Ever feel like the novel you’re reading sounds pretty familiar to other books you’ve already read? That’s because there are four basic elements that determine the structure of a story. This includes the environment, the main theme/idea, the characters, and the events that happen. Although there may be creative differences in the structures from novel to novel, the points of emphasis create familiarity.
If you want to know how to structure a novel properly, then the first step is to determine which of the four basic elements you want to have dominate your narrative. Then you’ll want to include more development around your preferred element.
Option #1: The Environmental Novel
There are many environments in a story. It can be a fantasy world. It could be Mars. It could even be a not-so-fictional representation of your dysfunctional family. Each story has an environment, but this story focuses on it for the book.
Two good examples of this: The Wizard of Oz and Gulliver’s Travels. Why are these environmental novels? Because the purpose of the story was to bring readers into that environment.
These stories have a logical beginning and ending. They start when you enter that environment and end when you leave it.
Option #2: The Thematic Novel
In this type of story, the reader is finding new information through the perspective of each character. The character is driven by a need to find information, which progresses the story through checkpoints that help the reader to understand the information was found.
Many times, it is a “What If” question that starts this type of novel. What if the Nazis had won World War II? A question like this has been the foundation of several stories over the years. It’s also a common element in mystery and crime novels.
The goal of this story is create a question that is interesting to readers on a core level, even if they don’t understand the question is important to them. Asking a question like, “What if Jesus never existed?” only targets a niche audience. A more general question, like, “What if religion never existed?” allows you to explore your world without the same restrictions.
Option #3: The Character Novel
Some novels focus on one primary character or a primary group of characters. What gets writers confused about this type of story is that they focus on what a character does. That’s not a character novel.
Character novels focus on who the character is and how they evolve as a person (or alien, or talking animal, and so forth) instead of what they do. Facing a problem or having an adventure does not offer the chance to evolve if the character returns to what they were doing at the beginning of the story.
Starting a character novel is very much like the beginning of an environmental novel. You start it when you first introduce the character to the reader. Then you end the novel when it is time for that character to say goodbye.
Option #4: The Event Novel
This is the type of story that we often see in movies and TV shows. It’s the type of novel that begins with something that happens in a negative way. There’s something wrong in the world and the goal of the story is to fix that problem. You’ll have checkpoints throughout the narrative which show progression of the story. These checkpoints may have their own events which need to be solved in order to progress.
Pretty much every science-fiction and fantasy story uses this type of novel structure. We don’t learn the entire history of what has happened before the story begins. We just learn enough to see the world through the eyes of the characters and are then guided by that viewpoint to the natural conclusions.
The benefit of this novel structure is that if you get stuck writing it, then just think up the worst thing that could happen to that character at that moment in time. Then make that bad thing happen and write about how the character responds to it so they can continue on their quest to make right what once went wrong.
How to Structure a Novel When Structure Is Not Necessary
The most common trap a writer falls into is the idea that a reader needs to know everything. Readers only need enough information to picture what is going on. They can fill in the blanks on their own with minimal guidance.
So structuring a novel is based on your personal preferences. It’s based on what you hope to accomplish. And it’s based on the assumption that a reader can read between the lines so you don’t have to include every little detail. When you can do all that, you’ll know how to structure a novel in a meaningful way.