As a novelist, you must handle elemental fictional elements – character, plot and setting – with artistry and polish. Your prose style must be engaging, your scenes energizing, your writing vivid. None of that can work without structure, however. Peter Behrens, author of Carry Me, puts it this way: “Be aware that novels tend to be composed of, first, scenes, and, second, summary. The point is to try to find the balance.”
Balance must be achieved at all levels of your work, with crucially placed drama points that provide emphasis and effective pacing.
Let’s begin with overall structure: the skeletal framework of a novel.
Finding the framework
You might choose the classic five-stage plot structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
You might also choose the three-act structure – setup, confrontation, resolution – familiar to screenwriters. Both structures can be rigid, although novelistic structure can also be loose as long as it includes some sort of beginning, middle and end. What is drama without these three fundamentals, as Aristotle makes abundantly clear in his Poetics? Where is the story?
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“I suspect that for the most part, I fall into the traditional five-stage plot structure intuitively, and that’s likely due to my exposure to the predominant plot structure in the Western literary tradition,” says Julie Iromuanya, author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. Departures from this traditional structure are always risky, she adds.
Margaret Verble, author of Maud’s Line, says that the five-stage story structure remains “the best structure on which to hang a tale.” Only seasoned writers, she says, should consider experimenting with “funky structures.” Beginning writers should avoid them.
However tried and true the five-stage plot structure, authors find reasons to make slight departures from it. In his debut novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen deviates in a minimal but important way.
“I was aware of the five-stage plot structure, partially through long exposure to it as a student and partially because I wanted my novel to work as genre fiction in addition to being literary fiction,” he says.
Yet Nguyen deviates from traditional when a mid-novel interlude veers off the “explicit narrative of a spy caught in history.” Here, Nguyen’s spy becomes a film consultant on an epic Vietnam War movie shot in the Philippines.
“Perhaps this was a digression from the five-stage plot,” he says, “but I couldn’t help myself. This was my revenge on Hollywood’s Vietnam War, and I was going to take it.”
Although this interlude breaks with the “straightforward action” typical of the five-stage story, it serves to enhance this traditional structure.
“The climax and denouement of the section in the Philippines, halfway through the novel, foreshadows the climax and denouement of the entire novel toward the end,” says Nguyen.
The interlude underscores Nguyen’s final authority in the structure department. In the end, the author has to be true to his creativity.
When drafting a novel, Behrens never thinks in structural terms. He doesn’t fixate on plot. Instead, he follows characters, sometimes having “a vague sense of the place where the characters end up – their moral, mental, emotional, tactile and sensual surroundings at the end of the story.”
For him, writing a novel is “trying to learn more about that place and figuring out how [characters] got to that place from where they started.” The first draft goes fast. In the revision stage, Behrens turns a critical eye to structure.
“When I see the thing as a whole for the first time and know the story,” says Behrens, “I go back to the storytelling and try to establish a structure that will keep the story moving at the right pace, engage the reader and get to where I want to go.”
He learned about story structure from his screenwriting background and in post-production editing.
“There are a zillion ways to cut a story up and assemble it,” he says. “The movie is made in the editing room.” Behrens speculates that the structure of Carry Me emerged when he “started scissoring it apart and reassembling it.”
Bernice L. McFadden, author of Sugar and eight other novels, also doesn’t focus on structure in a first draft. For her, it’s best to let the story unfold instead of working with a linear approach. Often she writes the ending before the beginning.
“If the rising action comes early on,” says McFadden, “I write it down and build the exposition around it.” When she reads drafts, McFadden is confident that “the structure will unquestionably reveal itself.”
Usually, it’s not the standard five-stage plot – more like “piecing a puzzle together,” she says – but it does include a beginning, middle and end.
Key structural elements
Outside of traditional plot structures, character development also affects structure.
If you’re writing a character-driven versus a plot-driven story, your characters must be “multi-layered, much like an onion,” says McFadden, or “round,” as E. M. Forster says in Aspects of the Novel.
“How and when you choose to peel back a layer to reveal another quality or trait of said character is just as important to the story as rising action, falling action and climax,” says McFadden.
You mustn’t unload a multi-faceted character in one fell swoop. Good character revelation is a matter of judicious timing – and that’s structure.
A protagonist’s “active goal,” says Verble, will serve as a major organizing device for a novel. It is, she says, “the muscle of the story, the conflict between what the character wants, or thinks she wants, and the obstacles, both external and internal, thrown in the way.”
Verble holds that this crucial structural device should be evident “in clear language” early in the novel. By page three in Maud’s Line, the reader learns about the main character’s situation, what she wants and her need to be free from “meanness and violence.” This structural device, says Verble, keeps both writer and reader on track.
The character arc is ultimately generated from the character’s active goal, providing a thread from page one to the end. Because of the character’s experience, fleshed out in scenes, summary and expository sections, a protagonist comes to some sort of knowledge, some recognition regarding self and world. This usually means a confrontation with self.
“I’ve always believed that as a writer, it’s my job to force my characters to face the very things they fear the most in the space of the narrative,” Iromuanya says. “In the best writing, that ‘thing’ is themselves.” In real life, she points out, people may confront their true selves only a few times, but fiction offers other imaginative possibilities.
For dramatic tension, says Iromuanya, this encounter with self is essential to character growth or change. In some cases, characters will be willing to face certain truths about themselves, and in other cases, they will shun these truths.
As a novelist, Iromuanya believes it is her job to create the right circumstances at the right time for those who are willing to confront themselves and to chase “down characters who resist coming face to face with their truest reflection.” For her, it’s a matter of structuring the drama points just right for both kinds of characters.
If matters of character become important structural issues, the handling of time, especially in novels that deal with historical events, is equally important.
“I am usually trying to write stories that span a longish time – decades,” says Behrens, who has written two previous novels.
For him, effective structure is critical in handling historical contexts. Behrens doesn’t consider himself a historical novelist, but he does create social and psychological novels dealing with characters based on the past.
He writes fiction to “investigate the various claims the dead generations seem to have upon me.” Structurally, Carry Me centers on key historical events as Europe goes into its near-death spiral in between 1910 and 1938.
Events in his work include the declaration of war in 1914, Hitler’s speeches in 1927, the Irish Rising in 1916 and Kristallnacht in 1938. While historicity isn’t his main purpose, it provides the skeleton of his novel. He seeks an overall pattern that unifies his social-psychological themes with related historical contexts.
Additional structural patterns
Structural features beyond those discussed here are also options in novels.
The journey structure is a classic organizing device, often serving not only character and plot but also theme. This was a useful device in Behrens’ first novel, The Law of Dreams, which he calls “bare bones, simple and straightforward.”
Except for a short prologue, this novel is narrated from the point of view of a young Irish boy from the hills of East Clare. The journey motif allows Behrens to follow the boy over the course of a year as he makes his way to America. For Behrens, the journey structure worked because the story was about immigration and refugee flight.
Another approach is to use a circular structural element, as in Iromuanya’s Mr. and Mrs. Doctor in which an extravagant fur coat becomes not only symbolic but also crucial to advancing plot and character. Iromuanya builds on the metaphor of the fur coat as an organizing thematic pattern.
A structural feature can work in one section of the novel, if not the whole. In the prologue to her novel Glorious, McFadden uses an if-then refrain throughout.
“While this is typical of a song or poem, it is not often seen in novels,” she says. “I believe this technique was as powerful and impactful as an unforgettable opening sentence – except this wallop goes on for pages. The promise is made in those echoing lines and ultimately fulfilled at the close of the story.”
Multiple points of view
You may decide that your novel calls for more than one point-of-view character, which is more complicated. The question becomes: Whose story is it?
Once you do decide on point of view, the question of structure follows. How do you determine whether to divide the story into sections devoted to a specific character or to use alternating point-of-view chapters?
In her novels Loving Donovan and Nowhere Is a Place, McFadden found the characters were complex and layered enough so that she had to give them each a voice. A three-part novel, Loving Donovan is written in three point-of-view sections. Nowhere Is a Place uses alternating chapters to represent narratives shifting between the past and the present.
In both novels, McFadden chose to handle point of view “in such a way that the personal and historical pasts wouldn’t go unnoticed, because what happened ‘before’ is critical to what is happening in the now.”
The two methods create distinct effects. Alternating viewpoints by chapter worked for Behrens as long as the shifts didn’t occur within the chapter.
“I want the characters, their voices and ways of seeing, to each own their own piece of ground within the book,” he says. “Maybe I’m afraid of confusing readers or confusing myself if I blend different POVs in smaller fragments or alternate constantly within a chapter.”
For Iromuanya, alternating points of view by chapter and even within chapters was the best choice in Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. “Most of the novel shifts back and forth between the perspectives of Job and Ifi, the husband and wife at the center of the novel,” she says. “But there are also moments when the point of view shifts to Aunty and their son, Victor. When I started the book, I thought I would only be in the point of view of Job, but as I wrote, each chapter called for a different perspective.” This difference in perspective becomes crucial to her novel. “So much of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor is about the differences between reality and dreams,” says Iromuanya, “and in some cases the best way to magnify perception to the point of distortion is through shifting point of view.” Thus, point-of-view shifts emphasize significant differences in Iromanya’s characters’ perceptions. With a different structure, the novel would not provide the emphasis she’s after.
Good fiction requires handling major story elements with disciplined artistic control. Most of what happens in good fiction happens in revision. You pound out your novel in scene, summary and exposition; then, in revision, you go at it with an acutely critical eye, seeking the right balance, the right structure. And you may find your approach, in the end, defies every lesson of structural wisdom. Perhaps it’s the five-stage plot structure. Perhaps it’s the three-stage. Perhaps it’s something of your own making. Whatever fits your project, go with it to create a structure to support your story and characters. Make sure that the various structural elements serve not only character and plot but also theme. After all, structure is the framework your whole fictional world stands on.
Jack Smith is the author of Write and Revise for Publication and two satirical novels, Hog to Hog, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and Icon.
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