Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2016

10 Step Novel Structure

1: Beginning

This is an introduction to the character and the world that they live in to begin with. Think about how you’re setting up both to change by the ending. Even if you have a rather slow start (which I am fond of), your main character needs to want or need something and to be an active character, not a passive one who allows other characters and events to act upon them. If you think Star Wars, remember that Luke starts on Tatooine with his aunt and uncle, living an ordinary farming life. He complains (which is at least a kind of push-back) and says he wants to leave home sooner than his uncle would like.

2: Inciting Incident

This is the moment when things start to change. Sometimes this is in the first chapter, sometimes in the second chapter. It’s what propels the rest of the story forward. In the first chapter, you may have a main character who wants something that turns out to be untenable or that they quickly realize they don’t want, after all. The inciting incident has to be part of the desire inside of them that will propel the rest of the plot forward, and the inner growth of the main character, as well. If we go back to Star Wars, the inciting incident is discovering the message from Princess Leia, which makes Luke go in search of Obi Wan Kenobi.

3: Resistance

A normal person is going to resist the inciting incident and the cascade of events that follow. They will try to back out of their participation, think of any way they can to get out of it, and back pedal. Some may try to go home. Others may try to be passive. Some might directly sabotage the action moving forward in hopes of not having to take risks—and not having to change. In Star Wars, this is when Luke realizes the danger in going with Han Solo.

4: Plan to Succeed

When at last the main character realizes that there’s no way out and that, in fact, some part of them demands moving forward, the second half of the novel begins (though this may happen well before the second half in terms of page count). This is when we as readers strap in for the ride, and we expect to have lots of excitement, even if it’s not all physical. For Luke, this is when he decides to commit to learning how to use the force and when he goes to rescue Leia.

5: Try and Fail Cycles

This may well be the longest section of your novel. Most of a novel is made up of failures, as it should be. Readers read because they want to be confirmed in their own belief that failure is a natural part of life and that they have to learn to live through it. They also want to see other people humiliated and growing from setbacks, as they have been. The minimum for a novel is three try/fail cycles, but there can be far more than that. Remember as you’re writing this section that the failures should not just be of one type. There can be defections from friends, fighting, deaths, injuries, mistakes, learning that the magic doesn’t work as expected, betrayals, and on and on. In Star Wars, this happens when Han Solo and Luke are trying to rescue Leia.

6: New Obstacles

This is the section of the book where you introduce new problems that no one ever even considered possible before. It turns out the villain knows what they’re doing and can stop them. The mentor is killed. Everything that was part of the previous plan goes out the window. There’s a lot of havoc going on here, so don’t cheat it in terms of page length. It’s not going to be as long as part 5, but it shouldn’t be a single big problem either; rather, a series of rising problems that make any solution impossible. In Star Wars, this is when Obi Wan is killed by Darth Vader.

7: Dark Night of the Soul

Once your main character realizes that all the effort of the last two parts is for naught and that there is nothing but failure and death waiting, this section is useful. You can’t skip over it, but don’t let it go on for too long because it can feel depressing for the reader and you don’t want the main character to wallow. In Star Wars, this is when Luke and Han Solo are trying to destroy the Death Star, but there’s no possible hope that it can happen.

8: Recommitment

This is the moment when the main character has to rely on themselves to make things happen. No one else can intervene. There’s no rescue from friends. It’s the main character having to figure out what they have deep within that is going to win. It should be something that has been there all along, building, but wasn’t the plan going in. In Star Wars, this is when Luke, despite the fact that there is no hope, decides to rely on the force and take down the Death Star alone.

9: Climax and Success

This is the highest moment of excitement in the story, the moment that everything else has been leading up to. But usually, this moment doesn’t take very long. It’s what we’ve been aiming for, but once we’re there, it turns out there are lots of other things to be done. In Star Wars, Luke destroys the Death Star and there’s some hooting.

10: Denouement

It’s important to show what happens after the climax because it helps highlight the changes from the beginning. Always look back to the beginning when you write the denouement so you can touch again on themes that were brought up there. In some ways, this may feel like a full circle moment, but it should also be a spiral, because it ends in a higher place than the beginning, even if there’s a return home. This is when Luke and Han Solo get their medals from Princess Leia and everyone cheers. It’s a triumphant, positive moment, but there should also be just a little sense of what things are left to be done. Even if you’re not doing a sequel, the story should go on past this moment.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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