Every story follows a basic structure.
This has been true since the beginning of time and applies to all forms of storytelling, from a story passed verbally through the generations to that of our modern-day novels.
It is second nature to us to get lost in a story when it follows a familiar form.
When it doesn’t, it leaves us confused, disappointed, and likely to stop reading before we even reach the end.
It doesn’t matter if you plan to outline or pants your story, if you want people to read it, it has to follow a familiar structure.
This doesn’t mean you have to work out every little detail of your story before you can begin writing.
It’s not an outline.
In its most basic form, it could simply be knowing the beginning, middle, and end. Nothing more.
That’s the minimum a reader expects.
This basic structure also gives writers a sense of direction as they write their stories.
It’s a lot easier to write when you know where you’re going.
For those who like a little more structure to help them plot their novel, there are additional things you might consider:
Every genre has a recommended word count. It can also vary depending on the age group you’re writing for.
This can be used to figure out how much space you have to fill before transitioning between the beginning, middle, and end.
As a general guide, your middle should make up half your novel as that is where the majority of the action will happen.
For example: Adult fantasy novels have of a recommended minimum word count of 80,000 words. That means 20,000 for the beginning; 40,000 for the middle; and 20,000 for the end.
# OF CHAPTERS
It is easier to plan a novel when you already know your average chapter length.
Using the example above with an average chapter length of 2500 words the novel would have thirty-two chapters.
That would be eight chapters for the beginning, sixteen for the middle, and eight for the end.
If you don’t know your average chapter length yet, don’t worry. Estimate the best you can.
It will still help you gauge how many chapters you need for each section and plan your novel.
There are four major points every story should hit. Knowing these points will guide you through your novel as well as give your readers the structure they need.
1. The Opening Scene—This is where we meet the protagonist and get to know who they are.
It’s a day like any other, whether they are a farmer planting his fields or a mercenary tracking down a killer.
Life is normal, and we get to see them in their element before the story begins.
As we move toward the next point, we show our characters interacting with their world, their goals for the future and the motivations behind them, give them flaws to overcome, and hint at the trouble to come.
2. The Inciting Event—Here the main conflict rears its angry head, whether it be man, nature, society, or a personal flaw.
This is where it first directly affects the protagonist, sending their world and everything they know spiraling into chaos.
In response, they should be forced to make a decision from which there is no going back, whether that is to confront the problem or to run from it.
From here until the middle, the protagonist struggles to succeed, failing every time and only making things worse for themselves.
3. The Midpoint Reversal—Once we hit the middle, something happens that changes the way the protagonist sees things.
Everything that’s happened up to this point becomes clearer, and they know what they have to do to solve it.
They begin to push back at the enemy, making small gains as they head toward the final battle.
Suddenly the end is in sight, and they will do anything to win.
4. The Climax—The protagonist finally gets to face their enemy head-on, and there is no going back.
No matter how it ends, only one side can win.
They fight with all their might, backing their enemy into a corner, thinking they have won and one more move will finish it.
At the last moment, the enemy gains the upper hand and the protagonist realizes they had been toying with them all along, there had never been any chance of winning and there is no escape.
All is lost, and the hero resigns themselves to their fate.
The enemy moves in for the final blow, and they decide they’re not ready to quit just yet.
They find the strength within themselves to continue to fight despite the hopeless situation.
This is when they discover something about themselves they never realized they had, whether it be a special power, an artifact, or an insignificant tool.
Whatever it is, means the destruction of the enemy, once and for all.
The enemy is defeated, the hero survived, and all is right in the world once more.
From here all that is left is to tie up any loose ends and hint at what is to come in the future, whether that is a lead into the next book, a happily ever after, or whatever.
However your story ends, be sure to wrap it up quickly, so your readers leave satisfied.
Every writer’s process is different. Some might start writing with the barest of structures, some might outline every point, and some might not apply structure at all until after their first draft.
But no matter how you write, structure is necessary to hold your reader’s attention and leave them wanting more.
If you’re a pantser and resistant to the idea of using structure, it might help to think of it as merely a guide to help you find your way as you write.
Nothing is set in stone. Your story might end up going another way. That’s fine. You can modify it as you write.
But give your readers the structure they’re looking for.
How do you structure your stories?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.