Robert A. Magarian

How to Organize Your Novel



When you get an idea, work it into a story.


What is the book about? A woman leaves work and vanishes. Is this a story? No. What is story? Story is an account of happenings (events, or main point of actions) with characters doing things, but story is not plot.


Plot is different from story; it is a sequence of events which are interrelated through cause and effect. Events can be thought of as scenes, which evolve out of other scenes, that is, one scene follows another in a logical sequence, and hence evolve through cause and effect.

Before you start writing one word, you must:

  1. Determine what your book is about.
  2. Be able to describe your beginning.
  3. Be able to describe your ending.
  4. Know your characters like the back of your hand.

Plotting (Outlining):

Outlining is NOT a dirty word. Now, in between your beginning and ending, write your main points of action — what happens, action by action, conflict by conflict. And only hit the major points of action between your major characters for now.


Some writers find it helpful to write a synopsis at this point. I like to write synopses. This doesn’t mean that any of this is etched in stone. Events change as we write.


Craft: How to Develop Your Story Through Characters.

What is STORY?

It is an interpretation of a chain of events, involving the characters that inhabit these events, and places in which these events occur.


It is the arrangement of a sequence of events that are interrelated through cause and effect. According to Donald Maass, it is the organization of the story. I like to think it is structure. When plotting I remember to build in conflict, which Maass considers the essence of the story, and we should layer the conflict, building tension on every page.

Which is more important— characters or plotting?

“Character and structure are the same,” according to Robert McGee. “They are interlocked. The confusion lies in Character versus Characterization.” Characterization are the things we learn about a character from his psychological, physiological and sociological traits- “all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out—sex, IQ, style of speech and gesture, choice of car and home, and dress; education and background, personality, values and attitudes. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization . . . but is not character,” according to McGee.

Then, what is character? “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the greater the revelation. Is he courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him making choices under pressure in pursuit of his desire. As he chooses, he is.” (Robert McGee.)

Characters determine the chain of events by what they WANT.

Each character wants something. In each scene characters come into conflict by what they want. Make them suffer.

How do I develop my characters?

I go in lots of depth. I do characterization by building biographical sketches—their physiology, sociology, and psychology. What have they done from the time they were born until they enter the story? I want to know what they do and how they relax. What are their values? What do they consider good or evil? Are they kind, loving or hard and difficult?

I have the characters write a JOURNAL about their life, which they direct to me. It is interesting what they think about me, the author.

I also build backstory: Backstory does NOT mean life history or biography. It is the set of significant events that occurred in the characters’ past that I can use to build their story progressions. This can come out of their journaling. It took me some time to get used to listening to my characters-that is, my characters talking to me. There are times that I wonder what they’ll do and say in certain scenes. The way to get them to respond, as Robert McGee points out, is to put pressure on them. Pressure brings out your character’s true nature by the way he reacts-brings out his true humanity. I let my characters do what they want, with some control, making sure they would respond in such a way to be true to their character. In my third novel, “You’ll Never See Me Again,” I worked on my cast of characters for six months to get to know them before writing a single word. You need to really like your characters and your villain; otherwise, it will show in your writing. My cast of characters must be weaved into the whole. Can’t allow anyone to stagger into the story (on stage) and play a part. Each role must fit a purpose. That’s where outlining helps me.

Designing your cast of characters.

The first rule of cast design is to polarize the characters-give them contradictory attitudes. No two would react to the same situation in the same way because no two characters would share the same attitude toward anything. They have different humanity-“each bringing to the story the combination of qualities that allows an audience to believe that the character could and would do what he does.” (Robert McGee).

Character Arcs.

One last thought about your characters. It is important to pay attention to your character arcs (growth) for your protagonist, antagonist, and secondary characters. Who are they at the beginning of the story? Who are they in the middle of the story? And finally, who are they at the end of the story?

SCENES: Scene is an action through conflict, which changes one of the character’s valued-charged conditions. Ideally, every scene is a story event–one of those events in the chain. According to McGee, “Look closely at the scene that you’ve written and ask: What value (Love? Truth? What?) is at stake for your character’s life at this moment? How is that value charged at beginning of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next, turn to the close of the scene, and ask: what is the value now? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the beginning, you have to ask: Why is this scene in my novel? Nothing meaningful has happened.”


Maass, Donald, “Writing the Breakout Novel, insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level,” 2001, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH 45207

McGee, Robert, “Story: substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting,” 1997, Harper-Collins, New York, NY.

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