At an early stage of planning, you should be able to visualise your novel in three parts: the beginning, the middle and the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting a physical break between each section, as long as you can see identify three sections in your mind.
The first section, the beginning, will set the scene with the main character(s) and it will set out the main problem or conflict. The second section, the middle part of the novel, will develop both the character(s) and the main problem. The end section will see the main problem resolved in a satisfactory manner.
Here are two examples:
Khaled Hosseinei’s novel: The Kite Runner
The beginning. The main character, Amin lives in Kabul. His best friend, Hassan, is the son of the household servant. Amin’s father shows undue attention to Hassan and Amin reacts by framing Hassan for a theft. As a result, Hassan and his father are forced to leave the house.
The middle. Amin and his father flee from the Taliban to the United States. There Amin grows into maturity. He marries but he and his wife are unable to have a family. Amin hears that Hassan has been killed in Kabul, leaving behind an orphan son. Amin is now filled with remorse for what he did years ago.
The end. Amin returns to Kabul to rescue Hassan’s son, take him to safety and raise him as his own.
My novel: The Long Road to Sunrise
The beginning. The main character, Faith Rivers lives in Australia. Knowing she was adopted, she makes contact with Bridget Hadleigh, her birth mother in England. Bridget and her husband, Douglas, fly out to Australia to meet her and Faith begins to tell them the harrowing story of her life.
The middle. Faith tells how she was adopted by Australian film makers who took her with them on an expedition into the Amazon rain forest. When her parents were killed by tribesmen, she was left as a child in the jungle. Known as Fayzella she grew up in a tribal community, but was desperate to find out who she really was. The story of her escape from the jungle was Faith’s long road to sunrise.
The end. Faith returns to the jungle to make a television film about herself, but she is captured by fierce tribesmen. Douglas Hadleigh leads an expedition to rescue her and return her to a life with himself and Bridget.
In each of those two novels, the main characters are defined in the beginning sections. The main problem, the one upon which the plot will depend, is also introduced.
In The Kite Runner, the beginning section sets the scene by telling us about Amin and the strong bond that exists between him and Hassan, the servant boy who is the kite runner of the title. We learn a lot about the social differences between them, and about their lives in Kabul. We also discover why Amin feels jealous of Hassan when the servant boy receives attention from Amin’s father. He is not a bad person, but the jealousy is enough to cause him to do something out of character.
In The Long Road to Sunrise, the beginning section sets the scene by telling us about Faith Rivers and the fact that she was adopted at birth. We also learn that memories of giving away her first child still haunt Bridget Hadleigh. When Faith tells them that she suffered badly in the rain forest, it hits hard with Bridget and her husband.
In each case, the beginning sections of the two novels set the foundations upon which the novels will work. The middle sections then serve to develop the characters and the plot.
In The Kite Runner, the middle section develops Amin’s character as he grows into manhood in the United States. We see him mature in the way he looks after his ailing father, and in the way he supports his wife. He becomes a stronger person than the child he was in Kabul.
In The Long Road to Sunrise, the middle section goes back to Faith’s life as Fayzella, a child lost in the rain forest. It is a development section in as much as it tells us so much about what made Faith the person she later became. It shows us how she developed resilience and persistence in her need to find out about her real identity. More than that, this section also develops the plot by setting the basis upon which she will later return to make a film about herself.
In each case, the middle sections of the two novels build upon the foundations that were laid in the beginning sections. The final sections then bring everything to a conclusion.
In The Kite Runner, Amin is driven by remorse to return to Kabul in an effort to rescue Hassan’s son. He risks his own life in an act of atonement. At this point we fully understand his motivations because we have seen him grow from child to man.
In The Long Road to Sunrise, Faith returns to the rain forest with a film crew and we understand why she wants to revisit her past. But the film crew are killed and Faith is again at the mercy of fierce tribesmen. It falls upon Douglas Hadleigh to organise a rescue expedition. We understand why he needs to see Faith returned to safety because we have seen his horrified reactions to her story in the middle section.
In order to develop a novel along these lines, you will need to identify those three sections - beginning, middle and end – at an early stage. It would be unwise to simply write with no clear plan in mind and trust to luck that the story will have that coherent structure. Without pre-planning, luck will not always come to your aid and the structure may not appear.