From thought to release: writing a novel, part 2

Part 2: Story structure basics

So you have an idea, just need to write it now!

Well, not quite. Before starting it’s a good idea to know how stories are structured. If you watch a lot of films or read books then you probably already know this without realising…

The three act structure.

Many stories follow the simple three act structure of beginning, middle and end:

  • Everything is normal (or at least normal for the world you’ve created).
  • An event happens that kicks off the main story.
  • The protagonist reacts to what’s going on.
  • The protagonist starts to take control of his/her own destiny.
  • Something goes hideously wrong and looks like all is lost!
  • There’s a big climatic scene and the protagonist prevails. Hurrah!
  • Everyone catches their breath and continues their lives, but this story is over.

Okay so that’s a very simplified version and there are many variations and nuances but it’s amazing how many stories follow that pattern, mainly because the formula works so well. This is why many books which are split into two parts for the film version often feel very unsatisfactory (to me anyway, although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows just about got away with it), especially the first part.

This graph, borrowed from the Wikipedia page about the subject shows the various aspects of the three act structure in a more visual formPlot_Line_Graph_Ver.2 The main problem is once you know the pattern you’ll start looking for it in everything! Here’s a good example of the film ‘Bolt’ which I watched the other week on television:


  • Bolt is a normal dog but is raised in a TV studio for a show with his owner Penny and made to believe he has super powers
  • After a mix-up at the studio he is accidently posted off in a crate and gets lost
  • Bolt thinks he has super-powers still and gets into various scrapes, meeting new friends along the way
  • Bolt, with the help of his friends works out his place in the new world and helps some other animals escape from an animal shelter. But he misses Penny and wants to go home
  • Bolt gets home but finds the TV studio has replaced him in the show with another dog who Penny seems to love (although this is not the case. All is lost!
  • A fire at the studio means Bolt has to become a real hero and rescue Penny and the two are reunited
  • Bolt and Penny retire from the show which continues with a different cast, although it’s not as good. Bolt shares his new life with his new friends – fade to black.

Before embarking on your journey of novel writing it’s definitely watching a load of films to see how the story adheres to that structure (it’s usually quicker than reading a book!). They follow the same pattern as books although the timings are often a bit compressed to fit in the time allowed. For many examples of this, check out The Script Lab web site!

Further reading:

For more detailed information I highly recommend two excellent books from K.M. Weiland about outlining and structuring fiction, which go from the large overall picture and drill down to the scenes themselves.

To plan or not to plan? Pantsers vs plotters

You might have a flash of inspiration and have the whole story appear at once, or you might have a few disparate scenes in your head with a huge number of gaps in between.

So what happens next?

Well, this will depend on what kind of writer you are, and seem to be distilled into two traits:

  • Pantser
    • Doesn’t really plan at all and just starts writing, getting inspiration as they go along.
  • Plotter
    • Makes sure they know where they are going, detailing the plot points and story before they start.

There are two extremes of course from detailing every single point to going off on a wild adventure of discovery,  but I would imagine most people fall somewhere around the middle. The main thing to remember is that THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY! Just do what feels right for you. Personally, for In Vitro Lottery I worked out the main story points and roughly where I wanted to go, and it wasn’t until I was deep into writing that the whole thing started to come together and the fine details began to reveal themselves.

One example is the character of Rowena in my novel, who didn’t even exist as a player until late on in my planning. She then grew in importance and is the catalyst in the story for several of the key events. The final climax also changed quite late into development; although the end was the same one I’d originally envisioned the journey to get there was quite different.

Now you have a rough idea on how stories are constructed, does your idea fit the pattern?

Coming up in part 3: Characters and subplots

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