afterwards.
You can see this story structure in classic fantasy novels particularly, like The Lord of the Rings. While the structure might seem very formulaic, I think you can reinterpret a lot of it and adapt it however you want. Some people benefit from a structure like this, whereas others find it limiting.
What Structure Do I Recommend?
Of course, the best one to choose is the one that works for you. There is no one structure which is superior to the others and you don’t have to use any perfectly either.
I think if you’re really struggling with the structure, then the Hero’s Journey provides some detailed guidance to keep you on track. However, not everyone likes it because it can feel a bit limiting. If you prefer just a general idea of what structure to take, then the Three-Act or 7-Point story structures can provide helpful guidance without being too restricting.
I personally like the 7-Point Structure because it’s a bit more detailed than the Three-Act or In Media Res but not so overwhelming to learn as the Hero’s Journey.
If you want, you could even combine a few of these structures or rename the plot points in each one if that’s what works for you best. Whatever helps you write your story is the right way after all.
What Should You Remember from These Structures?
The important thing to remember with any of these story structures is that conflict and progression are key. You always need to keep the story moving and you need to keep the conflict fresh otherwise the story can feel stagnant and like your characters aren’t doing too much.
Make sure you’re not giving your characters an easy time of it. No one likes to read a story where the hero has a perfect journey with just a big boss at the end. Maintain the reader’s interest by throwing conflict at the reader – and different types of it too. You can cause conflict between the main characters, between antagonists, between the characters and the environment or with a character’s inner turmoil.
I hope this has helped provide some guidance if you’re stuck on how to structure a novel. I’d love to hear your thoughts on story structures, whether you love or hate them. Are there any methods of how to structure a novel that you recommend yourself? Please feel free to pop a comment below with your thoughts.