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I want to talk briefly about novel structure because, as a novel editor, I see all kinds of basic issues from the majority of the aspiring writer-clients I work with. There is a wealth of info out there on the web but I wanted to give you a little taste of what makes a solid novel. Because, especially if you write commercial fiction and hope to land an agent and get published, novel structure is incredibly important to pay attention to.

The basic concept of the three-act novel structure dates back to Aristotle from his “Poetics” (335 BCE) in which he studies dramatic structure in plays of the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the three-act structure has been more sharply defined and explored by Joseph Campbell, author of such classics as “The Hero’s Journey” and “The Power of Myth,” among many others.

Campbell’s three-act novel structure included Act One (the setup); Act Two (the confrontation); and Act Three (the resolution). In Act One is the “inciting” incident, the event which propels the character into the story journey. There is a climax at the end of Act One which pushes the character into Act Two. In Act Two the MC (Main Character) pushes through obstacles galore, chasing their goal. There is ascending action and there is a mid-point twist, more obstacles, a disaster, and then the climax of Act Two, which forces the MC into Act Three. In Act Three there is the climax and then descending action and the denouement (wrap up) and the end.

Setup, confrontation, and resolution.

And then there is, most recently, James Scott Bell, a master of the modern day thriller and author of such writing how-to books as “Plot and Structure,” “Revision and Self Editing,” “The Art of War for Writers,” “Conflict and Suspense,” and many more.

Bell wrote an article a few years back (CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK TO BELL’S ARTICLE) titled “The Two Pillars of Novel Structure.” I am going to give you a rough, general sketch of what that article says and also relate it to my own experience working with writers.

You can’t just “write a book” and be done with it. Not if you expect to sell. Not if you expect to write engaging, suspenseful prose and a book that readers simply cannot put down. There are Reader Expectations that writers need to know about. Readers themselves often don’t know they demand certain things from novels…but they do. And, as a writer, if you don’t know what those demands are…you’ll likely be dead in the water before you even get to page 10.

Bell talks about this idea of writing “hot” and editing/revising “cold.” The first draft is never going to be ready to go anywhere except into a drawer for a few weeks or a month until you reread it as objectively as possible then take the red pen out and revise/rewrite. So, write that first draft with passion; write hot. But when you pause and return with the sacred (and infuriating!) red pen, write cold; in other words, look at structure. Because in the first draft you were getting sucked into the world (hopefully), focusing instead on character and world-building and dialogue, etc.

Bell uses the metaphor of story structure being like a suspension bridge. The two key foundations are there holding up the bridge, the pillars. He says: “Every story has to begin, and every story has to end. And the middle has to hold the reader’s interest.” Right. The middle. The hardest and longest portion of your novel. Kind of a tall order, huh?

“The craft of structure tells you how to begin with a bang, knock readers out at the end, and keep them turning pages all the way through,” Bell continues. “When you ignore structure, your novel can begin to feel like one of those rope bridges swinging wildly in the wind over a 1,000-foot gorge. Not many readers are going to want to go across.”


Bell lets us know that the beginning of a novel should do a few things: Let us know who the protagonist is; introduce the Story Problem/Goal; set the tone/introduce the voice; and set the stakes. Getting to the first pillar is what he calls The Door of No Return. (This is like Campbell’s The Hero’s journey; descent into hell and return). Once the character passes through this door, BEFORE the 1/5th mark of your novel, they cannot return. They have walked through a one-way-only portal.

Bell mentions also that the protagonist must suffer and struggle. I tell this to clients all the time. Readers read for two main reasons: To empathize and to sympathize. They want to relate to your character and feel their pain, and yet also, at the same time, they want to think, “God, I’m sure glad I’m not them!” It’s the irony of the human condition. Bell says, “A successful novel is about high-stakes trouble. True character is revealed only in crisis.” Bell calls the opening issue the “opening disturbance.” The MC should experience this in the opening pages.

Then the first pillar thrusts the MC into Act Two. The character wants to stay in the “ordinary” world but now cannot and is instead, against their will, thrust into the “dark world” of Act Two. From now on their will be major troubles and hurdles/obstacles that the MC must push through and barely survive.

Act Two is all about “death stakes.” Bell explains the three types of death: physical, professional, psychological. Your character must face one of the three or more. Remember (and this is key): Your MC MUST change/transform through the journey. By the end of the novel they must be different than they were on page one, and we must have seen that transformation throughout the novel. Think of your overarching Story Question (also called Premise or Theme).

Bell says, “…in novels it’s best to have that first doorway appear earlier. In a fast-moving action novel like The Hunger Games, it can happen quickly. It’s in chapter 1 that Katniss hears her sister’s name chosen for the games, and in the beginning of chapter 2 volunteers to take her place.” Bell uses several examples in his article to demonstrate the passage of the first pillar. One is Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Starling is thrust into a psychological game with Lecter and this might possibly be the only way she can ultimately solve the case.


The second pillar is another Doorway of No Return, only this pillar makes the final resolution necessary. This act, in the middle of the two pillars (on the “bridge”) is where all the action happens. “The second act is a series of actions where the character confronts and resists death, and is opposed by counterforces.” There are obstacles in the MC’s way and the MC must fight. No exceptions. At last the second pillar/doorway opens in the form of a major crisis or setback, clue or discovery. It forces the MC into Act Three and the final battle and resolution.

In Bell’s article he goes over these points with a fine-tooth comb. He asks simple novel-in-progress questions related to these points, to get you going in the right direction. The main thing to remember is that almost all good novels that sell (or 99 percent of them) have some type of basic novel structure. Learn it, live it, love it. If you allow the basic three act structure and the two pillar structure idea to seep into your consciousness, you are that much closer to creating a kick-ass novel that readers won’t be able to put down.

And when you’re ready come hire me for the developmental editing.

Write on.

Michael Mohr

“You said it. Let’s edit.”

Michael Mohr

*** My rates, info on what developmental and line editing are, my bio, and other info is on this website. If you have a project and are interested in the next level please email me:

*This is a retread post from 2017 with minor updates. Still a very relevant topic.

One of the toughest things to do in fiction or creative nonfiction writing, in my professional opinion, is to create strong, believable tension. Without tension—between the protagonist and a villain, the protagonist and him/herself, the protagonist and the environment, etc—you really don’t have much of a story. And it’s unlikely readers will want to follow you far through the jungle of your narrative.

Tension seems to be lumped in usually with plot. I agree that plot and tension often go hand in hand, but I also think that stories which essentially lack, for the most part, any real sense of “A-plus-B-equals-C” type of standard plot (meaning one thing happens which forces another to happen, etc, a sort of “causes and conditions” situation) can still grab readers’ interest and hold our attention for 250, 300 pages…as long as you’ve got real, authentic tension.

Some obvious examples: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir); The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway); On the Road (Jack Kerouac); and Dave Eggers’ 2014 novel, Heroes of the Frontier. There are, of course, many, many other examples, both contemporary and from the past. (Zadie Smith’s highly character-driven fiction is a great example here, or Jonathan Franzen’s semi-plotless character-driven fiction.) I mention only a few here for the sake of example.

In all of the works listed above, there is, in the “standard” sense, a lack of “plot.” These tales are really more “anecdotal” in nature: This happens, then this, then this, then that, and on and on. Left bare-bones, this would bore the fur off a chipmunk. But they all have a few things in common: Fantastic writing; fabulous, three-dimensional characters that are believable; a rich, authentic setting; driving motivations from the protagonist; a deep, richly told interior landscape for the main character, as well as high emotional stakes and empathy; and, last but definitely not least: They all have, in various forms, strong, palpable tension that drives the story forward.

In the case of A Heartbreaking Work, the tension is between the narrator’s youthful self and his new self after his parents have died; between the youthful idealist and the fresh, startling kid suddenly thrust into the role of a parent; between who he once wanted to be and who he now must be, in order for him to successfully survive emotionally and to raise his younger brother.

In The Sun Also Rises, we see the protagonist in a constant state of tension between his love for Bret—the woman who is the center of almost all the characters’ desires—and his knowledge that she must carve her own path, be with who she wants, be her own woman; between his own desire to write and be a serious author and yet to be with his wife and build his family; between his yearning for the United States, his home, and being in Paris, his temporary literary hideout. In On the Road, the tension is between Sal Paradise’s need to run away, be “on the road,” and his need to write and be a successful author; between his sort of male existential lust for Neal Cassady’s semi-questionable friendship and his desire to be free of the road-warrior he sometimes wants to be rid of and doesn’t always understand; between his childish, naïve urge to do everything and be everywhere, and his growing notion that, to be a man, he must, at some point, slow down, settle, get married, and grow up.

In Heroes of the Frontier, the tension is between the protagonist’s wavering belief that she is doing right by her kids, taking them out of school and driving them around the lurid, lush landscape of Alaska, and knowing that she is being an irresponsible mother; between her need to prove to herself that she is a good person, a worthy human being, and knowing that, at least in part, in her mind, she is partially broken, due to her harrowing upbringing; between her sense of self love and self worth and the sense that she is not worth much at all, possibly nothing in fact; between her past and her present; between her desire for being around people and her need to be alone.

The above list is not, of course, any kind of definitive or by any means exhaustive list of tension, the books that include it, or of all the forms of tension the books mentioned take advantage of. It is only meant as a brief example.

So, the question arrives: How do you create tension? What, exactly, is tension anyway?

Tension creates drama: friction; movement. Like two sticks rubbing together to create fire. And that’s what you want in fiction or memoir: A burst of flames. We can all relate to things we want but can’t quite ever have. Perhaps by the end of the story you’ve written the character does finally get that thing, whatever it is, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Think of a character. Now make sure that character wants something. Your whole book, or a significant portion of it, should include your character trying to get that thing and not achieving it. If you design a fully-rounded character, one that we care about, one that’s fully fleshed-out and realistic, then we should be able to empathize with that created character’s wants/desires. Once we care, you’re in. Now all you have to do is find that tension.

Example. I recently reread Philip Caputo’s brilliant 1977 Vietnam War memoir, A Rumor of War. There is clear, obvious tension in this book from the beginning, of course: They’re preparing to go from peacetime America to war-torn Vietnam. (Actually, he was one of the first Marine platoons to actually fight in Vietnam; he went there in early 1965, when we were supposedly still “aiding” the ARVN (South Vietnamese). That strategy soon changed.) So, in this case, there’s almost a sort of built in sense of impending tension.

But he also finds many other methods for demonstrating tension: The tension between the narrator’s sense of morality and what he is commanded to do in war; the tension between humanizing the enemy (The Viet Cong) and seeing them as brute savages; the tension between following orders without question and internally questioning why it was they were there, fighting a horrific guerilla war in a faraway country in Southeast Asia. There are many more forms of tension in Caputo’s book. Another one I really enjoyed is his use of tension between himself (and the other soldiers) and the environment; the jungle. He describes the jungle as “malevolent,” as if it were trying to crush them into powder; the brutal, bashing heat as a terrible, lecherous demon, intent on murdering them; the sun as a horrid thing, wanting nothing more than their demise.

The point here is that, in any way possible, create real tension between your narrator and either external and/or internal forces and I can almost guarantee—again, as long as you have the other essentials of story: well-written prose sentences; well-rounded, believable characters; character and story arc (transformation); a hero’s journey; point of no return; strong setting; etc—that readers will most likely want to keep reading, turning the page again and again and again. Have a strong, well-written story or strong characters and setting etc with NO tension? You’re unlikely to get very far with readers.

Think about real life: the uncle who drives you nuts; the parent who presses that annoying internal button every time you see them; that prize or award you yearn for but never get; the self love you can’t quite seem to ever grasp; the love from Dad you can’t ever quite seem to get, at least not in the way you desire; the job you want but are somehow blocked from; the need to be two conflicting people somehow, one at work, one at home with your partner; the need for external validation and never getting it; the action of leaving something (a job, a boyfriend) and then feeling like you can’t live without them, but knowing you must, etc. The list could go on and on and on. The point is: Create that character, that story framework/foundation, and then inject tension into it. You’ll be grateful you did.

Hurdles are one thing—obvious preventatives that get in your main character’s way—but some tension can be more subtle and interior. Either way, learn to traverse the lush landscape of a character’s inner and outer world, using tension, by questioning your own life and experience: What has led to your own true tension? Answer that and you’ve got a start. From there keep digging.

Play with this. If your novel/memoir lacks tension, go through the MS and find out where you can add it in. It is key.

If you need a second pair of eyes, I do developmental book editing. As a former literary agent’s assistant, a published writer (with a degree in writing), and a fine-eyed scanner of literary prose, I can locate those areas which are lacking in plot, pace, character-development, voice, dialogue-believability, logic, etc. I can help you find areas to add in tension, to push the level of internal/external dissonance to a higher apex, to move your story forward using fictive techniques of story arc, character arc, and strong setting.

Email me at: I work solely with novels and memoir.

Michael Mohr

I’m a published writer and developmental editor; I’ve been doing both for around 14 years. Along the way I successfully edited many books (both fiction and memoir), among them Christian Picciolini’s “White American Youth,” Deborah Holt Larkin’s “A Lovely Girl: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan and the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers,” and Gini Grossenbacher’s “Madam in Silk,” among many others.

Over the years I got my degree in writing from San Francisco State; I interned for a literary agent for nine months in 2013; I began getting my fiction published; I wrote 12 books; I started a Substack writing newsletter; and I edited hundreds of books. I also joined probably half a dozen freelance editing/writing sites, such as Upwork, the EFA (Editorial Freelancer’s Association, a great resource for new writers seeking editing), BAEF (Bay Area Editors’ Forum), Fiver, and more. During all this time I learned a LOT about what works and what doesn’t work for editing, both from my perspective and from the perspective of the author.

From this experience I include below a common list of Do’s and Don’ts:


1. Before choosing an editor: Do some serious research. First: What type of editing do you actually need? Most new writers need structural/substantive aka developmental editing, NOT line or copy editing or proofreading, etc.

2. After deciding what type of editing you need, make sure you do your homework about each editor you look at. What are their qualifications? How long have they been in the industry? Do they have proven, tested, published titles to tout? Do they have testimonials? Feel free to even email a few of the writers with testimonials to see what their experience was.

3. Ok. You know the type of editing you need for your book, and you’ve found an editor. Great. This one is going to be annoying but it needs to be said: Be prepared to spend some money. Nowadays, sadly, the vast majority of new writers more or less want something for just about nothing. I can’t tell you how many writers have asked me to do free work, or have offered me rates so abysmally low that I couldn’t possibly respect myself if I took the gig. Quality costs bread, pure and simple. I charge 5 cents per word. So if your book were 85,000 words that’d be $4,250. I know. It’s a lot. Again: You pay for quality. It’s a tough one because the chances of a writer legitimately making money off their book are very slim. But most writers write out of love, not potential profit.

4. Accept as many of the suggested changes as you possibly can. In the end, yes, the book is ultimately YOURs, of your creation entirely. I would never, ever say that a writer should 100% accept every single suggestion from an editor. That would be foolhardy for anything in life…except perhaps a doctor. (Although not necessarily even then.) That said: Do your very best to be receptive and grateful for the time, effort and energy your editor put in. If they’re a quality editor they labored hard on your book. Be thankful for that. Go over the manuscript slowly and scrupulously. Pause before emailing about a project. Take some deep breaths. Take notes. Think deeply. Put the book away for a few days or a week or two, then come back to it and try your best to see it as objectively as you can. Remember: Your close friends and family do NOT represent the general reader. The general reader is hostile going in; they expect powerful writing and to be constantly entertained. An editor’s job is to prepare your book for serious scrutiny from strangers who have no emotional investment in you or your writing. You have to prove yourself.

5. Accept the hard fact that writing and producing a quality book takes TIME. So many new writers are incredibly impatient nowadays. Relax: This is not a contest to see who finishes first. It can often take three, six, nine months, even a year or longer (not often this long but sometimes) to get an early draft into tip-top shape. It requires emailing back and forth between editor and client; zoom calls; revisions; breaks; etc.


1. Don’t TELL the experienced editor (especially as a new writer) how “things will go.” This is disturbingly common. “You’re going to edit at this rate at this speed and look at these things.” That’s like having very little to no clue how a car’s engine works and bringing the car into the mechanic and trying to tell them how to fix it. You obviously don’t know how to fix it, which is why it’s in the shop to begin with. Trust, people. Trust.

2. Don’t lowball the editor financially. Always pay what they ask. If you can’t afford the editor, find someone more affordable, or save up for the one you want. Also: Always, always, always pay on time. Don’t be one of “those” clients.

3. Don’t disrespect your editor’s time. A developmental edit is ONE go-through; any further edits or rounds cost another full price. (You heard me right.) We editors do this for a living. Remember that. Also: Yes, you can email back and forth and do a few zoom calls after an edit (admittedly, there is a lot to discuss and digest), but after that’s done, don’t consistently email or call your editor. They have a life, too, and of course “time is money.” Don’t be surprised if some editors charge for phone calls. Really, anytime we’re focusing on YOU we should be getting paid. Lawyers get paid the same way. How would you react if I started expecting you to do free phone calls about your work? Unhappy, is my guess.

4. Don’t expect an editor to make changes in your manuscript. An editor makes SUGGESTIONS, unless you have a prior understanding which changes this. Editors suggest changes; the author goes through the MS and makes (or doesn’t make) these changes. Then you discuss. The end.

5. Don’t be too sensitive about suggestions by an editor. Look, as a writer myself, I understand being sensitive. I do. It can hurt and feel very harsh and uncomfortable to have your words, your characters, your plot, your dialogue critiqued and marked-up. Most writers write to some degree in lonely isolation. You create this universe on the page and it’s very much your “baby.” Then some asshole goes through and marks all of it up and says you should do this, shouldn’t do that, etc. I get it. I’ve been there. It hurts. It’s painful. Emotional. You sometimes get angry, resentful, reactive. But do yourself and your editor a favor: Take some deep, slow breaths; pause; put it away for a while if need be; and try to come to it as objectively as you can. Again: The editor is attempting to prepare the writer for the harsh, scrutinizing landscape of Random Readers. Believe me: Many readers will NOT have mercy. The editor is here to genuinely help. Trust that.

Michael Mohr

Some trusted websites for new writers (click on):

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