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New writers can get very confused by the idea of structure. All kinds of questions intrude when considering the form of your magnum opus and the structures within that structure. Is this a novella? Should I have chapters? Should I number the chapters? How long should my sections, or chapters, or bits be? Do I begin at the beginning of the chronology, or the beginning of my central character, or the beginning of the interesting bit? Should I include passages in coloured inks, pop-up illustrations of central characters and/ or authentic recreations of 17th Century woodcuts?

Hopefully these questions help you plan the best way for you to tell the story that came to be expressed at this moment in time, using your current skillset. Please decide your structure before you start writing, fighting it as you go along generally always ends in defeat of huge amounts of extra work.

Is your story revealed slowly over time, everything ending when everything is revealed? This probably means that the majority of your story will release information in chronological order. You might start mysteriously in that final dark alley, just before the bullet leaves your wily opponent’s gun, but this may also be hard to write without disclosing too much. If you know what you need to say, this will tell you how you need to say it.

If you’ve settled on a voice – First Person, Close Third, etc. – and constructed one or more characters those decisions will help make your structures more inevitable. A timeline for your main character/s and events will suggest a straight line, a circle, a shattered line, or – say – an epic reworking of The Illiad. Structure probably reflects aspects of your main character/s. Captain Ahab is obsessed by one whale, Ishmael is transformed by that whale – so your title is the whale’s name, your chronology moves forward to the big whaley finale and the narrative obsessively interleaves whale facts with an increasingly crazed hunt for Moby Dick and foreshadowed doom. Readers will assume your character has been born and got ino that room somehow – you don’t necessarily have to explain that stuff. Be ruled by relevance.

Should I have chapters? A novel’s action is rarely continuous – there will be natural breaks where one interesting bit stops and another starts. This will be true of any long form, fact or fiction. A short story often needn’t break, even when you’ve moved location and time, because it will have a density that binds all together. As long as you’re clear, we’ll know where and when and who we are, regardless. Should I number the chapters? To be honest, your reader will only notice your chapters if you make a meal of them. Character colour may mean you add recipes from the protagonist’s grandma, photos from your birthday parties in your memoir and so forth. Numbers only really help people who don’t have a bookmark handy.

Is this a novella? Of course not – no one wants to see one of those. It’s a short novel.


This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2018/19 by A. L. Kennedy.  

A. L. Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. She is the author of 17 books: 6 literary novels, 1 science fiction novel, 7 short story collections and 3 works of non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.

Her prose is published in a number of languages. She has won awards including the 2007 Costa Book Award and the Austrian State Prize for International Literature. She is also a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV and film. She is an essayist and regularly reads her work on BBC radio. She occasionally writes and performs one-person shows. She writes for a number of UK and overseas publications and for The Guardian Online.

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