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Novel Structure Explored - How to Write a Novel Series

If you’re following Marni’s blog or mailing list, you’ve probably at some point heard or read her 15 Plot Spots breakdown of novel structure. If you haven’t, it’s fantastic, and I highly recommend it. You can find it here:

When Marni first told me that novels have this very specific underlying structure, I fought the idea pretty hard. It seemed impossible-I’d read a lot of books, taken plenty of English classes, and I’d read writing advice. If novel structure were real, it seemed like I’d have heard of it before. Skeptical, I started reading books to check them against this idea of structure. To my shock, most of them fit. The structure really had been there all along.

And granted-not every book fits. Some books are intentionally meandering or strange and fit the structure uncertainly or not at all. Many books are straight-up badly plotted (learning structure has given me a much better eye for how they go wrong). And some books are strongly plotted and work well but only sort of fit the structure, and I’m never sure whether that’s because rules are made to be bent or because those books are following some slightly different set of rules. (As a side note, I’m really excited that there could be alternate systems of rules out there, largely because I’m the kind of person who gets excited about alternate systems of rules. I haven’t proven the existence of any yet, but I’ve got my eye out.)

But, by and large, I found that books fit this structure. It was eerie how well they fit.

As I was analyzing books, I realized that though I was following Marni’s format, I had my own way of conceptualizing that format, which has been incredibly helpful to me in my own writing. In case it’s helpful to you, I’m going to try to describe it.

Three-Act Structure (which is what the 15 Plot Spots describes) divides a book or screenplay into quarters. (Yeah, quarters. “Act two” of the three acts refers to the second and third quarters together-i.e. the middle half of the book/movie.) Each quarter has its own arc and ends with its own climactic turning point. The largest, most comprehensive climax is at the end.

And that’s it. At least, that’s the gist of it.

There are some more specific rules, of course. The story should start with something relevant and interesting. The first quarter should lay out the major ingredients of character, setting, and so forth and give us a protagonist who wants something, who formulates a goal, and whose repeatedly thwarted efforts to attain that goal can sustain a plot. Somewhere in the first quarter, an event should happen that precipitates the protagonist into action. Overall, tension should increase over time. There’s usually a moment of utter despair for the protagonist at the end of the third quarter, followed by character growth and a dramatic mustering of courage as she gears herself for the final climactic struggle. The major turning points should say important things about the journey of the protagonist and should arise out of the decisions and mistakes she makes. The end of the book should test whether and what the protagonist has learned, and it should test it as dramatically as possible.

And within this structure, there are variants. In many stories, the end of the first quarter is huge: the character has accepted her quest. In other stories, though-especially ones with hyper-proactive protagonists who were already pursuing the quest by page one-the end of the first quarter can be a quieter shift in goals or conflicts. In some stories, the protagonist solves her entire quest at the midpoint and discovers it wasn’t enough or wasn’t what she really wanted, and she has to embark on a new (though hopefully not unrelated) quest for the second half. In other stories, the second and third quarters really do form a cohesive act two, where the midpoint is a significant moment of failure or false success but doesn’t change the basic direction of the plot.

There’s more to say, of course. People have written books on this, and I’m sure I have a lot more to learn about it myself. But if the thing that helped me helps you, here it is again: Four quarters. Each quarter has an arc and ends in a turning point, and each turning point has meaning for the protagonist’s journey. Someone desperately wants something, and someone or something keeps them from getting it. The conflict builds to a final moment of truth. The rest is up to you.

Good luck!

Noel - Jr. Editor at Ewriterscoach



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