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.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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 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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