The structure of a novel isn’t simply industry convention, it taps into psychological behind how we understand a story.
A novel starts at 40,000 words or more in length. For some people that seems daunting while for others the struggle is to keep their word count manageable. Writing a novel is like having children, it seems a great idea before you start, but then comes the hard work. One thing you can do to reduce that work is to write to the expected novel structure. (I’m talking technical construction here, not genre plot expectations). Nearly every successful novel has most of these elements of structure the majority having all. It takes a skilled writer to abandon convention without creating a total mess.
Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the simplest structural breakdown, commonly known as the 3 Act Structure (see also Monomyth and Hero’s Journey). Rare stories start at the end and work their way backwards. But, that’s just shuffling the order in which the acts are encountered and takes both a skilled author and a forgiving reader. Short stories and novellas can be written to a different structure, with serial novellas often missing the third act and ending on a cliff-hanger.
The beginning (Setup) is where you make your readers care about your story, the world you built, and the characters they find in it. The first act takes up 25% (or less) of your words. Be wary of excessive exposition and telling, not showing.
- Hook the reader so they keep reading;
- Ask the questions that generate interest in your setting;
- Introduce the significant characters;
- Inciting Incident;
- Begin the main plot.
The end (Resolution) is the mirror opposite of the setup. This act is the culmination of all the elements of your story. The final act again takes up 25% (or less) of your words.
- Answer any outstanding questions about your world;
- Make sure significant characters have completed their arcs;
- Conclude the main plot;
- Make sure the reader finishes your book satisfied.
The middle of the story should be self-explanatory. It is called the Rising Action as it is a sequence of action/reaction scenes that ratchet up the tension in your story so that the reader is invested by the time you move into the final act. The middle of your work is where sub-plots are born and die. Expand on the details of your world and flesh out your characters. Where the beginning has to have hooks to attract the reader, and the end has to satisfy their needs, the middle is where your readers fall in love with your work. It is the meat of your story where your characters gain the knowledge/skills they need to resolve their situation.
- (optional) starts with a call to action;
- Give depth to your characters;
- Flesh out the main plot;
- The turning point in your story;
- Add sub-plot (that may or may not get resolved);
- Add conflict/obstacles of increasing difficulty;
- Increase the tension to prepare for the final act.
Here is a basic (Google Doc) structure spreadsheet you can use for reference. You should be able to see how the 3 Acts fit together.
Disclaimer: If you are a pantser you may think structure is a straitjacket that restricts creativity. There are lots of processes (snowflake method etc.) that almost ignore structure. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but it often means that a work will need to go through multiple drafts for clarity. I recall a quote from a popular author (it may have been Stephen King) that they paid absolutely no heed to structure, but on examining their work it’s obvious they adhere to the structure (acts, turning points, beats) with textbook precision. They didn’t care about structure because it was something they did without realising. Most of us aren’t that lucky.