Learn Writing by Reading: Structure & Plot
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
New to the Learn Writing by Reading series?
Every week in September, I’ll be posting about how you can learn to be a better writer by reading other authors’ novels. As new posts go up, I’ll add the links for them below!
You can pick up the basics of plot and story structure through attentive reading.
Have you ever wondered how many pages should be in a chapter, or if you even need chapters at all? How about how much time you should spend on establishing your story’s world before you really get the plot moving? Or whether you should include an epilogue, and how long it should be?
You may believe that you need to follow certain plotting methods or read certain craft books to get the answers to these questions, but the truth is, the answers are in the books you’re already reading. You just probably haven’t been paying attention up until now. And that’s okay! That’s what we’re here to start doing.
As with the Likes and Dislikes installment last week, I definitely recommend starting with a reread for this exercise, too. It’s much easier to suss out plot points and structural elements when you already know the gist of the story. But once you’ve tried this once with a reread, you should try something new to you, as well!
So pick a book, grab your note-taking method of choice, and let’s get started!
First, take notes.
To learn the basic structure and plot of stories, you’ll want to be taking notes from the very beginning. First, write down some stats about the book you’re about to read. Things you’ll want to include:
title and author
genre (and subgenre, if you know it) and category
original publication year
number of pages (or if you’re reading on audio, total listening time)
It’s important to start with this basic information, because it allows you to later put this book into context with other books. And that’s what you’ll eventually be doing here—comparing several different books to look for patterns.
Now that you’ve got your notes ready, let’s move on to the next step.
Next, take notice.
As you read, you’ll be wanting to pay attention to two separate things:
The first (and arguably easiest) is the actual structure of the book.
I’m talking about parts, sections, chapters, and scenes. In fact, you could start by flipping (or tapping) through the book to get a lot of this structural information from the start if you want. If you’re reading a physical book, then you’ll want to note down page numbers. If you’re reading an ebook, use percentages. And if you’re reading via audio, note the time stamps.
Here are some things you’re looking for:
Does the book have any parts (Part 1, Part 2, etc.)? If so, how many, and where is the book divided? (For example, maybe Part 1 goes from page 1 to page 150, and Part 2 goes from page 151 to page 300.)
Does the book have chapters? If so, how many, and where does each new chapter start within the book? (For example, Chapter 1 may start at 1%, Chapter 2 at 6%, etc.)
Does the book have a prologue or epilogue? How long are each of these? Maybe the prologue lasts three minutes on normal-speed audio while the epilogue lasts ten minutes.
Then, as you get into the book (as this is pretty hard to do without actually reading), take note of where new scenes begin. (You can usually tell a new scene has started because there will be a skip in time or location, or there will be a change of point-of-view character.) As you go along, keep track of how many scenes are in each chapter as well.
The next is plot structure (which can be a bit harder to track).
While you’re tracking the structural aspects of the book above, you’ll also want to start paying attention to the plot of the story.
It may be helpful to use a common plot analysis structure like Save the Cat or the Hero’s Journey to aid you in searching for your plot points. However, you don’t need to use already established plot structures if you don’t want, and sometimes they can even be a bit confusing! Instead, keep an eye out for places where the story changes direction. These will often be pretty big moments that that change the trajectory of the rest of the story.
This time, I’ll use the middle grade fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones as an example. In Howl’s Moving Castle, we meet Sophie, whose destiny is to inherit her parents’ hat shop. But then a witch comes into the shop and turns Sophie into an old woman. This is our first major plot point, and we know this because if it hadn’t been for the witch, Sophie would have probably just continued her regular hat shop days without major incident, and she definitely wouldn’t have aged so much in a single moment!
One more plot point: The next major turn in the story is when Sophie leaves her home and goes out beyond her town, where she finds work as a cleaning lady for the wizard Howl. If Sophie had decided to hide at home instead of leaving, she would not have met Howl, and the story would not have continued in this direction.
So as you’re going along, note these major plot points and where they occur in the story. In the Harper Trophy paperback edition of Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie gets turned into an old woman on page 27, and she leaves home on page 28. She finally encounters Howl’s castle on page 35.
If you’re new to tracking plots, then you’ll probably just want to stick to the main plot points for now. However, if you’re up for a challenge, you can also look for subplots. These are little side stories that tie in to the main story. A good subplot usually has some effect on the main plot, but isn’t the main focus. It’s usually much shorter than the main plot, starts later, and either resolves sooner or around the same time as the main plot.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, one subplot is Howl’s apprentice Michael’s relationship with Sophie’s sister Martha. Another is when Sophie saves a dog, and that dog later turns out to be a certain other character under a curse. (Even though the book was published in the eighties, I’m not going to spoil it for you!) The first subplot is pretty easy to spot and track, but Sophie saving a dog seems insignificant on first read, so you would probably not know to track it until you had made it almost to the end of the book. That’s why I recommend starting out with a reread for this exercise!
After that, compare.
Once you’ve done this plot and structure analysis for several different books (at least three within the same genre and age category, I’d say), put all your notes side by side and look for patterns.
Are all the books you read similar in structure? Are they around the same length? Are their chapters the same length, or different? Around when does the first major plot point happen? Is it similar for all the books, or does it vary quite a lot? If it does vary, why do you think that is?
You will probably start to notice trends. Since I used a middle grade book as an example, I’ll go with middle grade trends: These books tend to move faster plot-wise than books for YA or adult audiences, so the plot points tend to come closer together. The books are also shorter, and the chapters are usually quite short as well, in order to preserve that faster forward momentum.
If you do see patterns, definitely take note of anything you’re noticing and think about how it might affect your own projects. For example, if you’re writing a middle grade book, but it’s 800 pages long, then you might need to divide that into two or three books instead, based on your analysis of typical middle grade book lengths.
Once you’ve analyzed several plots and structures, you’ll probably start to develop preferences. Just as you did in the Likes and Dislikes exercise, take note of any plot points or story structure elements that you like or dislike. Maybe you really enjoy short chapters, and you like when the first major plot point comes sooner rather than later. Or maybe you don’t like those things, and you prefer more lead time before the first plot point.
This is also important information to keep gathering for your own writing, so record it in your writing safe space and refer back to it when it comes time to write or revise your own books.
This exercise isn’t just about expanding your understanding of plot and structure, but also about finding out what readers expect. If you’re writing a book that’s way too long or way too short for your audience, or a book with a plot that’s slower or faster than usual for the genre, you’ll want to know that! That way you can adjust (or decide not to adjust) accordingly.
This is a great reading skill to use on your own books, too, during the revision process. It can be a big help to map out your book this way so you can see from a bird’s eye view how your plot and overall structure are looking. Much easier to look at a reverse outline than figure things out while you’re stuck in the weeds of the words themselves!
I hope this helps you get a better grasp on plot and structure. And if you need any editorial help for your book, or if you’ve got questions about active reading, feel free to let me know!