Friday, March 2, 2012

Structuring your novel: Be the architect, builder, and real estate agent of your novel

Part one of a three-part series
By T. Dawn Richard
Author of the May List Mystery Series

While writing is a creative, right-brain activity in many respects, writing an interesting, cohesive, novel is in great part a left-brain venture. One way to think your way through the process of writing your novel is to compare it to building a house. At first it seems that writing a novel and building a house have nothing in common but used as an illustration, it can be helpful during those times you are struggling with your story. Designing, building, and selling your novel will be presented in three parts.


Before having my house built, I had to decide what type of house I wanted. In the world of the novelist, this would be the same as deciding a genre. Would I live in a farmhouse, a Victorian, a haunted house, a tree house, a log home, an apartment complex, or a even a fun house? (Translation: western, historical, horror/mystery/thriller, outdoor adventure, short story compilation, comedy, etc.) Establish your genre early. This will keep you on track.

Brilliant and world renowned architects are known by name because of their buildings’ unique qualities. Like well-known authors whose work you can recognize in the first couple of pages, you can look at certain structures and know who designed them. But these architects have a drafted plan to present to the builders. Blue prints—instructions the builders will follow in order to complete the task. As a novelist, you too should have a plan before beginning your novel. Some writers work well with brief outlines, some prefer detailed and specific outlines and some writers prefer to use a list of scenes or a synopsis. Whatever works for you is fine, but having a plan will keep you on track, and will lead you to the end of the story. Avoid writing yourself into corners, designing stairways that lead to nowhere, or having a “house” difficult to navigate because of narrow hallways or unfinished rooms (or rooms with no doors!)

Don’t worry about dressing up your house while designing it, the paint and furnishings will come later. Just concentrate on the basic structure, form, size, and style. Does the story have many rooms (plot points) corners (twists) and a lot of outbuildings (subplots)? Or is it a simple tale, told mainly in the cozy great room? How many people will live in your house? Is it suitable for a couple or a whole fraternity? Are we interested in meeting the neighbors? Will your house be in the suburbs or in the middle of a teeming city or way out in the middle of a vast wilderness? Is it a modern, newfangled house or a rickety old drafty structure with creaking doors and hidden crawl spaces?

By taking the time to consider the particulars of your novel before beginning to write, you will be well on your way when typing out that first sentence. You will have a plan to keep you moving forward. The genius is often in the design.

In the next article, The Writer as Builder, learn about going from the planning and design stage to the building stage. With blueprints in hand you will be able to smoothly move through your plot points. You have no limits to options when designing your novel, your plans can be as grandiose as you’d like, or as simple as they can be, but they will be uniquely yours. Once your novel is finished, it will be time to put on your business hat. In The Writer as Real Estate Agent I’ll give some examples of ways to present and to sell your novel.

On a personal note—my favorite part of writing a novel is structuring the storyline. Plotting, in whatever way is useful for you, can be extremely fun and exciting.

See you next time when we discuss building that novel.

Spokane author T. Dawn Richard is a full time writer and author of the May List Mystery Series. Her first book, Death for Dessert, was published in 2003, followed by Digging up Otis, and A Wrinkle in Crime. She completed her fourth book in the series, Par for the Corpse, in 2009. Kirkus Reviews called her "A kind of geriatric Janet Evanovich" because of her quirky senior citizen characters. Richard has recently completed two screenplays and has several other projects in the works. Her books are available on


Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Great advice, Dawn, and I love the analogy of writer as home builder. Your reminder to save the prettying-up phase is especially useful because it can be very tempting to dress things up prematurely, delaying the completion of the necessary sound structure that will support the story. Thanks.

Jan Cline said...

I also like this analogy. I especially can relate to not decorating until it's done. I think we all have the urge to dress it up before we need to.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Often when I hit a snag in my work-in-progress, it winds up being caused by poor planning. Then I have to go back and seal some cracks in the foundation before moving forward. Thanks for this clear explanation!

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