Category Archives: Fiction

How to Structure a Novel for Commercial Success: A Framework by Larry Brooks

In Story Structure—Demystified (Amazon), Larry Brooks lays out with clarity and specificity the nuts and bolts of a novel in a blueprint that I find useful and adaptable. I’ve referred to him before as a guide, but I do so now at greater length. I hope you find his framework as useful as I have.

Positing a 300-to-400-page story, Brooks divides the novel into four parts, as follows:

 PART ONE (SET-UP)—10-12 scenes—50 to 100 pages

The missions of Part One:

  1. Establish the hook.
  2. Introduce the main character somewhere in the first two scenes. Establish some inner dialogue to help the reader empathize. Emotional investment is the single, most important factor that makes your novel work, according to Brooks. Focus on backstory, and show the attitudes, prejudices and fears that define your protagonist, as well as untapped strengths and secrets.
  3. Establish stakes. The reader must see what your character stands to lose. The danger of losing something valued ramps up the tension.
  4. Foreshadow events to come. The first major plot point—the Inciting Incident—identifies some opposition to the attainment of the goal. We need to have felt it coming. That is, a sense of foreboding needs to accelerate to the point at which everything suddenly or subtly changes. (A plot point can encompass a series of scenes as well as a single scene.)

PART TWO (RESPONSE)—comprises roughly the next 100 pages of your novel, 12-15 scenes

Part Two is the protagonist’s response to the new situation, a new goal as created by the inciting incident.

Three things to strive for here, says Brooks:

-a retreat and regrouping

-a doomed attempt to take action

-a reminder of the nature of the antagonistic force

These will require a sequence of scenes, each linking logically to the next. Here the inner dialogue in Part One comes into play as a factor that foils your character’s attempt to achieve the new goal.

The 12-15 scenes that comprise Part Two:

-a scene or two of immediate reaction to the Inciting Incident . . . then

-a scene or two in which your protagonist regroups or retreats . . . then

-a scene that sets up what Brooks calls the Pinch Point scene– an unfiltered example of the antagonistic force . . . then

-the Pinch Point scene. This occurs precisely in the middle of Part Two or at the 3/8ths mark (37.5%) . . . then

-a scene or two responding to this scene . . . then

-a few scenes leading up to the Mid-Point scene. This scene occurs precisely in the middle of the novel (50% mark). The Mid-Point is a critical, context-shifting scene for the reader, the protagonist or both. Here new and significant information changes the main characters and/or the reader’s understanding of what’s been going on.

PART THREE (ATTACK)—12-15 scenes, beginning with the Mid-Point scene and leading up to the Second Plot Point scene, 100 pages or so.

In Part 3 the scenes show the hero fighting back, taking the initiative, demonstrating courage. Usually Part 3 shows the inner demon trying for one last moment of supremacy over the psyche of the main character.

A Second Pinch Point scene occurs precisely in the middle of Part 3 or at the 5/8ths mark (62.5%). The novelist must devote an entire scene to show us, once again what stands in the protagonist’s way. That opposition should be pure and dramatic, not filtered by the protagonist’s perception. The antagonist has evolved, too. He or she has learned how the hero or heroine is fighting back, has overcome weaknesses in pursuit of the goal. Tension and pacing increase because everybody’s picking up his game, say Brooks.

 Often there is an all-hope-is-lost lull right before a scene called the Second Plot Point scene.

 The Second Plot Point scene occurs at about the 75th percentile. This scene injects a final piece of new information that changes the story again. The main character learns something that will take him or her the final step toward doing whatever needs to be done to bring the story to satisfactory closure. This scene acts, then, as the springboard to Part Four. In Part Three the protagonist transitions from an attacking warrior to a selfless champion in terms of solving the dramatic problem.

PART FOUR—RESOLUTION—10-12 scenes, 50 to 100 pages

No new information may enter the story in Part Four. Every character and resource is already in play. Scenes must show the protagonist as the powerful primary catalyst in the resolution of the story.

 The protagonist should demonstrate that the inner demons have been conquered. In Part 4 the protagonist understands what must be done differently going forward and demonstrates that this has been learned.

Fiction for Fathers

In honor of Father’s Day, I offer a heart-rending expression of paternal devotion. This story has come to mind often since I first read it decades ago. It was originally published in The Hudson Review (Copyright © 1959, 1987 by Bowdoin College)    The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall   On Christmas morning before sunup… Continue Reading

Mother’s Day: A Story

‘Tis the month of mothers, and to commemorate Mother’s Day, I’d like to share with you my somewhat untraditional Mother’s Day story, published in Spark: A Creative Anthology (Vol. VII). I hope you enjoy it.   Mother’s Day   Today must end. Daughter though I am, I can no longer endure my mother’s presence. After… Continue Reading

How to Pitch Your Novel

Answer this question in one sentence: What’s your novel about? The answer is called an elevator pitch, a must-have pithy description short enough to deliver during a three-minute elevator ride. It’s not easy to come up with a concise sentence that delivers the gist of your novel compellingly, but crafting book descriptions of twenty-five or… Continue Reading

Talking About Love and Raymond Carver

In this month spotlighting lovers, I turn to Raymond Carver for his struggle to define love, a life-giving but elusive gift. In Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the scene is set in a country house with two couples, including the narrator, conversing around a kitchen table, getting drunk… Continue Reading

On Revision

If you’re caught up in resolution-making this January (and who isn’t?), here’s a suggestion: resolve to cultivate an alternative attitude toward revision. Instead of feeling anxious about it, look forward it. If you’re like many writers, you dread revising your work. Anxiety plagues you: Where do you start? Will you end up wiping out the… Continue Reading

How to Build Suspense

Suspense is the essential ingredient in all successful novels; it’s what makes the reader unable to put down your book. But what, exactly, is suspense? And how can you exploit it to captivate readers? The essence of suspense is anticipation, says Brian Klems, a Writer’s Digest blogger (May 9, 2013). The writer creates a sense… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part Two

Last month we covered different ways to open a novel or short story, focusing on first chapters and preliminary paragraphs. Now let’s move on to the beginning of the beginning, your story’s first sentence, your first opportunity to hook readers. Writer’s Digest guest blogger, Jacob M. Appel (January 9, 2014), offers seven different approaches to crafting… Continue Reading

How to Open a Work of Fiction—Part One

Every writer’s toolkit should include best practices for quickly drawing readers into the fictive universe. To this end, a large body of craft literature exists on the subject of novel and short story openings. Some tell us, Go for the visceral punch. Others say, Grab the reader’s attention in the first sentence, Arouse her curiosity,… Continue Reading