Identifying Structure in Your Novel

Today I’m going to discuss something which strikes fear in the hearts of many a writer: structure!

Structure is a very scary thing to both think about and revise. Identifying your novel’s structure and deciding what to revise is always the hardest part of revision for me. This is because I’m a panster and rarely know what’s happening next as I write. If you’re a panster like me, and you’ve written a novel, you might be despairing about your novel’s structure and wondering why you just didn’t create a nice organized outline to help you draft your book.

I’m here to tell you that you don’t need an outline to draft and it’s entirely possible to identity your novel’s structure after you’ve pantsed your way through an entire manuscript!

To me, structure is a mix of three elements: pacing, plot, and character agency. Of these three, I would argue that plot and character agency are the most important. You can always fix pacing by cutting/adding stuff later!

I break plot and character agency down into two even simpler categories.

  1. Plot elements are the things that happen to your protagonist. (They’re attacked, they don’t get into that summer internship program, they’re dumped, etc.)
  2. Agency are things that your protagonist does. (They storm the castle, finally learn how to use their powers, etc. HOWEVER, agency doesn’t have to be pure, action-based events. Agency can also be decisions your character makes, feelings that develop such as falling in love, or a new belief your character has acquired.)

As writers we’re pretty good at identifying the plot-based elements in our structure. It’s the character agency elements that are harder. To identify character agency, I recommend reading this post by Rosiee Thor on character agency and completing the character agency activity in the post.

Now, here’s your homework for identifying structure in your novel. Make a list of every incident of plot and character agency that your protagonist experiences. You can do this in a spreadsheet, Scrapple, index cards, list them in a word document or on paper—any way works!

Next, I recommend going through your list, element by element, and listing the consequences for each moment of plot and character agency. For example; does your character fall in love and consequently have their priorities change? Does your character discover a secret letter and consequently realize that the mystery they have been exploring is much more dangerous and complicated than they thought it was? I recommend writing your list in the form of “moment of plot/character agency happens and so consequently Y happens” to make sure the consequence of each plot and character agency event in your novel is very obvious to you.

Now comes the strange and scary part: look at your list and ask yourself the following: which of these incidents of plot and character agency create the biggest moments of conflict/tension/change in your novel? Keep in mind (and this is vital) that what creates the most tension in your novel may not be the plot point or moment of character agency that you wanted or imagined would create the biggest splash. Try to list 4-5 events which you think are the most tension filled. This process will be hard and you might not come up with easy or clear answers and that’s okay! Knowing that you’re uncertain about something in your draft is as good and important as knowing when something works. Roll through this difficult task. I believe in you. Take breaks to brainstorm and/or shout at your draft as needed.

Once you’ve identified the 4-5 biggest moments in your novel ask yourself if any of them fit the following descriptions:

Inciting incident: something happens to the character (or the character makes a choice which affects something) that changes their day to day life and sets them on a new outer or inner journey.

Midpoint: something has happened to your character after the inciting incident and everything is different now; there is no going back to the way things were. Perhaps they’ve admitted something important to themselves they were trying to hide, kissed the love interest, won (or lost) an important battle. Note: it’s not unusual to have a few different moments that could be the midpoint.

Darkest Night: the darkest, lowest moment for your character in the entire story. Someone has died. They did not get into their top choice college and have had an epic meltdown in school. The love interest has abandoned them. The world is one fire. Maybe all four of these events are happening at once. This should be the moment in your novel where the reader wonders “oh crap how is the protagonist ever going to come back from this?!”

If you can identify one or a few events which seem to fit one of these descriptions, congratulations! If you’re completely missing an event which seems to fit into one of these descriptions or have a few events which would fit under one of the descriptions, that’s great too! Now you have a general idea of where the turning points are in your novel even if you’re unsure what order they will come in or if you’re unsure about which ones create the most tension.

I have set up this activity to sketch out a rough map of your novel’s three act structure. To learn how to break down the structure in your novel even more and decide where to revise, stay tuned for upcoming posts on BYOM’s unit on structure!

erinErin Cotter is a YA author who lives in Austin, Texas. She writes about magical places, adventures both big and small, and is incapable of writing a book without kissing. She has spent way too much time in school and has a Ph.D. in Literature from the University
of Texas at Austin. When not writing she enjoys spending time with her two cats and dog, eating tacos, and searching for the elusive Golden-cheeked Warbler in the Texas Hill Country. She is represented by Hilary Harwell of KT Literary.

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