All works of fiction and creative nonfiction have certain structures.
Writers sometimes don’t want to hear that, but the secret is—all successful books adhere to one set of parameters or another. So what are the novel structures that work, and how are they different?
Orson Scott Card gave the best discussion I’ve seen in a while for a Writer’s Digest article, “The 4 Story Structures that Dominate Novels”. We’ll discuss those in a minute.
But how do you know which one best fits you? Every day while book editing, I help writers figure out not only how to make this very book the best it can be, but also to find where they “fit” in the business as a whole.
The key: The sort of books you read is a huge clue. I.e., where your heart is, where your passions lie, will guide you to writing your best books.
And structure does depend upon what sort of story you’re creating, which differs by genres as well. All of this can get very confusing, so let’s try and simply it all a bit.
The Milieu Story
The world is the thing.
This is world building at its finest, most often seen in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Rather than spending much up-front time in the character’s “real world,” and especially not creating how he got to be the person he is, we’re plunked smack dab into this new and crazy place.
Yes, Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz begins with things not exactly to her liking, and we get her “real life” to begin. But rather quickly we’re carried to a bizarre and colorful (literally) land where nothing is recognizable. Almost the entire rest of the story resides in that land.
The Idea Story
New information, new discoveries, new ways of seeing the world is the thing.
Mysteries follow this structure. The who and the why of the thing form the point here, as the what opens the novel. We often say when writing mysteries that the murder needs to happen to begin (editors love on page 1). We know what happened, and the rest of the book digs into whodunit and what was the motive.
And the book ends with the mystery solved, or right after.
The Character Story
The personal transformation of the main character is the thing.
Now, all effective heroes grow and change through the course of any novel. But in character stories, such is the main point.
Literary novels often fall into this category. This novel structure explores the essence of not only this protagonist, but the broader issue of what it means to be human as well. Coming-of-age novels live here too.
It’s not that Holden Caulfield didn’t have things to go through, but the who he was, was the point.
The Event Structure
A world event is the thing.
Event stories happen with, well, an event! The world has been knocked off its axis, and things are terribly wrong. So wrong that without some heroic intervention, the whole thing may just blow up into one big mess.
Fantasies follow this structure as well
And we don’t get the history of everything in the opening here, either. We get plunged into the action. I.e., Frodo discovering the ring and its power to fight the world’s greatest villain, rather than a recounting of how Middle-Earth came to be.
All of these live under the umbrella of basic Story Structure. For all novels, this is pretty much the same. And it helps you to build bridges through your story, rather than having threads travel to Brazil and then vanish.
But it’s the ‘pretty much’ part that gives successful authors all the creative leeway available to craft any tale in the universe.
As the unparalleled mythologist Joseph Campbell made so famous, using a vast archive of examples from ancient myths to those from the 19th century, canvassing all cultures, all great stories come down to deep transformation via trials.
Whether this transformation is about a world, an idea, a person (or archetypal hero), or an event.
He boiled all of that down to its essence of 3 acts: departure, fulfillment and return.
From there, the arc of the storyline plays out, yes, in 3 acts, with specifically timed plot points (both major and minor) along the way.
Especially new writers fear that this arc results in cookie-cutter books, but in book editing, I can assure you nothing could the further from the truth. What actually happens, and this is the big takeaway:
Adept writers can then adjust the timing and form and space of these acts, and the plot points within, to best provide their novel structures on which to create the magic of their stories.
Understanding, and being able to use, story structure frees you to let your creativity soar.
Now, go write that bestseller.