When structuring a novel, hammer home the life changing moment between pages 36 and 50.


Leo DiCaprio in a scene from Shutter Island.
Leo DiCaprio in a scene from Shutter Island.

Recap:  Within the first 15 pages, you set the hook and established the theme. Within the first 50 pages, you created the set up by introducing the plot and the primary characters, those key elements that can make or break your novel.

You’ve heard the phrase all of your life, and never has it had to do with the pages or the storyline of a novel. But someone in casual conversation turns around, becomes serious for a moment, and says, “That was the moment that changed my life.” Or in business, you have heard someone, after a tough negotiation, look back, smile, and say, “When that happened, it was a game changer.”

From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same again.

The moment wasn’t obtuse. It wasn’t subtle. It wasn’t open to conjecture. It wasn’t something to be kicked around, discussed, talked about over a Starbuck’s coffee, or even confusing.

It was definite.

It was decisive.

It had the impact of a bullet.

So it is with structuring a novel.

Between pages 36 and 50, providing you are writing a novel between three hundred and three hundred and fifty pages, you need to hammer home the life changing moment that triggers the rest of the story. It will leave the world in which the hero awoke that morning in shambles and in ruin. He or she is drowning in questions with no answers, troubles they didn’t know existed, fears so real you can taste them. It has torn the world apart, and left the hero with the ragged piece that he or she did not want.

In a mystery, it is a woman receiving a phone call in the middle of the night, listening to a solemn-voiced police officer inform her that her husband has been mysteriously shot and killed, that her name is on the death list, and, in her mind, she knows that she has never been married. Who is he, what has he done, and why is she mixed up in it?

In a romance, it is a woman preparing to leave for her wedding and receiving a telegram that her husband, reported missing in action and presumed dead ten years ago, has been rescued in Afghanistan and is on his way to a U. S. Military Hospital in Germany.

In a thriller, it is an intelligence officer discovering that his boss and mentor, a living legend in the CIA, has long been a double agent, delivering top-secret information to a Soviet agent in the midst of the Cold War. His boss is dying. Should he arrest him or protect his reputation while searching for the Russian operative in a maze of Washington politics.

In a fantasy, the young chambermaid learns that she is the outcast and illegitimate child of the King, the daughter who should rightfully succeed him and ascend to the throne. But who will believe her, and who will fight with her as she battles an evil younger brother who desperately wants the crown himself.

These are the believable bag of tricks that life, for whatever reason, throws our way.

It’s getting fired.

It’s getting dumped by the love of your life.

It’s finding your wife with another man, and he happens to be your brother.

It’s discovering that you are your husband’s third wife. The first one died a mysterious death, and he’s still married to the second one.

It’s receiving the news that you have three days to live.

It’s that sudden and unexpected moment when something happens that abruptly changes the course and direction of the story.

For an author, it is your first big and overpowering “What If” moment.

And this is why writing has always been such an adventure. You are at the throttle. You are in charge of moving the novel any way you choose.

For example, in this one, single incident, if the hero makes one decision, the book becomes a romance.

If the hero makes another decision, the novel becomes a murder mystery.

Depending on what happens during this defining moment, the story may well become both.

It’s up to you to properly answer the “What If” question, and there is no wrong answer. But you will be forever judged on how you handle it.

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