Whatever kind of novel you are writing, be it a 500-page adventure drama about dinosaurs, a 400-page dark family saga spanning decades, or a short, psychological thriller where the action takes place inside a week, all of these works-in-progress must have something in common; writing technique and story structure.
What? I hear you shout…
Surely my writing must flow straight from the heart, allowing me to get the words down with all the passion, enthusiasm and empathy I’m capable of?
I like to feel my way into a book, organically, and let my characters lead me. Are you telling me I have to contain my flood of creativity?
Aren’t all good writing efforts a result of thinking outside the box? Surely rules are made to be broken and talent wins out?
Yes and no. Bestselling authors possess all of the above ingredients when it comes to writing their stories. Bestselling authors have the courage and daring to write their hearts out across the page, the technique to interweave a narrative with plot points and have it flow seamlessly, and above all are emotionally honest with their readers. But a bestselling author will have all this and more, contained within a certain structure. It is the first technique to be mindful of when constructing a novel. And novels are constructed; in the same way that building the frame of a house comes first and after that comes the imaginative design, you can write with abandon within a framework, having as much fun as you like, and unleashing your creativity in whatever way you wish, knowing you’re going in the right direction.
All stories, from the time that cavemen – and cavewomen – gathered around the camp fire, have a basic structure that must be followed to make it a good experience for the reader; a beginning, a middle and an ending. We need to know (a) what the story is about, we need to see (b) the development of a plot that puts the characters under pressure and draws them into conflict, and we need to have (c) a resolution at the end. Talented writers who say they write organically and allow the story to unfold at its own pace do this unconsciously. Some are lucky enough to be born storytellers; for others, years of reading have instilled in them the rhythm and flow of story technique and they are writing from the instinctive beat of their senses.
We could all write a first draft flying by the seat of our pants, but without some innate structure, our stories could meander all over the place and run out of control. It also makes it difficult for us to develop plot points and place them effectively in the narrative to ensure the reader keeps turning the pages, anxious to know what will happen next. It also means that second and third drafts could need mountains of revision.
My books tend to run to 120k words. When I have my cast of characters assembled, and the main idea of what the story will be about, I take out a refill pad and work on the structure. 120k words = three segments of 40k words, for the beginning, middle and end. Rocket science, not. I don’t sweat over an exact allocation of words, this is just a guide and it helps with the pacing and to best see where the major plot twists must take place – usually at the end of these segments.
Just because the ‘beginning’ segment can take 35k – 40k words, it doesn’t mean we can afford to fritter away valuable words indulging our muses or easing a story gently off the ground by allowing the main character to faff about, wondering what time it is, or what the weather is like. A story must grab the reader’s interest in Chapter 1, especially nowadays with so many other forms of media fighting for attention. In the next few chapters of this segment, all the main characters should be introduced along with their hopes and needs and conflicts, and the stakes (which must be high) are clearly established. At the end of this segment, it’s time for a plot twist to send the story into a new and unexpected direction and keep the reader hooked.
The ‘middle’ part of the structure is where the story develops; the characters are usually prevented from getting what they want, so they have to change in response to this. It’s also where the conflict deepens and a major turning point should occur. Again, to keep the reader happy and engrossed, we could wrap up the ‘middle’ section with a further plot twist and send the story off in another new direction. As I said, plenty of scope for creative fun and games within the framework of the structure.
I’m usually at or around 85k words when I start the ‘end’ – or resolution. It’s best to wrap up minor story questions and secondary plots first. This leaves plenty of space to devote to the resolution of the main conflict, and the final climax, while wringing as much heart-stopping tension out of it as possible and bringing the reader on a white-knuckled, edge-of-their-seat journey. Then after a final denouement, the story draws to a close and while it doesn’t always have to be a ‘happy ending’, all of the plot questions should be addressed and the main characters changed in some positive way as a result what has happened.
So structure is good, it gives the writer the freedom to express the story and explore their creativity within the boundaries, and most importantly, it helps to give the reader the best possible reading experience.
(c) Zoë Miller
Zoë’s latest novel A Question of Betrayal and now available in all good bookshops or online here:
About A Question of Betrayal
On a windswept beach in County Cork, a woman rescues a young man from the sea. A gifted musician, Luis Meyer’s life has fallen apart and he’s determined to end it all, until an angel of mercy pulls him from the water…
More than thirty years later, Carrie Cassidy is still reeling from the deaths of her adored parents, John and Sylvie, in a tragic accident. She’s flitting from one job to another, unable to move forward, unable to forget the past. She can’t even commit to Mark, the love of her life, who has now moved on.
Then a mysterious visitor reveals a secret that forces Carrie to delve into her mother’s past. When she does, she discovers a woman struggling to come to terms with her choices – a newlywed who, it seems, was in love with another man.
Determined to find out the truth about her mother’s relationship with Luis Meyer, Carrie must confront painful and possibly dangerous truths. And the only person who can help her is the one she’s hurt the most…