Ten steps to structuring your novel

By   Hannah Bickerton 4 min read

Silvia began her editorial career in 2003. Since then she has worked as an editor of fiction and non-fiction for publishers including HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Faber & Faber, before joining whitefox in 2014. She has worked across most genres, with authors from Doris Lessing to Nigella Lawson, as well as overseeing the production of ebooks and tie-in apps.

One of the wonderful things about fiction is that there are no set rules to writing it. But tempting as it is just to start with a killer opening line and see where it takes you, the truth is that it really would be quite some feat to coast on through to the end without any sort of plan. These tips are designed to help you find your way into the novel by thinking about the big picture before you’ve written a word.

First Things First

You may have a non-linear structure in mind, but in order to work out what that structure will be, think of your story chronologically first. Convention dictates that a novel should have a beginning, a middle and an end, so where does your main character’s story start and finish – and what central challenge or incident connects the two?

What’s the Point?

You have ten seconds to summarise your book: go! Whatever you need to include is the skeleton on which to hang your story; anything else is likely to be a subplot. (Imagine Jane Austen’s elevator pitch for Pride & Prejudice, for instance.) Bear that in mind as you…

Map It Out

Once you have the broad trajectory of your main character(s), you can start filling in the gaps. It might help to think of – and even draw out – your central plot as a wide river with numerous tributaries flowing into it. Where do these subplots need to join the main story and what is their effect on the course of events?

Structure: The Scenic Route

If you’re considering a non-linear structure, think about whether your novel would actually benefit from it. What will be the effect on how your readers experience the story? Some unconventional structures used to interesting effect in recent years include reverse chronology (Sarah Waters, The Night Watch), alternative timelines (Paul Auster, 4321), multiple views of the same event (Stuart Turton, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle) and seemingly independent sections that can be read in any order (Ali Smith, How to Be Both).

Where’s the Twist?

If the ‘middle’ in your ‘beginning, middle and end’ is a major revelation or change of circumstances that your plot denouement hinges upon, think about where this needs to fall. Readers would normally expect it somewhere around the middle of the book – whether the novel is structured chronologically or not (think of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train). If it’s a whodunit, it is less than ideal to introduce vital new information or characters at the last minute – your readers will feel they haven’t been given a fair chance to work it out themselves.

Structure: As the Crow Flies

There are ways of playing with structure even within a linear story – for instance, beginning with a prologue narrated by another character, breaking up the chapters with letters or diary entries, or interspersing a thriller with short, shocking chapters from the as-yet-unidentified murderer’s viewpoint.

Get On With It

Don’t get distracted from your plot, genre or principal characters. If you feel sections of your novel aren’t working, consider whether you’ve introduced too many minor characters (Do they need a butler and a housekeeper?), or got distracted by back-story and veered away from the genre your reader’s expecting (Who cares how they fell in love? The aliens have landed!).

Show, Don’t Tell

Your readers have invested time and money in your book and they want to enjoy it. Trust them to follow your lead without needing everything explained. If it’s well written, it’ll all become clear soon enough. This is particularly important with set-up and character motivation: if you need to spend pages explaining how your fictional universe works or why someone’s behaving in a certain way, something has probably gone wrong. (And even the most far-out sci-fi probably doesn’t need a glossary.)

Great Expectations

Imagine a reader browsing in a bookshop. Would the first couple of pages of your novel give them an accurate – and above all compelling – impression of the story and its genre? Think about how much you actually need to ‘set the scene’ before embarking on the plot. Can the scene-setting be incorporated into the plot so that you hit the ground running?

The Sense of an Ending

Don’t feel obliged to tie up all the loose ends. Sometimes a neat ending can seem a bit too convenient. It can be more effective – and more memorable – to leave certain things to the reader’s imagination.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.