Anyone looking to improve story structure in their novel would do well to consider Russian nesting dolls.
On the surface, a Russian nesting doll is a simple painted wooden figurine. But when you remove the top from the base, you find another smaller doll of exactly the same shape. Then you open that doll and find another, and another, until you end up with five or six individual dolls. Each is painted differently, but in terms of shape, each is a smaller version of exactly what came before.
The same applies if you want to improve story structure in fiction. We know the basics of story structure: The inciting incident launches rising action, which builds to a climax before descending into falling action and, in the end, denouement. But what we often don’t realize is that the units that comprise a novel—parts, chapters, sequences, and even individual scenes—basically share the same structure. All that changes is the scale.
I recently edited a novel divided into five parts. The parts covered different periods of the protagonist’s life. But although this was generally true in chronology, the points the author selected as the end of one part and the start of another felt random. That’s because no individual part had its own structure.
A part, like an entire manuscript, needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We can break that down further into inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Of course, the inciting incident is still caused by the events of the previous part, as both are points along the same overall arc of rising action. The climax of a part is likely not as significant as the climax for the entire manuscript, even if it’s a point we’ve been building toward throughout this part. And likely, there won’t be very much resolution at all.
But the shape is the same, and it’s the shape that really defines when you should divide a part. The climax of a part is, in fact, a turning point for the narrative.
Imagine a story told in three parts, one covering a woman’s life at home, the second at war in the Middle East, and the third returning a veteran. The second part includes neither the beginning of the novel (contained in the first part) nor the end (contained in the third part). Yet, it must still have its own beginning and its own end. How are things different at the end of the part than they were at the beginning? How is our character different? That’s the narrative arc of the second part.
Writers ask me sometimes when they should divide chapters. There’s no hard and fast rule to improve story structure through chapter organization. However, you’re typically looking for three kinds of moments: a stopping point, a turning point, or a point of tension. At the end of chapters, these moments conclude a structural arc very similar to what we see in narratives and in individual parts. That’s good, because these arcs are what create momentum in your narrative and keep the reader turning pages.
A stopping point might be the end of a scene. Most likely it represents falling action or denouement for the events contained within a chapter. A turning point or point of tension, by contrast, may represent the climax of all action described in one chapter. Not every chapter is going to have falling action or denouement. However, the structure up to the climax is the same as we’ve observed to this point.
Ideally, everything within an individual chapter is connected. Maybe it’s a scene, or a handful of scenes, covering the fallout from the chapter before. Either way, it’s a structurally consistent mini-narrative.
Sequences and Scenes
Here’s where our Russian nesting doll analogy is especially useful.
Having trouble writing a compelling action sequence? Or describing a fight that, on the page, reads as little more than a chaotic whirlwind of punches and kicks? The solution, quite likely, is to apply the principles of story structure to these far smaller moments.
Imagine a kid named Kevin trying to sneak out of the house after eleven without Mom noticing. A novel without clearly defined scenes would just tell us that Kevin snuck out of the house. The practical information would be conveyed to the reader, but we wouldn’t actually see or experience the moment, and consequently there would really be no scene at all. So we don’t write this scene that way.
Instead, we consider our story structure.
The inciting incident is Kevin sneaking out of his room. Rising action follows as Kevin tiptoes past his mother’s office door and down the stairs, taking particular care to avoid the creaky step he was supposed to fix weeks ago. When he finally makes it downstairs, a thud from the office above turns him around, knocking him into a cabinet where he nearly knocks over a porcelain vase. This is the high point of action in this scene—the moment we’ve been building toward, and the one where the tension that Kevin might be caught is at its highest—and that makes it our climax. But then he steadies the vase and, in the course of our falling action, exits the house.
These same principles can apply to a passage of quiet reflection as our protagonist walks through the park. It can apply to a conversation between two old men playing chess. And even if the individual moments and turning points in scenes and sequences are quieter, their existence provides direction and momentum carrying readers forward and keeping them engaged.
How You Can Improve Story Structure Right Now
So how do you improve story structure in the smallest moments of your manuscript? Here are a few questions to keep in mind.
1.) What is the purpose of your scene? Any scene is written to advance your narrative in some way. The moment at which a scene achieves its purpose is probably the climax.
2.) What do your characters want from the scene? At least one of your characters should have a goal in each scene, and the steps they take to achieve that goal—even a very simple goal, like sneaking out of the house—comprises rising action.
3.) Where should the scene begin? If you feel a scene dragging, maybe you’ve started too far ahead of your inciting incident. In the same way that you don’t want a lot of exposition before the start of your narrative, so you want to avoid taking too long for the rising action of a scene to begin. So skip the greetings and explanations and get to the action.
When you keep in mind that every aspect of your story, from the overall narrative to an individual scene, follows the same structure, your manuscript may well find an energy it’s never had before. And when you imagine that Russian nesting doll, you’ll have a useful visual for how to improve story structure in a way that makes your reader’s experience a great one.
What’s the best-structured scene you can remember reading? Let me know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer’s Ally.