Novel Structure and The Human Body

Musings Of How A Novel Works.

I always think of a novel as being like a human body, and just as the human body has many different elements that make it a whole, so does a novel. At least, that’s the way I see it. The body has a skeleton, ligaments, muscles and various systems. Veins. Blood. Then we have the outside. Skin, hair, bodily characteristics and genetic quirks.

A human body could not work without the skeleton. We would flop all over the place, ooze around like jelly. Or like a piece of liver crawls towards milk. What’s with that, anyway? Check this out from BBC Radio 2.

A novel cannot work without its basic skeleton – the story structure and plot. If the bones of the plot do not extend throughout the parts of the novel, then that part flops. Literally.

So what is a plot?

The Oxford Dictionary defines Plot as:

1) The main events of a play, novel, film or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

Then, interestingly:

2) A graph showing the relation between two variables.
I like this. Something has to change. Sounds like a ‘well, duh’ kind of thing, but it’s not only that the something changes, it’s how it changes. What processes or what challenges the character goes through.

The plot of a thriller or action novel may be quite clear. In David Baldacci’s

The Forgotten

The Forgotten, John Puller wants to find out how his aunt died, and that leads him to discoveries of human trafficking and thus into the underbelly of society.

In ML Stedman’s

M L Stedman

the plot is based on a What If question, and examines the consequences of a decision and the effects on the people involved.

I think of plot as a journey. It might be a physical journey the character must make; it might be a journey of discovery – like in thrillers. It might be a journey of character – a discovery of self that then affects the rest of that character’s life, and hopefully for the better.

Sometimes I flounder around in my writing and get annoyed. It’s like trying to find a path in deep snow. Instead, I have to take the shovel and dig a path, and it may not always be where I thought it was or should be. When writing, I take a step back, re-read what I have done so far and see how my current chapter or scene forwards the plot, or not, as the case very well may be. When shovelling my way back, I might give that large snowdrift of a chapter a wide berth.

So I think plots work like the bones in our body. Every part of the novel should deal in some way with the plot, whether it’s an action or more character development. There are big bones like the femur (thigh bone), and smaller, fine bones in the human body like the phalanges (finger bones). There are bigger and smaller plot elements.

It occurs to me here, that as a society we can attribute more importance to the big bones in our society (such as politicians and other head honchos), yet if we removed the smaller bones, the ones we rarely think about, the ones we take for granted – like the wonderful people who remove our trash – society would be crippled. It might even founder and collapse unless remedial action was swift and organised. What would happen if we removed the small bones from our toes? It would make walking and balancing a lot harder.

A well-written novel is also finely balanced. Maybe there is an important scene in which a big part of the plot is unfolded. Maybe there are scenes where elements of the plot are only hinted at, where the future is merely foreshadowed by a deft stroke of the pen. This could be some revelation of character, which gives rise to possible outcomes relating to that character trait.

How important is plot to you?

What metaphor would you use for a novel?


4 thoughts on “Novel Structure and The Human Body

    1. Thank you! I guess people have their own analogies – see Sha’s comment, but this one works for me at the moment. I find writing things like this helps me understand my own writing process, it gives me clarity:)


  1. The metaphor I would use? Well I think many of us refer to our (unfinished) novels as our babies. But I would broaden that to say my unfinished novel is my child. It grows and matures just like our children do. And even when our children are “grown” at 18 or 21, they still need help, work, polishing, refining, assistance, nurturing. Kinda like our “finished” novels still need tweaking before they can be sent off into the world.


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