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How to Write a Novel Step by Step

Step Two: The Story Skeleton

Now we've got a basic premise, which means we've got the beginnings of a story. It's time to give it a few more bones, and see how it starts to take shape.

Luckily for us, we don't have to grope around in the dark, guessing at what elements we should include and in what order, to create a gripping and satisfactory story with a good beginning, middle and end.

That's because there's already an established series of stages that the vast majority of popular stories contain.

It goes something like this:

Overview

Act 1

  • Introduction to the protagonist's world
  • Call to action
  • Crossing the threshold

Act 2

  • Mentor teaches the lead
  • First challenge
  • Temptation
  • Dark moment

Act 3

  • Final conflict
  • Return home

 

This set of stages can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways to create every story from The Lord of the Rings to The Matrix to The Lion King to The Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter to Star Wars to the Hunger Games to Twilight.

Next time you're watching a movie or reading a book, look out for the stages and try to identify the ways in which the author has portrayed them.

In order to create stages for your own story, you'll need to know a little but more about them, so here are brief summaries of each stage:

Act 1

  • Introduction to the hero's world

You set the scene, introduce your character and their normal life, just in time for them to...

  • Call to action

... be torn from it! Actually it's better if they're not torn, but have to commit to the decision themselves. In any case, the challenge is put forward. You can start building sympathy for your character by ensuring their decision is something the reader can identify with and / or respect.

  • Crossing the threshold

In order to ensure your lead has the pressure on and therefore your readers are hooked into wondering how they'll ever get out of this mess, it’s good if your hero crosses some kind of threshold that is difficult, if not impossible, to get back to normal life from. It may be a physical journey across land, the removal of allies, self-inflicted isolation or becoming wanted and on the run.

Act 2

  • Mentor teaches the hero

Readers want to see a character develop into a real hero who can overcome the odds. Everybody needs help sometimes. Mentors in popular fiction include Dumbledore, Morpheus, Rafiki and Obi Wan Kenobi.

  • First challenge

Time to put your lead under pressure. It may be that they have a first encounter with the villain, or for a slower build, it could be the villain’s cronies.

  • Temptation

I can resist everything except temptation, and all that. Add depth to your lead by giving them a challenge they have to find the strength of character to overcome.

  • Dark moment

As you near the climax of your book, circumstances start piling up. Push your lead to the limits to the point they are questioning everything they know, and very nearly slip to the dark side. The closer they get to failing, the more nail-biting it will be. But in the end they pull through, which brings them to...

Act 3

  • Final battle

The final battle! This is the climax of your story and you must pull out all the stops to make it great. We'll work on this in great detail later, looking at what makes a satisfying ending, so for now you should just have a loose idea of whether your hero succeeds or fails.

  • Return home

Once your climax is completed all there is to do is tie up loose ends. Will your lead live happily ever after? Do they return home or stay in their new place? Who is with them at the end?

Here is a table demonstrating the hero’s journey in several blockbusters:

 

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone 

 

Star Wars 

 

The Matrix 

 

The Lion King 

 

Introduction 

 

Harry's life with his aunt. Uncle and cousin 

 

Luke is living with his aunt and uncle 

 

Neo is working in a boring job 

 

Simba's idyllic world 

 

Call to Action 

 

Invitation to Hogwarts 

 

Princess Leia's message 

 

Follow the White Rabbit 

 

Nala tells him of Scar's bad ruling 

 

Crossing the threshold 

 

The train to Hogwarts 

 

Family home destroyed 

 

Neo is taken out of the matrix for the first time 

 

Leaves Timon and Pumbaa to return to Pride Rock 

 

Mentor teaches the lead 

 

Lots of lessons and discussion with Dumbledore 

 

Obi Wan Kenobi teaches 

 

Morpheus explains 

 

Rafiki bops him on the head 

 

First challenge 

 

Troll in the toilet 

 

Trash Compactor 

 

Battle with Agent Smith 

 

Hyenas 

 

Temptation 

 

Harry becomes addicted to the Mirror's visions 

 

Luke is tempted by the Dark side 

 

Live in the illusion of the matrix 

 

Give up the throne to Scar and return to carefree life

 

Dark moment 

 

Harry realises the Philosopher's Stone isn't safe and Dumbledore is away 

 

Obi Wan killed 

 

Morpheus is tortured 

 

Tells everyone he is responsible for his father's death 

 

Final conflict 

 

The trials to reach the stone 

 

Battle with the death star 

 

Subway battle 

 

Fight with Scar 

 

Return home 

 

Returns to the Dursleys house 

 

Luke is rewarded with medals 

 

Neo speaks to the awoken masses 

 

The circle of life continues 

 

Task Two: Write your story skeleton.

Click here to go to the next step or go back to the Novel Writing Roadmap overview.

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