While it may seem that each novel is completely different, most of them have an underlying structure that has a surprising number of similarities. This is the basic structure I use for my novels, so I'm going to demonstrate it using those. I'm willing to bet it would work for quite a few novels though, not just mine!
The inciting incident:
Most novels begin with something happening that changes a character's lives. Surprisingly, even in a romance novel, this isn't necessarily meeting the romantic interest. For Reckless Rescue, it's Marlee finding out she can't be with Nelor because they are unable to have a child, and Tyris's wife leaving him because he's not allowed to have a child. For Twin Curse, it's Brianna realising that her twin is in love with a man she can't marry, when they law says they have to marry the same person.
This should at least be beginning in the first chapter. This is what you hope will hook your readers. It should also set up your character's faults, flaws, or issues. The things they're going to have to overcome before the novel's end.
The Characters React:
The next few chapters will probably be your characters reacting to the inciting incident. They may do mostly mental things, like setting goals, or making resolutions, or they may get more physical, having fights with their parents/partners or running away.
In my novels, Marlee resolved to not get involved in a relationship again, Tyris went searching for a lost planet so he could change his fortune, and Brianna ran away from home!
Their actions may help the situation, or it may make it worse, but the important thing is that they do something. For me, this usually takes me through to about a quarter of the novel, and after this bit, is often where I hit writers block!
Which leads me into the next bit:
The Bigger Plot:
This is where things get real. Your characters have to face the consequences of their actions. They have to work to try to overcome things. But it shouldn't be too easy. This is where you have to find some bigger things for your characters to deal with. Perhaps they realise that their actions have affected more than themselves. Perhaps they realise that their problems are small in comparison to those around them. Perhaps an alien attacks them.
In Reckless Rescue, Marlee and Tyris have to work together to survive a harsh winter, as well as dealing with a community of people who think they need to get together and make a baby! In Twin Curse, Brianna has to leave Lyall, who she's beginning to care for, to return home to her village and fight the trolls.
Whatever it is, you want to keep making things worse for your characters. Whenever they think they've sorted it out, throw something new at them! And the best challenges are ones that tie back into those flaws and issues I mentioned in the first stage.
Eventually, you'll reach a point where you've done it all. You've thrown all the punches, and your characters are about to give up. That's when you have to throw them a bone. Give them a solution that seems to solve all their problems, in just the way they want. (Usually, at this point, they're still trying to avoid dealing with the real problem or issue.)
For Marlee and Tyris, I let them think that Tyris might be able to repair his spaceship, and they could escape all the problems on Zerris rather than dealing with them. Brianna and Lyall come up with a solution to defeat the trolls.
You guessed it. This is the point at which the intended plan fails. The characters realise that there is no easy way out. That they can't get through this without facing whatever issue has been chasing them through the whole novel.
This is when it gets real.
And this is where I stop giving examples. Anything after this point is a little too spoilerish. 🙂 But let's just say that my characters have to find their inner strength, and stand up for what they believe in, even when everyone else around them doesn't believe them.
At this point, your character's face up to their problems, deal with their issues, and realise that the real solution might not be as impossible as they thought it was.
Make sure you tie up any loose ends, resolve all the problems (well, except for any you're setting up for the sequel), and give them their happily ever after. (Sorry, I'm writing romance novels. If you write thrillers or horror, you'll have to figure out how your end fits in there.)
The trouble I'm dealing with at the moment, is that Reckless Recon isn't fitting into this plot! Or maybe I'm just not seeing it yet! I'm at around 35k, and I'm hitting the false climax. So either this is going to be a really short book, or this is a false false climax…
How about you? Do the books you write or read follow a similar structure, or something completely different?