Thursday, January 30, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part 2: Structure

It can be daunting to think of writing a 100,000 word novel. I have learned more about writing a novel since Walking Money was published in 2004, than I did in the fifteen years of hard work I put in before its publication. At writing conferences, I consistently listen to the panels on the craft of writing and pick up ways to explain concepts many had not considered before. Please keep in mind that the suggestions below are what work for me. Results may vary.


The first thing to consider is your idea. Your simple, basic concept. If you can't say it in one sentence then you don't have the heart of your story. It can be a long sentence. But it can't be vague and confusing. That leads to vague and confusing novels, which sometimes push me to rage and anger. I want to be entertained, captured by the story, interested in the characters, understand what's going on, and keep turning the pages. If you don't know your story, neither will the readers. You can expand slightly on your story with two or three sentences, almost like a TV Guide listing. This is my favorite of all TV Guide listings in the history of the universe:

But you need to think about simple ideas like, "A detective's wife is kidnapped and he suddenly discovers he’s never been happier." We can write the book around that. What happens next? Does the wife escape and return to wreak vengeance on her husband? Does he come to his senses and try and rescue her? That's the wondrous joy of the novel. You have to write it or read it to find out.


Now it's time to think of the three acts. Everyone's heard of the three act play. It's simple, the beginning, middle and end. Every story has to have the beginning. Most stories should have an ending. Everything in between is the middle. Another way to think of it is that everything you do in your novel has a beginning middle and end. Each of the three acts has a beginning to the act, the middle of the act and the end of the act. Now you're looking at nine sections of the novel instead of one giant work of fiction.

Let's take it a step further. Let's say each act is made up of nine chapters, so using simple numbers let's say the first three chapters make up the beginning, the next three the middle and the final three chapters make up the end of the act. But within each chapter there could be three scenes and each scene also has a beginning middle and end. And this continues all the way down to the sentences that make up the paragraphs that make up the scenes that fill out the chapters. Each must have a beginning middle and end.


I have always been of the writing school that less is more. Part of that is my early years working with Elmore Leonard, who was famous for saying, "I cut out the stuff people tend to skip." I, personally, like direct, tight prose. That's not everyone's choice. But everyone's not writing this fucking blog. I am.  So we’re going to go with less is more. Enter the scene as late as you possibly can. Think about what can be cut out. Dutch Leonard always used to say never start a book with the description of the weather. I agree. Unless, it's pertinent to the story. Dig right in and shock the reader with something that is already happening in the book. They're smart. They’re readers. By definition readers are smart. My guess is that the entire Kardashian clan has not read eight books in their collective lives. Except the father who was an attorney. But I'll throw in Bruce Jenner and his biological children — who apparently missed out on his phenomenal DNA — with this group.

Once you're in the scene and you have established whatever action is occurring, get out early. Let the reader use their imagination. It's fun to think someone else is doing part of your work. The more you make the reader think, the fewer words you have to write. That's a business model I can get behind.


So now you have an idea of what's required just to start typing the first page of the novel. Tremendous preparation, be a reader, have an idea, refine the idea, tell your ideas to friends and see what they think, then consider how the story could be told over three acts. Each time you sit down to write any element of the story, whether it is a chapter or just a sentence, keep in mind that it has a beginning, middle and end. Start that concept as late as you possibly can. Your hero doesn't need to travel down the street to walk into the store to say hello to the young girl behind the counter then be confronted by an armed robber. He can start out being confronted by the armed robber as he talks to the pretty girl. It'll save you time writing and the reader time they would use to curse you for bloating your prose.

Here are George Orwell's five major rules of writing (Courtesy of
  1. Never use a metaphorsimile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Isn't this fun? In the next blog we’ll look at other ideas to get your story rolling, including motivation and state of mind. (See that’s something novelists call foreshadowing. All those elements with literary names don't mean squat if you don't have a story and can express yourself.)


  1. I'm waiting for the "motivation, state of mind" chapter. Hurry up and post, please.

  2. from Jacqueline. Excellent post, Jim - and great to see Orwell's "rules" too. When are you going to put all of this into a book?

  3. James O. Born1/31/2014 7:18 AM

    I'm too lazy. That's why they are blogs. I just had so many notes from teaching I wanted to use them.


  4. I love this!


  5. Thank you Jim and George Orwell! Fine post!