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:


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?

This article by Self-Publishing School breaks down three useful story structure templates.

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 




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 






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 

 Also, check out this great article on story structures from Jerry Jenkins.

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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