the anatomy of a novel

When I wrote my first novel, I planned nothing. I had a scene in my mind and two characters, but that was all. I started writing, then I made up characters and plot lines as I went along. While this was a wonderful writing experience, the novel itself was a jumbled mess and of course, never sold. The writing was good, but the novel lacked structure.

Imagine drawing a picture without a model. You can do it, and while the picture may be similar to the object, the portrait would lack certain proportions and details. Just as good painters study anatomy to produce quality portraits, so should writers know about the structure of a story.

What is the anatomy of a novel?

Characters. My novels always begin with a character. More often than not, I imagine a person. Sometimes I know little more about them than their physical appearance and their name. That’s how Lucian and Guillermo began. You may begin your stories with a plot or theme, but mine always begin with a character.

Story/Plot. Story and plot are two very different things, but since we’ll be talking about them in detail in subsequent posts, I thought for today’s purposes, we would put story and plot together. Once I have my protagonist, then I need to discover his/her story or the emotional journey the protagonist needs to undertake in order to experience change. Once I know my protagonist’s story, the plot becomes the physical means by which my protagonist undertakes his/her journey of self-discovery.

Setting. Where does the action of the novel take place? Is it in a building or are your characters on the move? What is the time period? Is it a fantasy? If so how is your world constructed? What do the buildings, the clothing, and transportation look like? What is the political climate?

Viewpoint. In a previous post, we talked about viewpoint along with an exercise on how to find the best viewpoint for your novel, so I’m not going to belabor the topic again. Just keep in mind that viewpoint is a very important part of the structure of your novel.

That is the basic anatomy of a novel. Think about the story you’re writing and take a moment to jot down a few essential notes about each of these sections. Who is your protagonist and antagonist? Who are your main characters? Jot down their names and how they relate to your protagonist. Briefly (no more than a sentence or two) what is your story and plot? What is the setting for your novel? Which viewpoint will you use to convey your story? By the time you’ve answered some of these questions, you should have a rough synopsis for your story.

For those who have spent time working on your novels, how do you write? By the seat of your pants? Or do you outline your novel before you begin writing?


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14 Responses to the anatomy of a novel

  1. lawrenceez says:

    Hi Teresa,

    Good article. My biggest problem tends to lie with the central character’s emotional journey. I once read about an exercise to get into the mindset of the character – writers need to ask themselves what the character in question most desires and most fears. Pretty simple, but I sometimes forget.

    My writing habits have changed somewhat since I began the revision of the first novel. I’m plugging along – just reached 43,000 words- but every so often I read back over the story and make minor adjustments. Another thing, my printer has run out of ink, so at present I’m backing up the work to my email accounts, using the free software Storybook and taking advantage of Zoho Docs and Google Docs. There’s so much free stuff out there for writers.

    Hope you writing is going okay.

    • Teresa says:

      Another good question I like to ask is how does my character react to their fears? Do they ignore things that frighten them? Or are they proactive and meet their challenges head on?

      Thanks for stopping by, Lawrence!

  2. M G Kizzia says:

    Good post. I just started posting on the same general topics. I was thinking these basics could use some review. I am seeing, expecially from newbies, writing that may be very good but where the characters are flat, the settings are too sparse or overblown, the plot is thin and the story overall is muddled and confused. Maybe between us we can reach a few…

    • Teresa says:

      Wouldn’t it be nice to help some of them? I’ve seen some lovely writing, but the effort that goes into editing and planning a novel would turn anyone’s hair white. Thanks for dropping in with us, Michael, and be sure to post the link to your blog so we can visit! It’s really nice to know I’m not the only one saying these things. 😉

  3. Kelly Bryson says:

    Hey Teresa- Is this directed at anybody in particular? Haha. I’m cringing for you. I’m really leaning towards outlining, but I don’t know if my brain can handle it. Thanks for the great article. -Kelly

    • Teresa says:

      No, it’s not directed toward you, silly person! You’d better learn how and get used to it, though. If you’re successful selling Pulse, then your editor or agent will want a synopsis of what you’re working on next. I’ve found it’s easier to overcome these obstacles without the threat of a deadline looming over my head. 😉

  4. Thanks for the post. You always get the wheels turning! I started my novel with a vague idea and when I read the first draft I could tell. It was awful.

    But, it was something to work from. Taking the usable elements from that draft, I developed an outline for my first several chapters and wrote. It helped move things along.

    I’ve decided I like the idea of an outline as a way of testing story ideas before I invest the time of writing fleshed out scenes. I’m doing that now, so we’ll see how it goes.

  5. lawrenceez says:

    “Another good question I like to ask is how does my character react to their fears? Do they ignore things that frighten them? Or are they proactive and meet their challenges head on?”

    Good question. I tend to favour the first approach, but I appreciate that this can make the character in question appear passive. Difficult.

    • Teresa says:

      Sometimes that approach (character appears passive) still works, Lawrence. It greatly depends on your plot and your character. Sometimes the character has to be passive for a period of time.

  6. lawrenceez says:

    Yes, I’m dealing with this sudden change from passivity to decisive action now. It’s difficult because I also have to show the main character beginning to “lose it”. I’m at 46,000 words.

    • Teresa says:

      Come back Monday, Lawrence. Author Erica Hayes has a wonderful guest post she has written for us entitled “Making Your Characters Active, Even When They’re Not.” You might find some of her suggestions useful.

  7. lawrenceez says:

    Thanks, I’ll check it out on Monday.

  8. Beth says:

    I take the seat-of-the-pants approach. If I plan scenes out in advance, I lose interest in writing them. In essence, I’m writing the way I read: to find out what happens next.

    Now, I do sometimes see things ahead, like outcrops on a flat plain. I can aim for them, but the path there is often crooked and I don’t always end up where I thought I was headed.

    I know this system doesn’t work for every writer; like you said, they can end up with lots of brilliant scenes but an incoherent story structure. For me, though, the structure comes instinctively. I couldn’t outline a story in advance if I had to, but I can excavate it as I go.

    Naturally, there are other areas of writing where I struggle greatly. It’s _never_ easy. [g]

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Beth, thanks for sharing all that! You hit it on the head, everybody has to find the style that works best for them. It seems to me that I’ve read several published writers are you like and instinctively have a knack for structure, so they don’t outline either.

      More often than not, I use a combination of synopsis and outline, but I try to keep myself open to new possibilities as I write. I’ve had my characters surprise me more often than not! 😉

      I’m so glad you could stop by and visit with us.

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