By C.S. Lakin
“How do I write a great novel?”
This is probably THE question every aspiring novelist has asked . . . but maybe hasn’t had answered in a satisfying and clear manner.
There are plenty of techniques floating around that help writers learn how to structure solid scenes, craft compelling characters, bring setting to life, and pen engaging dialogue.
But as far as the nuts and bolts go—meaning, where the nuts and bolts go—therein lies the challenge—and hardly anything has been written about it.
Novels are made up of scenes. Lots of scenes.
Where the heck do all the scenes go, once you’ve come up with them?
Pantsing and Plotting
If you’re a pantser, you wing it and write whatever scenes come into your head. If you’re a plotter, you sit down and make a list of as many scenes as you can think of, and then you try to put them in order as best you can, maybe create an outline, and then (cross your fingers) hope it works.
If you’ve written a lot of novels, you probably have a good sense where scenes need to fall in your story.
You may know that you need some initial disturbance (also called “the Inciting Incident”) to kick off your story somewhere near the beginning of your novel.
And you might also know that at some point your protagonist should be pursuing a goal (but, believe me, a lot of writers don’t even understand this is at the crux of plot and premise) that builds to a climax somewhere near the end. And then you figure you need to wrap things up and end the darn thing.
Many writers resist “overplotting” because they want flexibility. They want to allow their characters to come to life and take over (without overthrowing The Creator of the Novel) to some extent. I do too!
But novels are highly complex, and you cannot (she says adamantly, after having critiqued more than a thousand manuscripts) just write a bunch of scenes, stick them where they feel right, and call it good.
Most writing coaches will tell you: you must follow novel structure, very specifically, to craft a terrific novel. And that means understanding what types of scenes you need to frame your novel and where to put them.
The first layer of ten scenes is your foundation, your frame-up. It supports your entire story and premise. While I go deep into all of these ten scenes, as well as a variety of second and third layers (supported by many handy charts, such as the one in a post on layering romance you may have read on this blog) in my book Layer Your Novel, let’s take a brief look at the ten key scenes (and if you need more info on each of these, read the linked posts).
#1 Setup. Introduce the protagonist in her ordinary life. Establish her core need. Set the stage, begin building the world, bring key characters on stage. You want to begin your novel right before the Inciting Incident.
#2 Turning Point #1 (10%) Inciting Incident. This starts the protagonist moving in a new direction. It’s the “opportunity” that arises that will shift the character toward the fixed goal.
Turning Point #2 (25%) The visible goal for the novel is set.
#3 Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly). Give a glimpse of the opposition’s power, need, and goal as well as the stakes. Your protagonist may or may not be aware of this development.
#4 Twist #1. Something new happens: a new ally appears, a friend becomes a foe. New info reveals a serious complication to reaching the goal. Protagonist must adjust to change with this setback.
#5 The Midpoint – Turning Point #3 (50%). No turning back. Important event that propels the story forward and solidifies the protagonist’s determination to reach her goal.
#6 Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly). The opposition comes full force. Time to buckle down and fight through it. If the first pinch point introduces the opposing force (which could be a person/people, group, or force of nature, to name a few), the second pinch point brings this force to bear in all its power upon the protagonist.
#7 Twist #2. An unexpected surprise giving (false?) hope. The goal now looks within reach. A mentor gives encouragement, a secret weapon is presented, or an important clue is revealed (examples).
#8 Turning Point #4 – Dark Night Moment (75%). Major setback. All is lost and hopeless. The protagonist’s support system is threatened or even fails. Time to go all-in for the final push.
#9 Turning Point #5 – Climax (76-99%). The climax in which the goal is either reached or not; the two MDQs are answered. Everything from the 25% mark to this moment is about progress and setbacks toward the goal, and the climax should be the BIG event in which the protagonist faces her most daunting opposition.
#10 The Aftermath (90-99%). The wrap-up at the end. Dénouement, resolution, tie it all in a pretty knot. This is a brief final scene that brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion, without dragging on and on. (Live by the wise words: quick in, quick out.)
Take the time to learn just what each of these scene types are about. It’s important.
Sure, you can veer off track a bit. These scenes don’t have to be in exact places. And you’re not limited to two pinch points or twists. Remember: this is the basic framework to start with. And from here, you can layer your next scenes (I provide charts for three different second layers in my book).
This isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not something to rush through. Take the time to learn about these key scenes and understand why they’re important.
I will dare say if you use this chart when you begin to plot (or need to revise) your novel, you will see how much easier the process is than if you rely on guesswork.
Which scenes do you struggle with most when plotting out your novel? Does a look at this chart reveal to you what you might be missing in your structure?
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning blog for writers, Live Write Thrive, provides deep writing instruction and posts on industry trends. In addition to sixteen novels, Lakin also publishes writing craft books in the series The Writer’s Toolbox, and you can get a copy of Writing the Heart of Your Story and other free ebooks when you join her Novel Writing Fast Track email group.