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A Guide to Story Structure

novel writing techniques starting to write Nov 25, 2022
story structure is often about balancing falling action with rising action

Before we get into the specifics of different story structures, it’s worth considering the importance of having a solid scaffold for your tale. Although structuring your story might seem like a lot of work, it’s indispensable – for you and for your readers. 

Firstly, let’s dispense with any supposed artistic concerns. Employing a story structure doesn’t hinder your big idea or your creativity; it serves both. The structure of your novel can serve your theme, in fact, it should serve the theme, and it can almost perform the theme.

What’s more, many, many writers find that a tight story structure actually frees their creativity. Just think of how much of the world’s most beautiful, impactful literature is carefully structured poetry or verse… 

When you don’t need to worry about the overall architecture of your story, you cut to the good bits. You can bring it to life once it’s not so indeterminate and shapeless. 

And without a solid narrative structure to hang your story on, readers will feel, at best, lost, or, at worst, uninterested. Trying to follow a meandering tale feels frustrating and futile, and it sucks up all of our capacity to be gripped by characters or plot

So, if you were doubting whether to continue with this guide to story structure, we hope you’ve put those doubts to rest. Structure really is both a gift and a necessity. 

  1. When to create your story structure 
  2. Getting started with story structure 
  3. Narrative structure: beginning, middle and end
  4. Story structures to consider
  5. Story structures with multiple timelines
  6. Structuring chapters
  7. Top tips for structuring a novel
  8. Further reading

 

When to create your story structure

As you’ll know if you’ve used our resources, at The Novelry we believe in tools over rules. It should come as no surprise that we don’t think there’s one ‘right’ time to decide on a plot structure (although knowing what your inciting incident is before you start writing is often wise). 

As well as personal preference, factors like your routine, deadlines and – perhaps most significantly – genre will affect how early you choose a story structure, and how detailed it needs to be. 

Plots with lots of twists and turns; mysteries that drip-feed clues to readers; epic quests with increasingly arduous adventures: these stories, for example, can be simpler to write with a good idea of what happens when.  

But even for quieter, character-driven stories, having some notion of the scenes you’ll write and how they fit together can be a helpful guiding light.

rising action is a key part of story structure

The benefits of having a skeleton before you start writing

So, if you feel ready and able, it might be helpful to have some outline of the entire story (or its major plot points) before you start writing your novel. Knowing the basic structure could help keep you focused and give you direction, stopping you from getting lost in lengthy character descriptions (because you may well know them if not what the protagonist decides to do by the end), or excessive world-building.

More than that, it takes the paralysing edge off the blank screen, and breaks the undeniably mammoth feat of novel writing into manageable chunks. It also helps avoid writing yourself into a corner, unsure of where you or your characters can turn next. 

And again, having some sort of outline of your narrative structure, its major events and your character arcs can make for a better reading experience, and improve the writing one. If you know what’s to come, and have some inkling when it will come, you’ll be in a better position to employ powerful foreshadowing, clue-dropping, scene-setting and character development. And those all make for very satisfying, engaging reads.

That being said, if you’re swept up in the euphoric energy of inspiration, write away! But at some point (as a rough estimate perhaps at the 10,000-word mark), you might want to take a step back and survey your work. Can you mould it into one of the structures we’ll outline below? 

Having an idea of your structure takes the paralysing edge off the blank screen, and breaks the undeniably mammoth feat of novel writing into manageable chunks. It also helps avoid writing yourself into a corner, unsure of where you or your characters can turn next. 

If you really want to go ahead and finish a whole first draft without pausing to consider plot structure, there’s nobody to stop you. But it’s likely to create quite the mess to untangle – picture a basket of wool and some naughty kittens…

 

Your story structure isn’t set in stone 

For the majority of us who sit between the two famed poles of plotters and pantsers, take heart. The reality of planning your novel’s structure also tends to fall in a middle ground. 

Many writers treat their structure outline as a loose guide. It’s like a mapped route to return to when explorations of plot have become a little too meandering, or a structured workout to fall back on when your gym session has a little too much sitting around deciding what to do next. 

As is often the case, Stephen King provides suggestions and solace on this topic:  

I start a book... knowing just two things: the basic situation and that the story will create its own patterns naturally and organically if I follow it fairly… And by fairly I mean never forcing characters to do things they wouldn’t do in real life… For me, the first draft is all about story. I trust that some other part of me – an undermind – will create certain patterns.
—Stephen King 

As King alludes to, if you’ve done some work on character development and understanding your structure, you’ve already got a great mould to let your story take shape. 

This is also why you shouldn’t let outlining become an obstacle to writing. It’s just a precursor, a gentle warm-up, not the main event. 

For many, a premise, a cast of characters and a handful of scenes are scaffold enough. Doing too much more can become not only a time-suck, but also a limiting prescription. Remember to let yourself play and explore! 

there are lot sof types of story structures to consider 

Getting started with story structure

Let’s start by looking at what makes up a story, and what determines its structure. 

 

The basic building blocks of structure

There are two story elements that form the key building blocks of structure. It can be helpful to define them and their differences: 

  1. The narrative

You might think of this as the landscape of your story. It’s the structural framework, the order and manner in which a story is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. Its structures are plot and setting.

  1.  The plot 

The plot is what you build into the scaffold of your narrative: the events which propel or impede the protagonist’s journey to their conclusion. You could think of the role plot plays for a story as its spine – the vertebrae conducting the movements.

Kenn Adams created a template known as ‘the story spine’ for improv theatre: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

 

How the key elements of narrative and plot relate

A helpful way to distinguish between plot and narrative is by causality, á la E.M. Forster (notice that Adams’s structure, too, hinges on ‘because of that…’). 

The narrative is a sequence of events that happen one after the other. The plot is concerned with how they relate to each other, the domino effect they have. 

‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.  
—E.M. Forster

Forster suggested adding some mystery:

‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’
—E.M. Forster

Getting a feel for the narrative you want to tell – and the plot that gives it shape, meaning and depth – is a helpful starting point for building a story with a compelling structure.

There are a few other story elements you might want to pin down before you choose any structure.

 

Story structure elements to determine 

Story structure isn’t just a random shape you decide to give the events of your narrative. Lots of factors and features will shape your story – and hopefully, make writing it simpler. We’ll begin by outlining those, so you’re ready to start thinking seriously about the best structure for each story you want to tell.

So before you start panicking about story structure, spend some time fleshing out these elements: 

  1. A catchy one-sentence summary/hook for your story
  2. Your protagonist
  3. Their status quo: their surroundings, routine, characters they interact with frequently and so on 
  4. Your protagonist’s driving motivation (an internal, often abstract, underlying value/desire)
  5. Your protagonist’s external goal (the tangible action or change they will (probably) achieve by the end)
  6. A flaw that makes it harder for them to achieve their goal and/or realise their motivation
  7. An inciting incident that interrupts their normal life
  8. Some of the main events this incident incites
  9. The moment of crisis that culminates from the incident and its fallout
  10. The resolution of the chaos you’ve created
  11. Themes you want to explore and/or questions you want your plot to ask/stir up

Remember: you don’t need to have solid answers (or even vague notions) for every single one of these before you start writing. You certainly don’t need full character charts or complex subplots minutely mapped to put pen to paper. But once you’re giving shape to a story you’ve already developed and started to write, these become pivotal. 

As you think about each, remind yourself to ramp up the stakes – constantly. Throw your protagonist into terrible trouble. Ask yourself what will happen to your protagonist if they don’t achieve their goal or honour their motivation. How much chaos and drama can the inciting incident bring? How deep can the protagonist’s crisis be? 

 

Putting together the pieces 

Once you’ve got the building blocks of your story structure, you can think about how they fit together. You could be doing this with little more than a few scribbles outlining the elements above, a one-page summary or even a one-sentence summary. On the other hand, you might even be working with a completed first draft

Either way, it’s good to spend some time ensuring your story structure is coherent and cohesive by answering these questions:

  1. What are the conflicts in your story?
  2. When should they arise for the most impact? Think of both the chronological order of events within your story world, and the order in which you relate these events to your reader.  
  3. How can you arrange passages with different tones to keep readers engaged? How will you space dramatic, active passages; reflective passages; comic relief; intrigue and mystery…
  4. What character arc do you envision for your protagonist? 
  5. Is the overall tension building cumulatively up to your crisis? Will the story maintain its stakes? 

Thinking about these questions can help you shuffle the different building blocks you’ve created and test ways of putting them together.  

think about how the snowflake method developed other stories when you consider story structure  

Narrative structure 

Once you’ve thought about the general shape of your story and the effects you want it to have, you can delve into the three classic building blocks of most stories: the beginning, the middle and the end. These three make up the basic story structure of pretty much any tale. You may have also heard of things like rising action and falling action – it’s all closely related.


Narrative structure: the beginning

Naturally, we’ll start at the beginning – but you may not want to. In fact, our in-depth guide to starting a story recommends revisiting your opening many times throughout the writing and self-editing process. Typically, the first paragraphs of your first draft will not be how your final draft begins, so don’t put too much pressure on your opening in the early stages. 

While the full guide is the place to go for writers really looking to sharpen how their story begins, we can look at some basics for now. Here are a few elements you’ll want to include to create a first act befitting a beautifully structured novel:

  1. Your main character – introduce them as early as possible!
  2. Their flaw/problem/challenge/mission/dilemma – and remember those stakes
  3. The current state of affairs and its issue(s)
  4. An engaging inciting incident – plunge your protagonist into trouble as quickly as you can

Some things to avoid when thinking about how your story begins often include:

  • Introducing too many characters at once 
  • Taking a jogging start to your story – leap into the action and get rid of your throat-clearing paragraphs
  • Describing the appearance of characters or settings in minute detail 
  • Trying too hard to make our fictitious world realistic (for example: we all get up, have a shower, brush our teeth… We don’t need to know the intricacies of the protagonist’s morning routine down to their toothpaste of choice – unless, of course, it’s relevant to the plot or character arc)

 

Narrative structure: the middle 

Lots of writers find that the middle – not the beginning – is the best place to start writing. And it makes sense: the middle of your story is typically when the protagonist is at the extremes of their emotional journey. That makes it a great point to get to know them and their needs, desires and fears. 

So what should the middle section of your story look like? 

In many novels, it involves lots of characters coming and going, plenty of action, and progressively greater challenges and obstacles. It’s therefore important to pace your middle section carefully to keep readers engaged, and to keep threading through your theme and clues of the resolution. 

The middle also contains the all-important midpoint – the true ‘centre’ of your story. This specific moment is where many writers find their way in, and we have lots of advice on starting to write at the midpoint of your novel

The midpoint is the point of no return. We should see your protagonist at their worst and most hopeless. After their crisis comes enlightenment as they realise how they need to transform.

The crux is this: the midpoint is the point of no return. We should see your protagonist at their worst and most hopeless. After their crisis comes enlightenment as they realise how they need to transform to overcome the misfortune or pursue the goal. 

Thus, not only does it uncover the depths of your protagonist, but also reveals much about your true intentions for the story.

If you’re reading the middle sections of your novel and feel they’re a little lacklustre, be sure to read our top tips and fixes for when a story sags in the middle.

 

Narrative structure: the end

Every story ends differently, but a satisfying ending needs to tie everything together and offer some resolution – one that has been earned and built towards. There might be some final conflict the main characters face, or a final battle that determines the victor forevermore.

Whatever you decide, keep in mind that random curveballs are generally not popular with readers, nor are loose ends.

If you’ve created questions, answer them. If you’ve hinted at a love story, give us a clue as to how it ends. If somebody was killed, tell us why and who did it. 

You’ll also want to ensure something has changed significantly compared with how your story begins. We should know whether your hero has or has not achieved their goal; whether their motivation has been realised or has changed; whether they’ve learned or grown. What about the world you created? The problems it had at the start of your novel? Have things improved? Is there something we can learn about our own world? 

Your novel probably won’t close at exactly the moment of resolution. Generally, readers want at least a glimpse of the aftermath. Give us some closure, let us revel in the new (or newly restored) order. For ultimate coherence, leave us with a final image that in some way mirrors or develops the opening image.

story structure is just as important if you're writing a short story 

Story structures to consider

If you know the main character well, have developed your secondary characters, and know the events of your plot inside and out, you might want to try fitting them into different narrative structures. 

As we go through these, remember: all these types of story structures are – at their core – almost identical. In essence:

  1. A protagonist typically begins with an established world order
  2. They enter a new world
  3. Obstacles build to a climax
  4. The hero faces and ultimately resolves the conflict that has driven the story 
  5. Everything settles into a new(ly restored) world order

 

Aristotle’s Tragedy

The first attempt at theorising dramatic structure was that of Aristotle in his Poetics (335 BCE).

His word for ‘Plot’ was mythos, which is Greek for ‘report’ or ‘tale’. According to Aristotle, a plot needs a beginning, middle and an end – your classic three-act structure.

It makes sense that three acts or phases would abound (as we’ll soon see in Freytag’s pyramid): the number three has – mathematically speaking – one of the most solid structures there is. In fact, threes proliferate as foundational structures. From birth, life, death to dawn, day, dusk. Other arts have been theorised in threes, too: Hegel’s dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis; or the sonata in music: exposition, development, recapitulation.

Of course, Aristotle did require that the events in each of the three acts relate to each other:

A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it.

An end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it.

And a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it.
—Aristotle

Aristotle also provided the fundamental building blocks of plot: complication, turning point and denouement. The turning point represents a change in the protagonist’s fortune – in tragedy for the worse. Complication refers to the events that precipitate the turning point, and the denouement is its aftermath.

We explore more of Aristotle’s rules for tragedy in our online fiction writing courses, so make sure you look over the offerings or a book a chat so we can help you find your perfect fit!

 

Freytag’s pyramid

This structure is far less common in modern storytelling, but nonetheless useful to think about. 

It gets its name from a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, Gustav Freytag. It is, in essence, a five-point story structure rooted in the ancient Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles

Here’s how Freytag’s pyramid goes: 

  • Introduction: establishes the ordinary world followed by the inciting incident. 
  • Rise: action and tension build as the main character strives towards their goal. 
  • Climax: the protagonist reaches their point of no return; the initial status quo is no longer an option.
  • Fall: more tension-building as we watch the protagonist struggle onwards in the story’s progression towards the final stage. 
  • Catastrophe: finally we see our main character at their lowest, and watch their deepest fears and everything they sought to avoid come to pass.

You can see from this ending – the point at which this story structure most differs from the classic three acts – why it might be less popular. Simply put, many readers don’t want a tragic ending (although we’re not ruling it out!). 

whether you try a story circle, a parallel structure or just note down all the events we can help you build a story to rival the hunger games  

The 7-Point Story Structure 

Another prevalent story structure, originated by horror writer Dan Wells, is made up of seven key points. 

Despite its roots in horror, the seven-point story structure is incredibly versatile; one classic example is Harry Potter’s quest – fitting given this structure’s resemblance to the Hero’s Journey. 

It’s distinguished from other frameworks perhaps most notably by Wells’s focus on the highs and lows of the narrative arc. 

Here’s the basic outline of this story structure, illustrated by Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

1. The Hook

To begin, you’ll want to draw readers in by showing us an engaging protagonist and their current situation – which they’ll often be at odds with. Usually, it will also be diametrically opposed to the state of things by the end. 

We see Harry Potter living under the stairs.

 

2. First Plot Point 

The main character will soon have some sort of call to action or adventure. This might be in the form of an event, an antagonist, or even an idea. The narrative is jump-started and intensive character growth begins.

Harry learns he has magical powers.

 

3. First Pinch Point

Of course, your hero’s development and adventure can’t be straightforward! That wouldn’t make for a very good story… Hit them with the first ‘pinch point’ quickly: some kind of obstacle that forces them to think, fight, react; in essence, to grow. 

Hogwarts is attacked by a troll, and Harry realises he must save the day – and his friend. 

 

4. The Midpoint

The middle of the seven-point structure is typically some kind of turning point. We see a change in the main character; they start acting rather than reacting, move from passive to active and drive their own story. They step up to the plate and determine to tackle the antagonistic force at the heart of your plot.

Harry conducts research to learn about the Philosopher’s Stone and Voldemort’s determination to get it. He resolves to stand in his way. 

 

5. Second Pinch Point

Despite their newfound resolve and assertiveness, things won’t be smooth sailing. It’s time to hit your protagonist with another pinch point, which wreaks even more havoc than the first. Common blows include discovering an ally was in reality a traitor, losing a guide or mentor, or a plan being foiled.

Harry loses his key allies – Ron and Hermione – as he journeys deeper into Hogwarts and closer to Voldemort. 

 

6. Second Plot Point 

As the dust of the second pinch point begins to settle, your main character realises their capacity to reach their goal – often it was within them (or at least nearby) all along. 

The Mirror of Erised reveals Harry’s inherent worth and bestows the Philosopher’s Stone upon him. Harry defeats Voldemort – for now.

 

7. Resolution

Finally, the primary conflict driving your story is resolved, usually giving us a relatively ‘happy’ final moment. Your main character faces their foe and undergoes the final stages of the fundamental change necessary for their transformation from how they began to who they needed to become. 

Harry vanquishes Voldemort (for now) and is returned to safety along with his friends. 

As well as the Hero’s Journey, you can map this structure onto the three-act structure: 

  • Act one is covered by the first two points
  • Act two is made up of points 3–6 
  • Act three is the resolution – the final point

A top tip if you’re trying out the seven-point structure: its creator encourages writers to begin at the end. Use your resolution to work back to the hook. By understanding your ending, you can create an initial protagonist and set of circumstances that contrast with the resolution

This structure is very much focused on dramatic transformation; if that’s the crux of your story, give it a go!

 

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey structure originally got its name from Joseph Campbell, but has since been streamlined and simplified by Disney executive Christopher Vogler – this later version is the one we’ll look at.

As you’ll probably notice, the Hero’s Journey bears a striking resemblance to other structures – perhaps most notably the three-act structure. Nevertheless, seeing how it’s laid out and where it tends to focus can shine an illuminating light on your story. It’s also one of the most popular story structures – for good reason. It makes for a great story!

Here’s how the Hero’s Journey usually plays out: 

  1. The ordinary world our hero lives in 
  2. Our hero’s call to adventure (a.k.a. the inciting incident)
  3. The initial refusal of the call and impulse to stay in the normal world
  4. The meeting of the mentor
  5. The crossing into a new world (often a guardian of the threshold serves as an obstacle)
  6. Tests, bad guys and friends
  7. Approach to the inmost cave – the hero is forced to step up to the plate
  8. The central ordeal which serves as a major turning point and triumph for the hero – our midpoint
  9. A (brief) reward followed by more conflict
  10. The road back – the hero figures out that, although they’ve accomplished their initial goal, much remains to be done. In fact, that first goal might have made things worse 
  11. Resurrection; the climax
  12. Return with the elixir – the hero returns to their old life triumphant

 

Save the Cat Beat Sheet

Now we come to another framework based on the classic three-act structure. The Save the Cat model was created by Blake Snyder, a celebrated Hollywood screenwriter. Nevertheless, the structure has proven extremely successful across media – including for novels!

And if you’re wondering about the name, it comes from the moment in the story set-up at which the protagonist does something heroic that makes us love them (like save a cat). 

As a side note, Snyder does have a very formulaic approach for screenwriters wanting to use his method, laying out exactly which page of the script each beat should land on. You can find the full beat sheets and lots of other advice on the Save the Cat! website. Of course, novelists needn’t trouble themselves with such specifics, so feel free to ignore them. 

 

Act 1: The Ordinary World – Your Thesis

Beat 1 – Opening image (0–1%)

Begin with a visual image, ideally one that’s attention-grabbing and reflects your theme and tone. It may well be the ‘before’ picture of your protagonist (or their world) – the situation that we’re going to see transformed through your story.

Beat 2 – Theme (5%)

Very soon, we should hear your theme stated clearly. As this is designed for scripts, Snyder suggests it should be in a line of dialogue, usually spoken not by but to your protagonist. It brings attention to their fatal flaw or need for change.

Beat 3 – Set-up (1%-10%)

Show us your main character’s ‘ordinary life’ or status quo. Give us a chance to see how their flaws impact their life. Describe their home, work, and leisure time, as well as the other characters that populate their day-to-day.

Beat 4 – Catalyst (10%)

Now we get to what we’d often call the inciting incident. At about 10% of the way in, Snyder recommends writing the life-changing moment that will trigger your protagonist’s story and transformation.

Beat 5 – Debate (10%-20%)

Of course, your protagonist isn’t going to just accept their new path. They’ll have some internal (or external!) debate: ‘do I really have to make this change/go on this dangerous quest?’. We may see doubt, denial, evasion, or even preparation.

ACT 2: The Upside-Down World – Antithesis

Beat 6 – Break into 2 (20%)

Finally your protagonist accepts their fate and decides to take action. They embrace a new world/new way of thinking. At this point, there’s no turning back.

Beat 7 – B story (22%)

Now we get into a subplot, often centred around love, friendship or mentorship.

Beat 8 – Fun and games (20%-50%)

We get to see your protagonist navigating their new world. This is all about delivering on the promise of the premise. By Snyder’s reckoning, it’s essentially a sizeable chunk providing ‘the movie you came to see.’ It will have plenty of scenes and sequences that feature in the trailer/are hinted at in the book’s blurb.

Beat 9 – The midpoint (50%)

Just like us at The Novelry, Snyder believes the midpoint should raise the stakes for your protagonist. It often takes the form of a false victory or a false defeat. A ticking clock might also be introduced to amplify tension.

Beat 10 – Bad guys close in (50%-75%)

With your stakes and tension raised, your protagonist appears vulnerable and Bad Guys are closing ranks – whether they’re external or internal antagonists.

Beat 11 – All is lost (75%)

Your protagonist seems doomed to failure. Death may feel present – either someone close to the hero has died, or death is a very real possibility. This is rock bottom.

Beat 12 – Dark night of the soul (75%-80%)

Feeling that ‘all is lost’, the protagonist is now allowed to wallow and mourn. They’ll also be able to take stock, and hopefully learn some meaningful lessons that facilitate their ultimate transformation.

ACT 3: Merged World – Synthesis

Beat 13 – Break into 3 (80%)

There’s a new piece of information which finally reveals to your protagonist what they must do to solve all of Act 2’s problems.

Beat 14 – Finale (80%-99%)

We get to the big showdown, the final test. The protagonist shows us they’ve learned their big lesson. The quest is won, the enemy is vanquished, and as the smoke clears, we see the protagonist has transformed. They’ve fixed their flaw and the new world is a better place.

 

Beat 15 – Final image (99%-100%)

Now we get the ‘after’ to complete the ‘before’ you set up in Beat 1. Ideally, it mirrors that opening image and shows how much has changed.

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s prescriptive, but you might be surprised by the number and variety of different stories that fit this structure – and how precisely many of them hit each beat.

 

Genre

Another factor that could impact the structure of your novel is your genre and its expectations. 

Of course, you aren’t married to any genre, nor are you obliged to stick rigidly to its conventions. But thinking about how different genres tend to be paced and structured (and why!) can be a useful exercise. Consider how aspects of each might serve – or hinder – your story and its impact on readers.

Orson Scott Card proposes four story structures, and each of them can be loosely aligned with particular genres as follows:

  • Character stories: literary fiction, drama
  • Event stories: fantasy and historical fiction
  • Milieu stories: children’s, fantasy and science fiction
  • Idea stories: speculative fiction, crime, mystery, thriller

There are other trends too. For example, the Hero’s Journey is popular in fantasy and other speculative fiction, as well as coming-of-age stories. 

As ever, remember that these are patterns not prescriptions!

More generally, here are some structures that plots in each genre often adopt: 

  • Fantasy: a three-part voyage and return (e.g. the three The Lord of the Rings books and the hero’s journey through Middle Earth).
  • Romance: romantic leads who at first are ill-suited and/or dislike or tease one another. By the midpoint – or at least the final third – their attraction becomes undeniable.
  • Suspense and crime: a spiral structure whereby the investigation and information-collection circles the main character(s) ever-closer to the criminal and their motivations. Often plot twists, turning points and reversals, and cliffhangers abound (for tips on writing crime and handling twists, be sure to read Mark Billingham’s brilliant article!).
  • Drama: three-act structure showing the rise, fall and aftermath of a tragedy – often personal in nature.

 

Theme 

Another interesting way to consider your story’s structure is the ways it might serve or embody your larger themes. 

Our founder, Louise Dean, has employed this theory to great effect. For example, one of the key themes of This Human Season was how the two sides fighting during the Troubles in Northern Ireland had much in common. As a result, she created a structure that alternates perspectives in each chapter: from an English soldier-cum-prison guard, to the Catholic mother of one of the prisoners. 

As Louise wrote in her article about dual timelines

The structure of your novel can serve its theme, it should serve its theme, and it can almost perform the theme.
—Louise Dean 

 

Story structures with multiple timelines

Consider who is telling the story from what distance or viewpoint, and why? 

If you are leaning towards multiple timelines, here are some top tips and key considerations from skilled timeline-melder Katie Khan

  • If you have a ‘least favourite’ timeline, one you dread to write because it’s such a slog, it’s likely your readers will dread it too. All the timelines in your novel need to be equally compelling, or readers will skip whole sections – or even put the book down.
  • Choose your transition moments carefully; they’re your strongest tool for creating tension and suspense.
  • The events and revelations of one timeline should illuminate some truth in the other(s). 
  • Timelines should impact each other. Cause and effect is critical.
  • The more distinct and discrete your two timelines, the less impactful they’ll be. Remember that the purpose of multiple timelines is to demonstrate connections, whether it be causes and effects, inevitable repetitions, improvements, regressions or something else…

There are lots of ways you can put timelines together, all dependent on your plot, themes, genre, the issues we just outlined and more (as ever). 

Some common constructions include:

Alternating chapters e.g. ABABAB or ABCABCABC

For example, Close To Me by Amanda Reynolds, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, The Muse by Jessie Burton, or The Secret Keeper and The House at Riverton by Kate Morton.

infographic showing alternating chapter story structure

Distinct, separated parts: Part 1: A, Part 2: B, Part 3: C

infographic showing structure with chronological timelines


Present day/conclusion followed by the explanation of how it happened

In other words, this would likely be a snippet of B followed by A until we reach B once again. For example, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Summer Fever by Kate Riordan, or Anna Mazzola’s forthcoming The House of Whispers.

infographic of a prologue and conclusion structure


Smaller flashbacks of B interspersed with larger sections of A

For example, Girl A by Abigail Dean.

infographic of a story structure with separate timeline interspersed

While plot might take precedence in determining how you fit timelines together, thematic links are also an important consideration. 

As you place chapters or passages alongside each other, consider why they belong together. What is one chapter/passage doing to develop/confirm/debunk the ideas in the preceding section? How is it setting up what will follow? 

try out different narrative structures to find what fits 

Structuring chapters

In thinking about layering separate timelines and viewpoints together, we’ve touched on the importance of chapters. But they’re such a significant part of a story’s structure that it’s worth thinking about them in more detail. You might even want to zoom in one degree further and give some thought to how you structure individual scenes, the all-important building blocks of story. 

Chapters are absolutely imperative to let readers digest and absorb information, and follow the shape of your narrative – no matter how many timelines or viewpoints there are. They’re also key ingredients to ensure readers keep turning the page!

There are lots of things to keep in mind, but before we delve in here are some simple tips: 

  • Every chapter should serve your plot, themes and character development. If any aren’t, you can probably cut them or merge them into other chapters.
  • Although every chapter should further the wider scope of your novel, it can be helpful to approach each with a specific smaller goal, to make sure they’re distinct and purposeful.
  • Chapters are a brilliant tool for pacing your novel. Think carefully about every chapter’s length, and how fast you want different sections of the book to feel.
  • Think about the balance between your chapters; are we getting pelted with non-stop action chapter after chapter? Is there a way to break it up with more contemplative or reflective moments – even if it’s a detective scrutinising the clues they’ve gathered or discussing the case with a colleague?
  • Don’t get hung up on chapter breaks in your first draft. It’s definitely helpful to have some idea of key plot points and where they’ll fall, and having provisional chapter outlines can keep you focused and moving forward. But if it’s blocking your progress, put it down and just write. You can figure out how to split it up and fit it together later! 

story structure is often about balancing falling action with rising action
Top tips for structuring a novel 

Now that we’ve gone through the different mechanics and theories of structuring stories, it’s time to have a go for yourself. 

As you play around with your novel’s structure, keep our top tips in mind: 

  • Your structure should be a playground, not a prison. If it’s restricting rather than liberating your creativity, let it go. 
  • Try on different frameworks for size and see what each reveals about your structure. Borrow from different genre conventions to spice things up.
  • If you have an interesting character and your structure feels flat, let your protagonist lead the way. Some of the most memorable stories are actually very simple; they stick with us because of their characters.
  • The structure should serve or embody the theme, where possible.
  • Always think about how subplots relate to one another, as well as your main plot.
  • Colour coding and spreadsheets are your friends when it comes to structure. This is one of the more formulaic aspects of writing – embrace it! 

try increasing the pace of your rising action or experiment with the story circle 

Further reading

Self editing for fiction writers

How to start a story

Writing a first draft

Writing dual timelines

How to create tension in a story

Tips for writing crime fiction

Starting to write at the midpoint

How to write a great hook for your novel

Tips for the middle of your story

Character flaws in fiction

How to write a memorable story

 

Subplots in television and film

The power of the subplot

The Three Act Structure in scripts

Greek tragedies for literature lovers

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner 

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

 

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