Ways To Structure A Novel

I received a text the other day from a friend, asking how you begin outlining & planning a novel. Since I’ve already begun word vomiting everything I know onto her, I thought I might as well write a blog post for all of you as well.

There are a number of structures you can follow when outlining novels. I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase ‘there are no stories’ – that’s very true & as such, there are a few different templates you can follow when planning your own novel. I will be referencing a couple of different structures so I’ll link them where relevant so that you can buy the relevant books or find the resources online.

My most treasured reference book is The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. The 7 plots which I will break down in this post are: The Quest, Voyage & Return, Rags to Riches, Comedy, Tragedy, Overcoming the Beast, & finally Rebirth.

The Quest

The protagonist is called to adventure & taken away from their home to journey somewhere to achieve a certain objective. That objective might be to find a magical object; it might be to kill a dark lord or save a village. This objective must be reached no matter the cost.

The protagonist is usually accompanied by a ragtag group of ‘heroes’ to help them succeed in their mission. I’m sure the fellowship of the ring springs to mind!

Overcoming the Monster

The protagonist must battle a malevolent figure or antagonist. This antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical person (although it often is) it could also be a problem or even some kind of inward turmoil. The ‘monster’ in this type of plot can be a physical monster but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a metaphorical monster as well.

A great example of a physical monster for this plot type is Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the famous vampire is the literal monster that Abraham Van Helsing must overcome.

Rags to Riches

The protagonist will rise from obscurity, poverty etc. to wealth, love, status or all of the above. Think Cinderella – she’s pushed down by her step family & forced to be their servant. She goes to the ball & meets Prince Charming who then searches the kingdom for her with the glass slipper.

She rises to wealth (& happiness, the real win I think) by marrying Prince Charming, their marriage allows her to escape her awful family & circumstances.

Voyage & Return

The protagonist will make a life altering voyage (similar to the quest) which they then return home from at the end of the story. The difference between a quest & a voyage is the goal itself – a quest is a journey to perform a specific task, something that must be accomplished & once it is the story can finish.

A voyage is about the journey itself – the occurrences on the journey happen in order to make changes within the protagonist rather than the protagonist changing the journey.

Comedy

Originally within the Greek chorus there were only two types of story – comedy & tragedy. According to Shakespeare the difference between the two, is the happy ending.

A comedy is light hearted & humourous with usually with an upbeat ending for the main characters (we want them to be happy right?!) Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream or All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare is the master so I had to use him as examples!)

Tragedy

A tragedy is obviously a rather bleak story. According to Christopher Booker a tragedy is where the character’s crucial flaws or mistakes throughout the story leads to their ruin.

Again Shakespeare… Macbeth is the perfect example. He hears a prophecy about his ruin & attempts everything he can to stop it from happening – little does he know that those actions are the exact cause (self fulfilling prophecies, gotta love ’em right?).

Rebirth

Finally… rebirth. Funnily enough my two main novels are both rebirth stories (complete happenstance). Rebirth is similar to the voyage in that the protagonist undergoes a powerful transforming experience.

Sleeping Beauty is an example of the ‘physical’ rebirth. She undergoes a curse which puts her to sleep & the rebirth is her being woken which breaks the curse.

Aspects of All…

All of these plots types contain the same 5 plot points:

  • The Call – being called from their life into the adventure
  • The Challenge – the initial problem near the beginning of the story
  • Conflict – the problem(s) get worse
  • Growth – the problems cause the protagonist to grow in some way to defeat the problem
  • Solution – your resolution now that the character is able to win

This list obviously is only scratching the surface. I hope it enables you to determine which plot type your story is so that you are then able to go on to research it more. I cannot recommend The Seven Basic Plots enough it’s a life saver of a book for writers.

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