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The Structure of a Novel

”Dramas should be complete and whole in themselves, with a beginning, a middle and an end...with all the organic unity of a living creature.” Aristotle

The key to creating a novel is to build it one scene at a time. If each scene is well crafted, it will draw the reader to the next. If scenes are unified, each leading logically to the next, and each revealing a little more about the focus characers, and each progressing toward a satisfactory answer to the story question, the novel will take shape naturally.

The beginning:

1. Introduces the characters

2. Establishes the situation

3. States the conflict

4. Poses the story question (which should lead to the premise)

The middle: A progression of consequential events, involving the characters who change as a result of those events.

1. Each event must lead toward resolution of the conflict.

2. Each event must reveal more about the characters.

3. Each event must relate to the premise.

The end:

1. The climax, which is the pivotal event which resolves the conflict and proves the premise.

2. The resolution, which answers the story question, if the answer is not obvious as a result of the climax.

3. Each event must relate to the premise.


1. The plot should evolve as a result of the choices made by the characters in each scene and sequel.

2. Scene and sequel units are the building blocks of plots. Each is complete in itself,and a part of the organic unity of the entire novel.

3. Writers should avoid imposing unrealistic structure and plot requirements on characters. Their actions should always be consistent with their development.

4. Plotting a novel should follow a dramatic curve with ascending levels of minor climaxes before the final story climax. The way to increase the intensity of each scene is to raise the stakes.

Example: Scene 1 - The knight is in a battle (Will the battle be won or lost?)...Scene 45 - The king’s army is surrounded. The knight and his men are making a last stand. (Will the kingdom be won or lost?)

5. Be sure the major characters are the ones determining the plot. Villains and sub-characters can steal the story if not kept in check.

6. Avoid sagging middles - The plot, in order to maintain the reader’s interest, must lead to a series of dramatic peaks followed by valleys. The peaks should continuously increase until the ultimate peak (the climax) is reached.

Note: Many successful writers prepare a synopsis of the plot after writing the first three chapters of the book. At that point, the characters have taken shape, and the writer has a good idea of where the story is going. This is useful as a guide, and gives the writer assurance that there is a middle and end to the story. When the novel is complete, it may not completely follow your original plan, but at least you will not have been groping around aimlessly. Do not become a slave to the plot line, it can always be changed to improve the story.

Scenes and Sequels

There is an organic unity to the relation of the structure of the novel to the composition of each scene within the story. The novel is a sequence of scenes, followed by sequels. Each scene is constructed in the pattern of the novel, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Each element of the scene has the same dramatic purpose as the corresponding element of the story.

Structure of a scene::

1. Beginning - one or more characters are involved in a situation and are confronted with a conflict which poses a question.

2. Middle - a progression of consequential events, involving the characters who change as a result of those events. The best dramatic results occur when the events build, one step at a time, toward the climax.

3. The End - the climax of the scene, which is the pivotal event which answers the scene question. Note: There are only three possible answers to a scene question. The writer’s choice of answers determines the pace and direction of the story.

YES - There is no more story. The answer is a resolution in itself, and there is nowhere further to go. The scene, and possibly the story, has come to a grinding halt.

NO - This has some dramatic possibilities. The character may accept no for an answer, and the scene is over, or the character may look for other ways to approach the obstacle or conflict, and the story can progress.

MAYBE - This is filled with dramatic possibilities. It the protagonist is given a choice, such as, “If you do _____, you may have _____,” there are options, and a new question! The story has someplace to go.

Structure of a sequel::

1. The sequel is the period of reflection between dramatic scenes. Characters may take this time to consider available options. It also provides the writer a place in which to introduce transitions and explain or modify answers to to the preceding scene question. The four elements of a sequel are:

REACTION - to what happened in the previous scene.

DILEMMA - Choices add suspense.

DECISION - which may reveal character and determine the direction of the plot.

GOAL - this is the “set up” for the subsequent scene.

The sequel can be a useful timing device to prevent a story from becoming static. The writer must vary scenes in intensity, and must alter the pace of the story to prevent it from becoming static. The length of a sequel is a useful device for determining pace. A lengthy sequel slows action, which will allow the emotional level of the characters to return to normal between scenes which contain intense action. A brief sequel will quicken the pace, allowing the action to progress or increase in the next scene without loosing the reader’s interest. A brief sequel is especially useful at the end of a chapter when the writer wants to set up cliffhanger to cause the reader to turn the page and begin reading the next one.