General Structure and Strategy For a Novel

As writers, we all want to write a story that hooks a reader and drives them to keep turning the pages. There's no magic formula, but there are some aspects of story structure that can help a writer craft a compelling story rhythm and pace.

In a story, Change creates danger, which creates fear, which creates tension. And that hooks your reader.

Readers are satisfied in a story where a protagonist's behavior causes the outcome. He is thrust into danger. He strives to overcome and proves to the reader whether he deserves to win or lose. The end is the result of his own choices, his own actions. He takes the consequences or reaps the victory of his decisions.

Character strategy:

A story is change, both internal and external. Events change (external). The character changes (internal).

Your character has to do something. A character who just reacts to external events is boring. Your character should desire to get from point A to point B, and makes certain decisions to get to her goal. There are consequences she reacts to or obstacles she avoids.

Your character has to become different. A character who doesn't change is boring. At some point, your character has some realization or "Ah-ha!" moment that changes her and (sometimes) the outcome of the story.

There are exceptions to this second point. Stephanie Plum and Hercule Poirot didn't change very much at the end of each book. However, sometimes events outside the characters change subtly--their relationships with other minor characters, or maybe deeper information about them is revealed to the reader.

Story strategy:

The beginning creates the tension.

The beginning is two things--Setup and Catalyst or Inciting Incident

Setup is briefly establishing the character(s) in their original world. The brooding rancher, or the spoiled heiress. Show what the protagonist wants--what symbolizes happiness to her. It can be her present life, or something she desires.

Catalyst/Inciting Incident is the event that changes the protagonist’s world. It can be an external source rather than something the protagonist effects. It is danger to the protagonist, which threatens her desire or happiness.

The middle builds up the tension and intensifies it.

There are often three “disasters,” or “turning points.” Three is a common number for most screenplays, but it can be two or four.

Each disaster/turning point works directly against the protagonist’s goal, but he keeps moving forward. His choices are taken away, the stakes are raised, he’s boxed in. Whatever you do as the writer, grow the tension.

In the climax, the tension comes to a point.

Here is usually the crux of any internal conflict your character is struggling with, or the Epiphany. The character learns something, or comes to some self-realization.

Then the protagonist is given a choice between right and wrong, unselfishness and selfishness, sacrifice and safety. This is a form of testing of the self-realization in the Epiphany, and your reader shares the protagonist’s testing.

When the hero makes the right decision, the reader feels empowered to act on principle, also. A satisfying ending will happen because the protagonist has proven to the reader that he/she deserves to win.

It's not a moral lesson in the story. It's a psychological tactic to make the reader satisfied with the ending. It's simplistic, but in general, for popular fiction, it works. You can also turn this principle on its head if you're aiming for more esoteric literary fiction or a different emotional reaction from a reader.

Once the protagonist has made the right choice, everything goes wrong, All Is Lost, there is no hope for success. This is the Climax or Black Moment.

In the resolution, the tension is released in a satisfying ending.

Basically, you reward the protagonist for doing the right thing. The tide suddenly turns. Rescue can come from external sources or the protagonist’s efforts.

And they all lived Happily Ever After. Although not always. You can have the protagonist not achieve her desire, but find satisfaction and fulfillment in some other way. Loose threads should wrap up. The reader should be satisfied with the outcome of events, whether the protagonist “wins” or “loses.”


Here are a few questions to help structure your novel. Some of these will be explained more in the following lessons, but this might help in planning your story and character.

1) What does your protagonist desire? What symbolizes happiness to him/her?
2) What incident endangers that happiness and starts the protagonist on her journey?
3) What are three major disasters that prevent your protagonist from his goal?
4) What is a choice (related to the protagonist's goal) between right and wrong that you can use for the climax?
5) How will you reward your protagonist for doing the right thing?

Next: Your 50-Word Elevator Pitch

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

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