Choosing the Right Narrative Structure for Your Book

Are We Losing the Plot?

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 

I love this quote because at its heart, this is narrative structure. This is storytelling. And it’s simple. 

You could follow the White Rabbit down the hole and come out with one heck of a story. Pun intended. All you have to do is follow the world’s simplest directions for telling a story. 

Yet, it’s not as easy as the King would have us believe, right? Otherwise, everyone would be a writer, and we’d all be wildly prolific. 

In the spirit of keeping it simple, let’s break it down…

What Is Narrative Structure?

A narrative is a story. 

Structure is “the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.” (Source: Oxford Dictionary)

At its core, narrative structure is how you tell your story. It’s how you arrange the elements of your story. 

I don't write this because I think you don’t know. 

You could probably get a PhD in narrative structure at this point, after hundreds of hours of worrying about it—I mean, studying it.

I say all of this because a lot of writers tend to overcomplicate…well, everything, including narrative structure.

One point to clarify: Despite the clever title for this post, narrative structure and plot are not one in the same.

Plot is what happens in your book—the what, the why, and the how. It revolves around cause and effect. A character makes a choice that leads to an outcome, and so on. 

Structure is how your story is organized—the blueprint or overarching design. 

Now, that we’re clear on the difference…how do you structure your book?

Types of Narrative Structure

Choosing the best narrative structure is a bit like choosing the healthiest foods to eat. 

The common wisdom seems to shift every day, depending on which expert you ask: Eggs are out one day, the next they’re the best thing since sliced bread (with egg on it). 

One expert might shout, “The Hero’s Journey is the BEST way to tell a story!” 

Another might reply, “That’s old-fashioned. Episodic structure will keep ‘em reading.” 

If you dare search “types of narrative structure” on Google, you will get about 176,000,000 results, including these common choices:

  • Classic Three Act Structure
  • The Hero’s Journey 
  • Genre-Specific Structure, such as Story Grid
  • The All about the Tension Structure, such as Story Genius
  • Off the Beaten Path Options, such as Non-Linear, Episodic, and Multi-POV

There are tons of options with new iterations popping up now and then. And each one has its evangelists. 

Which structure is the best?

If you’re working on your FIRST book manuscript, I recommend you keep it simple with a three act structure

Not your first book? Let’s talk about how to make a decision.

Choosing a Narrative Structure

If you’re not a first-timer, you’re probably wondering, “Which narrative structure should I choose?”

I hate to tell you this, but there’s no right answer. 

The truth is, it is all possible, and your story is your story.

There isn’t one sparkling structural path that puts all of the others to shame. And you’re not bound by law to choose a certain structure. It depends…

You have options. And having all of these options can be a major source of confusion for writers who get lost in the “choose a structure” phase. 

Here’s my best advice for choosing the narrative structure that’s right for you:

#1. Know yourself as a reader. 

What kind of books did you love as a kid…say 12 years of age? What is the narrative structure of your favourite books? What type of story could you read over and over again? 

You don’t necessarily have to write in that structure. But it’s worth considering. Because, chances are, you’ve already spent years immersing yourself in this type of narrative structure. 

#2. Know yourself as a writer.  

When a story or book idea comes to you, how does it arrive? Is it a character’s voice piping up? A “what if” scenario you can’t get out of your head? A glimpse at the beginning, middle, and end? Snapshots of scenes in non-chronological order?

When you sit down to write, what type of story flows naturally for you? Always have multiple main characters? Do you easily fall in line with mystery genre conventions? 

Again, there are no right answers. Let your creative forces sway you in the best direction. 

#3. Know your readers.  

If you’re aiming for traditional or independent publication, you’re writing for readers. So, it’s important to consider your readers—before you even start writing your draft.

Are you writing in a genre, such as romance? How about a subgenre, like paranormal romance? 

You can guarantee that readers of paranormal romance have expectations for your book. 

They may not be able to put those expectations into words, but they have them. After reading paranormal romance novels for years, it has become an instinct. 

Remember when I asked what type of books you like to read? 

It’s important to note, if you want to write in a genre, you must read regularly in that genre. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself (and your readers) up for disappointment.

This doesn’t mean you have to follow every single genre convention or rule. It does mean you have to understand how those books are structured and what makes for a satisfying story in your chosen genre.

You’ve Made a Narrative Structure Choice, Now What?

Be prepared to have doubts. 

You’ll want to switch to another narrative structure no less than 10 times during your drafting phase alone. It happens. 

But I caution you not to play musical chairs with your narrative structure. Choose ONE and commit to writing your draft using that structure.

Everything is up for grabs in revision. So, don't worry that your choice is irrevocable. 

Now, you get to stop procrastinating and start writing! 

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