It’s a crucial part of your novel; the architecture that holds the whole thing up. There are theories and nifty diagrams and entire books written about the ways stories are structured – but how can you tell when yours is going wrong?
A secret: I’m not that big a fan or rigorous follower of the three-act or five-act structure. Don’t tell anyone. Many writers find it incredibly helpful to think about story in these terms, and it is absolutely something I come back to as I edit. But as someone who has sat down with a stack of post-it notes to plan several novels’ worth of inciting incidents, mid-points, crises and denouements, I know from bitter experience that it doesn’t work for me when it comes to writing the novel in the first place. I’m not a pantster by any stretch of the imagination either, and I do plan, but I need a bit more freedom within the form during a first draft. I lose interest if I start thinking about the building blocks of a novel too early on; I need to lose myself in the story first.
But whether you’re a writer who knows all their beats going in or someone who writes first and asks questions later, there’s still every chance you’re going to need to take a second look at your structure at some point in the process. Here are some of the reasons why it might not be working for you.
We’re told time and again that a book needs to grab an agent’s/editor’s/reader’s attention as soon as possible, so it’s a normal impulse to put lots of exciting or interesting things in your early chapters. And while that might keep someone turning the pages, a novel that feels too top-heavy can also mean your audience doesn’t have time to connect to the characters or your writing, leaving them less invested – this is especially problematic if you’re then leading us into a quieter second half where our interest in events depends on us caring about what happens. We need that early, deeper engagement with the story – and that’s harder to achieve if there’s too much action to keep up with.
You’re saving the best… for too long
Conversely, it’s also very easy to spend the first half of your novel setting up all your thoughtfully drawn characters, your immaculately built world – meaning that you end up rolling out the actual plot, where things start happening in earnest, far later than you should be. Generally this will result in an overly-long manuscript or a novel with a really uneven pace: a slow-burn start followed by action-action-action without enough breathing room for those plot points to hit their mark.
There are too many people trying to speak at once
Novels with multiple narrators are particularly tricky beasts to structure. You’ll need to figure out how you want to weight the narrative – do their storylines have equal importance, and are they given the same amount of page time? Is there a ‘main’ story and one/some smaller, secondary threads? – and make sure that these are well-balanced throughout in a way that serves your plot and pace best. One problem that’s particularly common here is an overcrowded opening, where you may feel the need to introduce the reader to all the narrators/threads as soon as possible. Resist this – you risk losing their interest if you skip about too much in those crucial opening chapters. Make sure you’re allowing time for your audience to get their bearings with a character/situation before you hit them with the next. But equally, make sure you’re returning to each of your narrators regularly enough that we don’t forget about or lose interest in them.
You’re getting lost in time
Similarly, if you’re making use of multiple time strands or employing flashbacks for some of your exposition, it’s easy to get yourself in a structural knot. Keep careful track of what each of your characters – and your reader – know if you’re showing us those people at different points in time, and think about where any reveals or turning points come in the novel – are they well spaced? Do they make sense to the story, particularly to its pace, there? If you’re working with a dual narrative of two entirely separate time periods, where the stories are interwoven but don’t cross over, again, ensure you’re giving the reader enough space to enjoy and engage with each, but without neglecting the other.
The dreaded baggy middle
It’s a writer’s rite of passage to struggle with this one. You’ve nailed your arresting, intriguing opening; you know exactly how the novel reaches a climax and then heads into a satisfying resolution. It’s all the middle stuff that’s causing the problem. If you find that you have lots of chapters in the middle where your characters are drifting, or where you become bogged down in all the exposition you need to get them towards that rising action, then you might need to reconsider the subplots and character development you could be doing to make those connecting points more engaging.
The good news is that identifying any of these problems is half the battle. Sometimes you need to take a step back and consider the novel as a whole before gaps or overcrowded bits become obvious. You can do that with the aforementioned post-its or index cards (I like one per chapter, but you can also separate by character or plot strand) or by using software like Scrivener which has a brilliant storyboard function making it particularly easy to move chapters or scenes around. Sometimes it’s a process of trial and error, sometimes you have to move a whole load of blocks to find the one that’ll hold the rest up. When in doubt, think of these very wise words from a dear Faber favourite.