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Beginning, Middle, and End – How to Structure A Novel

How to structure a novel

Have you ever read a book that left you gasping at the end of a chapter? What about a scene break that kept you reading far beyond your bedtime? Books that engage and surprise us all have one thing in common: They have good timing. From a writing standpoint, timing has to do with the mechanics of the scene. It’s less about the flowery words and more about how to structure a novel.

A lot of what we’ll discuss today is nebulous. Unfortunately, that’s because writing is nebulous. What works for one book doesn’t work for another. Therefore, we always recommend that when in doubt, seek help from external sources.

Now is the Start

How to structure a novel: knowing where to start, break, and end your book is a developed skillAn oft-used adage for new writers is to “cut the first three chapters.” The conventional wisdom is that authors tend to front-load with unnecessary information. We’re really not fans of any one-size-fits-all advice. However, there are some good questions to ask yourself.

For starters, your opening scene should be enough to hook the reader. What does that mean, exactly? For some books, it’s about the action. Fling the reader in the middle of a battle or heavy action. Give us some snippets of a mystery to be unraveled. Introduce us to your villain’s grand plot.

For other books, it’s enough to showcase the author’s voice. Take the first chapter of Harry Potter (which functions as a prologue). How many of us were first hooked by the Put-Outer or the description of Dumbledore on a very quiet, suburban street?

Knowing exactly where to start your book is part of that tricky “craft” piece. Until you’ve got the skill down, a good editor or beta readers can help.

Gimme a Break

Another skill to learn is when and how to end scenes. A scene break can have many uses–from moving along the story to changing POV. Part of the book’s flow is interconnecting each of those scenes and chapter breaks using transitions.

If your beginning is where you hook the reader, your scene and chapter breaks keep them reading. It’s the difference between “I can put the book down to sleep” and “I have to know what happens!” Of course, not every chapter ending needs to be on-the-edge-of-your-seat tense. Try for a balance, and, as always, listen to your beta readers.

At the End

How to structure a novel: when writing a series, the conclusion of book one should be both a resolution and transitionHave you ever read a book that just dragged at the end? (LOTR, we’re looking at you) When you’re thinking about where to end a book, it’s usually pretty clear. We’ve all seen Freytag’s Pyramid, which lists out the rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement (or resolution). But implementing that structure gets a little tricky, especially when writing a series.

As yourself what’s the big climax of your book? Look back at your character motivations to guide you. Once you’ve hit that point, look to the next book. What’s your motivation there? The conclusion of book 1 should be both a resolution and transition. For example, if Book 2 finds the protagonists in a new world, end the book sometime before they get there. Therefore, the reader will know what to expect in the second book, and be excited to continue.

Hang the Cliff…Or No?

Cliffhangers have their place, as much as we love to hate them. A good cliffhanger turns the book on its head in the final paragraph. Maybe it introduces a new idea, or brings forth a new light of information we know. You could do a “Who Shot J.R.?” type ending, as well.

Crafting a good cliffhanger has a few important elements. The main story of the book must be resolved. Many-an-author has been accused of a bait and switch for ending the book in the wrong place. If introducing new characters or plot, you must also make sure to not completely leave the audience behind. For example, if we’ve spent 400 pages being told that X is right, a bad cliffhanger would be to say, “No, just kidding” without any sort of foreshadowing.

The good news is: Crafting a good cliffhanger is a surefire way to get readers buying your next book.

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POV Violations – Head Hopping and Perspective Changes

POV Violations: Head Hopping and Perspective changes

A continuation of our series on self editing and writing tips. As always, your mileage may vary, and every story is unique. For many authors, side characters and secondary characters can tell as much of the story as the protagonists. But one thing newer authors trip up on are POV Violations (point of view violation). Basically, you have established a point of view for the book (First, Third Close, Third Omnipresent, etc), and then violated it. Usually by sneaking into the perspective of another.


POV Violations happen when the author writes about a perspective not already establishedWe say this is a newer author tripping hazard, but it happens to the best of us. You’re going along with a third close or a first person with one character, and then this happens:

I didn’t know what to say. Sarah didn’t know either. She thought I was full of crap.

Since your protagonist isn’t inside of Sarah’s head, we don’t know if she knew what to say, or what she thought. Thus, another case of POV violations. To fix it, we can only make an educated guess, based on body language.

I didn’t know what to say. From the look on her face, Sarah didn’t know either. And I’d wager she thought I was full of crap.

Very small adjustments, but important to maintain the point of view.

Movie Scene Exits

Another oft-used violation happens when a writer is envisioning their books as a movie. When we have a camera narrator, we can break away from our protagonist, and see events unfolding when he’s walked away. In a book with a close third or first POV, that’s a violation.

John strode out of the room, leaving Henry and Jane behind. They looked at each other, wishing he was somehow different.

In an omnipresent narration (where there’s no main protagonist), this would work. But if we’ve been sticking close to John for the entirety of the book, this comes off as a bit jarring to the reader. Unfortunately, the only resolution is to cut the violation, and incorporate the salient plot points in some other fashion.

New POVs later in the book

POV Violations: Establish your main POVs early and don't deviate later in the bookOften, small POV violations happen in drafting and are easy to fix. But sometimes, authors need to tell another perspective, and decide to drop an entirely new POV in a scene.

There are some cases where this works. If you’re writing a series, and in the follow-on book decide to expand the narrative with new perspectives, this can work. Within a single book, you generally want to keep new perspectives limited to the first half of the book, unless it’s a prologue or epilogue.

If you’re at the 75% mark and feel strongly that only this POV would suit for this narration, consider adding more scenes of that POV in the first few chapters. That way, your reader can establish that emotional connection early. Otherwise, you may have to rethink how to execute those plot points using your existing POVs.

Hey, we didn’t say writing books was easy!

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Character Motivations: Keeping Your Story Straight

Character Motivations: Keeping your story straight

When it comes to writing good, compelling characters, there’s a lot to consider. You want to create someone memorable, who readers can relate to. But most important, you want to make sure that your memorable, relatable character doesn’t change midway through the story. And for that, we need to understand character motivations, and how that impacts your plot.

What is Character Motivation

Character motivations: Identify what your protagonist wants, then keep it from themAny actor will tell you that a motivation is the underpinning for a good performance. You have to understand why someone acts in a certain way, even if the explanation never comes out in the text. When you understand your character, you can then write them in a way that’s believable.

To start, you need to understand what your character wants. What is the thing that will give them their “happy ending?” Your plot should revolve around keeping that thing from them. So as they go about your narrative in pursuit of that thing, their actions within the book should reflect that thing.

Changing Direction

Of course, humans are multi-dimensional creatures, and so are book characters. What a character wants at the beginning may not be what they want in Chapter Twenty. Sometimes, your plot dictates that a character’s motivations must change. The trick is to make sure to bring the reader with you when you make those transitions.

An example would be a thief in pursuit of a treasure. If he gets to the treasure and decides that he suddenly doesn’t want the treasure, the reader feels cheated. Why had they gone on this adventure if the thief changed his mind?

However, add in additional detail about how the treasure belongs to a young widow, who the thief befriends and grows a relationships with, and the reader can understand why he’d make an about-face.

Ret-Con and Mid-Series Changes

Character motivations can change. Just make sure to bring the reader along for the rideThe dreaded “ret-con” (or retroactive continuity) is what happens when a new book or TV episode changes the existing background established by a previous installment. This happens a lot with pilot TV episodes, where the overall idea behind the show may not be solidified. In book series, however, it becomes an issue when an author decides between books to change an idea–and neglects to take the reader with them.

For example, in one book, the narrator promises the relationship is platonic, and there’s no sexual tension between the two. But in the following book, the two characters suddenly can’t keep their hands off each other. The author indicated through background information that much more had passed between them in the space between the books. However, the reader, who was not present in the action, doesn’t get the emotion. And thus feels cheated because the author has “changed” a character.

Extra Eyes Help

Think of character confusion as a lack of communication. Authors are free to transition to any motivation they want, but when they fail to communicate the how and the why, that’s when problems start. One of the best ways to combat this issue, besides an awareness of plot, is to talk to your beta readers or enlist a content editor.

When it comes to character motivations, your betas are often your best assets. They are usually readers themselves, and quick to point out where a motivation change was too hastily executed. This is also where a good content editor can help. In a few weeks, we’ll share our best tips for incorporating feedback from your editor and beta readers, so come back for that.

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Showing and Telling – Not As Simple As it Sounds

Showing and telling: not as simple as it sounds

One of the most used phrases in editing is the dreaded, “Show, don’t tell.” What it means, very simply, is that the prose is using direct words and phrases (He was very angry) versus description (His blood thumped in his ears and he clenched his fists). While the definition is pretty clear, the application of showing and telling is much more nuanced.

Note: While most of the examples in this blog post are made up, they are inspired by our freelance editing clients. 

Explaining Away the Plot

Showing and telling: When the reader is present for the action in the plot, it packs a larger punch narrativelyAs freelance editors, we encounter a lot of showing and telling, but usually more telling. For most of our clients, it boils down to a lack of awareness of your plot. And also, just a hint of writer laziness. The most clear example of showing vs. telling is when an author explains away an entire scene in a single sentence:

Later, Anita went to the council meeting. I followed along and they discussed the upcoming presidential election. I watched as a heated argument arose between Anita and Councilman Jeffords. After that, we had lunch and discussed it.

Our editing comment would be something along the lines of, “Turn this into a scene.” Unless the council meeting offered nothing of plot-or-character-value, this is a chance to continue building your world. When the reader is present for an action, it keeps them engaged.

Body Language

When it comes to dialogue, writers have to strike a balance between giving too much background and body language and keeping the conversation going. More often than not, we see a lot of dialogue and not a lot of descriptors, which can both confuse the reader as to who’s talking and not give us a clear picture of the emotion in the room.

“I didn’t say that,” he said.

“Yes, you did. You totally said that.”

“You are such a liar. I can’t believe you’d say something like that about me.”

“I can’t believe I ever loved you.”

The words, by themselves, are powerful. But with the addition of some body language–a pause here, a turning away there, an averted gaze and flushed cheeks, we can glean much more about this conversation. This is especially crucial when building relationships between characters in your text.

Duplication with Dialogue

Along the same lines as above, we see a lot of authors duplicate sentiments found within dialogue, or understood from subtext:

I was so angry. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“What?” he replied with a small shrug. He obviously wasn’t concerned about it. “There was nothing I could do.”

Yeah, right. “That’s such bullshit.”

In this case, you may be able to get away with one or two asides, but as a reader, you know that Person A is angry, and from the shrug and dialogue, you know Person B doesn’t care. Instead, you could

Purple Prose

Showing and telling: Learning when to use each is a crucial author skillWe’ve also dealt with some authors who go above and beyond on the showing standpoint, giving us an entire chapter of exposition on how cold the outside is. While there are some readers who enjoy that level of detail, there are others who see a block of text and flip to the next page. Here is the flip side of showing and telling – too much showing.

There’s also such a thing as purple prose, or prose that’s too elaborate or ornate. Usually, this prose involves some rather unique word choices describing action that isn’t very interesting:

The elfin woman shrugged her bony, pale shoulders, her silvery hair fluttering with each movement. Her golden eyes danced about the room, absorbing everything from the chandelier to the marble tile floors. With a flick of her ebony cape, she swept toward the aperture on the wall.

In some cases, purple prose works. Fantasy books with massive amounts of worldbuilding benefit from having more detail. If you’re an author with a flowery writing style, do what works for you and your preference. But keep in mind that too much detail can distract the reader.

How to Fix It

It really boils down to the uniqueness of your book. No two stories are exactly alike. In general, here are some rules to keep in mind for showing and telling:

  • Plot explanation: Ask yourself: Is this scene crucial? Would writing it give an additional view into this world or the plot?
  • Dialogue: What are the characters doing? If they’re sitting around, staring at the wall, dialogue-only may work. Look up some articles on body language and try to incorporate it.
  • Purple Prose: Is the paragraph too descriptive? Is there a reason for the detail, or is it just to fill space?

Reading through your manuscript to find the issues is really the best way to locate the problems. That’s why we’re such big believers in getting additional feedback, especially for newer writers learning the craft. After a few rounds with an editor, it becomes easier to understand where to utilize each practice.

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