How to write a book,  Projects,  Writing

How to write a book: Part 5: Structure (or Chapter and verse)


It is kind of strange to be discussing this prior to plot or idea but hey, I am flexible. You can read the discussions in any order you like.


Structure refers to the way you organise a book such as chapters and the order of information. An editor who performs “structural editing” service on your work will read it to tell you how well your story or information is structured.
In other words, where your chapters go, how many there should be and if you have put material that’s in Chapter 1 in Chapter 42 by mistake.
Is there a word limit for chapters?
No, not usually. Some chapters are shorter than others especially if they are the introductory or concluding ones.
A standard book (fiction or non fiction) is usually around 100,000 words long. Just so you know.

Some books (like text books) are longer. Some books (like self help ones) are shorter. Historical romances tend to go to about 150,000. Some fantasy manuscripts reach 200,000 + and have to be broken into trilogies.
Quite a lot of fiction hovers between 60,000 to a 100,000 words. My current book is aiming for 60,000 and is currently about 11,000 words long and I have only managed to write about 3 days worth of a year long plotso you can see how easy it can be to go over the word count.
How do you organise your information? Well, it really depends on what you are writing about.

But I am writing a novel?

Here’s a fiction example, using, since I really don’t want to run the risk of coming up with another idea before my brain is ready to cope with it, my own novel:
Sedition (which no doubt you are sick of hearing about by now) has a prologue and an epilogue and about eleven chapters, each of which correspond to a month in the year long plot. Some will be longer and some will be shorter and at the end some might be cut out all together so we might skip from June to August.
With fiction, you can start with a plan for how you want to organise so that you have an idea of how to start writing the dashed thing but you will also want to remember that afterwards you might have to move your chapter borders around a bit to organise what you ended up with. You might realise that two chapters are actually one for example and that while it helped to set aside a chapter per month, that it might make more sense to start a chapter each time you started writing from a different character’s perspective.
Sometimes mystery writers use the days of investigation – each day is a new chapter. It’s done rather subtly since in most mysteries, the crime is solved within a week or two but if you go look at your crime fiction collection, you will see what I mean.
With fiction, therefore, have a very bare bones skeletal plan that’s sufficient to help you write the story out but then be prepared to be flexible with where you put chapters and so on afterwards.
It depends on your story. (If you want help structuring a story, talk to me.)

What about non-fiction?
Non fiction is somewhat different. Yes, your chapters might change after you have written the text BUT in most cases, your chapters are defined right at the start.
You will have an introduction. Maybe a foreword or preface. A table of contents and then possibly an index or a glossary at the end.
So what’s in the middle?
Let’s say you wanted to write a book about gaming.
You could have a chapter on the history of computer gaming in Australia, then one on the industry elsewhere in the world, then a chapter on the current state of the industry in Australia, then one on future developments in technology and new genres and then a chapter on what you will think will happen to the gaming industry in the future in Australia.
Plus the introduction, table of contents, glossary, and bibliography.
Or you could go in a different direction and talk about genres with a chapter per genre. You might write it out with about twelve different genres at which point an editor like me will be making lots of red marks on your manuscript and tell you to put the science fiction and fantasy subgenres into one chapter and so on till you had about six.
You will end up with two very different books about gaming with each example above. It really depends on what you want to say. Which is kind of the same advice as I would give you for the fiction example except that in non-fiction your chapters help guide you more in what to write and when and where it goes in the manuscript.

Why do chapters guide you more in non-fiction than in fiction? Because in fiction you need to write to the narrative: from start to finish. You could jump ahead to the ending but chances are you will need to change it by the time you write everything before it.
In non-fiction, you can jump around. You can write Chapter 42 on River and Marine systems in a Geography textbook before writing Chapter 27 on Glaciers. You don’t usually write with a sense of narrative. Usually.
Some non-fiction is now being written with a sense of narrative. A great example is the genre of travel memoirs or the Science of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and two other awesome science writers whose names escape me.
In the Science of Discworld series, the science writers write about the science of everything in a narrative form from the beginning of the world to the modern day. But in between is a fantasy story written by Terry Pratchett that mirrors the information in the science chapters. The science chapters also mirror the information in the fantasy story so that when a fantasy character sets up something suspiciously like an experiment in the story, the scientists use it as an example to talk about a certain historical science experiment that helped create the atom bomb or string theory or something  along those lines.

How would they have planned such a book? Between three writers?
They would have started with what they did know: the science around the history of the world. They would have listed the titles and topics for the science chapters. Then Terry Pratchett would have used those topics to create ideas for the fantasy chapters that would have partnered them and written the story. Then the science writers would have written the science chapters with references to what was happening in the story and Terry Pratchett would have edited his story where he needed to.
Which is a great example of how important structure is. Given that most of you are interested in writing a non-fiction book, it’s important to think about structure now.



Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.


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