How to Structure a Novel #Writetip

Here on Daily (w)rite, author and editor Michael Dellert has spoken about how start a novel, a post that continues to be popular. Today he’s here to talk about story structure, with fantastic tips on how to structure a novel, some of which I highlight below for you in blue.


Story Structure: Romance of Eowain
Romance of Eowain

Many writers don’t consider the science behind the creative art of writing a novel or story structure. But having worked both sides of the book business (author v. publisher), I can tell you: there is certainly a science to story structure in a novel.

“Great is the art of beginning,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “But greater still is the art of ending.”

Beginnings are easy. The real trick is to keep a story running without stalling or blocking, to reach the end. To do this, you need a roadmap for getting to the end. That’s where the science of story structure comes in.

Story Structure: Ideal Novel Length

For our purposes here, we’ll stick with the basics: the Three Act Story Structure. With a basic plot structure and some characters in mind, you just write your book and let it end wherever it wants to end, right?

No. Before you get started, you need to determine the correct length for your novel. Plenty of good reasons for this, but the most important is very simple: goal-setting. Knowing your target word-count helps you determine how many scenes you need, and how many viewpoint characters you can use. But how can you know all this from a simple word-count ?

Story structure: Scenes, Viewpoint Characters, and Word-Count

In 1998, the highly-successful literary agent, Evan Marshall, published a how-to-write-a-novel guide entitled, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. It’s a highly formalized, structured approach to novel writing, not dissimilar from other plans such as The Snowflake Method. Some decry The Marshall Plan for being too “formulaic.” This is absolutely true, so whether this approach to “art” is for you or not is for you to decide, but as a method for understanding the basics of story structure, I recommend it.

In Part Two of The Marshall Plan, Mr. Marshall puts forward a chart called “The NovelMaster.” For the purpose of illustration, I’ve reproduced a portion of this chart here:

Novel Story Structure Marshall Plan
Novel Story Structure: Marshall Plan
  1. As you can see, the left column presents a word-count range for the entire length of your novel. For a novel in each given range, the chart then indicates how many scenes should appear in the Beginning, how many in the Middle, and how many at the End, as well as the total count of scenes for the novel.
  2. But this is where the genius of this chart really emerges. For each word-count range, the chart also indicates the maximum number of viewpoint characters, and goes on to show the distribution of scenes among those characters. So a novel of 50,000 words should have 40 scenes total, 10 at the beginning and the end, with 20 in the middle. It should have no more than 2 viewpoint characters, the lead and a secondary character (sidekick, romantic interest, villain, etc).
  3. The lead character always gets the lion’s share of scenes in the story (in this case, 24 scenes), and secondary characters receive correspondingly fewer scenes (in our example, our secondary character would have 16 scenes). An epic monster of 100,000 words would have 80 scenes (distributed 20/40/20), with four viewpoint characters, and scenes distributed 48/11/11/10 by character.
  4. This is the method that I use to structure, organize, and inspire my own work, such as my recent 70,000-word novel, The Romance of Eowain. Below, you can see the roadmap I used to get me from the first word to the last word of the story structure.
Story structure of Romance of Eowain
Story structure of Romance of Eowain

5. I broke up my story idea into scenes, then broke down those scenes by viewpoint characters. I then assigned actions to each scene, and described those actions from a single character’s point of view.

Just because one starts from a formula doesn’t mean one’s story is necessarily slaved to that formula. By no means was I slavish to this plan.

  • My initial goal was to write a 65,000 word novel, but this grew to 70,000 words during rewrites.
  • In one scene, I used alternating POVs to represent both sides of a board game.
  • In another scene, I elided briefly from the main character to a secondary character and back again.

Any formula should be nothing more than a jumping off point, and innovation and experimentation with the form should be at the front of any writer’s mind. But getting from the beginning to the end of a draft is essential to becoming a published author, because one can’t edit what ain’t writ.

This method has proven over and over again to be successful in getting me from beginning to end and back again, but every writer’s process is different. What are some tricks you use to get to that draft done?


Michael Dellert Story structure tips for Novel
Michael Dellert

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He currently lives and works in the Greater New York City area. His third book, The Romance of Eowain, is a Celtic medieval fantasy adventure-romance set in his Matter of Manred universe. You can learn more about Michael on his blog, Adventures in Indie Publishing, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

 Do you structure your novel beforehand? If yes, do any of your novels follow the plan above? Finished a novel and have tips for those who want to do the same? Do you have questions for Michael on how to start your novel? Have at it in the comments!

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  1. aj vosse

    Flip… looks like a scientific research project! I know there must be a structure but sometimes “gut feel” should be allowed to let the art come through!
    I’m sure the great writers of the past used some sort of planning derived from mental intuition and forethought but not a rigid “road map” for their novels.
    Maybe that’s why I’ve drifted to short stories… easy, well, not as formulaic. OK… someone will soon prove me wrong there as well and suggest a fixed structure. Maybe that’s why they’re published and I’m still clattering away at the keyboard! Gut feel got me nowhere! 😉

  2. dgkaye

    Fantastic share on writing structure. Although I’m inclined to pants through my writing, I still work with my own version of an outline. If I keep reading great info on structure like this post, perhaps my pantsing will eventually turn more into a plotter. 🙂

  3. cleemckenzie

    I’ve tried to structure my stories and I’ve failed every time, so I’m a pantser. I read your post with interest and the hope that some of it will stick and help me over to the other side of writing. I do finish my stories and I do publish them, but I know with better planning I could do it faster and probably better.

    • mdellert

      That you finish and publish is the most important thing, so congratulations! From my own experience, I know I’m a bit of both. Structure helps me with theme development and most of all with getting dates on the calendar and meeting them, but on a scene by scene basis, I’m much less structured than this article might suggest. I do believe in creating characters and then following their lead, but it was the blending of that method and this one (among others) that has really helped me to streamline my writing process and bring work to market more efficiently (three titles in under a year). If there’s anything I can do to help, do just let me know, but it seems like you’re well on your own way too, so keep writing! 🙂

  4. J.R.Bee

    I suppose it’s a good thing to look at if stuck, but it can be a dangerous thing to get bogged down with the ‘maths’ of of creating a story.

    • mdellert

      Agreed. It’s still an art, and no amount of arithmetic will make one’s prose sing, but story structure is a major part of the craft behind the art when working on something as long as a novel. Having an understanding of the principles is important, and as you say, can provide a framework for pushing through “writer’s block” when all else fails. But when the tools become a crutch to creativity, rather than an aid, then the tools are being used wrongly.

  5. literarylad

    OK, looking at my previous comment I can see that I’ve been unduly harsh, and I’m very sorry! I do still think the Marshall Plan type of approach is ridiculous. The length of a novel depends very much on what you want to put across and the level of detail you want to put in. Different writers work in different ways. Many writers do start with an idea and just let the book develop as they go along, and it can be a very successful strategy.

    • mdellert

      No worries, and I would never propose that this “Plan” is right for everyone. The length of a novel does indeed depend on one’s goals in writing it. If one wants to write an epic fantasy of Tolkien-esque proportions, 65,000 words isn’t going to cut it. A cozy mystery of 150,000 words would likewise be wrong for the usual audience for such things. A commercial “literary” novel (I have problems with that label for several reasons, not least because it ghettoizes some of the finest literature I’ve ever read, but that’s another discussion) is typically about 75000-90000 words. And all of these considerations of word-count are market- and cost-driven, without regard for artistic considerations. My own goal in providing this sort of advice is to help writers become commercial authors, and so market factors must, per force, come into play in such discussion, distasteful as it is to many (even often times to myself in my own role as artist). Certainly one point I agree with you wholeheartedly on is that every writer works differently (as the comments here alone prove), and I would be the last to say that we must all work factory-style in the same way. The diversity and innovation of our profession would quickly be stifled, and indeed, though this “industrial” production pleases many publishers for their own business reasons, it has certainly contributed to the generally poor offerings presently available in the field. And to those writers who can start with an idea and follow it successfully wherever it leads without any conscious regard for structure, my hat is off. I personally prefer a combination of approaches, and believe that a little structural advice can go a long way toward helping those seeking success in the field. I do sincerely wish you the best of luck with “Single Point Perspective” and your other fine projects. Thanks very much for the discussion. 🙂

      • literarylad

        Thank you! It does help to be given an insight into the way other writers work, and I suspect some of it may come in useful, albeit sub-consciously. I’ll probably continue to work in the way I do now, as it seems to work for me. And I’ll probably remain unpublished because of it! Never mind. Good luck with your work.

        • mdellert

          Thank you! Sometimes the most important insight one can get from another writer is, “My gods, I could never do it that way!” But brother, I’m a big proponent of “The Way That Gets One Through The Night,” no matter what it is in any particular case. Cheers! 🙂

  6. literarylad

    ‘Marshall Plan?’ – wasn’t that something from WW1? Is it only me, or is anyone else fed up with people telling them how to write? Maybe this kind of formulaic approach works for a ‘Celtic, medieval, fantasy-romance’ set in the writer’s own ‘universe’, but it’s got nothing to do with literary fiction. Perhaps publishers go for this kind of nonsense. I wouldn’t be surprised – it would explain a lot about what’s wrong with the publishing industry now.

    • mdellert

      Yes, the original Marshall Plan was an American plan for Europe’s post-WWII economic recovery. And this approach is applicable to any genre (see for Evan Marshall’s current stable of clientele). Mine happens to be fantasy, which is as literary as any other. But of course, this method (and any method) is not necessarily for every writer. A writer’s method is as unique as their fingerprint. As for what’s wrong with the publishing industry right now, that discussion could fill volumes. Best of luck with your work. 🙂

  7. D. Wallace Peach

    This is interesting, Damyanti. I’ve alway balked at the proscribed story structures as they feel stifling to me. But that said, there are always pearls of wisdom in the reasons and good ideas to be implemented. I enjoyed the post 🙂

    • mdellert

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Agreed that these sort of formulae *can* be stifling if they are followed slavishly, and I would never recommend doing so. I have about five different methods that I’ve studied, including this one and the Snowflake Method, and I have a Masters in English Literature, so I’ve studied practical examples of literature as well. By finding the “pearls of wisdom” and leaving the rest, I’ve cobbled together a system that works well for me. The most important advice I could give anyone is to never let the method strangle the unborn story. Tell the story that wants to be told.

      • D. Wallace Peach

        Thanks so much for the reply. When I started writing it was pantser creative chaos and I was hooked. That “inspired” experience, despite how much revision it entailed, was vital to me (and still is). As a serious writer, I think it’s important to learn the craft and do the hard work, while still honoring my creative process and the story. It’s not a melee anymore, I’m happy to say. Now, I birth the story in a fluid outline, grow it, lay the seven point story structure over the outline, and use it simply as a tool to tweak and strengthen before I begin. In a series, I apply it to each book and the series as a whole. So I use the tools, but loosely and after the story has taken shape. I could talk writing all day long! Thanks for the discussion 🙂

        • mdellert

          See now, that is what I love to hear. Similarly, when I first got hooked on writing, it was “the jazz” (as I call it) that first drew me in, that energizing sense of inspiration that makes time disappear and transports us into the world of our own stories. I would *never* give that up, not for love, money, life, or limb, it’s essential to storytelling. And I think your approach is dead-on in this particular: “use the tools, but loosely.” Whether applied before or after the story has taken shape is, I think, where writers differ most one from another, but it’s that “holding it loosely” part, allowing the story to develop organically within whatever method/structure one uses, that really makes one successful as a writer, and encourages innovation and experimentation within the field. 🙂

  8. Alana Mautone (@RamblinGarden)

    Reading this (and the comments, which are just as informative) I know I have a lot to learn. My couple of NaNoWriMo manuscripts have never gotten past the 50,000 word free writing stage. And, as a pantser, I do need some structure.

    • mdellert

      There’s always more to learn. I admire pantsers who can get to the end immensely, but I’ve met many who can’t. Even something as simple as a well-thought-out beginning/middle/end before one sets out can often help clarify one’s goals, without impinging too much on the freewheeling and very exciting pantser style of composition.

  9. Joy Pixley

    Wow, this is so amazingly well-organized and planned out, I am in awe! I appear to be a plotter by nature, and yet I don’t think I followed a single one of these rules, and definitely did not have a spreadsheet. This could be one of the many reasons that my first draft is a total disaster and more than twice as long as I want it to be. Oops! I love the idea that The Answer is a spreadsheet, because I am such a rabid fan of spreadsheets.

    • mdellert

      Thanks for the good word, Joy! 🙂 Though I would stop short of calling them “rules.” Advice, maybe, guidelines at most. But if you’re a fan of spreadsheets, I’m your huckleberry. The spreadsheet for Romance of Eowain is some twelve pages. There’s the plot sheet (reproduced here), the timeline (days of the story, broken down by hour), individual scene goals, with actions and reactions, etc. But I think the real “Answer” (if there is one) is simple goal-setting. Set a word-count goal for each scene and the work as a whole, put a date on the calendar by which to accomplish one’s work, and then be diligent about working toward that goal while being true to the vision. You may not have noticed, but the line-graph in the second figure shows my actual word-count per scene in orange, versus the blue-line base goals by scene. Toward the end of the story, my scenes became very short, while in the beginning and middle, there were scenes nearly twice longer than my goal. The needs of the story have to supersede one’s best-laid plans in the end, but the plan helps you get to the ultimate need: the need to be finished. 🙂

      • Joy Pixley

        You have your timeline broken down by *hour*? You are officially more spreadsheet-obsessed than I am, Michael! (I’m building my timeline on Aeon, and so far only have it down to the day, but I do have events ordered within the day sometimes.)

        I’m still not totally convinced that every novel has to follow the same three-act structure, and I’m definitely not convinced that every chapter should have the same word count goal. But being more organized and setting clearer goals? Sure, I can get behind that. Thanks so much for sharing your process; it’s always useful to see how other writers do it.

        • mdellert

          Sometimes, to particular minutes within an hour. For example, the culture in my milieu measures time by astronomical phenomenon, so my timeline notes sunrise, sunset, moon rise, and moon set, moon phase, tides, and so. These vary by day and season as they do in our own world. The timeline helps me understand how events fall out for characters in different locations at the same time of day (so I have a setting sheet as well), and I can make references to phenomena (like moon phase or position of sun) common in both locations to give a sense of relative time. This helps me hold the story continuity together, so two characters in different places at the same time are both looking at the same phase of the moon at the same relative place in the sky, and so on.

          And I would be the last person to say that a 3-Act structure is the only way to go. Shakespeare used 5-Acts, and I would never take issue with the Bard. Others use 4-Acts, some use 8-Sequence structure. And there are variations on any of them, for linear and non-linear styles of storytelling, etc. The literary tradition goes back to ancient Sumeria, so there are gazillions of ways to tell a story. 3-Act happens to be my baseline for discussion purposes.

          Nor do I mean to suggest that every chapter should have the same word-count. For goal-setting purposes, I divide my target total word-count by the number of scenes simply to find a base-line goal (i.e., if I’m working on scene 32 today, and I expect to meet my final goal, then scene 32 should have about X words in order to contribute to that final goal). But then I let each scene find it’s own natural level as I write (I’m more pantser-style in the actual execution, despite the fore-planning). And I’ve lately been incorporating feedback from different metrics, such as my Wattpad analytics, to fine-tune what market expectations seem to be. But a scene with more action may be more terse than the goal, while a reaction scene may be more verbose. Each scene ultimately has its own needs.

          Glad to share. 🙂

          • Joy Pixley

            Flexibility on the number of acts is a virtue, I’d say. I see too many posts where people seem to assume there’s only one correct way to structure — and they really do talk about “rules.”

            I am amazed that you can get so much written so quickly and still keep track of details like moon phases! Well, this has given me one thing to feel less stressed about in my own WIP: at least I don’t have to worry about whether the sun has risen by this particular time somewhere else in my world. So all the other complexities feel relatively simpler now, whew!

            • mdellert

              “Rules” are arbitrary and only exist to be broken. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. And now I may have to write a post about the 8-Sequence structure, just to show some range. 😉

                • mdellert

                  The people have spoken! (Or at least the wonderful Joy Pixley!) Look for a discussion of the Eight-Sequence structure this Thursday 7/14 (Bastille Day! Vive le France!) on the Adventures in Indie Publishing blog at 🙂

    • mdellert

      There’s a lot of Marshall’s plan that I find absolutely essential anymore when I’m planning out my stories. And if you liked his approach to reaction scenes, I’d recommend “Scene & Structure” by Jack Bickham (, which is an entire volume on the subject of action and reaction scenes. 🙂

      • Damyanti Biswas

        I used it, Michael, and it helped me as a guideline. I’ve now left it behind, but it gave me the essential checklist to work with–in genres like crime and fantasy, structuring in crucial. And to my mind, some of the most successful literary stories also pay some attention to structure.

        • mdellert

          I remember our discussion about it when we were working together through your wonderful crime novel, Damyanti. I’m so glad it was helpful to you. I agree, even experimental literary works must pay some attention to structure, even if only to find new ways to approach it. And yes, once one has mastered the use of any tool, it then just becomes part of the toolbox, to be taken out as needed. No sense using a sledgehammer when a screwdriver will do the job. 😉

  10. Glynis Jolly

    I like the idea of using the formula as a loose guide. Yes, it is a little too formal but the basic idea would keep me in better focus of what I need next along the path of writing the story.

    • mdellert

      I always recommend a broad study of different methods/formulae, but a giant lick of salt with each one. The single most important thing one can do is find the method that best matches one’s own personality and working style. This formula is a part of my own method, but hardly the end-all of it. I try to find (as D Wallace Peach said above) the “pearls of wisdom,” the elements that work best for me, from a variety of different methods, as well as study practical examples of works of fiction. As Stephen King said, “a writer who doesn’t read doesn’t have the tools to write.”

    • mdellert

      I’m glad you found it useful! “Pantsers” who make it up as they go along and still successfully get to the end obviously don’t need a method like this, but as a former pantser who never got to the end until I tried this out, I definitely agree that a lot of planning up front saves me a lot of time and trouble down the road.

  11. Indira

    Thanks for sharing this dear. So many stories have died unnatural death just because I could not give them a good end. It’s helpful post.

  12. jeanleesworld

    I was actually reading another writer’s bit about “pantsing” vs. “plotting,” and that the important thing one needs to do is combine the best of the two–“plantsing.” (Not sure if that term will catch on, but anyway…) It sounds like you’ve reached the same strategy through a more numerical path. Clearly, this form’s got legs, feet, and running shoes for a marathon.
    …what an odd metaphor. ANYway. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 xxx

    • mdellert

      “Plantsing” — It’s sweeping the nation! 😉 But yes, for myself, I do a lot of very thorough, high-level planning like this up front, but then do my pantsing in small doses, from the beginning to the end of each scene. I’m also never afraid to go back and tweak the plan: moving scenes around, changing the original plan for which POVs appear where, and so on. I never lay my plan in concrete at the beginning. And there is absolutely a place in the creative process for just taking off the restraints and following a character wherever they want to go, but by using this method, I can make sure that wherever the character goes, eventually he ends up at the end where I need him. All roads lead to Rome (Rome being the finished draft, in this case).

      • jeanleesworld

        Indeed! I’ve used extremely thorough outlines before, but I could tell my characters’ motivations were no longer natural. I’m going to try your method now–fingers crossed! 🙂

  13. lucciagray

    I like the division into scenes and three basic parts. That’s the way I plan my novels. I have about the same number of scenes, too between 40-45, about 1 sometimes 2 per chapter, but my three parts are roughly the same length, so there’s an equal balance of scenes in each part. So its 3 parts and 30 chapters more or less. This has worked for me.
    Regarding the point of view, this proposal doesn’t work for me at all. I need more points of view. Fewer points of view is safe and easier for the reader, and I read and enjoy books with 1 or 2 narrators, but I think it can be more enriching to work with more points of view. It’s more challenging for readers and writers, but the results are worth it.

    • mdellert

      I like to make my Act Two about 50% of my total, with Acts One and Three about 25% each. This encourages me to get to the action fairly quickly, and too wrap it up without going on too long, and leaves me lots of room for complications and disasters in between. Certainly more points of view are possible, and more challenging to write and read. I’d be concerned myself that I wasn’t giving each point of view enough “coverage” without expanding the word count, but like I say, any formula should be a jumping off point for innovation, not a slave-driver. With 40-45 scenes total, what is your average total work count? I’m curious to see where on the scale your work falls versus how many POVs this plan recommends. It might be an interesting experiment for myself during NaNo this year to push the limits on this formula and see how many POVs I can get away with.

      • mdellert

        I just had a look at “All Hallows at Eyre Hall” which is 330 pages and 35 lines per full page, so using the standard publishing formula, that’s a word count of about 104,000 words (page count x full page line count x 9 = word-count). And you say you have more than four viewpoint characters in a work that length? Or just more than the 2 POV characters suggested for a work of 40-45 scenes? Now I’m really curious to know more.

  14. C.E.Robinson

    Michael, the Marshall Plan makes sense! It’s for me after writing “go with the flow” for the first 10,000 words! Now that I have a good sense of the story, even the last chapter surprise ending, I’m ready for structure! Thanks for that! 💛 Christine Elizabeth (CE)!

    • mdellert

      My pleasure, Christine! I often do quite a lot of free-writing as I test out story ideas, and these can sometimes amount to quite a lot of words as well. Then, once I’ve decided on a particular story line that I want to pursue to its ending, that’s when I start looking hard at the structure of that whole work. You’ll have to keep in touch as you flesh out your story and let me know how this method is working out for you! 🙂

  15. grandmapeachy

    I like the roadmap analogy. Just because you have a map doesn’t mean you don’t take side trips and back roads along the way to your destination. With the map you don’t get lost but you can see a lot more along the way.

    • mdellert

      Hi Grandma Peachy! Always good to see you around the blogosphere! That’s precisely the say I see it: the roadmap shows you shortest distance between A and Z, but it still allows for digressions and site-seeing, and you can still find your way back to the highway whenever you’re ready. 🙂

  16. Southpaw, HR Sinclair

    I find the science behind writing fascinating. It’s like the idea that odd numbers of things appeal to people more than even, but knowing when the ‘even’ adds intrigue is good to know.

    • mdellert

      Right. You can repeat something three times and it adds “gravitas” to it, but if you repeat it two or four times, it rings a discordant chord (which one may want in certain circumstances). Another “science behind the art” idea I had recently was to correlate my word counts per scene to the number of “completed reads” of those scenes in my Wattpad published stories. While there might be a very large number of factors that play into why a scene gets completely read, I could clearly see that longer word-counts and shorter word-counts resulted in fewer completed reads, and that there was a “sweet spot” of about 1500-2000 words per scene that seemed to get the most completed reads (70% and above). So in my recent novel, I made a point of aiming for that sweet spot more often than not. 🙂

    • mdellert

      I’m glad you like it, thanks. A lot of writers are “pantsers,” but I meet many of them who try to “go with the flow” and yet never get to the end. I used to be one of them myself until I incorporated this into my own process, and the difference between then and now in my productivity has been stark!