As you work on committing a complete draft of your novel to paper (or hard drive), you may have to wrestle with its structure. Readers expect certain story components when they open a book. While you may decide to break with tradition at some point, you should be well-versed in the established norms for story structure.
What is your story structure?
At the most basic level, your story should contain a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. You can also think of this as a three-act structure, much like a play.
The first act, the beginning, introduces us to your characters and setting. Your beginning gives readers the basic context they’ll need to interpret all the events to come. It also provides the plot’s inciting incident: the nudge that fells the first domino. By the time reader’s finish your story’s beginning, they should know who everyone is, where they are, and why your inciting incident matters.
Drama builds in the middle of your book. Eventually, plot conflicts come to a head. By the end of this middle section — Act Two, if you will — we reach a big climactic moment for your story and characters.
The end of your book resolves major conflicts and plot threads and sets up a new order. While it shouldn’t be too neat, readers should be able to imagine how your characters will continue after the last page.
Also consider whether you’re writing a more commercial, plot-focused story or an introspective, character-driven one. Read up on the Hero’s Journey, an ancient formula that can be adapted to almost any story. Think about how your own writing fits into these norms.
Know readers’ expectations even if you plan to defy them.
When I was in art school for my painting degree, all of us — abstract and representational painters alike — had to take the same foundation art courses. We studied line drawing, multi-point perspective, two- and three-dimensional design. At no point could anyone raise their hand and say, “I’m an abstract artist, I don’t need to practice drawing a still life.” To break the rules, first we had to learn them.
While established story structures can feel limiting and formulaic, there’s a reason they’ve endured so long. They offer a common language, a framework that helps readers focus on your ideas, story, and characters. If you try something radically different from what the rest of the literary world is doing, you ought to understand and be able to articulate the reasons for that choice.
Bend the rules with caution. They’re there for a reason.
Ironically, your novel’s underlying structure is there mostly to make itself invisible. Using an established structure puts your story into a familiar container. This helps readers focus on the world you’ve worked so hard to create. If you force readers to work harder to figure out what’s going on, they have less attention left for your characters, setting, and ideas. They may even put your book down before the end because they don’t understand it.
That’s not to say you can never break the rules. Plenty of famous stories defy structural norms and get away with it. However, remember to do this with a careful, well-informed hand. Keep writing as much as you can, and look for opportunities to read and critique others’ work. Eventually, you’ll develop a stronger intuition for when breaking the rules works well and when it signals a need for more revision.