How to Structure a Novel Before You Write it
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. A New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow and a Goldenberg Fiction Prize Winner, her work has been on Best of the Year lists and has appeared in the New York Times' "Modern Love," Real Simple, New York Magazine, Salon, The Millions, and more. She teaches story structure at UCLA Writers Program Extension and Stanford University and reviews books for the Boston Globe, People Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
I'm Caroline Leavitt. I'm the New York Times bestselling author of two novels, Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You and the critically acclaimed, Cruel Beautiful World as well as eight other novels. And I have a new novel coming out With or Without You, August 4th, 2020 from Algonquin Books.
I want to talk to you all today about structuring your novel before you even start writing, which is something that I myself never did until about 10 years ago and it changed my life and I bet it'll change yours.
So how did I come to this?
Well, first of all, as a writer, you learn things as you're writing and I began to find what works and what doesn't work. I'm also a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle People Magazine — and when I'm very lucky, in the New York Times. And having to look at a book that's already been published that people already think is good and trying to figure out why and how does this book work and where does it not work and why helped me a whole lot too.
I also teach this stuff, so I have to learn how to articulate it to all of you. I teach at Stanford online, I teach at UCLA online and I also do what's called news for developmental stuff, which I do for Reedsy. And what this means is I look at clients' manuscripts and again, I try to figure it out like a puzzle. What's working here? What isn't working? How do I feel? Does it have all the bits? It's a really interesting kind of thing.
I used to be one of these people who — like many of you out there, I'm sure —believed that when you write your way through the muse, the muse just comes and showers down on you and you get all these ideas. I would just follow my pen and I would end up with novels that were 800 pages long. And I would look at them and say, "What is this novel about? I don't know what to do with this. Where is the story?"
And it would take me another year just to plow through it and figure it out. Whereas if I had used structure, it would have been a whole lot easier.
There's this thing that people say to keep people away from structure, which is "if there are no surprises for the writer, there are going to be no surprises for the reader." I'm here to tell you that that is baloney. That's not true.
One of my favorite writers, John Irving, has this totally delicious quote that I love — I tell everybody because it's about the process of writing. And it basically says, "if you don't feel like you're on the verge of humiliating yourself — if you don't feel like you have no idea what you're doing — then you're not writing hard enough."
And I thought, "Well, he obviously doesn't use structure." Well, I was wrong: John Irving does not start a novel until he knows his first sentence, his last sentence and everything that comes in between.
So there I was teaching at Stanford when a student of mine said she had taken a structure course and I was skeptical. She said it was taught by John Truby, who's a very big structural person, and she wanted to know if I wanted to see the tapes. And I said, "No, I don't really think that's for me." But she sent them to me anyway. And what happened was I was immediately enchanted. There was a whole new vocabulary that I had never heard before in terms of story. He was talking about things like moral choices, reversals, reveals, negation of the negation, and I thought, "Well maybe I'll try them out. What could it hurt?" So I tried them out on my ninth novel and — lo and behold — that novel was not 800 pages. It came out to 400 pages and I sold it right away and became a New York Times bestseller right away.
I thought, "I'm never going to write a novel without structure again."
I came to believe that novels are like people, and the structure is like a skeleton. Every human has a skeleton. What makes people different is how much and what kind of flesh you put on, what kind of hair you put on, whether there's bling, like jewelry or whatever else. It's the same way with books. So I started studying structure and I'm going to now tell you everything that I learned and how I start a novel using structure.
What's the question?
First thing: I find a question that the novel is asking and a question that I don't know the answer to and that the novel is going to answer. Don't think about your audience at this point. You want to think about what is most meaningful to you personally. What questions do you want to know? That is a thing that's going to make your work really universal.
I just want to go through one of my novels with you so I can show you the process.
I grew up the only Jewish family in a Christian neighborhood in suburban Waltham. I was bullied, I was mocked. I wanted to be part of the group. I wanted to be the same as everybody. The more I tried, the more I was pushed aside. Of course, I grew up and became an adult, but that's still haunted me. That feeling of 'what does it take to be a part of the community?" — especially a community that doesn't want you. And I began to realize that that was what I wanted to write a book about. That was my question. How does somebody become part of a community when the community doesn't want you?
And I didn't know the answer to it yet. So I created this character Ava Lark, who was this single divorced working mother in the 1950s: a time when no woman did that. No women worked, no women divorced. That was a terrible thing to do. Ava was desperate to belong to her suburban community, but they didn't trust her. She was too different. So I started with that, with what she was haunted about. Then I gave her what's called an inciting incident. That means the character's already troubled — but what thing, what action is going to happen that's going to make things worse?
And I began to think, well, they already don't like her. What if her son's best friend vanishes? When they're looking for suspects — because she's single and divorced, and she has a lot of boyfriends — what if they suspect her? That's going to make them push her further out of the community. So I still was thinking about that question: how is she going to get back? And I didn't know the answer yet and that's okay.
You don't have to know your answer at this point, just the question.
So the next step was to write what's called the premise. The premise simply is a sentence or two about what the book is about. It's basically what I just told you. The premise lets you know:
- the character who's already in trouble, and who's going to get in worse trouble;
- the theme;
- the world of the story;
- and maybe the answer to the question if you know it.
So my premise for that book would be:
Ava Lark lives in a 1950s suburb that she's dying to be a part of, but they don't like her because she's divorced and she's Jewish. But when her son's best friend goes missing, suspicions turn to her. Will they find this boy? Is she to blame? And how will she be a part of that community?
Wants and Needs
From this, I developed another way of thinking about the story before you start your novel, which I call the Rolling Stones method of plot. It's like they say: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you get what you need."
- A character cannot get what he desperately wants and there are huge stakes attached to his wanting that.
- But with lots and lots of struggle and lots and lots of failure and the loss, he can realize that what he wanted isn't really what he needs.
- And then he can go about and get what he needs at the end.
This gave birth to what I call my "Wants and Needs Bible". This is what I use to take my character from the beginning of the story to the end. It's a whole series of steps and I'm telling you, it's really a miracle.
Let's do it with The Great Gatsby. That's a book that most people know, and let's do it with Nick Carraway, the narrator.
The want. So we start out with Nick Carraway. He's haunted because he grew up poor. He wasn't in society, he wants money. He wants to be in Gatsby's world of money and society because he believes he's going to be happy if he has that. That's what he wants.
The misconception. This is the next step. It means that what the character wants is not really based on truth and the character doesn't even realize it. Nick Carraway believes that if he can only have money and get in Gatsby's world, he'll be happy. That's his misconception. It's not true.
Action. The next thing you need — because the novel has to move — is action. What is he going to do? Well, what Nick does is he sets out to meet Gatsby, he tries to enter his world. He finds a wealthy girlfriend. He gets what he thinks he wants, which is to be a part of this world, but interestingly enough, he's not happy.
The "we're all doomed" moment. Nick's plan to be happy has failed and failed until he reaches something that I call the, "we're all doomed moment". That means the bottom falls out. All is lost. This is the moment of The Great Gatsby when his friend, Gatsby, is murdered. It's also when his girlfriend turns out to be just so superficial, that he can't stand to be in the same room with her for another second. At that moment he has a kind of revelation...
The realization. This is where Nick realizes, "Maybe I don't want this anymore. Maybe I don't need this anymore." That leads to the last step of the wants and needs...
Now we can start fresh. This is when Nick decides he's going to walk away from all of it. He's going to go back to his upbringing. He's going to find something different, and that's the end of the story.
So you have that whole novel mapped out. The interesting thing about that is when you think of your end, you do have an answer to that first question. Nick's question was, "How can I get money to be happy?"
It's sort of open-ended. We close that book and we wonder, "Well, what is Nick going to do now?" We don't really know. We only know that he's discovered something that has made him a lot happier.
Okay, so I believe that novels are all about character. I think you also need to get your characters.
A moral choice
This is one of the new things I learned about story structure, what's called a moral choice. Now, as soon as I say "moral," I know some of you are probably rolling your eyes thinking, "Are we going to talk about Gandhi or is this going to be all goody-goody?" But that's not what a moral choice is.
A moral choice is pitting your character against a huge choice, where both options are terrible. And the reason why you want to do that is that it adds tension to your novel. It amplifies The Question, develops the characters, and furthers the plot.
Let's take a look at William Styron's book Sophie's Choice. I think most of you probably know that. Sophie has two moral choices. The first is when she and her children are standing in a line during the Nazi selection.
Sophie's first choice is she can be very quiet and still and hope that nobody sees her and her children and maybe she'll survive. Or she can call the Nazi over and tell him that she's a Christian and she shouldn't be in this selection at all. She makes the choice to call a Nazi over and she tells him, "Look, we're Christians, we're good Christians. We don't belong here." And in all good novels, things reverse — which means if they can get back, they're going to get worse.
Later on, another Nazi gives her another choice: "Either you give up one of your children to the gas chamber and then you and the other child can live or you all are going to die." Two moral choices, all of them are terrible. How can she let all of her family die? She can't, but how can she let one child die and the other one live? It's an impossible choice, but she has to make it and she chooses the one where only one child dies and it ruins her for the rest of her life.
Choices like that are really important because they add depth to your character. They also add what I call the "Oh my God moment" where people who are reading the book think what would I do? And at that point, you're hooking them in.
The moral blind spot
There's also something with characters that you can do before you even start writing to map this out called the "moral blind spot". This means that the character is doing something wrong and they don't even realize it. It's sort of like if you start out with a character who is an alcoholic, you have to ask yourself:
- Why is he an alcoholic?
- Why is a drunk a drunk?
- What happened to him to make him an alcoholic?
- What's the deeper reason? It's got to be more than just, "Well, he likes to drink, feels good when he drinks."
Usually, the deeper reason is where all of our deeper reasons are, which is in our traumatic childhoods. I don't know many writers who had a happy childhood — so it must be some of that, right?
So anyway, let's take the drunk. Suppose when he was a child, he was beaten by his parents, and when he was 16 he gets a hold of his father's alcohol. He drinks and he drinks and it stops the pain. He begins this misconception believing "the more I drink, the more it will fix things." The more it'll fix the pain. But instead of that, he never sees that he's really trying to stop the pain. He just wants to feel better.
What happens with this moral blind thought spot is then you have to throw your character in front of situations which prove to him that he's not doing the right thing. Say this alcoholic, he needs to go visit his son. It's about a custody battle. He's nervous, he's anxious, he thinks I'll take a drink, it'll make me feel better. He takes one drink and he takes two, then he takes six. So by the time he goes to pick up his kid, he's so drunk, they won't let him even see his kid, let alone have custody.
That leads to the "we're all doomed moment" where he realizes he's lost custody of his kid, life is not worth living in that moment. There's a huge opportunity for new possibilities. He can realize, "You know what? Maybe I should stop drinking. Maybe I can go to AA. Maybe I can be a whole different kind of character." And that's a powerful thing.
Reveals and Reversals
Most people who teach about writing novels talk about three acts. When I hear three acts, my head explodes because I don't believe that novels are in three acts. I think a novel has a beginning and it just rises up to the end. Part of how you do this is with the wants versus needs that we talked about and also something called reveals and reversals.
Reveals and reversals just basically mean that you get new information, a reversal of expectations, and things get worse and worse. The stakes rise, so the character has to act more.
For example, let's just say that you're supposed to get married and you need to marry this person for money because you're really poor and your life is going to be a disaster if you don't. But... your partner stands you up at the altar. Well, that's a reveal because it's new information. It's also a reversal because it's reversing your expectations. That ruins everything, but... what will be worse than that is if your partner stands you up at the altar and runs off with your mom.
And what would be worse than that?
Well, what's worse than that would be... what if your partner leaves you at the altar, so you have no money, runs off with your mom and then they have a car crash and only your mom survives and your left to take care of your mom. See how that builds? It makes the stakes higher. It makes things worse and worse.
Another thing a lot of story people talk about is: what will the character learn? Yeah, I agree with that, but with a caveat: what will the character learn and what's the cost?
There always has to be a cost. Nick Carraway learns that money and Gatsby's world is not the magic kingdom he always thought it was. And the cost of that is that Nick loses his friend Gatsby to get that information. He has to suffer to learn that. But that's what's going to give your novel resonance.
So once I figure all this out, then I write a synopsis. Now I know that so many people, you hear the word synopsis, you'd rather have a root canal without anesthesia because it's so hard and so terrible.
But trust me, a synopsis is your friend. A synopsis is like, it's what it's going to get you through your writing. When I write my synopsis, I go right to the Wants and Needs list and I start filling it out — and I answer it for all the questions. I will keep rewriting that synopsis and rewriting that synopsis. My synopses can be 20 pages. I had one that was 40 pages. The important thing to do as you're writing out this story (and the synopsis) is to remember a story is not, "This happened and then this happened and then this happened." That's not a story.
A story has cause and effect. A story is always "because this happened, this other terrible thing had to happen. And because this other dramatic thing had to happen, this next thing had to happen." It's all cause and effect.
When I'm done with my synopsis, I'll show it to a bunch of people and have them read it and I make sure that every point is in there. I look for:
- Are there moral choices?
- Are there reversals and reveals?
- Do I have wants versus needs?
- Do I have the answer to the story?
If we go back to the story that I first talked about Is This Tomorrow with Ava looking for community. By the time I finished the synopsis, I actually knew the ending. I figured it out. Ava had a misconception. She didn't have to belong to that community. She needed to form her own community, which she did by starting to make pies and opening a little shop and gradually people began to come to her, so that was her ending.
Drafting your synopsis will help you ground it as you're writing the manuscript. What you're going to do, as you're writing, circle one scene every week and that's all you're going to work on. That way, it breaks your novel up into bite-size pieces and it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
The final step before you really start digging into your novel is the first chapter. I always write my first chapter because everything in your first chapter has the seeds to the end. Your first chapter is the question, your last chapter is the answer to that question. So I write my first chapter with all that in mind.
I make sure that I start not with a long description, not with backstory, not with stuff that's taking too long. I start right in the center of the conflict where we have the characters who are troubled and then there's an inciting action that makes that character have to act.
I want to say that writing a novel is truly the most wonderful thing you can do. The most exceptionally interesting thing you can do and all this stuff is story structure. As I said, again, you don't have to use it. You don't have to agree with it. It saved my life and I hope it will save yours.
Caroline is an editor on Reedsy. To work with her on your next book, visit her profile and send her a request.