Structure of a Novel

Lessons on Structure Learned from Writing My First Book

If there’s one lesson I learned about how to structure a novel is that it involved a lot more than the basic five elements of plot shown in the classic diagram of building a novel.  It took me more than ten years to write my debut book Canaries Can’t Cry, but the real writing was done in less than a year. Most of the time was spent in learning how to write a novel. By that, I mean to build the structure, the framework that would keep my family biography from collapsing before the arc in the story reached its climactic zenith as it did with me many times.

My struggle wasn’t in learning how to write. I have written short stories, feature articles, travel articles, grants, articles on teaching, and even a software manual. My problem was in finding the structure for the family biographical saga—a work that I struggled to keep under eighty thousand words—is set in three countries and spans over six decades. I had questioned whether the novel should be written in the present or past tense, told from the first or third point of view, who the narrator should be, and where should I start.

I tried them all and was satisfied with the progress until each one collapsed, some of them went well beyond twenty thousand words. I abandoned my work many times and filed the pages away in a hanging folder hidden inside a file drawer. I brooded over my failure but believed in the story of a refugee family forced to leave their home in the former Yugoslavia—a history that has been neglected in the literature of biographies. But I don’t believe in failure. There is quitting a project after you learn that the effort isn’t important and move on to other things. Here’s the word “learn” for failure is learning what doesn’t work in the many steps to build the ladder to success. It took Madame Curie many experiments with uranium rays before confirming her hypothesis. She continued because she believed in her work.

I believed in my story and though I tucked away, I always exhumed from the crypt of the file cabinet it to give it another chance to life in print. But I still didn’t know where to begin. I share my experience in the hope to help a newbie writer avoid the mistakes I made.

Where do you start your novel?

  1. At the beginning and work my plot chronologically? This has possibilities, but then, how do you introduce conflict at the beginning to hook the reader?
  2. At the middle and work my way forward with flashbacks? Tricky to structure smooth transitions for a seamless reading experience.
  3. At the end and hook the reader’s curiosity about what led to that ending? That has its own problems.

I tried them all, only to have the story fall flat because the setup—its foundation—was too weak to hold the forward movement. More than once the story moved smoothly until it hit a wall that couldn’t be cracked, and the characters were trapped in a one-way dead-end street.

How I decided on the beginning—a good start is to introduce the setting, the conflict, and the main characters as soon as possible. It’s not important at this point to reveal the conflict if the reader feels the tension of an imminent life-changing event about to occur. I began my story about one third of the way into the plot and introduced the setting, main characters, and tension in the first three hundred words. In the first paragraph, the reader learns that the setting is a fishing boat, that one character needs crutches and another is a baby.

The boat rocked gently against the waves of the night and lulled the thirteen-month-old Antonietta, who lay asleep below deck. This same calming motion, however, brought an unease to Anita that rose from her stomach to the back of her throat. She sat on her traveling trunk, next to Otto, whose crutches leaned upright against the hull of the trawler. His head fell on his chest, not asleep and not awake, leaden with the trapped air of salted fish, overused fishnets and engine fumes.

A few lines later,

The only sound was the rhythmic chugging of the engine. She stood in the middle of the ladder, with the upper half of her body exposed. How far am I from Sansego? It hasn’t been an hour since I left. Could I still see it? The urge for a last look at the place that was her home possessed her.

In this case, the conflict is a forced abandonment of home. The main character is distressed, her husband uses crutches, and she has a baby. The tension is the hook.

A word about conflict—There is no story without conflict. What does the heroine want? Every episode, every scene in the story is designed to move the story forward EXCEPT that the heroine finds complications all along the way until she reaches a point of no return. She must move forward from conflict to solution, from another conflict to another solution until the climax, a bit more than half way into the book. It is the author’s duty to present these conflicts in pictures, that is scenes that the reader can visualize and feel.

SHOW DON’T TELL. I had to learn that, too. Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” That is the visualization, the scene. With this in mind, I proceeded “bird by bird” in the words of Anne Lamotte, word by word, scene by scene.

Then came the questions: should I write it in past tense or the present? Should I use first person point of view (POV), the third person’s, the narrator’s, or other? In this situation it was impossible to keep the narrator present in every scene. Again, I tried them all, and each time I started over again and tried the next option.

There are many books in the market on how to write a novel, and many blogs with good advice, but there’s no substitute for learning on the job. However, learn the elements of structure.

The classic structure contains five elements identified in the graph. However, plot is much more than that. For additional free information on this topic,  helpful.


2 thoughts on “Structure of a Novel

  1. Good morning Tonia,
    Very interesting words on learning to construct a novel.

    I am eager to receive your book. Let me know when I can see you and pay you for the autographed copy you said you would hold for me.

    Happy New Year!

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