Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Structuring your novel

Structuring your novel (Originally posted on: 23 October 2012)

I was asked over on the pocketeers about how to structure a pocket novel. As I'm a 'seat of my pants' sort of writer, I'm not very good at explaining how I do it. It just somehow works out in the end. But I can give some tips that I've picked up from reading other novels.

Chapter Lengths

A chapter is as long or short as it needs to be. For the purposes of light reading, I'd suggest keeping them under 3000 words, and/or using section breaks to break them up a little more. Mine are roughly 3000 words and I tend to think of each of those chapters as one or two scenes from the novel, much like scenes from a film or television drama. So for example, my first chapter will always be the setting the scene chapter, and end on a hook to get people to read on. I'll introduce the heroine and the hero (not necessarily in that order), and hint at any conflict either between them and/or within the story. If I'm writing a crime story (which I normally do) I ensure that any dead bodies or other crimes are discovered within the first couple of chapters. Putting them in the first chapter is even better.

There is no specific minimum on chapters allowed in either the Easy Reads or the People's Friend pocket novels, but mine are generally between 16 and 18 chapters, but that might include some shorter chapters, particularly near the end as the story is coming to a head.


If you have a Kindle, it can teach you a lot about pacing your novel. This is because Kindles don't give page numbers. They give percentages. One thing I noticed when reading the Repairman Jack series is how tightly F. Paul Wilson kept to a structure. The first 25% was the setting up of the story. After 25%, you found that what Repairman Jack thought he was investigating was something else entirely. At 50% something bad happens and it keeps happening till the story reaches 80%. Until then, Jack is losing whatever battle is being fought against him. At 80% is when Jack started to really fight back (not that he was a wuss before then), and things start to turn in his favour, until the end. The ending might not necessarily be a victory, or it may be a pyrrhic victory, but the fact was that by the end, Jack, even if he's bruised and broken, always lived to fight another day. The last 5% of the novel was the 'tying up loose ends' or 'setting down clues to the next story' part of the novel. If you have a Kindle, read any genre novel and you'll find a similar structure.

You could use this percentage structure in a romance.

*  The first 25% (12,500 words) is setting the scene and setting up any conflict between the hero and heroine.
* Up to 50% (25k)  they continue to skirt around each other, or get to know each other, but something is keeping them apart.
* At 50% they may reach the pivotal moment, where one realises they're in love with the other. So for the next 25% they may be making love or going out to dinner or whatever.
* At 75% (37,500 words) , is when the black moment comes. She's found out he's lied to her about something. Or maybe he finds out she's lied to him.  She's hurt and angry. He's hurt and angry.
* This goes on till the 90% mark (45k). In the last 10% they begin to find out the truth about each other and their feelings, and then all is resolved to the happy ending.

This is in no way a perfectly scientific calculation, and don't get too worried about making sure the word counts are perfectly in line to those I've suggested. It's just one way of looking at it, and a good way of helping you to pace your novel so that things don't all happen at once.

If you were to apply this to a 50k crime novel, it might (roughly) work this way.

* The first 25% (12,500 words) Introducing your sleuth, finding the victim or discovering the crime if it's non-violent. It's a convention of crime novels that the crime takes place very quickly. Readers like a body to appear as soon as possible if it's a murder mystery. It may even be a crime that happened years before.
* up to 50% (25k). Develop your sleuth, and the suspects. Drop some red herrings.
* At 50% Maybe have another murder at the exact halfway mark.
*  75% (37,500) the sleuth is still unable to solve the crime and people are acting suspiciously. Maybe someone else dies? It could be that the sleuth herself is put in danger
* At 90% (45k) the first real breakthrough in the case. The sleuth finds out something, or has a revelation, and is closing in on the killer.
* Last 10%. The reveal and the tying up of any loose ends.

If both the above structures were put into a graph, you would probably see how the line rises and falls as the story goes on, ending on a high as all is resolved. You'll also notice there's a lot to fill in, in between those percentages. That's where character development and other things come in. In a romance it will be the 'getting to know you' stages of a romance. In a crime story, it will be also be character development and the laying out of different clues. There may also be small sub-plots. For example when I write romantic intrigue I have both the romance elements and the crime elements to fit into those structures. But as I generally use the crime to develop the romance, it does work out in the end.

If you have a Kindle, you could always send your story to your device when it's finished and you'll get a rough idea if your story fits the structure.

You don't necessarily need to write your novel in order either. I've often written the last chapter halfway through a novel. Or I've written later chapters as they've occurred to me. This helps me know what I'm aiming for. Jane Wenham-Jones, in her book Wannabe a Writer? calls it the Mind the Gap exercise.  Basically if you get stuck, you write in block letters something like THIS IS THE PART WHERE CINDY AND JOE KISS. Then you move on to the next part, remembering to go back to Cindy and Joe's kiss before sending out the novel!

If anyone else has any tips for structuring a pocket novel, I'd love to hear them!

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