Navigating Structure

July 9, 2020 by Evan Braun


This post is part of our special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today we are reviewing the importance of structure. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.

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When you’re building a house, making sure that the underlying structure is sound is obviously one of the most important considerations—if not the most important consideration. You don’t want your house to fall down.

It’s a metaphor most Christians will be very familiar with, seeing as Jesus used it for one of his most remembered parables. Think of the value of laying a solid foundation on a rock as opposed to sand.

But how does this principle apply in literary terms, whether fiction or non-fiction? What does it mean to build the foundation of your book on rock as opposed to sand?

First of all, we should begin with a basic understanding of classical story structure. These are concepts most of us learned in junior high.

  1. Stories need to have an inciting incident—an initial event that kicks off all the forthcoming events. If you don’t know where to start, think about what the inciting incident might be. This will help to ensure that the story begins in the right place.
  2. Next, you have rising action. This carries you into the middle of the story, where one complication arises after another, putting your characters through the wringer.
  3. This all takes you towards the climax, where the action reaches a fever pitch of resolution. (At this point, you should be firing all those Chekhov’s guns you’ve previously introduced.)
  4. At last, the final element is the denouement. This section of the story can be on the short side, but it cannot be skipped. Readers need the resolution that comes from a period of falling action following climax.

    Another classical way of thinking about how to assemble your narrative is to use the much-ballyhooed three-act structure. You’ll find that this is essentially the same thing.

    (By the way, let me take a break here to acknowledge that all forms of writing have an underlying structure. Cast your mind back to your high school English class, where your teacher, if they were anything like mine, drilled into you the rigid format of an essay—introduction, argument one, argument two, argument three, summary, conclusion. That right there is another fundamental example of structure.)

    In other words, your writing must have a shape. It’s not just a random collection of events. If your book is truly comprised of events that occur at random, until the book finally just sort of stops… well, it won’t be very satisfying.

    So it probably goes without saying that to impose structure, you need to plan ahead. After all, builders don’t construct a house brick by brick. If they did, the house would probably collapse in on itself in the end. They have a plan, a blueprint, that allows them to consider the house holistically.

    “But wait!” you’re saying to yourself. “What about pantsters, discovery writers? Those authors don’t spend a lot of time outlining. They just wing it, and their stories are often excellent.”

    Well, this is true. But there’s an important caveat here: although structure comes most naturally to those who outline and plan ahead, discovery writers aren’t exempted from needing to impose structure. Discovery writers may wing it on their first draft, but then they end up spending time in the subsequent drafts rewriting the earlier portions of their book to ensure that the later portions feel as though they were inevitable and well-planned. It’s a bit of a magic trick. They still do the work; they just go about it backward.

    It breaks down to the simple fact that you need to have some notion of your ending in order to build a story that effectively leads up to it. Once your ending is more or less determined, your book’s constituent elements—chapters, individual character arcs, etc.—can be constructed in support of that ending.

    Even if you’re not much of an outliner (I’m not), it’s important to at least lay down a rough skeleton for how you want the book to go. It can be flexible, and the specifics of the ending can change as you work your way closer to it, but constructing each character’s path will be simpler and more natural if there’s a loose blueprint in place.

    It’s impossible to break down an exhaustive list of different types of structure, though, because they are as infinite as your imagination. Ultimately, the best way to structure your story will be one that emphasizes and supports your central ideas.

    A good way to approach this if you’re still in the early stages of understanding structure is to study how others have done it. Analyze some of your favourite books! There are plenty of resources out there to help you break down the constituent parts of famous works. In fact, I recently came across an online resource that allows you to use famous story structures as a starting point, and then alter them to suit your purposes.

    It will take some experimentation to figure out what works well for you, but ultimately it’s a fun and rewarding process.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.