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While it is not always necessary to plot your novel in detail ahead of time, you do need to structure your novel. This helps to ensure that you develop all of the elements including plot, setting, character and theme.
Plot and structure are sometimes confused but the two are not the same thing. Plot is concerned with the specifics of what happens in a novel and with the story. Structure is less specific; you can write several different novels with a similar structure that are all quite different from one another.
How does structure help with plot? Whatever your plot is, effective structure will help you to make sure that your story maintains its narrative drive. Structure helps you to understand where major plot points need to happen. For example, if you use the three-act narrative structure, you will know that you need a turning point about a quarter of the way through the novel, a major change at the midpoint and a crisis near the end before you head into the climax. Using this structure, you will be able to make effective choices about where certain incidents in your plot occur.
Structure can help you fully develop your setting as well. Keep in mind that every setting is unique; even if you feel that your novel is set in an average middle-class suburb, you should be thinking about the specifics of that setting that will make it seem real in the minds of your readers. Here, structure can assist you in releasing information about the setting. For example, perhaps you want to gradually show your reader that your average middle-class setting is not as normal as it appears. Perhaps the genteel facades of people's homes hide terrible secrets, but you only want your reader to realise this gradually. At what points in your novel do you drop hints about the setting to suggest this? Alternately, maybe you want to write a story about a family moving to a remote island that they initially find inhospitable but come to love. As the novel progresses, your description of the setting should change as the family perceives it differently. At what points will you return to describing the setting to convey this change in perception?
Structure is essential in developing character effectively. Your reader's understanding of your characters will deepen and gain clarity as the story goes on. If you have characters who are not who they seem to be initially, you can work out the structure ahead of time to determine when you will give the readers information that gradually changes their ideas about the characters. On the other hand, you may simply want to develop character traits. Perhaps you have a character who is particularly loyal. What incidents will demonstrate that loyalty? To reinforce this information for your readers, at what point in the novel should those incidents occur?
Finally, structure will help you stay consistent with your theme throughout the novel. Theme is often something that arises gradually from other elements, and it may not be something you consciously think about in your first draft. However, whether you are addressing your theme at the outset or finding your theme on reading over the first draft, you will also need to use structure to make sure your theme is clearly expressed. Of course, you don't come out and announce the theme to your reader; instead, you convey it through other elements in the story. Near the beginning of the novel, you need to make sure that you have given some indication of the theme. Structure will help you to identify the points where you need to reinforce the theme throughout the book and make sure that you don't simply abandon the theme and then attempt to restate it at the end.
How have you used structure to make sure that you fully develop all the elements of your novel?
Bridget McNulty is a published author and founder of Now Novel (www.nownovel.com), an easy to use motivational online writing course. She also writes a writing blog (www.nownovel.com/blog) that helps with writing motivation and the art and craft of writing.