Story Structure: beginnings, middles and ends in the novel

William Kowalski, author

William Kowalski, author of The Hundred Hearts & Eddie’s Bastard

This meditation on story structure in the novel comes from William Kowalski, author of Eddie’s Bastard, The Hundred Hearts and other novels. The excerpt is taken from his ebook/PDF, Writing for First Time Novelists. The full text of that ebook can be downloaded for free here.

If you’ve ever taken a class on literary theory, or read any amount of literary criticism, likely you will have heard the term “narrative arc”. It’s also likely you will have heard a large number of other literary terms as well, but you will find that I don’t concern myself with them in this book, because they are of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever.

If I felt it would make me a better writer, I would do nothing but talk about literary theory all day long. But I have always felt that literary theory makes me a worse writer, in the sense that it makes me more self-conscious and worried about whether my work stands up to a set of academic standards. I think fiction began to die the day it became the property of academia, and I hope it will wriggle free one day and escape into the wild again. Until then, I just keep typing.

Literary theory may describe literature, but mastering it will not make you a better writer, any more than studying Newton’s laws of motion will make you a better baseball player. I write by instinct, not by a set of rules.

There are some aspects of basic literary theory that are important for any writer to know, but they needn’t be obfuscated by the sorts of complicated terms people typically use to make themselves sound more important. You really only need to know a handful of concepts. Of these, narrative arc is probably the most important, from a story-telling point of view. So what does it mean?

All it means is this: Your story needs a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and each part needs to measure up to a different set of standards in order to be considered successful. In addition, there is the symbiosis that takes place when all parts are working together perfectly to create something that is far greater than their sum. This is when we say that a book comes alive in your hands. You can feel it happening, both as a reader and a writer. It’s quite miraculous, and it can’t always be planned. In fact, it is rarely accomplished on purpose.

Beginnings
The beginning of a book should immerse us in your world right away. Don’t be coy about it, and don’t be disingenuous, either. Tell us what we need to know to make sense of things. Use plenty of detail. We want to get a nice feel for the setting, and we want to be as impressed by your characters as we are by meeting people in real life. When I say impressed, I don’t mean we should think they are great. I mean they should literally impress themselves upon us, through all the senses (except, perhaps, taste).

Your beginning should also give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know where just yet, although we should know before page 50 or so… say, about three chapters in. This is usually the amount of pages an agent or editor will ask to read when they are trying to make up their mind about a book. The reason for this is simple: if your beginning hasn’t hooked them, it probably won’t hook other readers either, and they will put the book down and move on.

Many people will tell you that you need to be even more immediate with your grasp, and that your very first paragraph needs to be arresting, amazing, startling, and unlike anything anyone has ever read before. That’s a pretty tall order. While I am all in favor of strong writing, I have to say that this particular approach to fiction strikes me as something that has evolved in order to compete with film and television. Books were never meant to do this. Novels are for people who are in it for both the journey and the destination, and they’re in no hurry; it’s not necessary to begin your tale with dramatic action in order to hook us. Hook us, certainly. But there is nothing wrong with a book that unfolds gradually, as opposed to one that begins with an explosion, and leaves us to watch the fallout for the next three or four hundred pages.

Middles
If the first 50 pages can be said to be the beginning of a book, then from page 51 up until about maybe thirty pages from the end can be called the middle. The middle is the longest part of any book, just like a chess game’s longest part is the mid-game. This is where all the stuff happens. Nearly everything that is memorable about a book will take place here.

St Loius Arch

Spot the narrative arc

The worst thing that can be said about the middle of a book is that it sags or falls flat. Have you ever seen the St. Louis Arch?

This is the image that always comes to my mind whenever I hear anyone talk about story arc. What if it was to sag? What would it look like then? It would fail at its most basic task, which was simply to arc. If your story sags in the middle, it means that things are not moving along at the same pace they were at the beginning. Readers are growing bored. Something went wrong somewhere.

One simple rule I follow is this: something must happen on every page. Something–no matter how small or seemingly insignificant–must happen always be happening. When things stop happening, that’s when your story runs into trouble.

A story is not as symmetrical as the arch in the picture, of course. The apex of the arc, which we usually call the climax, is actually much closer to the end than the beginning. The whole middle builds up to that climax.

Endings
And then, of course, comes the last important piece: the ending.

I’ve always secretly resented it that a story has to contain anything, just like it’s always annoyed me that an 80’s-era rock song has to contain a guitar solo. It feels formulaic to me, and when I was younger I really despised anything that smacked of formula. But over time, I’ve learned that stories tend to follow a certain pattern for the same reason that every other aspect of literature exists: because that is what people respond to. This is rooted not in fascism or in the desire of one group to control another group, as my hyper-sensitive teenaged self believed, but in simple human psychology, which in turn has its roots in biology. Storytelling is one of the most important things people do.

To explore this, let’s take what is probably the oldest story of all: the story of a hunt.

Want more? Go get William’s free, full ebook Writing for First Time Novelists, by going here.

If you want more on plotting etc from this site, try our info on Plot, More about Plot, and How to Write Great Characters.

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  • Interesting. You say that writing to rules robs of us or ability to write well and then you give us some rules. Are you not making it a little black and white?
    We recognise story arcs because we are used to them. They are comfortable for us.
    Yes, a text is often fresher if we don’t try too hard. However, sometimes when a text isn’t working it is because there is something out of kilter. Our normal story arc isn’t there.
    Is the pattern natural or learned?
    And what if we subvert it? What happens then?
    We look at this in the academy. I don’t think it makes our writing any worse. In fact, I think it makes it better. We know what it is, and in knowing that, we are freeer to experiment.