A good structural skeleton is achieved through study, analysis, and hard work. This is one area that is not about some innate gift – yes, there will be delicious flashes of inspiration, but diligence will be a better friend to you.
It is definitely worth doing scene by scene analyses of classic texts – be they novels, film scripts, or plays. This helps you get a feeling for the balance between character development, plot and action. Scriptwriting coaches, such as Robert McKee and Syd Field, are masters of this kind of plot mapping. McKee uses Casablanca. It’s free to download so it’s an easy one for students to work with.
You can use any book, but you have to know what you’re looking for. Essentially, the structure is largely held up by reversals, those turning points that often come at the end of acts. A narrative won’t keep the reader engaged without them. A couple of random examples: Twelfth Night - when Olivia falls for Viola (dressed as a page). Girls aren’t supposed to fall for girls, we’re suddenly topsy turvy, and this narrative turning point propels the next chunk of action. Another one: Life of Pi, when the protagonist moves from being the tiger’s next meal to master of the situation in the lifeboat. Every story has these key plot reversals. So why not take a book, make a chart of the scenes and see whether you can identify these reversals and mark where they appear on your map?
If you want to get to grips with that fine balance between action and character development you can look at a classic novel and log which characters appear when. I find that writers naturally swing one way or the other: some concentrate on action and plot and forget to fill in character; others do the opposite, failing to fulfil the need for a sound narrative structure. Again, it is worth studying what the masters do because if either is incomplete, your reader won’t find the book compelling.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy