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I don’t know anything about structure

I want to write a book but

Three ways to get to grips with structure

Structure is one of those issues that can loom so large in the imagination that it stops us from writing anything at all. If you suspect this is affecting you, then look at my tips on how to get started in the previous post in this series. You absolutely don’t need to know how to structure before starting your book. In fact a regular writing habit is ultimately what will get your book written. Structure can be learnt. Here are three ways to get to grips with structure so it becomes a much less scary prospect. Scroll to the bottom of this post if you’re looking for links to resources.

1. Books you love to read

You’ll get a big clue, structure-wise, from books you love to read and other books in your genre or niche. Look at these titles with structure in mind – take in the front matter and the contents page if there is one. Look at how long the chapters are (roughly) and whether there are chapter-headings or sub-headings. Is the book part of a series or a stand-alone? By doing this, you can get a head start on how to structure your own book before you’ve even written a word.

2. The Brain Download

Try getting all your ideas down on one big piece of paper or in one document and take plenty of time over it. Turn this into a mind map or use colour to annotate it. Have a break then start to order the ideas – a structure will begin to emerge. There will usually be more than one way of structuring a book, so you might have to make some choices. Don’t let the fact that you need to make a choice put you off, because you can create two or three ideas for a structure at this stage – it’s all part of mulling things over. You could turn this into a plan up-front, or put it to one side and do some writing first.

3. Proactive Planning

Talking of planning, there are two broad schools of thought when it comes to planning:

  1. Don’t plan. Write a draft with no plan, simply getting words down on a page until you reach the required word count (I suggest basing the word count on similar books). Then redraft, shaping the book as you go. This is known as intuitive writing or ‘pantsing’.
  2. Come up with a plan before you start. This could be a detailed sketch of the whole book, running to 1000s of words, or it could be a 2 – 4 page document giving an outline of the book but without the details.

There’s also a version of planning that’s halfway between the two. Write a bit, using the intuitive writing approach, then plan, then write a bit more, then reshape when you have a first draft. Actually I think both intuitive writers and up-front planners are doing a kind of planning; intuitive writers get lots of words down prior to planning and up-front planners don’t.

The disadvantage of writing first then planning is that you’ll end up wasting a lot of words, that need to be cut out from subsequent drafts. That could happen if you plan first and then realise you’ve gone off plan, but it’s less likely.


Time to blow my own trumpet, because I’ve written a book called How to Write a Novel and Get It Published: A Beginner’s Guide to Novel Writing, which explains how to structure a novel. Here are some more structure resources to explore, in no particular order. I’ve included some fiction, some nonfiction, and some that will help with both:

  • One method of structuring a book that I love is called The Subheadings Method. You can read about it here. I invented it so I could write the first small steps book in manageable chunks when our son was a baby.
  • K.M. Weiland’s workbooks on structuring and outlining are super-practical and super-friendly (a perfect combination!). Her website is here.
  • I also like Lisa Cron’s work on storytelling.
  • I recently discovered Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody – another really practical book.
  • I’ve also found Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method useful. Discover more here. It works for fiction and nonfiction. I combined my own Subheadings Method with the Snowflake Method and the Plot Dot and a sort of ‘scene blocking’ version of the Gnocchi Method when I planned my current novel-in-progress.
  • Here’s the Plot Dot, which is really an overview of classic narrative structure. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you like this, you’ll probably also like Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey.
  • You’ll find a simpler version of the classic narrative structure in Nigel Watt’s Teach Yourself How to Write a Novel and Get It Published. (There are various editions with slightly different titles.) There’s a blog post about it here.
  • Sophie Hannah explains what has become known as the Gnocchi Method here. I think of it as ‘blocking’ – like you’re a theatre director telling your characters where to go on stage.
  • Joanna Penn has written a useful blog post on structuring a nonfiction book, which you’ll find here.
  • Here’s Jane Friedman on writing a nonfiction book proposal. If you’re writing nonfiction, a good book proposal will help you to structure it and write it.
  • I’ve written a blog post for Jane Friedman’s website on planning a novel v. not planning it!

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Need more help with structuring your book? Here’s how you can work with me.

P.P.S. Here’s the next post in this series: I want to write a book but I’m too self-critical.

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