Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel—Structure Part One

The normal world’s connect to the…inciting incident. Inciting incident’s connected to the…turning point. The turning point’s connected to the…next act….and here’s the bones of your boooooook.

Okay, I promise to stop singing…for now :D.

Want a way to stand out from all the other writers clamoring to get an agent’s attention? Want to be a best-selling author with stories that endure the tests of time? Want a runaway indie success that sells loads of copies?

Learn all you can about the craft, particularly novel structure. Structure is one of those boring topics like finance or taxes. It isn’t nearly as glamorous as creating characters or reading about ways to unleash our creative energy.

Since we are closing in on National Novel Writing Month, I am dedicating Mondays to some of those core issues that writers (particularly new writers) struggle to grasp. Those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while have heard most of this before, but all of us can use a refresher, right?

Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital. A lot of new writers want to break rules. Okay, well I won’t stop you, but I will point out a simple truth:

Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold

Story that deviates so far from structure that readers get confused or bored = slush pile/few or no book sales

As an editor, I can tell in five minutes if an author understands narrative structure. Seriously.

Oh and I can hear the moaning and great gnashing of teeth.

Trust me, I hear ya. Structure can be tough to wrap your mind around and, to be blunt, most new writers don’t understand it. They rely on wordsmithery and hope they can bluff past people like me with their glorious prose. Yeah, no. Prose isn’t plot. You have to understand plot. That’s why I am going to make this upcoming series simple easy and best of all FUN.

Sharpen Your Pencils and Pay Attention

Learning narrative structure ranks right up there with…memorizing the Periodic Table. Remember those days? Ah, high school chemistry. The funny thing about chemistry is that if you didn’t grasp the Periodic Table, then you simply would never do well in chemistry. Everything beyond Chapter One hinged on this fundamental step—understanding the Periodic Table.

Location, location, location.

See, the elements are a lot like the groups at high school. They all have their own parts of the “lunch periodic table.” Metals on one part of the table, then the non-metals. The metals call themselves “The Ionics” thinking it sounds cool. They like to date non-metals, even though this coupling creates “meaningful bonds” that frequently results in the creation of little cations (and then the pair has to leave and worry about daycare).

Metals never date other metals, but non-metals do date other non-metals. These non-metal couples call “going steady” “being covalent.”

And then you have the neutral (or “noble”) gases. Inert? More like In-NERD gases, the socially inept of the Periodic Table. No one hangs out with them. Ever. Okay, other In-NERD gases, but that’s it. Period.

The Ionics will give the In-NERD gases electron wedgies if they ever forget their place.

Okay, yeah. I totally ran with that. All silliness aside, if you didn’t understand what element would likely hang out where and in what company, the rest of chemistry might as well have been Sanskrit…like it was for me the first three times I failed it.

Have to Nail the Basics

Novel structure can be very similar. We have to know what goes where and why or life as a writer will be unnecessarily tough. A long, long time ago in a galaxy blog far, far away, we talked a lot about novel beginnings (pun, of course, intended). Normal world has a clear purpose, just like all the other components of the narrative structure. Today we are going to go back to basics, before we ever worry about things like Aristotelian structure, turning points, rising action, and darkest moments.

There are too many talented writers out there writing by the seat of their pants, believing that skills that earned us As in high school or college English are the same for a novel. No, no, no, no. When we lack a basic understanding of structure we have set ourselves up for a lot of wasted writing.

Ah, but understand the basics? And the potential variations are mind-boggling even if they are bound by rules, just like chemistry. Carbon chains can be charcoal, but they also can be pandas and periwinkles and platypusses…platypi?


Today, we are going to just have a basic introduction and we will delve deeper in the coming weeks. Now, before you guys get the vapors and think I am boxing you into some rigid format that will ruin your creativity, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better.

Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go.

When you read a novel that isn’t quite grabbing you, the reason is probably structure. Even though it may have good characters, snappy dialogue, and intriguing settings, the story isn’t unfolding in the optimum fashion. ~James Scott Bell from Plot and Structure.

Structure has to do with the foundation and the building blocks, the carbon chains that are internal and never seen, but will hold and define what eventually will manifest on the outside—periwinkle or platypus? Paranormal Romance? Or OMGWTH? Structure holds stories together and helps them make sense and flow in such a way so as to maximize the emotional impact by the end of the tale.

If an author adheres to the rules, then the possible combinations are limitless. Fail to understand the rules and we likely could end up with a novel that resembles that steamy pile of goo like from that scene in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum sends the baboon through the transporter but it doesn’t go so well for the baboon. The idea was sound, but the outcome a disaster…okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Structure is important.

We are going to first put the novel under the electron microscope.

The most fundamental basics of a novel are cause and effect. That is super basic. An entire novel can be broken down into cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect (Yes, even literary works). Cause and effect are like nucleus and electrons. They exist in relation to each other and need each other. All effects must have a cause and all causes eventually must have an effect (or a good explanation).

I know that in life random things happen and good people die for no reason. Yeah, well fiction ain’t life. So if a character drops dead from a massive heart attack, that “seed” needed to be planted ahead of time. Villains don’t just have their heart explode because we need them to die so we can end our book. We’ll talk more about that later.

Now, all these little causes and effects clump together to form the next two building blocks we will discuss—the scene & the sequel (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure). Many times these will clump together to form your “chapters” but all in good time.

Cause and effect are like the carbon and the hydrogen. They bind together to form carbon chains. Carbon chains are what make up all living organisms. Like Legos put together differently, but always using the same fundamental ingredients. Carbon chains make up flowers and lettuce and fireflies and all things living, just like scenes and sequels form together in different ways to make up mysteries and romances, and thrillers and all things literary.

The Two Elements of ALL Fiction

Structure’s two main components, as I said earlier, are the scene and the sequel.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. In the scene, something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (again per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, which I recommend every writer buy).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block, and the sequel is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Link scenes and sequels together and flesh over a narrative structure and you will have a novel that readers will enjoy.

Oh, but Kristen you are hedging me in to this formulaic writing, and I want to be creative. I am an artist!

Understanding structure is not formulaic writing. It is writing that makes sense on a fundamental level. Structure will not make your writing formulaic, rather one’s execution of structure is what makes writing formulaic. Make sense? In music, we need to use the notes E, G, B, D, F & F,  A, C, E, and sharp and flat variations thereof.

We can put these notes in countless combinations and it is how we put these notes together that makes it music or noise, artistic or trite bubblegum. Music has structure. Art has structure. Writing, too, has an inherent structure.

On some intuitive level all readers expect some variation of narrative structure. Deviate too far and risk losing the reader by either boring her or confusing her.

Can we get creative with pizza? Sure. Can we be more than Domino’s or Papa John’s? Of course. There are countless variations of pizza, from something that resembles a frozen hockey puck to gourmet varieties with fancy toppings like sun-dried tomatoes or feta cheese. But, on some intuitive level a patron will know what to expect when you “sell” them a pizza. They will know that a hot dog on a stick surrounded by deep-fried corn batter is NOT pizza.

Patrons have certain expectations when you offer them a “pizza.” Pizza has rules. So do novels. Chemistry and biology have rules, so do novels. We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Do any of you have tricks for plotting you would like to share? For those who have heard this before, thank you for being here.

One quick announcement. For those of you who want more instruction of how to blog and use your blog to build a supportive community for your work, my October blogging class is now open. It’s two months long and takes you from idea to launch and can be done at your own pace and on your own time.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of September I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.


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  1. Reblogged this on everwalker.

  2. Brilliant analysis! I teach creative writing too, and I want you to publish all this stuff in a paperback book that I can put on the reading list and set homework on.

  3. Great post! This is also the best explanation of the periodic table that I have ever heard. 🙂

  4. Awesome stuff. I know I’ve read this before, but now that I’ve got a shiny new computer I am going to buy Jack Bickham’s craft book and do some reading before I attempt to resurrect Adina. And her mother. 😉 I really think I’d like to try NanoWriMo this year. Maybe I can do it this year, just barf her back to life. Only better. I have all my outlines and I know where I’m going. I just got a little side-tracked in the middle. That’s where I need the help. Do you have to sign up officially to do NanoWriMo? I’m a newb with this one. 😉

  5. Grrrrrrreat post!!! Thank you, Kristen! Funny you should equate to chemistry. Structure always felt like ‘story math’ to me. Math… NOT my favorite subject so I’ve been writing fantasy for years and just ‘hoping’ that I’m adequately handling this structure issue intuitively. I’ll be buying Jack Bickham’s book!

  6. I always love reading your blogs, Kristen! Sometimes I think “Yeah, I do that”. Or “Gee I need to start doing that” and once in a while I think “That may be true for her, but my experience is different.” But I do always enjoy reading what you say. I don’t know where people get the idea that creativity is exclusive to structure. I think you are a very creative person, but I also see that your writing is quite structured. It reminds me of a story I heard about children in a school yard in a dangerous New York City neighborhood. They hung out close to the school house because they were afraid to venture out. But, once a fence was put up, creating a structure to their school yard, the children spread out over the grounds. That’s what happens with us when we create structure in our writing. We have a safe place to explore our creativity and we actually can be more creative than we were without the structure.

    1. The most creative people in the world are prison inmates ;).

      The way I explain it to writers is like this. What if I asked you guys to write me a 1000 word short story?

      *blank stares*
      Now what if I erected some boundaries? What if I asked for a 1000 word short story that involved a zoo and a mysterious accident? Now you guys would likely come up with hundreds of creative variations. Your imaginations would take off, simply with erecting a wee bit of structure. If man could already fly, he would have never invented the airplane or the helicopter or the glider. You get the point ;).

  7. I really enjoyed this post. I’m. Not into blogging, but I see it as the waywriters are going to reach their audience. This post o structure was very infomative. Thanks

  8. The combination of creativity and structure is why I gravitate to writing, actually. Boundaries comfort me; they let me know when it’s ok to break the rules and when it is not. Great post!

    • crawleykj on September 24, 2012 at 8:42 am
    • Reply

    So what does it say about me that I am thinking, “YES! TELL ME MORE!” as I read through that? I am all about the structure, and being creative within the framework – but give me rules, first. Plus, you have to KNOW the rules, and accept that they ARE the rules, before you can effectively break them.

    Here is where I get bogged down, though. I ask “but WHY??” about every thing, every LITTLE thing, any character does in my story – to the point where I can’t get anything written because I’m afraid I don’t have a good enough reason for a character acting the way that they are. So I try to press on, but I feel like I’m leaving holes all over the place. I guess…that is where editing comes in?

    I’ll be honest. I’m working on what was intended to be a short story, but seems to be blowing up (then again, that is also where editing comes in, right?) and the majority of the time, I look at what I’ve written and think, “This is awful! I was wrong, I’m NOT any good at this! I should just give up right now.” In the past, that is exactly what I’ve done. I’m trying to make *this time* different.

    Is that normal? Am I too hard on myself? Or have I truly lost my ability to write? (Because I go back and read stuff I wrote in the past and think, “Dang! That was pretty good!”)

    Not, of course, that you have any idea without having read anything I’ve written, which, LOL, I am SO not suggesting (it’s WAY too bad for that!) What I’m wondering is whether that perspective is fairly normal.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this. Can’t wait for the next one!

    1. OH, and I have to add that I loved the chemistry comparison. Also, if our chemistry texts had been written like that, I might have memorized that stuff, after all! That was brilliant!

  9. Can’t wait for NaNoWriMo! I rocked it last year, then pushed 20 days into December to finish it =)

    Couldn’t quite get 112,000 words in 30 days. Needed 50.

    Man, I wrote that whole book to write one major climax scene that I had to write. It was SO worth it. Beautiful set-up, and brought it home just how I wanted.

    Anyway, I do love your teaching on this stuff, Kristen. To me, it’s like every time you cover this ground, or explain things slightly different, or add some facet, it helps me understand things better. I think some of these basics come to me naturally, but I have also seen how bad I can get when I haven’t done my homework.

    It’s like church. Even though I’ve been there and heard all the basic messages, its still good for me to keep going, lest I forget, and so that the thing I need to hear hits me just right one day, even on an old adage. It can make ALL the difference to nailing a story.

    I appreciate your passion for what you do, and the ways it is a blessing to me and all the folks here.

    I’ll be closely watching all your NaNo advice stuff. Feel free to throw in some supplemental segments on top of Monday if you are so inspired. I’ll be there.

    • Heather on September 24, 2012 at 8:56 am
    • Reply

    I definitely need to learn more about structure! Thanks!

  10. Great post as usual. I’m going to have to get more information on structure just to make sure I’m doing it right. I’ll have to grab that book as well, sounds very interesting. Thanks for the post!

    • TLJeffcoat on September 24, 2012 at 9:33 am
    • Reply

    ” We can push the boundaries, but we must appreciate the rules…so that we can break them.”
    Perfect, yes! My favorite quote yet! I love being a rebel.

  11. Structure, structure, structure. This is what I’m struggling with right now. I pantsed it through my first (massive) draft and in subsequent drafts have refined. I had to cut my original WIP in half (it was closing in on 300 k words!) and have turned what was my mid-point into my climax. I’ve identified my hook, first and second major plot points, various reversals and complications, climax and denouement, but my problem is trying to distil it into a coherent whole.
    Reverse engineering is a biatch.
    I’m currently trying to decide whether to refine my outline, or to write through it and work things out that way. My issue is that I think best through writing and I’ve been shamed by various experts in the field who identify that as the wrong, or at least the innefficient way to go.
    My process is still evolving, and right now, the words are calling to me. Despite the best advice, I think I am going to write to refine. Having worked through a rather clumsy outline after the fact, I have the anatomy clearly in mind. I’ll revise to the model.
    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to work through this! See … writing = thinking for me.
    I’ll let you know how this all goes.

  12. I always enjoy your posts Kristen and this one has given me an aha moment. I have often read (and tried to implement) the scene-sequel pattern; your simple description of the scene delivering action followed by a sequel with the emotional thread resonates with me. Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster then Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action. Marvelous! I am looking forward to the next posts on structure 🙂

  13. Love, Love, LOVE it! Thanks for breaking it down. I love your style. This just confirms what I already knew…I have a LOT to learn! (BTW, I re-tweeted)

  14. I think structure can be done by writing an outline of the story first. If you have that, you have an idea of what is going to happen in the book, you have a structure of what it is about.

    1. I agree, Julie. The problem is that a natural pantser’s brain doesn’t think well with outlines. I know that structure confused me for years and once I got my “Aha!” I wrote this series. Writers who plot can’t understand why all us pantsers are getting brain constipation. All I can say is that our neurons must fire differently. Pantsers do better when approached conceptually with images and allegory, when we understand the why behind the what.

      Most natural plotters can gain something from these posts, but structure generally isn’t a plotter’s weakness.

        • Paul Smith on September 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm
        • Reply

        I don’t know about anyone else but I no longer use the traditional outline form we all learned for writing non-fiction. Using that for fiction is like playing basketball in high-heels – they’re shoes but not really good for basketball. I use a loose set of numbered blocks made up descriptive phrases. It’s malleable enough to make changes easily yet allows for creative work. It’s quite easy to convert the phrases into sentences, etc. I adapted it from the phase outline if anyone knows what that is. I’m a planner by nature but somehow you must get things moving along and you need structure to keep it upright.

  15. Working on revising part 1 of my novel, and ran across this blog this morning on twitter. PERFECT moment! Thank you!

  16. Let’s see, my biggest ‘problem’ at the moment is concept. When I try to explain it back to myself I feel like I’m describing an idea, not a concept.

    As for the tip, I remember the good old days in elementary school where I would plot out my plot using a writer’s web! Such fun. When I thought to take my writing to the next level, how quickly I forgot that practice. Reading your blog has reminded me that the basics (like outlining) are essential.

  17. This is exactly what I need right now. I came up with an outline for my WIP before I got started (just like they always taught in school), but as the story evolved, the outline has had to be pretty flexible, and there are times I sit at the computer for an hour and hack out maybe a paragraph because I just really don’t know where to go next. I’m almost (I hope) ready to go through and start revising and smacking it back into shape, helping it trim up its belly fat and whatnot, but honestly, I’d be happy if I could just actually finish writing the first draft before NaNo. LOL I started last year and then dropped it when we had a family crisis mid-month. I’ll be trying again this year with a prequel to my WIP from a different perspective that may even give me some insight when I come back to it. Already I can see changes I need to make to the current scene I’m writing just to enhance its flow–so thanks! 🙂 Maybe I can practice with it for a month and then keep my writing nice and tight in November and crank out those 1667 a day.

  18. This is an area I can definitely improve upon in my own writing. Thanks for reminding me to think about things like this more critically! I really want to get into that drawing so I posted the link on my blog and re-tweeted. 🙂

  19. InNERD gasses?
    I’m a recovering chemist/molecular biologist and I want you to know the sh*t was funny.

    1. I should do a stand-up routine at MIT, LOL.

  20. Thanks so much for these posts. I’m a new follower, working on my second book, but sometimes feel like I’m starting all over again. Also, thanks for your above response #20. I’ve always worked with images that spark ideas and felt I was failing, somehow, because my brain doesn’t come to plot as the first stop. Plot always builds out of images and then much rearranging, cutting and rewriting ensues. It’s not entirely efficient, but it gets me there. Glad to be reminded I’m not terminally unique 🙂

    1. You just need the steps to put those over a framework that will give your writing focus. Even a very loose map will offer tremendous creativity and keep you from having a 60,000 word mess. A little goes a long way and I hope this series will help you.

    • Lin Barrett on September 24, 2012 at 12:37 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, I subscribe to your blog because, with astonishing frequency, you say something that really makes sense to me. Presently, I am struggling with outlining, having come to the end of my ability to pantse. (Really, that verb needs the terminal “e” to distinguish it from the other kind of pantsing. Never had a problem with that, never having felt drawn to it. Thank goodness.) You said, “Plot is about elements, those things that go into the mix of making a good story even better. Structure is about timing—where in the mix those elements go” and that rang so many bells for me I pasted it into a document and saved it: with attribution, because I want to be able to tell others who said that brilliant thing. Maybe it will help them too. Maybe they will subscribe because of it, a course of action I’d urge them to anyway!

    1. Actually I think I might have oopsed (will fix) and not made all of Jim’s quote blue. Attribution goes to the brilliant and generous James Scott Bell. Without him, I don’t think I would have ever understood structure. But thank you! And I highly recommend Bell’s book Plot & Structure if you are having difficulty.

  21. I have to admit that since I didn’t really study chemistry in school the comparison was a little difficult to follow, but the message was pretty clear none-the-less: good writing is as much a science as it is an art. I think focusing on structure is the first element is right on when it comes to writing a good book. The best selling books these days do have a clear structure – something that makes the elements of the stories link together and flow – that’s what keeps the reader turning the page so quickly instead of putting to book down and leaving it “for another day” (in reality, we know that day may never come). I’ve been having trouble lately validating spending so much time and effort on sorting out a plot and structure for my novel instead of just writing it and worrying about the details later, but this blog gave me a little more conviction to follow my instincts and get the elements of my story right before I try to put strings of catchy dialogue and prose together.

  22. Wow. This reminds me of a workshop I did with Angela Hunt.

  23. I read Bell’s book and went away convinced that I had failed in my first efforts. However, when I looked closely, I realized that by blogging daily using a serial novel approach and using that structure for my story, I had a hook (AKA “next” line) at the end of each segment. That was reassuring. I think that my failing is liking my characters so much that I pull my punches.

    Tnx for a thoughtful post.

    p.s. I go by seat of pants and plan as the story unfolds. Anyone who writes has an innate sense of how to tell a good story. So I trust that and just get gong, a daily post at a time. So maybe I’m a half-pantsed writer.

  24. I wish I had heard your explanation of the periodic table when I was in school. Unfortunately, most science teachers don’t seem to understand how to tell a story very well.

  25. love this post. Very useful. Thank you.

  26. One of my biggest hurdles is being a pantser. All the advice on structure seems to assume that I’m outlining. I can’t outline, so now what? For a pantser, the structure may have to come in during the revisions, once they have the whole story in front of them and actually know what it’s about. And it is very different applying structure to an existing draft. A lot of what I do is trust that muse won’t let me down. If I try to identity something like goal or conflict, I wreck the scene because I’m shoehorning it in there, on top of what’s already there. Yet, if you asked me what the conflict or goal was, I couldn’t tell you. It’s there, but it’s too much of the big picture for me to break down at that level.

    Linda Adams, Soldier, Storyteller

  27. As someone who is both editing her novel and teaching herself chemistry, this–is–AMAZING–ly helpful!!

  28. Can’t wait to read all the way through this series. As a pantser, I’ve been finding that everything I can read on structure leads to an aha moment and improves my revisions. Thanks so much for the reading recommendations – I will immediately buy the one I didn’t have!

  29. Does this discussion apply to works of non-fiction, Kristen?

    1. No, NF doesn’t use narrative structure (Hero’s Journey). NF is more pure outline form, unless you are writing narrative non-fiction and then YES this does apply, because you are telling the story of a true event in story form, make sense?

      1. Absolutely! Thanks – again!

    • Tamara LeBlanc on September 24, 2012 at 7:50 pm
    • Reply

    Yep, I’ve heard this before. Any writer out there who’s worth their salt should know this stuff, but what I LOVE about you is that you teach it SOOO differently. I’ve never been taught the necessity of structure in fiction using the periodic table!! BRILLIANT! FUN! INTERESTING!
    I LOVED this post!! And I’m so thankful to have an amazing teacher like you!
    Have a great evening,

  30. Be reassured that despite being a member of the Y/Internet generation, I recognize the reference in the beginning of the post.

    Oh, Schoolhouse Rock…

  31. I’m very interested in following the rest of your posts on this. I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo, but I’m getting started on my next project soon. I appreciate the opportunity to hear your take on structure before I start lay out the new novel.

    Thanks, Kristen!

  32. Structure? I can barely get my stuff to make sense and/or hang together. Then there is the beginning, middle, and ending. Stop the music! It’s just too much to learn. It was bad enough trying to gin up a story based on three items — a tiger, a rubber band, and the Golden Gate Bridge. See this zoo keeper had a habit of zapping a caged tiger with a heavy rubber band…

  33. Wow, who knew the periodic table could be so . . . um . . . useful. 😉

  34. Kristen –

    So glad to have found you and finally discover a voice I can follow with confidence. I just bought your book about blogging and cannot wait until it hits my doorstep.

    I have been muddling around in the blogging-writing-twittering-facebooking world for several years but can’t seem to rise above the noise. With your gentle advice and expert knowledge, I know I will find my wings and fly!

    Thank you for guiding those of us who have something to say…but have not found our audience yet.


    Kathryn Eriksen

    P.S. I linked to your blog – and mentioned your blog and book. Go to

  35. Reblogged this on Dare to dream big and live large!.

  36. Wonderful blog. Ever since I found out about cause and effect and scene and sequel I keep wondering why the heck all the writer’s courses I’ve been to only talk about show, don’t tell and not THIS. This is SO much more important. And I already feel it helping me in my writing.

  37. I’m with Linda Adams (#37).
    And while I loved all the chemistry stuff and the illustrations, I’m as confused as heck. I do understand structure/plot is important. I’ve been working on the same WIP for six years … have written lots of wonderful scenes, but have no idea how to tie it all together. I’m not sure I really know what my MC’s goal is … and I really, really wish I just had a one-on-one teacher to explain this stuff to me. But I’m going to give your series here a shot, Kristen. Please, please give me hope that my writing will eventually, one day have structure and that I can finally settle into how to put the whole story together and make it work.

    Please. My characters’ lives depend on it …

    1. The reason I give the Chemistry analogy is that one of the largest obstacles I get from new writers about learning structure is they “don’t want to be formulaic.” The chemistry parallel is to demonstrate that there can be order and structure without losing infinite variety and complexity. We are going to take this one baby step at a time, because I am a panster by nature, too and this is how I learned it. We’ll get there. Breathe :D.

  38. Just ordered Bickham’s book. And I’m also reading Plot and Structure and several others and right now my brain is mush. I’m at the point where a loony place is looking pretty enticing. Lol I just hope that soon something will click and I’ll have my ‘aha’ moment. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    1. Two books that might help are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. Bickham’s book is good, but it’s a brain bender. These two are simple and effective.

  39. At last I understood the periodic table ~ not sure about how to write a novel 😉 ~ just joking….. thank you for this introduction!

    • Rachel Thompson on September 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve read at least 50 books on writing. I finally got what structure is about and many other interrelated elements of fiction. I still read about structure because it is so very important that I want it burned into my brain like a mental tattoo.
    I have several book suggestions. Deb Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation and Conflict, a POD found at Griffin Press, is a simple, easy to read logic bomb with universal examples. All of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing should reside in every writer’s collection as well as James N. Frey’s books, especially ,How to Write A Damn Good Novel. If a new writer can only buy one book on craft, get Debra Dixon’s book.

  40. I used to dread talk about structure and plotting but I’ve since embraced it. I see the beauty of underlying structure. No matter how beautiful the skin, it needs beautiful structure to fill it out.

    I used to think that plotting and outlining would lock me and and suck out all the creativity but I’ve found the opposite. All sorts of spontaneous wonderful things still happen when I get to the actual writing, some of it causing me to change my outline but it tends to fit in with the overall structure and I can always look to the outline to guide me when I am stuck.

  41. This is another great post! I knew this, kind of, but had a hard time putting into practice. The epiphany you’ve given me is to structure my outline along the lines of scene and sequel. My outlines tend to be in the form, “and then he did this, and then she did that…” and so on. Thinking of these as scene and sequel will provide an inherent flow, unity and structure to my outlining.

    Thank you so much!!!! I’ve linked to your blog, I’ll probably put my little epiphany in my own blog this evening.

  42. Most of my problems have been with character not structure. But I think I’m a combination of planner and pantser so I find these blog topics really helpful to find out what I’m doing right or not. Aswell, I found that getting an idea of where I want to go makes how I get there much easier.

  43. Best recent example (IMHO) of scene/sequel structure in a movie: The Avengers. Seriously. Joss Whedon rocks.

  44. Great post! I am definitely a Pantster and can probably use a lot more structure in my writing. Actually, any structure. Thank you for your invaluable advice and I look forward to reading and learning more.

  45. Thanks Kristen! Your timing is perfect as I just talked about plot and structure at our SCBWI Ireland meet-up on Saturday. I am adding links to your two blog articles to my post about the meeting, so people can reference it. You always provide such great information! I am struggling with plot and structure with my current children’s book, so this is very timely for me as well. I have great characters but a weak plot and structure. Thanks again!

    • wednesday on October 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm
    • Reply

    Jack Bickham had a creative writing professor at university by the name of Dwight Swain. Swain is the one who invented “Scene and Sequel with MRU units”. He’s the one who taught it to Bickham.

    Swain’s old book (Techniques of a Selling Writer) is the best I’ve ever read for scene structure and a lot of other elements to creative writing. It’s also the foundation behind Bickham, but not as technical since Swain wrote his book for Creative Writing 101 students. Yes, Swain wrote it waaaay back in 1965, but technique doesn’t change.

    I have to admit that even after reading and taking notes, and squinting, and pondering and trying to apply both Bickham and Swain, I was still pulling out my hair for MRUs. And then I found this: which very nicely summarized everything and made it all make sense in only four or five pages. Hallelujah!

    • DeeAnna Galbraith on October 1, 2012 at 5:12 pm
    • Reply

    Hi, Kristen. This one’s going in the Kristen folder. (With all your helpful posts.) Want to tell you I’ve read Jack Bickham, but I really like Raymond Obstfeld – The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes. It is GOLD. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  46. No offense, but this was one of the worst blog posts I’ve ever read. Very little useful information with a bunch of pontificating. Periodic Table? Pizza? Ok, a line or two, but then stay on topic. James Scott Bell’s book was rather lame in my opinion. A far better book is by Dwight Swain – mentioned above.
    Now what I do think would be useful for a writer is how to work narrative within cause and effect structure. For example: How and when should you interject a character’s thoughts within dialogue, and throughout the scene.

    1. I suffer no illusions that every person who reads my blog will love it. I work very hard to offer free, quality instruction to beginners. I wish you well and hope you find better blogs that suit your needs :D.

  1. […] The Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel–Structure Part One- Kristen Lamb […]

  2. […] Structure is probably one of the most overlooked topics, and yet it is the most critical. Why? Because structure is for the reader. The farther an author deviates from structure, the less likely the story will connect to a reader. Agents know this and editors know this and, since they are in the business of selling books to readers, structure becomes vital. A lot of new writers want to break rules. Okay, well I won’t stop you, but I will point out a simple truth:   Story that connects to reader = lots of books sold  […]

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  4. […] structure is the skeleton of our book. Kristen Lamb gives a lesson on structure; Martina Boone shows how to build deep conflict into the structure of your story; and K.M. Weiland […]

  5. […] just plow ahead and take on Lesson Two in my structure series. I strongly recommend checking out Monday’s lesson if you haven’t yet. Each of these blogs will build upon the previous lesson. By the end of […]

  6. […] Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel – Structure Part One by Kristen Lamb. And: Structure Part Two – Plot Problems. […]

  7. […] to stories. The stronger the structure, the better the story. I highly recommend that you read Part I and Part II of this series, if you haven’t already in that each lesson builds upon the […]

  8. […] Part I of this series introduced the novel on a micro-scale. Part II explored the big picture and offered an overview of common plot problems. Part III introduced the most critical element to any novel, the BBT (Big Boss Troublemaker). Each of these blogs builds upon the previous lesson, so if you are new, I recommend reading the earlier blogs. […]

  9. […] Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel—Structure Part One « Kristen Lamb’s Blog. Share this:SharePinterestEmailFacebookLinkedInTwitterTumblrRedditDiggStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  10. […] Lesson One, we discussed plot on a micro-scale. Lesson Two we panned back for an aerial shot, and discussed common plot problems that arise from […]

  11. […] Here’s a link to Kristen Lamb’ Blog that I recommend you visit soon. For the past 5 Mondays, she’s been writing about structure, […]

  12. […] so if you have read all the blogs in this series, you should understand what makes a scene vs. a sequel, understand the three-act dramatic structure. You also understand that the antagonist—or Big Boss […]

  13. […] some of the lessons I have been taught through reading blog posts such as Kristen Lamb’s on the importance of conflict and Annie Cardi’s on the importance of voice in Young Adult […]

  14. […] are plenty of blog posts better than mine that will tell you how to structure your NaNoWriMo novel, or how to edit it when it’s all over. [Oh my, turns out there is actually a National Novel […]

  15. […] bullet point of an outline. I have learned a lot this year, and one of the things responsible is Kristen Lamb’s series on structuring a novel. Perhaps I don’t quite have an outline this time around, but I do have clear opposition and […]

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