Your first step in writing a novel is to outline your story. This means you need to have a basic understanding of the structure of a book. You might have a rough idea of what your story will be about, but in order to write a compelling tale, you need more than a beginning and an end.
If you have ever taken a road trip, you’ll find the markers by the side of the road to be very helpful. For instance when our family drove to Key West, a friend let me know that there was the best key lime pie around mile marker 88. And if I were to direct a friend to a lovely hike off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d tell them to go to Rocky Knob at Milepost 167.
When writing a novel, you’ll find there are important markers to hit along the way. For instance, about halfway through the book, you’ll hit the Midpoint, where things will change for the hero. If life was going swimmingly through the first half, the midpoint will mark the end of this rosy period and their life will take a turn for the worse.
The structure of a book doesn’t have to be complicated. Don’t get overwhelmed on me! The fact is that most stories follow a definite pattern. Once you understand it, you can’t really watch a movie or read a novel without seeing it.
Let’s break it down a bit and examine the Three Act Structure. While you can definitely dig deeper and break up these three acts further, this is a good place to start.
Act One: The Set Up
When you start a new job, the first thing you’ll do is receive an orientation. Someone will be assigned to you and will show you who to go for which items or services. Joe can always get his hands on the office supplies that you’ll need, while Mary is a wiz at IT. Once you are introduced to Joe and Mary, you’ll know where they sit and what they look like. In addition, you’ll need to learn the lay of the land. In order to feel comfortable at your new workplace, you’ll need to have a mental blueprint of the space firmly down. It doesn’t take long to establish these basic points, but they are all necessary.
Same goes with your novel.
When your reader opens your book for the first time, they are new to your world. An integral part of the structure of a book includes an orientation for the reader. They need to be set up to understand where everything is and who the main players are. This phase is called the Setup.
You’ll need to introduce your reader to your hero and the people in their life. In addition, you need to establish the places that are important for your story’s beginning. Don’t make the reader guess what your protagonist looks like or what is involved with his environment.
The Inciting Incident
Somewhere toward the end of the first act, you’ll need to give your hero an abrupt change. This incites them to make a huge shift, one that will leave the setup world behind (at least for a while).
Every film or movie has this pivotal moment. Once you know of its existence, you’ll start seeing this inciting incident within almost every story ever told. Again, it’s the moment where you know your hero will never be the same.
Act Two: The Confrontation
This is the longest segment of your story. It starts after roughly one quarter of your book (at the end of the first act) and spans through to the three-quarter point (or the beginning of the third act).
Once your protagonist makes their leap into their new world, probably leaving the old one in the dust, they (along with the reader) are thrust outside their comfort zone. That makes things interesting!
Simply put, you’ll write a series of ups and downs for your hero within this act. Things will look great but then take a dramatic turn for the worse. And just when your hero has been beaten up by life, make sure they receive a break or two at an opportune time.
What you want to avoid is a flat, predictable plot. Steve quits his job to become an entrepreneur only to discover…success! Yup, rather boring, No, poor old Steve will need some good old fashioned conflict. These points of struggle can be internal or have external (bad guy) influences. Allow Steve a few triumphant moments, but then throw in a monkey wrench. Then when he fails, have him learn from it and have a win.
Toward the end of the second act, things have to go terribly wrong for our hero. It must appear that there’s no way out for them. I don’t know about you, but I found this a little intimidating. If there’s no way out, who is in charge of finding them a solution to the seemingly impossible? Me? Gulp.
Then I realized that this was my world and my characters. You can always find a way out of the impenetrable dungeon you left poor Zarahi in. It just has to make sense and be plausible, but you have the advantage of being a Creator of your universe.
You got this.
However, before you rescue your hero, you must give them a major crisis. That’s a key part of any story. Make it look really bleak.
Act Three: The Resolution
Although this part of the structure is called the Resolution, keep in mind that you need to take your time to resolve the disaster you created, or it will disappoint your readers. If you think about it, James Bond always escapes, but he never does so quickly. It takes a good twenty minutes or so to defeat the bad guys.
When I first began writing, I’d rush the resolution. I didn’t give it the full final quarter. Nope. I wanted to save my beloved hero quickly rather than see them suffer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for a good story.
In the end, if you wish, your hero will survive and be triumphant, but along the way they need to hit a few barriers. You need to provide even more conflict. Conflict is a bit like chocolate; you really can’t have too much. Keep throwing it in.
Another tip is to continually offer a debate on the main issues. Give your hero a few beats to ponder options before plunging into the next fiery pit. Include a healthy amount of debate. Sprinkle it throughout the three acts.
So there you have it: the broad brushstrokes illustrating the structure of a book. There is a lot more to know and study, of course, but I wanted to give you a place to start. If you would like to discuss this further and learn more about the structure of a book, please feel free to fill out the form below and we can find time to set up a consultation!