CRAFT: Novel Structure by Chapter (gentler guidelines)

Eep! Well, last night, when I figured I was toast and would soon pop out of the LJ Idol Toaster, I started on this “Craft of F(r)iction Writing” post. So I figured I might as well inflict it on y’all.

A little while ago, I posted some pretty complex “how to structure a novel” story structure guidelines. Dennis, among others, mentioned that he found all of that stuff way too constricting. The “Hero’s Journey” and the Screenplay Paradigm and the “Save the Cat” guidelines seemed too boilerplate-inducing to him. Okay, well, how about this?

Here’s a way to look at a novel as a collection of twenty chapters. Fourteen of these will be Main Plot Chapters, while the remaining six will be Subplot Chapters. A chapter runs about twenty pages, generally. So when you’re finished, you should have 400 pages, or (at 250 words/page) a 100,000-word novel. Perfect! And you didn’t follow a strict structural straitjacket to do it. You merely had this little list to run next to you (against the wind) so you’d know you were following a fairly well-accepted plot arc. Or you could use this after the book is finished to see whether you’re on target.

I don’t feel that this one constricts my creativity. Rather, I think of it as a canvas with edges. I need to stay within the edges so the book will be publishable by NYC houses (because they look for a certain length), but I don’t have to connect the dots or color within the lines. It’s not a paint-by-numbers, but just a way to judge whether you have what you were aiming for.
(The tabs and the spaces don’t work. There goes the neat table format.)

1 General Uneasiness–Something’s About to
Happen (Intriguing Story Question Raised)
2 Conflict–Locked Into The Battle
3 Drama Rises, Illustrating the Conflict–More
Barriers Pop Up, Enemy Seen as Strong
4 Setting up Plot Point 1
5 Plot Point 1: Conflict Changes Character,
Deepens Trouble
6 Consequences of this New Development
7 Setup for Reversal
8 Midpoint Reversal
9 Consequences of Reversal
10 Setup for Plot Point 2
11 Plot Point 2: One of the Forces is Revealed
as the Stronger (for now)–ending in The
Black Moment
12 Going All-Out: The Final Struggle
13 Conflict Resolution
14 Denouement–Wrap-Up and Happy (?) Ending;
Reference Beginning in Final Line(s)

The six subplot chapters get sprinkled in appropriately wherever they fit the particular book. The subplot can wrap up either just before the last chapter or along with the main plot.

There. Isn’t that a gentle-reminder sort of guideline?

A few definitions are in order.

Plot Point 1 is the true beginning of the story. It’s the Point of No Return, which means there’s no turning back–an incident or event has occurred that has changed the character’s life forever, even if he/she backs out of the quest/goal. It often catapults the hero forward into a new understanding of the journey, or a new physical location.

Plot points are the moments of irreversible change in the story, after which the hero/ine cannot possibly return to the life s/he previously had, either because of physical or emotional changes or some new understanding of his/her situation. Sometimes a piece of information causes this (“I’ve just discovered I’m adopted/illegitimate/the son of the true King.”), and sometimes it’s an event that shapes the hero/ine’s destiny. Plot points link the “acts” of a story–the beginning, the middle, and the endgame.

The Black Moment is that turn of events when all seems lost; it can’t be contrived, but must proceed as the result of choices the main character has made and the plotting of the villain dovetailing.

The Pundit story fits into this template. I don’t know whether the mysteries will fit quite as well. Probably not, but there are plot points, a reversal, and a black moment that leads immediately into the final chase, climax, and capture of the murderer. So it’s still a general template without being limiting.

Now, if ya wanna see ORGANIZED, the real left-brain way to do this, see Candace’s storyboard. Or One Slack Martian’s index cards. Or Pooks’ method of scene cards and other ideas from _Save the Cat_ and other places.

Whoa! I would never have the wherewithal (wherewithal? Therewithal! There castle!) to do such an organized thing. I would have the book written by the time I had bought all the cards and so forth. But that is because my process is right-brained as far as planning, and left-brained for the verbal ability. I go into the flowstate when I write, and that’s where the Muse comes in. I know I’ve written about the flowstate before. That’s what makes the people who love videogames, such as hubster, love them . . . that videogame puts him in the flowstate, same as writing a novel or playing the piano by ear or from memory puts me in it. The flowstate is pleasurable. You lose all track of linear time. You don’t realize what you’ve been able to do because you were “on a roll” or “smokin'” or “into it.” If I invoked my left brain enough to do a storyboard, I’d lose all sight of what the story was.

But, as I said, that’s me. If your method is more like the organized methods, go read about _Save the Cat_ and all the manipulatives-based methods (index cards in a stack rubber-banded together, flowchart symbols on a computer screen as in those screenwriting thingies, and so forth.) Whatever works!

“There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/And every single one of them is right!”–Rudyard Kipling


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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