How to structure a novel in one easy lesson

Novels have a lot of moving parts, all of which are intertwined. There’s the plot tension, with its rising and falling waves to the final climax of the story. There’s the character arc, which has to align with the plot and which ideally should be driven by it.

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On my experience few authors begin with ‘I’ve invented character X, who has to learn something. How can they do this?’ Instead, authors – even experienced ones –  often begin their stories with an idea for a scene, or a specific plot: ‘it would be cool to set a story on some desert planet with two suns’, or ‘what would Earth be like after the zombie apocalypse?’, or ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story about a heist where the get-away vehicles are small British cars.’

The challenge then is turning that plot idea into something that’s properly structured and has all the right elements in the right places – which includes having a lead character who learns something along the way. Of course it’s all very well to say ‘well, just do this’, but the issue is always how. My suggestions:

  1. If you’ve started with a great or inspiring plot or setting, jot down the salient points about what people do and need in it. What sort of things happen in this world? In our world, for instance, lots of things happen that are specific to the cultures and the way people live. If your story is set in the real world, which of those cultures is it set in, and when? If it’s in a fantasy world, how does your fantasy world match up to the real world? What are the differences?
  2. Now turn to the characters. What sort of character would inhabit this world? What would they need to learn? Is there anything specific about the world that they key into that informs this?

The intersection between the ‘things that happen’ and the way that emerging Character X keys into them is the start of the integration between plot and character arc – but only the start, because a character arc needs to have dynamic movement to it. So does a plot. And all those components have to align.

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016