On Starting a New Novel

When you sit down to start writing a novel, the path before you seems to run off to the horizon of Uranus. But I try to look at it in small, familiar steps.

I really believe most people “read” books through the veil of film. Film’s the major force that teaches us to interpret stories now. If a novel is not largely dialogue driven with scant stage directions, instead of something like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, I think most readers think it’s slow and boring. I’m not saying everyone reads like this but if you look at popular fiction, it does read like this. And I’m not saying everyone should write popular fiction but at the end of the day I would like to sell some books and if stylizing the writing in this manner helps, I’m all for it. James Joyce I ain’t!

And I think this influence of film goes for structure as well. I try to divide the nebulous elements of the plot into quarters: Setup, Complication, Development, Resolution. I then think of each section in terms of twenty thousand words.

If you look at some movies, for example something that seems very complicated like American Beauty, and divide the movie’s running time into thirds (the classic Greek structure) but then into quarters (Setup, Complication, Development, Resolution) and look at what happens at each of those points in the film, you will be amazed at how rigid it is.

If there’s not that underlying rhythm of structure that film has cemented into our expectations, then a novel writer has to work very, very hard to make something else work. I’m not saying it can’t be done but it’s hard.

In CONSUMPTION: A Novel, the end of the first quarter is clearly defined; this novel is about friendship and that the long-term friendship between Sara and Martin is unraveling. At the beginning of the second quarter, Sara meets a new man, Andy, which further complicates the friendship between Martin and Sara as Martin has to change to accommodate this. By the mid-point of the novel, Martin has ratcheted up his attention seeking behavior and caused Sara to leave Andy before Christmas to fly to Hong Kong to rescue him. And on it goes.

And if you apply this structure to planning a novel, it allows you to aim for smaller sections within the novel with clearly defined aims. And I’m not saying that there can’t be organic growth once the novel develops but this technique and view point does help me start at the very beginning… a very good place to start. Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti…


  1. thanks Greg – I’ve written non-fiction so far, but am working on a novel and this simple structure clarifies my work. I’ve had this “stuck” feeling but I think you just helped me and I appreciate it.


  2. Thanks for your post. I like your approach of Setup, Complication, Development, Resolution. Very organized actually. I realized early on that I approach my work like a play with 3 scenes. I am not fond of lots of description, either as a reader or a writer, so the stripped-down approach works best for me. I really enjoy the internal dialog of a character. Happy writing!

    1. THanks Rhonda – the 3 act does still work but I think the 4 act is really cemented in films. Divide up some of your fav films intot 3 and 4 by the total time and you’ll be surprised what happens

    1. Hi – check out your fav movie – divide it in 1/4s by total time – you’ll feel the structure. And even in a novel, you can feel it turn a majoy corner at these points.

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