Narrative Structure Made Easy

What do I mean by narrative structure? Some commentators define it very broadly. For them, structuring a narrative is the same thing as plotting a novel.

You've already done that. More specifically, you did two things...

  1. You created your novel's main plot, using my 10-step guide.
  2. You added one or more subplots to it and mixed well.

So my definition of narrative structure is narrower. For me, it means manipulating the sequence of events in the plot (or the "narrative") in order to tell a better story.

Think of a plot in a novel as a straight line, with Event A at one end (the story's beginning) and Event Z at the other (the ending).

Furthermore, think of these events as all taking place in strict chronological order: A happens before B, B before C, and so on.

Structuring the plot, in order to create a more satisfying narrative, basically means taking those 26 letters of the alphabet and shaking them up!

Skaking them up how?

Not all events in a story are equal. Some are critical and will form your "key scenes." Others might be important to the overall understanding of the story, but dramatically they are pretty dull and will probably bore the readers if you present them as a full-blown scene.

Let's say that a chapter in your novel concerns a man arguing with his wife and then making up with her. How are you going to choose to present these events?

  • Are you going to write everything that happens - the man returning home, the argument, the making up - as a full-blown scene, leaving nothing out? (It will be a long chapter if you do.)
  • Or will you focus on the interesting parts, when emotions are running at their highest, and skim over the rest?
  • Maybe you will decide that the entire thing is not that critical to the overall story and deal with it in a paragraph of summary.

These are the kinds of decisions you will be making when structuring your narrative. But I can be more specific than that...

Narrative Structure Is About Manipulating "Time"

In particular, it involves...

  • Looking Ahead
  • Freezing Time
  • Looking Back
  • Mixing Up the Chronology
  • Speeding Up and Slowing Down

Confused? Don't be, because it is all very simple, as I hope the following articles will demonstrate...

Looking Ahead: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is another of those ways of making your fiction rise above the ordinary. A lot of novel writing beginners don't bother with it - they either don't know what it is or don't know how to do it.

If you foreshadow in your own fiction, you will make it a lot more professional and a lot more publishable.

Why Foreshadow?

Put simply, foreshadowing is a way of sign-posting your novel's big events, of telling the readers to stick with the story because some exciting things are coming right up. And the purpose of doing that, of course, is to keep the readers turning those pages.

Foreshadowing creates suspense. According to the dictionary, suspense is "a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation about what may happen".

Fail to foreshadow and the readers will have no expectations, because you haven't provided them with any.

There are a couple of things you have to be aware of, though...

First, don't be too obvious. Ideally, you want to signpost the fact that something exciting is about to happen but without giving away the precise nature of the event. In other words, arouse expectations but keep the audience guessing.

Better still, you can use foreshadowing to deliberately mislead the readers. Make them believe that X is about to happen but actually Y happens.

And that leads on to the second caveat: if you make a promise to the readers, make sure that you follow up on it.

If you foreshadowed the death of a character at the beginning of a novel but in the end they escaped death, the readers might feel that you had raised their hopes (if that is the right way of putting it) but then failed to deliver.

There is a famous device in storytelling called the two-shoe contract. If you hear a shoe hit the floor in the room above, the implication is that a second one will drop soon.

  • The first shoe is the event being foreshadowed.
  • The second is the event itself.

What that means in plain English is that every promise made in a novel must be delivered upon.

It also means that every big event should be promised in advanced - i.e. foreshadowed - to get the most dramatic mileage out of it.

And so you should never promise that a gun will be fired if it never actually is. That is failing to deliver. Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to:

  • Foreshadow the fact that the gun will be fired.
  • Imply that Character A will use it to kill Character B.
  • But actually, in the end, have Character A use it on himself.

How to Foreshadow

Planning and writing a novel, as you know, is a complicated process. Without good organization and discipline, it is easy to become overwhelmed or find yourself in a hopeless muddle.

For that reason, do not worry about "nailing" foreshadowing during the planning stage.

Sure, when you plot your novel, try to work in some foreshadowing of the novel's major events.

But it isn't until you revise the novel that you will really be able to check what has been foreshadowed and what hasn't and do the necessary fine-tuning.

But whether you are roughly foreshadowing during the planning stage, or foreshadowing in detail when you revise, how precisely should you go about it?

Effective foreshadowing in fiction is a simple case of reverse-engineering.

Select which events you want to foreshadow and then work backwards, planting signposts for each event in the preceding chapters.

  • A small event might only require one signpost at the start of the chapter in which it occurs.
  • A major event occurring near the end of the novel can be hinted at and alluded to almost from the start.

Still confused? See this article for some concrete examples of foreshadowing.

Now for the second way to alter your narrative structure...

Freezing Time: Handling Backstory and Exposition

Don't let the name scare you: Exposition is one of those advanced elements of novel writing that might sound daunting but doesn't actually involve a whole lot of work.

It simply means those elements of a story that are crucial to its understanding but don't advance the plot in any way - such as events from the protagonist's past.

This article tells you everything you need to know

Looking Back: Dramatized Flashbacks

The main thing you need to know about backstory and exposition is that is best fed to the reader in bite-sized pieces...

  • a few lines of dialogue about the protagonist's childhood here
  • a small paragraph of backwards-looking narration there.

Why? Because talking about these things involves "freezing" the forward momentum of the narrative, and that always runs the danger of sending the reader to sleep.

When an influential event from a fictional character's past cannot be dealt with in a few lines, you can present it instead as a flashback.

Flashbacks are simply dramatized scenes from the past. They might not be a crucial element of the present-time story, but they nevertheless have an influence on it. The article shows you how to move from the present to the past and back again in the smoothest way possible.

This article explains how to handle the awkward transition from present to past (and back again).

Mixing Up the Chronology

All plots are chronological. They begin with Event A, at a particular point in time, and finish one day or one year or one decade later with Event Z.

The decision you face, when plotting a novel, is whether to present the events in chronological order.

Here's one way of shaking it up...

Beginning In Medias Res

One common way in which the natural running order of a plot in a story is altered is to begin it In Medias Res (or "in the middle of things).

Logically, a story should begin like this:

  1. Introduce the leading character living in their ordinary world.
  2. And then something happens, upsetting this status quo and furnishing the character with a goal that they must achieve if they want their life to be stable again.

Beginning "in the middle of things" involves starting with the "something happening" and then backtracking to show the way things were before the action kicked in.

And the purpose of this, of course, is to hook the readers with a gripping plot.

This technique, incidentally, can be used at any point in a novel. Anywhere that you have a scene that is taking its time to get going (because you have a lot of "scene setting" to do first) you simply need to...

  1. Start the scene at an exciting part.
  2. Pause the action to explain how these events came to be.
  3. Pick up the chronology again and let the events play out to a conclusion.

Why would you want to? Because occasionally a scene will come along which takes its time to get started and therefore threatens to bore the readers. You can solve this easily by beginning the scene in medias res.

Here is an outline of a typical scene in the middle of a novel:

  1. A woman arrives at her ex-husband's house to ask him for money.
  2. Standing on the doorstep, she almost changes her mind. But she musters her courage and rings the bell.
  3. After the smalltalk, she asks for the cash. The husband wants to know what's in it for him.
  4. The woman agrees to go to bed with him.
  5. Afterwards, the husband rolls off her and says, "That was great, honey, but you're never getting another penny from me."

Begin this scene in medias res and it might look like this:

  1. The woman is having sex with her ex-husband. You don't have to describe the sex itself in detail, but perhaps the woman looking out of the window to keep her mind off how much this man repulses her.
  2. She then thinks something like, "If she had known it would come to this, would she have come here at all this morning?"
  3. And this can lead into a dramatized flashback, starting with her arriving at her ex-husband's house to ask for money.
  4. Continue with the chronology up to the point where she agrees to sleep with him.
  5. Then return to the "here and now" by having her think, "Yes, she would have come here. She needed the money."
  6. The husband rolls off her and says, "That was great, honey, but you're never getting another penny from me."

You probably won't want to begin every scene in your novel in medias res.

Sticking to the chronology is, by and large, the best way to tell a story - in terms of not confusing the readers. Though that is a suggestion, not a rule.

There is nothing stopping you, if you believe you could pull it off, from presenting the events of your story in any damn order you choose.

Quentin Tarantino did precisely that in Pulp Fiction - and I believe that film did okay!

Other Ways to Shake Up the Structure

When deciding on the "running order" of plots, you are limited only by your imagination.

Here are just some of the many possibilities...

  • You can begin the novel somewhere near the end - at the point when the character is at rock bottom, say. The bulk of the novel would then effectively be a giant flashback, showing how things got to be this way. Then you would rejoin the chronology at rock bottom again and continue from there. (The movie It's a Wonderful Life follows this format.)
  • You can write a dual-timeframe story. Stories usually concentrate on one period, with any backstory being presented in the form of exposition or a dramatized flashback. But if you have a significant amount of material from the past, you can write two plots - one happening in the present and the other in the past - and weave them together (perhaps in the form of alternate chapters for each of the novel's plots).
  • You can present a plot in reverse chronological order, beginning with the ending and finishing back at the start. The story could begin with a wife shooting her husband, for example, and her motive could be gradually revealed by moving backwards in time to the initial triggering point for the murder. This would be a brave choice, but the movie Memento uses it to great effect.

Beware, though, of doing any of these things just for the sake of doing them.

If you believe you can tell an entire novel in strict chronological order, with nothing out of place, then do so. There is a lot to be said for not confusing the readers.

If you need to make a few small tweaks to the running order, to ensure that the readers are hooked (particularly in the opening pages), fine. Just make it 100% clear when the narrative is moving back in time...and when it rejoins the present.

If you plan to do something more drastic, make sure you are doing so for a good reason - namely, that it enables you to tell a better story.

Never forget that plots are merely the delivery devices for entertaining fiction. They should never become the entertainment itself.

The Heart of Narrative Structure: Speeding Up and Slowing Down

Out of all the ways to alter your novel's structure, this is the big one. Speeding up and slowing down is basically how you control a novel's all-important pace. And the "tools" that allow you to do each one are called "showing" and "telling"...

This article covers it in detail.

And here I cover how to write a narrative with pace.

More On Narrative Structure

Of course, there is a completely different – and far simpler – way of structuring a narrative than the methods I have been talking about above. They involve the more traditional ways of splitting up a sequence of events...

  • Parts.
  • Chapters.
  • Breaks within chapters.
  • Prologues and Epilogues.

I cover the nuts and bolts of how to do that in this article...

Anatomy of a Novel: Chapters, Etc.

And related to that...