This novel is structured as a "roman a clef" (a novel about real situations rendered as a fiction) with an emphasis on suspense.
Arranged in chapters that cycle between three different first-person narrators (each with inter-related but distinct story-lines), the novel uses personal conflict, social conflict and professional conflict to create a high degree of tension.
One of the novel's key literary devices is its use of dramatic irony. The audience often has information that some of the characters in the novel do not have, creating a situation where the audience anticipates the moment that these characters will discover that information.
This can be seen in the Awful Terrible as well as in the extended period that the book is being put together. Minny and Aibileen and the reader have information here that Miss Hilly and Miss Leefolt do not. This use of dramatic irony effectively creates tension and is used so often in the text that it should be included in any discussion of the novel's structure.
Two events serve to orient the novel's action and create anticipation - the Benefit and the publication of the book. These events are projected long before they occur, allowing them to build tension and to provide the novel with a clear sense of direction.