Whether your novel is utilising a traditional three act structure (set up, conflict, resolution), a variant of this or something much more experimental, it has to have a structure, an internal architecture, which determines its overall shape.
What this structure will look like depends on many factors, including the number of main characters, the point or points of view from which you are telling the story, and, perhaps most importantly, the way in which your character or characters transform or pivot over the course of the story.
Character pivots represent life changes, the point at which a perception, strong emotion or course of action ends and is replaced with another. These changes may be the result of a major dramatic event or a response to more subtle developments. Your story may have one major character pivot that proceeds or results in a series of smaller pivots. The change in question may result in a character going backwards or forwards in terms of their emotional reactions or course of action. How many of these there are and how you calibrate them can vary but at some stage your main character or characters have to pivot.
How you do this will determine decisions about how you release information, structure surprises and reveals, and generally keep the reader turning the page. In a crime or mystery story you’ll be trying to structure character pivots in such a way as to maximise suspense. In science fiction or fantasy, the main aim may be to highlight the strangeness of a world or scenario your characters are in. A romance story may emphasis the dramatic nature of the changes that take place to a particular relationship or set of relationships.
Plotting character pivots may seem relatively straightforward but it is actually very difficult. Whether your novel is set in a Melbourne suburb in the present or the most fantastic alien world, character pivots have to flow and be believable. Change a character too fast and you risk revealing too much too quickly and leave the reader feeling there is little point in continuing your novel. Go too slow, drag your plot out unnecessarily and the reader may be left frustrated or, worst of all, bored.
Here is a very simple exercise to help you get a sense of the major character pivots in your story and how these relate to the overall structure of your novel.
Examine your main character, what is happening to them, what they want to achieve, the main challengers or barriers in their way. Write out the key point or points at which this character pivots and why. Don’t concern yourself with fleshing out all the elements and details or write the scenes. Simply list the major change or changes. If your story has more than one major character, write down a list of their individual pivot points and how these may relate to the overall novel and its structure.
About Andrew Nette
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based fiction and non-fiction writer. His first novel, ‘Ghost Money’, was published in 2012, having been shortlisted in the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript and receiving an Unpublished Manuscript Fellowship at The Wheeler Centre in 2011. He is a founder and editor at Crime Factory Publications, a Melbourne press specialising in crime fiction.