When my son was 4, he wrote a novel. It was four pages, each page containing one sentence. Very Hemingway-esque.
Nate spelled the words phonetically. Here is the entire novel, sans the crayon illustrations. The spelling has been updated for modern readers:
Robin Hood went riding. A bad guy came. They fought. He won.
Now it’s true he needed some work on clarifying pronouns and antecedents. But the fact is he wrote a perfectly structured story. Somehow Nate had absorbed the essentials of plot constructionperhaps from Dad’s story time at night or the movies he was starting to love on tape and television.
The lessons drawn from this modest example can help us understand the value of structure in a novel. Simply put, structure is the orderly arrangement of story material for the benefit of your audience.
Story structure revolves around the simple concepts of beginning, middle and end, and the crucial but often missed significance of transition.
Beginnings are always about the who of the story. The entry point is a lead character, and the writer should begin by connecting readers to a lead as quickly as possible”Robin Hood went riding.”
Imagine if the courtroom scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird began the book. What connection would there be with Atticus Finch? He’d certainly seem like a competent, caring lawyer, but our caring would not be as deep as it is when the scene appears later in the story.
That’s because the beginning of the book gives us glimpses of Atticus as a father, citizen, neighbor and lawyer. We get to know him in greater detail, through the eyes of his daughter, before we track him to court.
Beginnings have other tasks to perform, however. The four most important are:
Mario Puzo’s The Godfather does all of these things in the beginning. Puzo establishes the story world as revolving around the Don’s power:
Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promises, nor the craven excuse that his hands were tied by more powerful forces in the world than himself … It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.
The tone of the book is one of incipient danger, especially if one should cross the Don or his family.
What compels us to read on? During the opening scene, Don Corleone makes numerous promises for justice. We want to know if he can deliver. The first obstacle is a powerful movie producer, Jack Woltz, who has refused to cast the Don’s godson, singer Johnny Fontane, in a movie.
In Chapter 2, we find out Woltz was “convinced” to accede to the Godfather’s wishes by way of a special delivery to his bedthe severed head of his prized horse. That’s more than enough to keep us reading.
Your beginning section must also introduce the element of confrontation, almost always represented by an opposition character”A bad guy came.” Your protagonist may be the most interesting person on earthlike a guy in tights living in a forest with merry menbut unless this lead has major opposition to overcome, there will be no story.
Most opposition characters are bad guys in one sense or another. He might be a manifestly evil man, like the guerrilla leader in James Grippando’s A King’s Ransom. Or he might be serving a larger enterprise bent on stopping the leadDevasher in John Grisham’s The Firm.
An opposition character does not have to be bad, however. A legal thriller may feature a defense attorney opposed by a prosecutor who is tough, but not necessarily unethical. Or an innocent man, accused of a crime, could be hunted by a good cop, whose job is to serve the law. All that matters is that the stakes are high for each character and that their objectives are in conflict.
The major part of the novel is the confrontation, a series of battles between the lead and the opposition”They fought.”
This is also where subplots blossom, adding complexity to the novel and usually reflecting the deeper meaning of the book.
The various plot strands weave in and out of one another, creating a feeling of inevitability, while at the same time surprising the reader in various ways. In addition, the middle should:
The key relationships in the middle of The Godfather are between Michael Corleone and the various players in the takeover drama. The Godfather has hopes that his son will go legitimate, into the corridors of American power. But that all changes when the Don is nearly assassinated and Michael decides to get involved.
The strength of the novel is that Puzo gets us to care about a family of criminals. He makes the characters human. Michael’s love for his father, Sonny’s sense of justice, even Fredo’s inept attempts to help are all completely understandable and sympathetic.
For your middle to succeed, you need to keep the various character objectives in mind. If they go off on tangents, the reader may lose interest. Keep things moving by making matters tougher on the lead.
In the beginning of your book, introduce your lead character.
In the middle of your book, introduce the conflict between your main character and the antagonist in a way that connects him with your readers. Also, develop your characters and their backgrounds.
By the end of the book, remember to resolve all the conflicts you introduced.
Finally, do all this while using transitions that propel the story’s flow.
The last part of the novel gives us the conclusion of the middle, the resolution of the big story”He won.”
In The Godfather, Michael Corleone, taking over the family enterprise, viciously asserts his power over his immediate enemies. He wins big.
To Kill a Mockingbird finds the narrator, Scout, overcoming her fear of Boo Radley and learning that he has saved her life.
The best endings also:
In The Godfather, Michael has won the gangland war. But at what cost to his soul and his family? At the end of the novel his wife, Kay, wills to believe the best about him, but ends up in church saying the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.
To Kill a Mockingbird ends not only with Scout and her brother learning not to fear people who are “different.” It also leaves us with a sense that society must understand this truth to avoid the awful consequences of prejudice.
How you get from beginning to middle, and from middle to end, is a matter of transitioning. I find it helpful to think of these two points as “doorways of no return.” A mastery of them will give your plot forward momentum and save you from a sagging story.
To get from beginning to middlethe first doorwayyou must create a scene where the lead is thrust into the main conflict in a way that keeps him there. This needs to happen early, or the story will drag.
In a suspense novel, the first doorway might be that point where the lead happens upon a secret that the opposition wants to keep hidden at all costs. Now there is no way out until one or the other dies. There can be no return to normalcy. Grisham’s The Firm is an example.
Professional duty can be the doorway. A lawyer taking a case has the duty to see it through. So does a cop with an assignment. Similarly, moral duty works for transition. A son lost to a kidnapper obviously leads to a parent’s moral duty to find him.
The key question to ask yourself is this: Can my lead walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before? If the answer is yes, you haven’t gone through the first doorway yet.
Book I of The Godfather ends with that transition. Michael shoots the Don’s enemy, Sollozzo, and the crooked cop, McCluskey. Now he can never go straight again. He’s in the conflict up to his eyeballs and cannot walk away.
To move from the middle to the endthe second doorway of no returnsomething has to happen that sets up the final confrontation. Usually it is some major clue, piece of information, huge setback or crisis, that hurtles the action toward conclusionusually with one quarter or less of the novel to go.
In The Godfather, the Don’s death is a setback to the peace among the mafia families. It emboldens the enemies of the Corleone family, forcing Michael to unleash a torrent of death to establish his power once and for all.
These doorways work equally well in literary fiction. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River has two perfectly placed transitions. The first occurs when Reuben’s older brother, Davy, shoots and kills two people and must flee. This thrusts Reuben into the middlethe quest to find Davy. The second doorway opens when Davy reappears, setting up the final battle within Reubenshould he reveal where Davy is?
Is it possible to write a novel that defies all of these conventions? Certainly. Just understand that the more structure is ignored, the less chance the novel has to connect with readers.
This isn’t to downplay the worth of quirky or experimental narrative; it is, however, a fact you need to make an informed decision about with your writing. Mastering structure and transitions will make your novel readily accessible. Add a ripping good story, and it might just be unforgettable.
This article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Writer’s Digest.