The Bones in the Book:
            Structure of Novels
     Victoria Grossack

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 doing this?

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.

Beginnings

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!

Ends

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.

Frame Stories

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 possibilities:

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.

Conclusion

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 Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.