The Bones in the Book:
If you’ve been following these columns in Fiction Fix, you know
that I’ve been working my way through different levels of structure in
fiction. So far we have covered the following levels: words, phrases,
sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and, out of sequence, series. These
articles can be found in the
Fiction Fix archives. In this column we’re
going to attempt to gain a better understanding of the structure of books –
or, as these articles are dedicated to fiction – of the structure of novels.
You may have not thought about this much. As a reader, you may prefer
not to be conscious of the structure. It’s like noticing the skeleton
beneath the flesh of each person as he or she walks by – distracting and
disconcerting. Nevertheless, just as all people have skeletons, most novels
have structure, and, as the author you should be the master of the structure
of your novel.
Not only do novels have structure, in well-crafted novels, the structure
of the book enhances the storytelling. But how do you actually go about
How Big Is a Novel?
I’ve read in a number of places that novels are generally between 45,000
to 120,000 words and that they are most commonly between 50,000 to 80,000
words. Anything more than 120,000 words, go the rules, should either be
turned into a series of books or revised for size.
Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re a bestselling author, like JK
Rowling, you can write a tome of 250,000 words and market it to children!
How long should your novel be? Let me paraphrase Abraham Lincoln,
who when asked how long a man’s legs should be, replied: “Long enough to
reach the ground.” Your novel should be long enough to tell your story – no
less, no more.
This advice may sound so obvious that it’s virtually meaningless, so let
me expand on it.
Your novel should be long enough to tell its story. If you are wandering
off within the pages and telling a different story, you probably need to
cut. If you give it to test readers and they wonder whatever happened to
Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett, or want to know what happened to the
cookie jar, you may need to write some more.
Beginnings, Middles, Ends
This is the title of a book by Nancy Kress, who writes a fiction column
for Writer’s Digest. However, as I’ve not read it, I’m not stealing
from it, but I do want to acknowledge borrowing the title.
All novels have beginnings, middles and ends. During each one of these
sections there are things you need to do.
During the beginning of the book, you need to get the characters
introduced, set the scene, and get your action going. Some articles
recommend starting with action as exciting as possible.
My belief is that exciting is only one possible goal. Your beginning
could be peculiar, or intriguing, or words so well written that the reader
simply has to turn the page.
Middles and Midpoints
Many writers bog down in the middle of their books. This may arise out of
poor plotting, getting tired, or not knowing what is going to happen next.
For help with these issues it (a) helps to know what the end will be, and
(b) also helps to know how to plot. In the archives for Fiction Fix you can
find an article on plotting (“Keep Those Pages Turning”).
You may also want to consider the midpoint of your book and determine if
any particular action should take place then. In Pride & Prejudice,
Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet occurs almost exactly in the
middle (calculated by looking at the page numbers of my edition). This
allows enough pages for both major actions in the book – in the first half,
she’s learning to hate him; in the second half, she’s learning to love him.
Iokaste, our novel, has twenty chapters. The first ten chapters
focus on Iokaste’s marriage with her first husband, Laius; the second ten
chapters are devoted to her marriage with her son, Oedipus. The reader
learns of the death of Iokaste’s first husband at the end of the tenth
chapter – i.e., exactly halfway through the book.
Do you know the halfway point of your book? You should. Maybe it’s of no
particular significance, but you should know where it is and if it’s where
you meant it to be. You may be surprised!
As mentioned earlier, if you know how your book will end, writing it is
much easier. Furthermore, when you get to the end, everything should be
wrapped up; like a finished garment, no loose threads should show. This
means the reader should know what happened to all the characters of
importance, and even those of little apparent significance. Another hint,
too: you should resolve things generally in reverse order of importance –
although you don’t have to follow this exactly, consider it as a general
rule. For example, when Hercule Poirot tells who-did-it in an Agatha
Christie who-done-it, he clears up most of the smaller mysteries before
revealing the most dastardly murderer. Afterwards Christie usually has a
brief scene, sort of a cooling-off period, in which something like a pair of
young lovers gets together or another happy, normal-type interaction. It’s
like a cooling-off period after aerobics, getting your readers’ pulse rates
back down to normal.
Another structural element in novels – not all of them, but a good many –
is the frame story. This means having another story in which the rest of the
novel is told, for example, in beginning and end sections often known as the
prologue and the epilogue. A common way of doing this is that someone asks a
question and lo, the answer becomes the story – or the answer becomes part
of the story.
Why do this? Well, if the frame story shows another set of characters, as
in James Michener’s The Source, in which archaeologists are
excavating a site in Israel, it gives another perspective, another layer of
meaning, as well as supplying a hook of interest as different levels are dug
up and artifacts uncovered. Each artifact is associated with a different
time period and a different story within the book, and is a nice lead-in to
the history of the place.
In Iokaste my co-author and I used a frame story in which Iokaste,
the secret of her marriage with her son being found out, is asked by one of
their daughters: What happened? The rest of a book answers that question.
Our frame story serves multiple purposes. First, it gives Iokaste a
reason for telling her story. Second, it gives the readers a hint of where
everything is going, thus increasing their interest. (Illogically, sometimes
telling people what is going to happen makes them want to read further – I
don’t know why this works but it’s true.) And, something important for
Iokaste, the frame story educates the readers a little about the myth of
Oedipus. As we are re-telling a myth that many people know, and we wanted
them all to have at least a minimal understanding, we felt that this
reminder was necessary.
So, if you are creating a frame story, you should know why you are
creating that frame story, and make sure it fulfills your goals.
Other Methods of Organization
Depending on your story you may want to organize it into sections. We
covered this in the article, “Chapter Choices” that appeared in the May 2006
edition of Fiction Fix, but here’s a reminder of some of the
People – You may create a pattern of following people throughout
the story, either alternating point of view or having blocks of point of
view together. For example, consider that you are telling the story of a
husband and wife who want a divorce.
Time – You may decide to alternate between time periods – shift
between the past and the present - or to follow everything chronologically.
Setting – You may have more than one setting and you may want to
organize your story this way, such as threads in Moscow and Washington, DC.
Plot – You may be following a crime in one part of the book and
the detective work in another. You might expect that the crime to always
precede the detective work, but what if there are psychics involved? Or what
if it is the attempt to prevent a crime from happening?
These are just some possibilities; others may occur to you, depending, of
course, on the story you want to tell.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what structure
will serve your book best. Nor should there be: the structure should enhance
the story, and stories are different. But I firmly believe that being aware
of the structure of your novel can only improve it.
Questions? Comments? Anything you’d like me to address in an article?
Write to [email protected].
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About the Writer:
Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the
author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by
the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and
cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the
Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books
in the series at
Victoria was a moderator of a critique group
for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the
Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.