When you start to get into writing a novel, one of the things you have to pay attention to is how to structure your novel. For some writers, this just naturally happens as they go along. Everything seems to intuitively fall into place. Other writers, however, may wonder the best way to structure their novel. In fact, they may get stuck on this point and end up stalling out in their writing. This article will offer some ways to think about structuring your novel, and a simple way to begin with a helpful framework if you need it.
Let Your Basic Story Plot Help Structure Your Novel
We’ve previously presented the nine basic types of stories as described by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (for descriptions and examples of these story pots, see our previous articles Finding a Story Idea for Your Fantasy Novel and How to Write a Killer Plot for Your Novel). These basic frameworks for stories can be incredibly useful for helping you get started on a novel that fits one or more of these archetypal story arcs (and most stories do end up fitting at least one of these). Booker describes each basic story plot as having several different “acts” that show how the story progresses. For example, let’s say you’ve decided the “Rags to Riches” plot is what best fits the story you want to tell in your novel. Here’s how Booker describes the elements of this type of story:
- Act 1: Readers see the wretched state of the main character, some kind of villain or oppressor may be holding them down in their wretched state (including their own self-imposed limitations). The driver of this part of the story is when the main character is “called” to do something more, make more of themselves, engage more deeply with the wider world.
- Act 2: The main character experiences some initial success and sees the possibilities of attaining even more. This can (and often does) include a romantic relationship with someone previously “above” them.
- Act 3: A “central crisis” arises where things go wrong with the path they thought they were on.
- Act 4: There is a final ordeal the main character comes through successfully and thereby permanently achieves their “higher status.”
Note that “riches” doesn’t have to mean actual wealth. It can signify “success” in a broader sense. There are many, many stories from every culture that follow the rags to riches basic story plot because they give hope to poor, struggling, oppressed people. Cinderella is a classic fairy tale version of rags to riches, and you can see how it perfectly fits the basic plot. Other examples include The Ugly Duckling, David Copperfield, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Jane Eyre, Slumdog Millionaire, and many, many others.
There are a couple of common variations to this basic plot. One variation is where instead of success in Act 4, the main character fails (which is combining the Rags to Riches plot with the Tragedy plot), typically because they were pursuing higher status for all the wrong reasons (selfish reasons). Another variation is where the main character achieves success in a technical sense, but it turns out to be a “hollow victory” and doesn’t bring the fulfillment expected (often because too high a price was paid along the way or was again pursued for selfish reasons rather than noble reasons). These variations might include the main character being corrupted by their success.
If you think of your novel in these four “acts,” those could translate into “parts” of your novel, and then each part would have multiple chapters to build each act or part. This doesn’t necessarily mean you would specify the parts, but you could if you wanted to, and even name them. In this approach your table of contents might look like this:
Part I: Name?
- Chapter X: Name?
- Chapter X: Name?
- Chapter X: Name?
Details on How Chapters Structure Your Novel
Up to this point, our discussion of on how you might structure your novel has been from the perspective of helping you, the author, with the writing process. The ultimate aim, however, in structuring a novel is to make it easier for your readers to move through the material. A sensible breaking up of a story, whether into parts and chapters or just chapters, makes your novel more user-friendly for readers. A novel with no chapters, just one continuous presentation of the text, is likely to confuse and fatigue readers. You need to give readers an opportunity to have a break or a rest, and chapters do that. The end of a chapter gives the reader an opportunity to think about what they just read for a moment before going on, or to put the book down and come back to it later, picking up with the next chapter. Here are some details on various aspects of structuring the text of your novel:
Paragraph Length and Breaks
If you have super-long paragraphs that take up whole pages or even multiple pages, readers will feel lost. A good rule of thumb is to force yourself to break long paragraphs up so that no single paragraph is longer than 10 lines. Here’s an example of paragraph that’s too long and how to break it up:
A paragraph that’s too long
Willow was paralyzed with fear. She was backed up against the broken-down barn, which was now engulfed in flames. She could feel the intense heat on her back, but she had nowhere to run. She faced the field on the far side of the barn with its rich, sweet aroma of freshly-mowed hay. But the field was alive, writhing with…what were they? Dozens and dozens of feral dogs, but they were more than that. There was something undeniably evilabout them. They circled round and round continuously in a whirling mass, growling and snarling and barking, baring their yellow fangs. She could feel their bloodthirsty red eyes on her throat. Instinctively, she put a hand to her neck to protect herself. One of the creatures separated from the rest and slowly approached her, never taking its eyes off her. It was nearly twice the size of all the others – the leader of the pack. Willow could see it clearly now as it came closer; its scraggly coat a jumble of jagged black and gray stripes. Its piercing gaze bore into her very soul as if to say, “I smell your fear.” Without warning it sprang at her, jaws gaping wide to reveal double rows of razor-sharp teeth…
The same paragraph broken up
Willow was paralyzed with fear. She was backed up against the broken-down barn, which was now engulfed in flames. She could feel the intense heat on her back, but she had nowhere to run. She faced the field on the far side of the barn with its rich, sweet aroma of freshly-mowed hay. But the field was alive, writhing with…what were they? Dozens and dozens of feral dogs, but they were more than that. There was something undeniably evilabout them. They circled round and round continuously in a whirling mass, growling and snarling and barking, baring their yellow fangs. She could feel their bloodthirsty red eyes on her throat. Instinctively, she put a hand to her neck to protect herself.
One of the creatures separated from the rest and slowly approached her, never taking its eyes off her. It was nearly twice the size of all the others – the leader of the pack. Willow could see it clearly now as it came closer; its scraggly coat a jumble of jagged black and gray stripes. Its piercing gaze bore into her very soul as if to say, “I smell your fear.” Without warning it sprang at her, jaws gaping wide to reveal double rows of razor-sharp teeth…
Parts and Chapters
Your novel must have chapters, as previously stated. But should it also be broken up into two or more parts? This depends on what happens during the story of your novel. If, for example, it turns out that one whole section of the novel takes place in one time period and then there’s a significant break in time, you might want to consider having two parts to your novel. For example, let’s say you’re writing a science fiction novel about a big mission to a distant galaxy. One main section of the story is the lead up to the mission launching, establishing all the characters and their lives and relationships. Then the mission takes off and everyone has to go into a state of suspended animation for the long journey to the distant galaxy. The next section of the story covers everything that happens when everyone is awakened from suspended animation. If these two “sections” of the story are both substantial, then it makes sense to present the novel in two parts, pre-mission and on-mission after arriving to the destination.
Chapter breaks also need to make sense. In the same way that your overall story has a structure (such as the four acts presented above in the Rags to Riches plot), each chapter should ideally present a logical arc with a beginning, middle, and end. We say “ideally should” rather than “must.” There are no hard and fast rules here around when it’s time to end one chapter and begin another, but it’s best to think of each chapter having its own arc.
The length of each chapter is also up for grabs. A chapter should be as long as it needs to be. Some might be very short (two or three pages) and others might be dozens of pages. Many writers find 20 pages to be about average. Again, there are no set rules around any of this, and a lot of it will simply happen by instinct. If your story is about to transition to another time or place, it might be a good place to put a chapter break.
Not every transition means there has to be a chapter break. There can be mini-transitions within a chapter, which you can think of as “scenes.” Some authors signify those mini-transitions within a chapter in some way, such as either extra white space between two paragraphs, or asterisks like this:
How you do this is up to you, but “scene” breaks are something you just have to feel intuitively. If the transition feels significant, it’s probably time for a chapter break. If it doesn’t feel significant enough for a chapter break, then it’s probably time for a scene break.
Parts, Chapters, Scenes: A Summary
Breaks in your novel’s text mark transitions in the story. The bigger the transition, the more significant the break. Ranking these from largest to smallest gives you the following:
- Parts: These would mark the biggest of all transitions in your story, and there would only be a few of them at most. It could be a major time transition, a major character transition or something else that breaks the story into major sections before and after such significant transitions.
- Chapters: These are natural transitions between chunks of the story. Think of each chapter having a beginning, middle, and end; mini-stories that make up the larger story.
- Scenes: These are less common, but some writers swear by them. They mark a transition within a chapter that feels like it needs a break, but not a big enough one to justify a new chapter.
As you can see, you have a lot of leeway as an author in how you structure your novel, so see what feels right to you. Some novels number the chapters, some novels give a title to each chapter, some provide both a number and a title. Those are all totally up to you and your personal preferences. Many writers do not bother with chapter titles. For those that do, chapter titles offer an additional way to make the reader curious or whet their appetite about what they will find in the chapter. In the final analysis, you are the one who gets to decide how to structure your novel. Just keep in mind the goal is to make it user-friendly for readers!