Novel Writing: Plot Structure

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To paraphrase screen writing guru, Sid Field, a novel is like a noun—a person, in a place, doing his or her thing. This “thing” provides the structure for your novel. What is the character doing and why is he/she doing it. As a writer, you have several options to choose from, depending on whether your starting with your character and building a plot around that character or starting with a plot and creating characters to carry out that plot. In this tutorial, we will examine both ways.

Starting with a Plot

We will use Lejos Egri’s (The Art of Dramatic Writing, 2009) explanation of what he calls a theme for this. The theme is what your story is about and follows a given structure that is usually moral in some way.

The theme of Beloved might be running from guilt leads to confrontation with that guilt. So, if we were writing Beloved, our task would be to create a character who feels guilty about something and is running from it (in this case, Sethe is running from the guilt she feels for killing her baby).

In The Color Purple the theme might be oppression leads to self-actualization. So here we create a character who is being oppressed and weave our plot so that she finds her self-worth and rises above the oppression.

The prototype of a theme is This Leads to That. So we put a character in this situation and show how the character progresses to that situation.

Starting with Character

If you start with a character then you have to give that character a goal—something he or she wants to achieve. Then you place obstacles in the characters way that he/she has to overcome in order to reach that goal.

A common plot scheme is a character who is quietly minding his or her own business when events threaten to bring some dramatic change into his/her life. The character spends the beginning of the novel trying to avoid or prevent this change, but events force the character to confront these changes.

in Beloved, Sethe has made a shaky peace with the ghost of her baby. She avoids admitting that there is a problem, even when her sons leave. But when Paul D enters her life, she wants the normal life that he promises, yet the baby presents an obstacle. The guilt threatens the normal life yet she cannot have that normal life without first confronting her guilt. The full grown Beloved forces her to do just that and the story climaxes with this confrontation.

The prototype of the character based novel structure might be Character Fights to Get What He/She Wants.

Turning points

There will be two major turning points in your novel. There is no hard and fast rule for exactly where to place these turning points. As you develop your ideas the place will fit in naturally. Tell a toddler who has just fallen and skinned his knee after taking his first step that walking is natural and he will look at you like you’re crazy. Yet it’s something we all go through and it does come naturally after a few skinned knees.

First Turning Point

Your first turning point is where the main character is forced to confront his or her problems. Up to this point your character has been trying to maintain the status quo and forestall any major changes in his/her life. Now things have built up to the point where the character can no longer ignore them. He/she must confront them or die. In many cases, this is not a physical death, but a death of something important to the character—the destruction of his normal world, the dissipation of his/her dreams, the death of his/her goals.

Second Turning Point

The second turning point is your major climax at the end of the story where the character takes actions that either fulfill or destroy his/her goals. This can be a positive/negative climax where there’s a positive moment of triumph followed by a negative moment of defeat and tragedy, or a negative/positive moment where everything looks lost and then the character triumphs.


Avoid anti-climax, which is when, during the climax, the writer gets in over his/her head and resolves the problem with some cheap trick. . For instance, your character is tied up in the basement of a burning building, and because you don’t know what else to do, you bring in a sudden rain shower that puts out the fire Your character remembers a scouts knife in his pocket, which the reader never knew about, and cuts his ropes. Lot your character struggle through the climax and bring it to a satisfactory resolution.

The Denouement

This is the conclusion. It comes right after the climax and should be proportional to the length of the story. If your reader has invested time and emotions in your characters, he/she wants to know what happened to them in the end. Don’t bring your reader to a climax and then leave them with a wham bam thank you ma’am ending. Tie up the loose ends. Remember, your main character is supposed to change (we will discuss this in more detail in the next chapter on character building). So how has the experience of the climax changed him/her? What is his/her relationship with the other characters like now? Many well known Black novels tend to be lax on this and it is my only complaint. Endings are in some respect, more important than beginnings. Readers may forgive a weak beginning if your characters are interesting enough and your writing style is good. But a weak ending leaves your reader feeling like reading your novel was a waste of time. Do not cheat your reader.

Stay tuned for the next chapter on character Development.
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