How Well-Structured Are My Novels?

Posted on | June 1, 2020

I’ve been spending some time recently cleaning up my “How to write” folder. That’s literally what it is, a folder with a bunch of “Here’s how to plot a novel” spreadsheets from various people, lists of themes and show formulas, and lots of general advice on how to write a book.

I was wondering how my books, the actual novel-length books, stack up against the the basics of storytelling. Not the formula, but the real flesh and sinew of stories: The three-act structure, the crisis, climax and resolution, the genre, the narrative device, the theme, the inciting incident. And then there are the internal devices of longer works: is there a Break Into Two chapter? Does the villain get their moment, and are their reasons, if not acceptable, at least comprehensible? Is there a whiff of death scene? If it’s a romance, is there an essence scene?

The answers is… they do okay. Here’s my analysis in the order in which I wrote them:

Travellogue was unquestionably my first novel-length work. It has a three-act structure of meet / flirt / accept, and it has a whiff of death, but the villain of the piece isn’t very prominent. The climax comes too early and the story tapers off without a real resolution.

Aimee is weak; it’s told in flashbacks, and the coming confrontation is mostly done in asides, until the end when it, well, it doesn’t really make sense. It all adds up, but not as well as I would have liked. There is a through-line, at least, and a story engine, and even a theme, but the mechanics of the story show I was early in my writing when I wrote that.

Bloody Beth is the third novel I wrote, and it has much more of the basics down. You can see it in the intentional structure, and the “break into two” is used to introduce the sidekicks, who are also the MacGuffins of the piece. Is is a structurally sound story, three acts with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Aimee: Pyu Rika is structurally more sound, but thematically weaker. It’s a fine story, but it’s really just a smutty tale. The theme is “sex can be dangerous, but if we’re good to and for each other we can defuse the risk” worked pretty well in the setting.

Sterlings was an ensemble piece in which a lot of people got their say, but the “villain,” such as it was, was every focus characters’ resistance to change: Polly & Zia, Dove & AshArwen, Rhiane & Illonca were all battling between what they thought was a long-term value and their own short-term wants, only to discover that those roles were actually backwards for many of them. It worked out pretty well, and for each pairing there was indeed an essence scene.

Honest Impulses was definitively a novel-length work, and I set out to write it as such. The villain has weird motives– he’s literally a genocide, but he has strong evidence on his side that there is a “superior” species to replace us and that we are the villains for holding them back. He does get a good speech, and it’s chilling, but it’s not obvious that it’s his “You’ll think me a villain but here’s what I want” speech until much later in the book. There aren’t many sidekicks in this story, so they don’t get much of a scene, although we do get a few solo Misuko scenes to show how she’s dealing with Linia’s crisis. Structurally, it’s damaged by its ending; there is an ending, but then there’s a three-chapter postscript that serves as something of a cliffhanger, a reminder that life doesn’t really deliver happily-ever-after, and a set-up for a sequel I’m still not sure how to write.

The Star Kingdom of Arendelle actually has very high marks. It has everything: narrative device, three-act structure, multiple crisis, climax and resolution scenes, ending with the biggie, it has two mask and essence moments, both villains get amazing speeches (Gothel’s is still one of the best rants I’ve ever written), the “break into two” (the moment in the story when the sidekicks get their own plotline) scene is literally embedded in the opening chapter of Act II, there are inciting incidents to each subplot. All in all, definitely one of the better things I’ve written. Structurally sound and thematically on-key. It’s almost too bad I put all of that work into a smutty Frozen AU fanfic.

All in all, what this tells me is that I’m still getting better, but the last few books I’ve written are much more consciously designed than the older ones. That actually presents a problem for me, because I used to seat-of-the-pants and throw out the ones that I didn’t care for, but now I find myself with a bit of analysis paralysis when I try to figure out what through-lines I should have for my characters and what the themes, engine, and so forth of the story are going to be.

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