How to Structure and Write Your Novel: A basic cheat-sheet of elements

A quick list of the bits and pieces to think about when you are trying to create other worlds on paper

Writing a hefty tome can take months upon months, even amounting to years, but it will always take longer than you’ve originally imagined.

PLOT & THEME The most important element of your story is the subject matter. This is not an action, such as: ‘Angelica cleaned the floor all evening, like a dancer, not like a bee.’ It is more complex than that, but nearly as easy to come by.

If you write about what keeps you up and night, you’ll never forget it, and you’ll always be able to remember the details of it, even after many years.

Define a ‘Social’ Problem

A vision of the world under certain “conditions”, a certain given state of affairs

What exists today that should be different? What the future might bring, but people ignore? For example, think about what is now ‘analogue’. Future of this will be ‘digital’.

Making a familiar, but complex topic, like ‘behavioural psychology’, ‘quantum physics’…, ‘immigration’ easy to understand via the plot, is also a way to go.

You can also come up with some paradoxes that you then try to resolve. Look around. Identify words. One keyword on, under, bellow, above, with, against, towards, simultaneously, away, from.. another is a working concept.

The tone of your argument (i.e. the atmosphere of the story) is either defensive of an issue, or offensive against it. Neutrality is boring for readers.

Have more than just one problem in your novel to keep readers interested, but if you write in a slightly step-by-step manner of ‘how to’ resolve a conflict, other problems will come in the way naturally and compel your reader well.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo:

Very odd novels have great protagonists, but side characters who are only ever describing word-by-word what the main character does. If the protagonist is in a difficult mental state, is that going to be ENOUGH to put your readers off, or can this repulsion be made tolerable, due to the quality of plot, despite a lack of enemies, only strong opinions, a kind of study for how he/she thinks and how she appears to others?

In other words, can you bring yourself to skim over the boring parts of a novel in anticipation of a great scene, instead of just shutting the book entirely, and can you understand that some novels dealing with perspectives can be slow but good at the same time too, where no heart-racing events ever occur?

Narrative Style Choose if you want to maintain a First or Third Person style to your narrative.

Is the conflict only within the self, or is it happening in the external space?

Flashbacks are one type of a storytelling device that controls flow and pacing. What other story-telling devices will you use to go with your narrative?

Mood & Genre Is the story tragic? Depressing? There’s a risk you may alienate readers who can’t handle much grittiness. Some comic character needs to be there, a person who does not understand the seriousness of the ongoing situation.

In case of a comedy, let it be that at least some characters are serious in it, because a story that is too light (romances without vampires, anyone?), does not help to solve the worries (insecurity on a date, appearing arrogant at a job interview…) that a realistic person, such as your reader has.

The characters might be worried for much of nothing, but at least keep up the suspense, and make their paranoia, their obsession over a very concrete, insignificant problem the pun. Make sure they CAN laugh too.

What age, economic, or social group may be offended, or challenged by the narrative? Tell your story as it should be told, without overplaying it:

Do not write a story that distresses some people ON PURPOSE, stereotypes are not funny, study the native experience of a different culture, not the one put forward by someone else. Incorporating different cultural elements, and societal norms makes stories more interesting and helps build sympathy, or dislike of the characters living in them.

Novels with fantasy words have the advantage that none of the participants and cultures are directly representative of the real ones.

Plot Complexity It sometimes happens that your readers fail to concentrate on the main theme and instead think that some side developments are what the story is about.

To avoid this, make sure that you HAVE ONE MAIN THEME, and reference it even in connection to, say, the side-issue of buying a cat as a home pet.

For example, you can write that the cats looked lazy, but they surely wouldn’t have it so hard outdoors, if it wasn’t for CLIMATE CHANGE.

This is simple foreshadowing: a subtle reference to what is your main concern, even when you’re not directly writing about it. Another option would be to disguise your opinion as AN ACTIVITY in the world. Some characters, could for example literally be shielding themselves from strong winds with ice, but breaking it away from where it naturally is located would not then hold the on-pouring pressure as an artificial structure, despite it not being windy where the ice actually is, and so staying close to natural snowy enclaves is more protective than trying to subvert and adapt them.

Also metaphors such as — a hair of lilies, would imply a light, romantic theme, whereas something like — claws for fingernails — is dark and unsuitable for children.

Pacing and Filling Along Of course, as a writer you need to decide what portion of the character’s daily life to leave out. Unless this is your theme, those things would be eating, and sleeping, and going to work that has nothing to do with the plot. In case that you’re pondering a social problem more broadly and explicitly then just through the eyes of a heroic figure on an adventure, then the rules here are quite different because climate change can, for example make a person hotter in their bed, which leads to depression, say… The key here is to simply omit every heartbeat, or a fishing for pyjamas.

But also, sometimes it is really difficult to intertwine multiple character points-of-view into one coherent story that would not appear either like everyone is busy all the time. Providing background information can deescalate and end an episode, like a change in a character’s health after a fight, or his hobbies after being laughed at.

The way to handle these event transitions is to use jumps, a sort of episodic approach even in a novel that all happens in a few hours, by calming down action at the end of one point-of-view, and beginning by an escalated point, going then retrospectively to simply bluntly state why the new episode began where it does.

SETTING AND CHARACTERISATION: Does this novel take place in history or in the future? Are you describing a post apocalyptic world?

Make sure that if describing a rocket launch, it is accurate. Or at least throw in enough scientific jargon to persuade the reader, and hope no scientist will bother to scrutinise your book.

What does the setting offer to your plot’s social meaning? Is this really the place most affected by your problem? If so, how much is your problem absent from other time periods and settings, how specific is it?

If a character must die in your story, it should be because their approach towards the issue was wrong, or at least reckless, and so they can provide a way to reflect upon mistakes for the surviving characters, not because they have lost meaning.

Tools, abilities and special powers How do they travel, for example? You may often hear about the “show, don’t tell” technique. This simply means that you don’t announce a complete information, like: “She hopped on a horse and set for another kingdom.”

Instead, you write at least a paragraph about it, describing what she saw(hilltops, thieves?), what she felt (fear BECAUSE they were chasing her, the new king was cruel AS he swore at his servants and spanked them at will, or excitement FOR the new castle was prettier, than the old one?)

Is your world aware of the past, or future... or New York? What knowledge do the characters in your world have? Is the world you are creating completely alien, like in The Lord of the Rings, partially alien, like in novels of alternative history where the Soviet Union never fell, and Nazis swept much of Europe?

Is it a fantastical world, with characters teleported there from our world (parallel), like in Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland? If so, be aware that you are actively asking the reader to compare the two worlds in their head.

Do you have a strong(ly minded) Villain? Imagine a really smart guy in a world full of “not-so-smart” people. Not very exciting, right?

A great hero must have a great nemesis that he must fight — either a character in your story, a social evil, or a plot element in itself.

Your protagonist must experience a near-death situation so the readers can connect with the situation and love the character themselves. If your protagonist has God-like powers, he must face other Gods.

The viliain is often not defeated, but is rather subdued, or converted, or can at some point simply get safely ignored, not knowing what will happen with the vilain, or having qualms about how exactly evil the vilain really is makes the novel more emotionally impactful, because the reader's to resolve these questions in their mind first.

Dialogues and gestures In the real world, we are rude sometimes even if we do not mean to be. Think about why that is, how it happens. Use ‘ehm…’ a lot, and don’t forget that your characters can (and should if needed) grin in the face of another.

A king would not speak like a thug, unless this is a key problem of the story. The inn-keeper who doesn’t like the tax collector may be quite cynical to him, but pleasant towards the workers on his farm.

How to structure your novel Cheat Sheet - basic summary of chapters

INDIVIDUAL CHAPTERS: Research & First Draft: Plan your ideas for the novel in spectrum of the topic area that you have already chosen. This stimulates creativity and allows you to focus on detail.

For example, if your social concern that the novel is revolving around is ‘poverty’, or it might be something more puzzling and mysterious like — ‘poverty when it was first addressed by a world government as an undesirable issue’, and your stance towards that issue, is ‘optimistic’, you’ll most likely have your characters trying to resolve poverty on some level. The best characters are not only those who are victims of an issue, and not only the issue’s perpetrators, but also, and perhaps more importantly, those who are trying to resolve on an individual level something too much ingrained in the world.

Chapter 1: Introducing the setting and the Evil, or unjust element

Introduce the protagonist of your novel. Start by explaining the current context of the world/ society of the protagonist and others in this setting.

Explain how the protagonist discovers that a problem exists, and how this affects her, that is, justify why something is a problem.

Chapter 2: Discovering the protagonist

Focus on unravelling the protagonist’s stance and personality, or choosing what kind of character in your world would you most empathise with, or be interested in. Chances are these people would be quite different from yourself at least. You might want to use pseudo characters unrelated to the main plot to describe a situation or story that reveals the protagonist’s personality.

Chapter 3: Character’s desire is obscured by other duties

Think about family obligations, conflicts of culture etc. Remember that you can rearrange your individual points non-chronologically, so take advantage of that and experiment, even thou your promise of a satisfying twist being just around the corner can make the more impatient of readers mistakenly think that there’s no twist at all!

This template does not guarantee you would launch a bestseller, but if you wish to do that, think about conflicts that many people can connect to.

Observation is key here, and the more personal experience you put in, the more involved your reader becomes.

Chapter 4: The Protagonist meets a few allies

There are various ways of meeting new characters. However, the more strange they are the better! In very simplistic terms, a farmer would likely be a side character only if the ‘trick up his sleeve’ is that he knows the plants well. If he is indifferent to the struggles of your protagonist, he is, however, not automatically a bad guy.

Also, if you look at all the great epic sagas that defined a genre, the character’s allies are hardly ever permanent. In fact, they are most often few and far in between, plus they may be either trivialising the issues, or be naïve, or trying to stop the hero rationally, in which case your story would not follow the classic quest formula at all, but be a chronicle of the times, period, social situation, and problems more generally without a true hero.

Chapter 5: First losses

A fundamental flaw in the allies’ plot is discovered by the enemy. The protagonist’s team should fight and suffer some early losses.

This could both be physical losses (ambushed, beaten up), social losses (family or village destroyed, a loved one kidnapped), or emotional losses (betrayed by one of the team). But remember, just because the heroes friends don’t agree with him on everything, and have subjective reason for being friends in the first place, does not have to mean that they are automatically an advisory.

Chapter 6: Almost giving up

The protagonist is depressed and almost gives up the fight, only to be aroused back into action by a friend, ally of his, or a lover.

Using an otherwise weak or secondary character to drive the will to fight adds a personal touch to the plot. However, if yours is a more broad social novel, the lack of motivation in the protagonists can be okay if they do not know what they are even after, and are used more as vehicles to rather explicitly explore themes that surround us. This technique can work, but it is rather non-traditional and therefore also fringe.

Chapter 7: Success and failure

Gaining money, fame or love makes a friend feel left out. Marginalized friends are more dangerous than enemy spies… here again the key is to be for various male characters interested in a female character for different reasons. While this can lead to misunderstandings, it also adds depth to everyone involved and a degree of flexibility.

Chapter 8: Death and hope

Someone close dies, or has a near death experience. Amends are made, forging deeper bonds within the allies.

Chapter 9: Plot twists

Plot twists change the flow of the story by giving the read something unexpected, and keeping them engaged.

For example, can you evolve the problem to a point where the villain is the only option to help resolve it?

Chapter 10: The final duel

Do the protagonist and villain have to fight a final battle? Or do they resolve their differences by making the villain see the wrong in their ways?

Is it in the protagonist’s character to kill the villain? Or would she rather forgive? Does the villain have a change of heart? Does he “fall off a cliff” into the bottomless ravine?

Chapter 11: The issue is resolved

How does the social issue get resolved? Discuss how people happily work to reconstruct the world. Focus on the day after the villain is killed, if they can be, or adapted to, or circumvented, which depends on your social issue, as much as even showcasing changes of up to one year after that.

EDITING & PUBLISHING The ‘too long, so didn’t read’ principle must not apply in fiction. You’ll burn your fingers that way. Rereading your book from start to finish can be tedious, but at least use and to get a better microcosmic view of what you have written at each level.

Also, read your paragraphs from bottom-to-top, instead of top-to-bottom, to minimize the risk of looking like a fool, because this technique can defamiliarize much of your writing to your mind.

It isn’t wise to assume that the reader will know what you mean, just because you think they should.

Clarity is priceless when writing fiction, so make sure that you state “It was hot”, before stating that “He was walking around topless”.

There are several possible reasons which'd be understandable of why a character may walk around topless, and you don’t want the reader to get the wrong impression and dislike your story on prejudged grounds before giving it a fair chance.