Novel plot structure: 5 tips for creating intrigue
In a novel, plot structure can be organised in many different ways. If you structure your plot well, you’ll keep readers interested and focused. Here are 5 devices to create interesting story structure:
1: Begin in medias res
Many novels suffer from long-winded exposition. The reader learns characters’ life stories before the crux of the action begins. It is true that this novel plot structure can work. In stories styled as autobiographies, for example, it’s common for protagonists to introduce themselves at length. This is what Dickens does effectively in his opening to David Copperfield:
‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’
When you begin in the middle of the action, however, you also create curiosity immediately. Beginning in medias res (Latin for ‘into the midst of things’) doesn’t mean you can’t have character exposition. A non-linear plot structure lets you skip back and forth in time. This is useful because you can present character backstory as needed.
2: Tell each chapter from a different character’s POV
Shifts in point of view or POV (the focal character who narrates the story) can create compelling story structure. Telling each chapter of your book from a different character’s perspective opens possibilities. You can make characters contradict each other’s versions of events or share different interpretations of each other. This creates intrigue since the reader wonders which is the ‘truest’ or most accurate version of a plot event or character.
Celebrated authors such as Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Cunningham use this device. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of the Price family, missionaries from Georgia, USA who move to the Congo in 1959. Kingsolver tells each chapter from a different character’s perspective, alternating between the mother Orleanna’s POV and the viewpoints of her four daughters.
At the time of its release, Kingsolver’s novel was hailed as being ‘remarkable for its narrative form.’ Five of the novel’s 7 sections are introduced by Orleanna Price. The rest of each section contains chapters narrated between the very different Price daughters.
Kingsolver’s structure works because the Price daughters’ striking differences in age and personality give the reader a multi-angled understanding of setting and plot events. Kingsolver’s alternating chapter structure enables her to show the Prices’ better intentions as well as key elements of ignorance and arrogance in their perceptions. Kingsolver shows how some daughters embrace their new context while others judge it with fixed perceptions they’ve brought from home.
The contrasting and conflicting viewpoints created through alternating POV in The Poisonwood Bible create an effective story structure. They allow the longer arcs of the Prices’ experience to unfold alongside the smaller, intensified arcs of each character’s personal development.
3: Use unfinished episodes to delay plot resolution
TV series are addictive because the best writers and producers know how to use the episodic storytelling format. Individual episodes of taut thrillers and fantasy sagas such as Game of Thrones end on pivotal plot moments. This heightens the viewer’s desire to return and find out what happens.
You can use this addictive episodic format well in your own writing. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an excellent example of episodic story structure.
Mitchell’s novel contains a vast cast of characters and their stories span multiple epochs and places. The 1800s adventure travelogue of Adam Ewing is interrupted by the story of Robert Frobisher, a composer living in Cambridge, UK. This narrative in turn is interrupted by another character arc. Mitchell leaves each episode unresolved (much as a TV-writer would). He then resolves each segment in reverse after the central chapter of the book, until we end with the first narrator.
This episodic, mirror structure gives Cloud Atlas a satisfying shape because it keeps us tantalized with possible continuation. The mirror plot structure delays resolution, keeping the reader invested in finding out what happens next.
4: Vary structure using novel formats (such as letters)
Format – how you present the content of your novel – can include elements other than straightforward narrative. Using letters and other fragments loosens up structure and also lets you give readers backstory without resorting to info-dumping dialogue.
The ‘epistolatory novel’ (a novel told in letters, journal entries or other fragmentary pieces) provides a way to create variety in story structure. Bram Stoker used this device in his famous Gothic horror novel Dracula (1897).
A book written as a series of letters or journal entries offers immediacy and intimacy. Reading letters, the reader becomes the addressee. This sense of intimate revelation is exciting in itself. In letters, characters can also reveal hidden feelings or thoughts about each other that might feel too stark or obvious if presented in dialogue. In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, for example, Zooey writes to Franny ‘I hate you when your being hopelessly super-male and retiscent (sp. ?)’
Salinger’s adds details that breathe life into the character. He includes Zooey’s uncertainty about her spelling of reticent and the way she confuses ‘your’ for ‘you’re’. These convey how Zooey is as informal and slapdash as she is precocious . Zooey is a person who knows and uses long words but couldn’t be bothered with something as mundane as learning their spelling.
Using letters and other fragments within your novel thus varies structure and format while also allowing you to show different aspects of your characters.
5: Use different plot types for long story arcs and smaller arcs
In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker divides storytelling into 7 common plot types:
- Overcoming the monster (the hero has to overcome a malicious opponent or antagonist of some kind)
- Rags to riches (a character rises from practical anonymity to wealth, romantic bliss and/or status – Cinderella is an example)
- The quest (a hero and their sidekick or party must set out to achieve an objective, find or destroy an object – The Lord of the Rings is an example)
- Voyage and return (the hero or protagonist goes on an adventure, returning with experience – Homer’s Odyssey fits this description)
- Comedy (a light and humorous story that usually has an upbeat conclusion)
- Tragedy (the central character has a flaw or makes a mistake that is their undoing)
- Rebirth (a character is reformed by an important experience, becoming a better person – A Christmas Carol is a classic example)
Each of the plot types Booker identifies has its own core components. Quest stories typically feature helping accomplices as well as characters who thwart the central party’s aims, for example. Yet to create a novel plot structure that works, it is effective to combine multiple plot types because variety is enjoyable. The Lord of the Rings combines multiple elements. There is a quest plot (Frodo’s quest to destroy the dangerous One Ring of Sauron), and a voyage and return. There are also elements of overcoming the monster as well as elements of comedy, tragedy and rebirth.
The core plot structure that spans the complete arc of Tolkien’s trilogy is the ‘voyage and return’ type. Frodo’s journey takes all three books to come full circle. Yet within each books there are multiple other common plot elements. This combining of plot types creates depth and variety because one single type doesn’t dominate. This depth and variety is part of why Tolkien’s novels have enjoyed such broad, lasting appeal.