Book a chat

The Structure of a Novel.

structure Nov 03, 2018

Creativity can be unleashed by structure. I remember from my days of advertising how awful the creative work was if the brief wasn't tight. I've broken stride in writing my new novel to perform a stringent edit on it, and I think there's something to be said for this method.

So, if you are on first draft, and feeling concerned about it, then this hybrid method which combines writing forwards and editorial 'retrospective' planning might work for you. 

It might help you, as it has me, to stop loafing around on the outside of your novel, and get inside it.

For my method you will need:

- about 10k minimum words of material; love it or hate it, it's not important.

- title, hook, and synopsis for your book revised in the last few days. Phase Two of the Editing Your Novel course has you work through the beautiful logic of these to nail them. I'm going to assume you have followed the course and created a virtuous title (see my 'Walking Method'), a non-marketing working hook and a story synopsis or outline. If not, go do them! Don't arse around any longer!

- I'm going to use Scrivener to do this, but you can replicate the exercise with folders and word docs on your computer.

Here we go.

Use The Novelry's Five F's ® of story for the perfect novel outline (as given in all the courses.) A sentence or short para will do for each.

Flesh them out into a storyline or synopsis. This is your working tool, don't worry about it as the marketing (pitch) document for now. Don't have a strop about the synopsis and give up. No matter how shit it is, you need to think one through. Yes, it will change, but you'd best be heading someplace once you've set up a character with a problem and established you can write and you're writing daily.

Set your course! Decide your method or treatment. What kind of book do you want it to be? Which book do you love most? Go for it! I set mine for large chapters (about 4k) x 14 and I decided I'd set the prose dial for short sentences. You can keep track of your writing style with a neat integration of ProWritingAid and Scrivener. They work very well together. ProWritingAid imports your Scrivener folder into its platform and gives you detailed analysis of how you're writing. (Of course, you should be a control freak if you love your craft!)

Put your working brief into the Overview section of your Scrivener project. (In the Notes section you can add any vital inspiration - a poem etc.)

Now, get out your synopsis document and highlight the sentences of the synopsis which are separate chapters. 

Set up your Scrivener folder (or start a desktop folder ) for the entire novel manuscript with folders for the chapters and number them. 

I decided to set three to four scenes for each chapter, about 1000 words for each, so I put sub-sections into each chapter and broke up the synopsis notes accordingly.

Now, all you have to do is write each one in the white space in the middle.

Suddenly, I found I had a very tight plan to work to. 

I set my writing clock. I decided to write a scene a day. Do-able as I had material so could make a cracking start at putting it in.

I thought I'd probably benefit from logic in the storyline. Dates, times, one thing leading to another that kind of thing. (Yawn, but necessary.)

Then something crazy happened.

Because I had worked through my story, paced it, gone back and forth making sure everything was in the right order and dated it too,  I didn't need the usual hooey and baloney of backstory, moving characters here and there with explanations and so on.  Because I had all that covered, I could be innovative in the prose. Poetic. Surreal. Lascivious. I could simply turn my camera slightly away from the focal point and take a good look round the scene.

You don’t need to work so hard in the prose (over-explaining, over-amplifying) when you have a buttoned-down knowledge of the story. (Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory.)

Suddenly I found my writing was free, and inventive. I wasn't doing the work of advising myself, reminding myself, outlining or briefing myself on what had happened and was going to happen because I didn't need to. I had it covered. So in the white space I could be off the wall. I could write. You know, really write, not textbook fretful stuff. I could sit in there, in the scene, and say what I saw.

A vision came to me - and made me smile - of one kid holding the ladder for another saying 'What can you see, what can you see?' And the other telling him...

Writing short sentences, and keeping my eye on them, made the writing pacey and it started to crackle. No more sermonizing. (You can keep an eye on sentence length in the stats of Scrivener but also you can use ProWritingAid to upload your Scrivener folder to and it will check that for you too, and grammar.)

I found I had gone from - urgh - B grade - this happened because he was this kind of person from that kind of background and they all thought he, well, new. Interesting. Fresh. Instead of telling my reader how one of my characters used to be a well-regarded artist, I - um - wrote that he was looking at the table like he was going to lick it. I just didn't need all the supporting stuff. It wasn't 'interesting'. It had been useful, but I no longer needed it.

And this, I am sure, is how you go from tinned food to fresh food with a novel.

You need to make that structure, then get inside of it and pull the roof over your head.

One of my writers quoted DBC Pierre the other day to the effect that writing is a secret thing for you to enjoy  ('write as if nobody will ever see the work...') - and I think once you've built the damn thing, you'll find you can play in that novel for hours.

Just get inside it and move the camera around.

I never knew process could feel this good. That's another fine paradox I've gotten myself into... (My writers know my old adage that novels get their energy from concepts which are paradoxical). To be truly creative, you need discipline. Structure. Process.

So, don't sigh, build an igloo and get in.

 You'll be sighing more if you ditch that novel at 70K+ because you were too much of a fathead to do the thinking. Because you were too much of a coward to face thinking deeply about title alone let alone the premise of the book. Because you knew you were bullshitting yourself about it. Because you were writing because it felt good, not because what you were writing was good. (I have been there too many times.)

I had written half a novel to about 38k. Then I stopped. I wrote the Editing Your Novel course as self-medication, then started again with this tight-assed structure. The writing is miles better. Yes, you could get to this point at third or fifth draft, with a patient agent and longsuffering editor, but more than likely you'd have ditched the effing thing before then and the days of patient agents are gone.

Any which way but loose.

The other benefit of such a worked-out structure strikes me as this; you can write your novel any which way you like.

I like to think I wrote my novels A-Z. But of course, I don't. Scenes, ideas, words and phrases come to me from all sorts of parts of the book wherever I am with it in the text. Usually, I file them for later. But what if, feeling compelled, I sat down to flesh the scene out the day I was 'feeling' it? You can do that with this method, of course. It's how Elizabeth Strout says she writes:

'I would write - I would write what was most urgent to me at that time, and that proved to be helpful because then I could transpose whatever was feeling most urgent to myself - into a character, and that it would be truthful. There would be something truthful there and it wouldn't be just wooden writing.'

So, if you have a good amount of material, you can use this method and head back to the drawing board.

Stop. Build the shelter. Re-start.

DBC Pierre described a two-stage process: an initial, feverish state of expulsive abandon, followed by a 'carpentry' stage of considered whittling.

'The job is better split and performed backwards; don’t build a house and furnish it but knock up some furniture on a binge and see what architecture it wants.'

Knock up your novel on a hunch, whim or hearsay - to 10k at least - then when the winter of your discontent blows through the cracks of your novel build a cosy igloo.

You'll find guidance to create the structure of your novel is where our novel writing course starts. Come and join us today!


Share this article

Find your course

We take beginners and experienced authors all the way from an inkling of an idea to a book in a year and on towards literary agency representation with our online creative writing courses.

Start today!

Subscribe to the blog

Sign up to get the Sunday paper for writers to your inbox.


Related blogs

5 Ways to Create Suspense in Fiction

May 15, 2022

Writing Your Next Novel

May 08, 2022

What is a Trope?

May 01, 2022