Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Plot and Structure

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Plot and Structure



Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Plot, Pacing, Structure

First, what do we mean when we talk about plot? Plot refers to the course of events in a novel. Typically, this also refers to the order in which they occur. A lot of times this is what we describe on the back cover of a book, or when a friend says, “This book is about…” This also takes Point of View choice into consideration. The type of POV you choose will affect which events are recorded and how they are recorded.

About pacing? Pacing refers to how quickly or slowly the plot develops. Do significant events happen frequently or infrequently? Are your characters falling in love, or simply smelling flowers? This is not to say that smelling flowers is bad. Sometimes characters need a time out. But if they’re stagnant for too long, readers will get impatient. If too many things are blowing up, it makes each explosion less intense. The key is finding balance and increasing tension at the appropriate times.

About structure? How you order your events in terms of chronology is what we mean when we talk about structure. Are you flashing back? Forward? Moving backward in time? These are different ways to structure your fiction.

The Three Act Structure


  • Act One (About 25% of story. These percentages are approximations and are not chiseled in stone. Don’t obsess over them.)


      • Introduces main character(s) and their motivation (what’s on the line)
      • Introduces dramatic premise (what the story’s about)
      • Dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action)
      • Inciting incident—an event that sets the plot of the novel in motion: that is, the character is pulled into the action, or launches himself or herself into the action.
      • Plot Point—changes the novel in a new direction, can be a choice or circumstances that force the character in a new direction.


  • Act Two (about 50% of the story and often needs a “mid-plot bump” to keep the the second act from dragging. Think of it as a mid-story plot point.)


      • Conflict is escalated. Obstacles are put between character and desire.
        • And behind the two hungry lions, a team of ninjas armed themselves for battle.
      • First Culmination—the character seems ready to achieve his or her goal, and then everything falls apart.
        • Finally, the golden idol was in his hand and his family was safe. But then a team of mercenaries took the idol from him and left him in the jungle to die.
      • Rock Bottom—the character reaches a new low, lower than he or she ever expected, and hope is thin.
      • Plot Point Two—another shift in the novel, propels the action forward. Hope is now achievable, but barely.


  • Act Three (about 25% of story)


      • Climax and resolution
      • Maximum tension, and opposing forces face each other at a peak of action (emotional or physical).
      • Denouement—The calm at the end of the storm. Loose ends tied up. Balance returns. Everything is back to normal.


  • Pacing


      • Some things to keep in mind with pacing:
        • A good plot moves like a great song. There are crescendos and decrescendos–moments of heightened action and emotion, and moments of stillness. Moving between these (and moving between narrative voices, as we discussed a few weeks ago) can help keep the novel feeling fresh and new, rather than becoming stale and boring.
        • Let the story ebb and flow. It should come naturally from the events as the author sees them.


  • Chronological Plot


      • Events of the story are told in chronological order—beginning, middle, end—as time moves forward.
        • A B C D E F G


  • Backward Chronology


      • A story or novel is told in reverse order. Begin at the end and work backward, scene by scene, until the chronological beginning is reached. (Currents, Memento)
      • G F E D C B A


  • End First


      • The novel opens moments before the climax, then flashes back to the beginning and shows the events leading up to it.
        DO NOT begin AFTER the climax—if so, there is no point in going back to the beginning. (The Fog, in Harbingers)
      • F A B C D E F G


  • Chiastic Structure


      • A reflective structure, with elements of the plot mirrored.
        A B C D (reflects B) E (reflects A)
      • LOST, East of Eden


  • Non-Chronological


    • Plot moves, scene-by-scene, forward and backward through time. Often scenes are held together by elements of the plot, emotional context, sensory details, etc.
    • More than simple flashbacks or flashforwards.
    • F D C E B G A
      • Prophet from Jupiter, Pulp Fiction, Slaughterhouse Five

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