Traditional Novel Structure: 3 Parts

The fun of reading is getting lost in a novel, isn’t it? You forget about character arcs, sentence structure, and subplots. Instead, you’re invested in the characters and you root for a satisfying resolution, whatever that may be.

A well-structured novel allows readers to get lost in the story, because it has a strong foundation upon which the story was built. Sometimes authors tackle the structure during the outline and some tackle it during their editing. Either way, there are specific parts of structure that are usually included that can help a writer make the best of their story.

We can break down structure into three main parts:

Acts

Scenes

Beats

I will go into these in detail in posts to come over the next couple weeks, but now I really want to break down the importance of structure.

Novel structure can change from genre to genre, but for the most part it begins as a whole with Acts. Acts are the largest parts of your novel and revolve around the major turning points. This means, the huge conflict that you are writing about is built within these acts to form intelligently paced scenes. There are outlines that use two Acts, three Acts (the most traditional form), and even more:

Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

12 Act Outline

Some of the most popular 3-act novels would include Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (it was original published as a three-volume, three-act book, not a trilogy) and even Haruki Murakami's most notable novel, 1Q84.

Either way, Acts are defined by the major turning points that revolve around conflict and plot.

You may be wondering why I skipped chapters and went straight into scenes. Well, chapters vary from author to author and aren’t a hard and fast structural rule. They contribute to the strength and pacing of your story, but they do not hold up the foundation of the story- they’re like the walls of the house, you know?

Scenes are the in-between parts of structure that can revolve both around conflict and character arcs. They show the reader an active piece of a characters life, but their importance lies in what is happening under the surface. A scene usually depicts a change in a character’s attitude, builds a part of the plot, or influences the reader to feel a certain way. The scene ends when the change is complete.

Beats make up scenes. It’s the constant shift and switch of a character through dialogue or action. Beats could be: a girl wakes up in bed, she thinks about her strange dream (was she fighting in a war?), she picks up her phone and realizes it’s dead, she forces herself out of bed, she goes to the window and sees that there is a wasteland outside her apartment. Beats are the action and reaction of the character.

I’ll be posting more about these in the weeks to come. Please let me know if you have any questions you want answered or if you want me to write out some examples by commenting below!

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