Structure Your Fiction

Have you ever thought about structuring a story?  I mean, really thought about it, and not just started writing?  Now I don’t know how true this is and whether loopholes exist but a book I value quite a lot when it comes to writing advice tells me there is only seven kinds of plot.

  1. Grail Quest
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. Queen Replacement
  4. King Replacement
  5. Scapegoat Sacrifice
  6. Coming of Age
  7. Revenge Quest

The book proposes you have one of these models in your head when you start writing.  Now this doesn’t count for short stories in my opinion, which is what I normally write about, this counts for novels.  So would you just have one of these story types in one novel? No – they may all appear together.  Get it?  Yeh me neither.

So I’ll take Fingersmith by Sarah Waters as an example since I recently read it and loved it.  In Fingersmith there are two protagonists, and two parts to the book told from different points of view.  The story begins with Sue Trinder, obviously a rags to riches plot as she wants to help set up the robbery of Maud, she has her own story line and her own goals.  I always think the main characters in a novel should be featured in pages and pages of preparatory writing so that the details and facts are secured and established.  Sue could carry the whole book, and her rags to riches tale is the main structural framework.  But then there is Gentleman, who in the first half of the book is pursuing Maud, a Grail Quest, and using Sue to assist him.  So he has his own plot, his own goal and they are both charging towards it – in cahoots.  Then there’s Maud who in the first half of the novel is looking for a King Replacement, to run away with Gentleman and escape her evil uncle.  I’ll not give too much away about the second half of the novel but Mrs Sucksby has a Queen Replacement plot, Sue a Revenge Quest, Maud a Coming of Age, Sue and Maud a Scapegoat Sacrifice etc etc. The complexity of structure is something which has been developed carefully.

So pick up any how to write a novel guide books and you’ll find bewildering graphs and diagrams.  (these two pictures are from two great writing websites you can link to here, and here.) Basically they usually involve a straight line representing your novel with lots of arcs and deviations representing the twists and turns of your story.  Throw in your seven story types, your various archetype roles which go along with these classic stories, each antagonists personal subplot and it becomes a huge chaotic chart.  At that stage you should start writing.  As time goes by the diagrams and the archetype characters and the quests that they’re each on begin making sense. 

So you have someone on a rags to riches quest, even if it’s just a girl looking for a new job in the city. 

You want to introduce a new character and you like the name Nigel, look back through the different types, what about Queen Replacement, Nigel is recruiting a new partner in the office because he has recently been dumped by his collegue Sandra.  He wants to make Sandra jealous so he hires the girl because she is beautiful.  Really he is on a revenge quest because Sandra broke his heart and he will never really care about the new girl, even though she falls for him.  You see how easy it is, the types of story become like jigsaw pieces and as you build a plot your characters become more two dimensional.

So the moral of the story is structure when it comes to novel writing.  I believe in a little bit of freedom when it comes to short stories.  With novels start writing, before you start writing – if you know what I mean.  Write a back story for the pretty girl who’s looking for the job.  She left her last job why?  She wants to work in the city why?  What is her relationship with her family?  So that later when Sandra does get jealous and invites Nigel out for a drink, and he – of course – agrees standing the new girl up at the cinema in the rain – you know how she’s going to react.  She doesn’t go back to her mums crying because she hates her mum…for example.  Each character has their own motives, like in real life.  Use the classical story types to inspire characters who aren’t just concerned with what to have for their dinner or what to say to the pretty new girl – go beyond that.  The story idea that spawned from the idea of a rags to riches story will soon snowball – Surely Sandra will hate the new girl, she’ll start to make her life harder, she doesn’t want her around empowering her ex.  It could become a coming of age story for the new girl who in the end triumphs.

There’s a lot more to structuring a novel of course.  But if you understand you don’t just start because you have a cool line in your mind then you’re half way there.  I put most of this kind of thought into writing something large, after it’s written.  I write 50-100,000 words (novels are usually around 75,000-90,000 words long) Then I split them into different word files, go through and make summaries of each chapter and assemble all the information and character studies on an A1 piece of mount board so I can see the whole thing in one glance.  Then you tie the characters to each other, make the theory work and the jigsaw falls into place.

So if you have an idea don’t turn your laptop on, get the paper out and start making notes and see where it takes you.  Patience is the key word when writing novels, stamina is another keyword, coffee another and unemployment ideally another.  So you’ve got all that, what’s next, keep making notes until November when it’s novel writing month.  join the website at and get ready to pen that bestseller.  For anyone who has never written a novel I would give them this unhappy piece of information – when the first draft is over the real work begins!!


7 thoughts on “Structure Your Fiction

  1. I wouldn’t take that list too seriously. It seems to be oriented toward fantasy, and would be pretty useless in some genres, even if you don’t take terms like “king” and “queen” literally. Besides, there are other lists of “only x number of plots”, and they’re quite different. Beware any time someone tells you there are only so many of anything, or only so many right ways to do something.

    • I kind of am sceptical of only-so-many lists, but if you ignore the books angle, or ‘this is how you should,’ and use the guide, ‘this is how you might possibly’… I reckon its not too bad a list. I believe the writer whose book I saw it in writes crime, and action novels, military etc. I’ve gone through each of my novels and been able to apply the different models he writes about and they’ve helped me learn about my characters motives. I agree though, it can bee seen as a limiting of story plots. Thanks for your comment.

  2. You’ve got some interesting theory and analysis there. Thanks for sharing it. The notion of researching your own characters and ideas makes me think of J.R.R. Tolkien – probably the most thorough in terms of structure, plot, detail and character backgrounds. Whether a person enjoys his writing is a very different matter, but there is no question that any writer will appreciate and respect the quality of and amount of effort made to perfect his creation.

    For me as a reader, a novel has to have balance between structure/detail and creativity/imagination. I appreciate Tolkien’s detail but found it tedious to read. I have a mind and imagination of my own to fill the gaps, and I have experience of my own to summise why a character did such and such, or issues the character may have with so and so. Although plot and structure is definitely and totally relevant to a novel, I am more concerned with how I feel about what I read and how I feel about the characters than approaching it as a intellectual exercise where I check the logic and coherence of every single thing I am reading on the page.

    You mentioned that you feel there is more freedom writing a short-story. Do you not think that in a shorter word count there is a need for even tighter structure and sharper research, given that you have less words to explain, unveil and elucidate? I’d be interested to hear your views.

      • Like my post says I think a short story isn’t too restrictive when it comes to structure, whilst a novel (that is to a writer not to a reader as you comment above when you say you don’t read it as an intellectual exercise, accuracy may be arbitrary to a reader but it is essential when writing something so long) is defined by structure in its creation.
        A short story is short, and some things are felt more intensly due to its restricted length, character must be well formed, dialogue crucial and setting vivid, but structure isn’t on that list. A short story like a poem can make you feel, without having a proper beginning, middle and end, Act 1 act 2 and act 3. I for one, like short stories which ramble, and I don’t like neatly tied up endings. I subscribe to Poe’s single feeling, a short story should be simple and singular in the themes it tackles and it has to start in the midst of things. It needn’t ever give backstory or histories of characters. In general whilst it is felt more sharply, the rule book is less necessary.

      • Thanks for the reply…I shall ponder on that. I’m still making the transition from poetry to prose so it’s good to know what other writers have explored as part of their thinking process.

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