Before I end my short run of structure posts I have to say one thing: I don’t think structure is the most important element of a good novel. Characterization and language, a unique voice, a story that resonates because of the ideas and emotions that resonate in it—these are what make for the kind of writing that can’t be put down. BUT there are a lot of talented writers out there, a lot of writers who can write well; I think one thing that even very good writers struggle with is structure. I know, for a long time, it was one of the things that kept me from being published.
Back to this idea that was succinctly stated by Kurt Vonnegut, “Every sentence must do one of two things, either reveal character or advance the plot.”
Everyone struggles with this.
I don’t know about every sentence but I believe every chapter has to do this.
At some point, after the first few drafts, it’s sometimes helpful to summarize what you’ve got in each chapter to clearly see what each chapter accomplishes. This is what my editor did on my last book and it was helpful: Write a sentence or two that marks what happens in the chapter or what the chapter is about. For example, the summary of my first chapter in ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVIENCES is the following: The aliens conquer Earth in ten seconds; Jesse and everyone who survives are enslaved by the aliens. That’s what the first chapter is about, generally. That gives none of the tone (it’s oddly funny and sad, I hope) or character development or many other things that happen in the chapter, but it summarizes the main action and what that chapter is about. If you do that for each chapter of your novel it does help you see what you’ve got and maybe some problem areas. Don’t write more than a few sentences though.
Once you’ve done this, you have to honestly evaluate each chapter. Learn the thread of your story. Look at each chapter and ask what it adds. You may need to cut chapters, add them, move them around. I did. Ultimately, structure is about getting the right things in the right places in the story.