Imagine if you will, that your story is a ship, sailing across the ocean towards a distant port beyond the horizon. In this metaphor, the boat and the surface of the sea are your settings, providing a dynamic stage upon which the action of your scenes takes place. The captain and her crew are your central characters, and the voyage from the ship’s origin to its final destination is the plot of your novel, carrying your readers (the ship’s passengers) from the start of your story all the way to the last page.
We’re finished right? Mission accomplished and questionable metaphor complete.
Well not quite, for although we have now included all of the elements that live above the surface of your story (character, setting, and plot), there is still another level to consider. For there is still the fathomless, murky ocean itself to contend with, full of fey tides and marine life, most of which will never be directly perceived by the members of your voyage. This deeper layer of narrative, the visceral strata pulsing below the skin of your tale, is the story’s theme. Theme generally spends most of its time operating behind the scenes, but is still just as important in its own right as the other three narrative elements we have discussed in previous posts.
What is the theme of a book?
In literature, the theme of a story is defined an idea that appears multiple times over the course of a tale, resonating with the protagonist’s inner world as they experience the events of a plot, intended to remain with the reader after the story is concluded. Or, put another way, theme is what a given story means, as opposed to plot, which is what the story is about. Theme is revealed in how a story’s narrative relates to being human, in how we connect to the larger world around us. Theme involves what a story says about life and the endless array of experiences, emotions, and interpretations regarding what it means to be human. It’s also a statement that you, the author, can make regarding the ideas that play out over the course of your story.
Theme can be a moral principle, an observation regarding human nature, or the acknowledgment of a unique aspect of the human experience (finding a purpose in life, coming of age, etc.). A theme can be a concept, a feeling, a message, or a perspective. Theme can be about growing up, growing old, or growing apart. Love and loss. Life and death. Examples of other common themes in books involve coping, changing, or unraveling. A novel’s theme can be concrete or nebulous. Subtle or get right up in-your-face. At its heart, theme is a core component of why a story is moving to a reader. Of why it makes the reader think and of why it will linger in their minds long after they leave the last page behind them. It is precisely because theme can be all of these things, that the concept of theme can be confusing to new (and even experienced) storytellers.
Theme can be a great deal harder to pin down and draw clear borders around than its companion narrative elements. This is because other building-blocks of story such as events, plot, setting, and character-interaction, all live out their lives on the surface of your tale. Things on the surface serve to entertain your reader and to fulfill their desire to escape. To provide the tension of needing to find out what happens next and the joy that comes when that tension is resolved.
But lurking below the exterior of a story lies another layer of meaning. One that draws some manner of conclusion regarding the human condition, revealed through the changes that occur within the inner world of its characters (character arc) as well as from the consequences those individuals face as a result of their choices and actions (plot).
Why is theme important?
Although theme is rather ethereal compared to the other core components of storycrafting, it is still important to at least wrap your head around and spend some time pondering and developing theme within the context of your tale. This is because if you, the author, do not feel strongly about the theme of your novel, it will likely come off as cliché or strike a hollow note within your readers’ hearts. Conversely, if your novel makes a powerful statement about the human condition, coming from your own unique perspective, they will naturally feel a strong connection to your narrative, even if they are not aware of the reason why.
Now something as profound as “making a statement about the human condition” might sound a bit daunting right at first. After all, you most likely started writing because you had a story to tell, not because you wanted to impart some manner of deep wisdom onto your reader. It is common for a writer contemplating this matter for the first time to ask, “Do I even have anything important to say about being human?”
Allow me to assure you that you do. We all have our own unique experiences to draw from, and these enable us to share a perspective on life that others will find interesting and useful.
Bear in mind that a novel’s theme is revealed through the central characters’ journey, via the experiences they have along the way and the manner in which these events change them for better or for worse. Put another way, the core drives and struggles of your protagonist(s) should tie directly into the theme of your novel.
Theme allows a well-written story to become a powerful one, providing your cast with direction and the reader with something to care about. A strong theme enables the reader to relate to the wants and needs of your characters, as well as ensures that they will become invested in the plot’s outcome. Theme helps to build an emotional connection between your story and a reader, empowering your tale to linger with them for a long time to come, laired somewhere in their subconscious mind. Through the effective use of theme in your novel, you will create a richer, more meaningful story. One that will naturally attract readers to your world and its inhabitants, drawing them into your characters’ journey, breathlessly awaiting to see how the story ends.
I want to add here that you aren’t attempting to convince the reader of anything with your theme, as they already possess pretty much the same fundamental information regarding the human condition that we all do. Instead, you are choosing to chisel and polish a given facet of this knowledge, allowing it to resonate with the reader as they peer between the lines of your novel, reflecting a deeper truth than the events of your story themselves.
Establishing and developing theme in your novel
Now that I have described what theme is and explained just why it is so important to your novel, I am going to advise that you first think very carefully about writing out your themes… and then to put them out of your head completely as you go about the daily business of planning and drafting your story.
This is because you don’t want to wind up with a cliché message novel, or have your prose come out sounding like an analysis for an intro to philosophy class. Once your brain has had time to absorb your theme, to knead it deeply into your own subconscious, feel free to slide your awareness of theme onto the backburner, bubbling slowly and out of the way while you craft the majority of your novel. Once you have a theme lodged firmly in the back of your mind, you can trust your instincts to let you know if your novel is communicating it clearly or losing focus. Your conscious mind can focus exclusively on character, setting, and plot as your subconscious keeps one eye on your theme.
Exercise: Identifying your novel’s central themes
Before we begin this exercise on developing your novel’s theme, I should state that what authors generally call theme can be broken into two components: thematic concepts and thematic statements.
Thematic concepts are ideas that appear frequently throughout a novel. They are often abstract ideas such as love or coming of age. Thematic concepts tend to be universal in nature, as they are directly related to the human experience. This helps a story to cross cultural boundaries and makes it meaningful to people of any age or background, as well as to future generations. While a given reader may very well not understand all of the references included in a work from a different period or region, the underling themes of a novel will help to render it more relatable. A thematic concept on its own makes no statement, it is merely an idea that comes up many times over the course of a tale.
While a story is by no means restricted to a single theme, as with so many other literary elements, less is usually more. A book will be stronger if it highlights only a few core themes or theme clusters, opposed to a piecemeal of unrelated concepts. Finally, a novel’s theme will generally be rooted in its protagonist’s needs and flaws, as well as in the obstacles that prevent them from easily achieving their goals.
Tightly bound to a novel’s thematic concepts, a thematic statement is the author’s message regarding the subject in question. The position they have taken involving the novel’s central themes. While a book can have multiple statements, one message generally tends to rise above the rest. A thematic statement usually comments on the manner in which a thematic concept affects the human condition. Thematic statements can be summed up in one or two sentences, much like the thesis of an essay.
Examples of thematic statements include: “People are stronger together than they are apart,” or the old adage, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
Exercise: Developing theme part 1
With that distinction out of the way, it’s time to sit and think a while about your novel’s theme. Before we get to that however, I have a little warm-up to whet your pallet. For this step, I want you to simply think about the top two or three stories that have affected you in the past. Novels that have really impacted you emotionally, changing the way you saw the world, or lingering with you long after finishing the story.
Once you have a few examples ready to go, spend a few minutes attempting to identify the thematic concepts and statements central to each story. Don’t worry about trying to find the “right” answer, the point is to help you get your head wrapped around the concept of theme, as well as how it helped to make those stories more impactful when you read them.
Exercise: Developing theme part 2
For this next step, pull out a sheet of paper and first attempt to identify the main thematic concepts of your novel. This will in part be influenced by the novel’s genre and significantly impacted by the novel’s central conflict. To get started, simply start writing down any related themes that come to mind. Don’t worry about figuring out which ones are central just yet, as that should arise organically as you ponder the matter over the course the next few weeks. An easy first step is to list the emotions that you want the reader to feel at the middle, climax, and end of your story, then move on to the other types of thematic concepts detailed in the examples above.
Once you have a list of several concepts that seem to fit the bill, see if you have anything to add regarding your story’s thematic statement. This is a piece of your perspective on life that you would like to leave with the reader by the end of your novel. You should be able to write a thematic statement in a single, complete sentence. If you are having a tough time, take a look at whatever ideas you have so far regarding the climax and conclusion of your story, as well as how your protagonist and their world change as a result. This is because the manner in which your characters change (or don’t) over the course of your tale is one of the primary ways in which your reader will pick up on your theme.
Final thoughts: Atmosphere versus theme
I will be covering the concept of atmosphere again and in depth later on in the drafting section of this guide, but I wanted to briefly discuss the differences between atmosphere and theme here first.
Atmosphere and theme are related in the sense that both involve what a reader might feel after digesting a piece of story. The difference is that atmosphere is the transient feelings that arise from experiencing a single scene, while theme is the lasting feeling conveyed by your story as a whole. If theme is what a reader should think about by the end of the story, then atmosphere involves what you want them to feel at key moments along the way.
Atmosphere: “What emotions do I feel while reading this scene? What are the characters feeling? How do I feel about the characters and events I am reading about?”
Themes: “What did this story make me think or feel about the world and human nature?”
We have now covered all of the major narrative components of storytelling, as well as how to develop and engage with each of them as you plan out the course of your novel. Now it’s time to put everything together for our culminating planning exercise, “Creating your master timeline and plotline.”
Welcome back and thanks for joining me for another exciting installment in my planning process series. We have already covered the core narrative components of character and setting a bit earlier on in this guide, so make sure to check them out if you haven’t already done so. By now, you should have your initial cast assembled and ready to set foot onto the stage and at least a few of your settings should be starting to feel more like places than simple backdrops.
Congratulations, let’s swim on over to the deep end of the pool, because you are finally ready to start hammering out the plotline of your novel.
As you have made the decision to write a book about something, you likely already have a few major events cooking away in the back corners of your mind. Perhaps you even know how your story will begin, culminate, or resolve. But don’t worry if one or even all of these pieces are still a bit inchoate at the moment, because by the time you arrive at end of this stage, you will have made considerable progress on your overall plot as well as begun to structure your individual chapters and subchapters.
For this discussion on planning your plot, I am placing the focus on plotting out the major events of your novel in broad strokes. We will save the minutia for my entry on scenecrafting 101 in the next chapter of this guide, “the Drafting Process”.
As this is a long, information-dense entry, I will refrain from adding additional pictures and diagrams to save space.
During the early stages of planning out your plot, you are going to be considering big questions like:
Where does my story begin and end? (This is not necessarily the same as what takes place on the first and last pages of your novel).
What are the major challenges, conflicts, or threats my protagonist(s) must overcome?
Which of my characters’ goals are in opposition to one another?
How will my central characters change over the course of my story?
How will I divide my overall plot into digestible chapters and subchapters?
In addition to the main story, which subplots will I include to add depth and breadth to my novel?
So what is the plot of a story anyway?
At its most basic level, plot can be defined as a series of interlinked events, woven together by a chain of cause and effect. Each of the significant events in your story, especially the ones you have put a few pages into, should have meaningful consequences at some point later on down the road.
Event 1 causes event 2. Event 2 triggers event 3. Event 3 appears trivial at first, but actually has initiated event 4 and also event 5 (the start of a separate subplot). On and on down the line until all of the plotlines are wrapped up and converge once more by the end of the novel.
In this example, each event impacts the course of later events. If any of these occurrences did not significantly change the outcome of the story, they would have no place in the overall plot (but might still appear briefly in scenes for atmospheric purposes).
Thinking about plot structurally, every story has:
A central conflict
At least one pivotal (climatic) event, and
Depending on the length, style, and to a lesser extent, the genre, of a story, many novels also possess:
Main events: key scenes that move the story forward towards the climax.
Minor events: scenes included for characterization, change of pace, continuity, and breadth.
Subplots: stories that are separate from the main plotline, each with their own pivotal events and those events leading up to them.
In addition to the above components, I am adding two final concepts to this taxonomy:
Scenes of rising tension: high energy scenes that drive the plot forwards towards the next major event.
Scenes of falling tension: low energy scenes that allow characters (and readers) to ponder, react to, deal with, and make plans regarding the major events the came before.
The number, nature, and arrangement of these core narrative components form what is generally referred to as a story structure or plot arc. Every story is unique, however many tend to follow one of several tried and true formulas to at least some extent, a number of which are covered later in this article in order to show you how they are built and function.
General rules of plot structure and plot development
Before we jump into a lengthy discussion on conflict and tension, I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you a few general rules of plot development that I have built for myself over the course of writing my novel. These are only intended to be useful guidelines as you begin plotting and are by no means set in stone (although I suspect that many of you will tend to follow them naturally).
Never make the resolution simple or easy for your characters (and readers)
A novel where everyone is happy, where the characters have no problems or worries and easily obtain their desires, is a boring novel. A novel that few people will enjoy and no one will buy. This is because overcoming a challenge or resolving a conflict lies at the heart of every good story.
Force your characters to strive and struggle. Not only during the climax of your tale, but at every stage along the way. Allow them to them come close to realizing their goals only to fail, setting them even further back… or allow them to achieve their desires only to realize this outcome wasn’t really what they wanted.
Maybe they misunderstood a critical detail. Perhaps they were unable to see the larger picture until that moment. Either way, they thought that attaining this thing would make them happy and now they are miserable and out of ideas on what to do next, a great place for your characters to be narratively speaking.
Introduce an engaging hook at the beginning of your story (and with every new subplot)
You only have a brief window to cement a reader’s interest once they pick up your novel and begin to peruse. Within short order (a few sentences or paragraphs tops) they should have a solid idea regarding who and what the novel is about, and more importantly, why they should care about what is going on. This is traditionally accomplished by incorporating an interesting event, designed to draw your reader into the narrative, right at the start of the story. These captivating bits of narrative, known as “hooks,” will help your reader to become emotionally and intellectually invested in your tale, keeping them turning those pages as they breathlessly wait to discover what happens next.
Hooks are vital, not only at the start of your novel, but at critical places throughout it as well. Smaller hooks should be used at the beginning of your chapters and subchapters, as well as when you introduce new main characters, major settings, and subplots for the first time.
The more significant that a major event is to the plot, the further ahead of time it should be set up
I am sure that many other authors have come to this conclusion as well. But this is a rule I built for myself after consuming hundreds of epic stories. The idea is that the culminating climax of your novel (or series) requires the most buildup to execute effectively, followed by major plot twists.
This can take the form of foreshadowing, of setting pivotal events into motion early on in seemingly innocuous scenes, etc. Laying such foundational groundwork and then carefully scaffolding over time enables your readers to become emotionally invested in the conflict. Put another way, if you want your resolution to feel significant (or even epic), you need to allow your reader to wrap their mind around its importance well before you actually resolve things.
Never allow the tension in your plot to go slack or lose focus
We will be discussing various ways to shape the structure of your plot and the tension thrumming throughout it a bit further below. But regardless of how you choose to organize your plot points, it is important that you introduce a least a bit of tension into your narrative early on and keep it there until the story is over. The ideal level of tension in your various scenes, as well as the pattern of its spikes and dips, will vary depending on your story structure.
Regardless of the shape of your story, if you let things go too limp (the archetypical example being the sagging middle), your reader will soon find themselves losing interest and wondering why. The same is true with losing focus. If your reader can’t understand why they are being shown something, why they should care, their attention will naturally drift away from your tale. They may even set down your novel, never to pick it up again.
Deciding on the central conflict of a story
Human beings are curious creatures, creatures who thrive on stories of two forces set in opposition. We possess an inherent need to know what is happening when we witness opposing human needs. To understand why these forces are in conflict and to discover how their struggle will resolve. We want to know who will triumph and who will falter. Who will obtain their desires and who will fall along the wayside. A well-chosen central conflict will naturally encourage your readers to imagine what is going on in the minds of your characters, as well as what they might do if placed in that same situation.
In order to engage this curiosity. In order to give your story staying power in the minds of your readers, it is going to need a powerful central conflict. So what is conflict in a story anyway? Now your story will likely feature many sources of conflict, as your characters attempt to achieve their goals while struggling against their environments, each other, and even themselves. But most stories also feature a central conflict, the one that eventually comes to a head in the climax and leads to the resolution after it is resolved. The nature of your central conflict will have a dramatic impact on the kind of story you are telling and it is vital that you wrap your head around yours before extensively plotting out your novel.
External conflict is the struggle between a character and an outside force, which can take the form of another character as well as the natural world and human society. Conversely, sources of internal conflict stem from within a character’s own heart and mind and can take the form of a moral dilemma, past trauma, and the desire to change oneself.
In the greater scheme of things, character motivation is one of the most engaging components of storytelling. While you absolutely do require a character, a goal, and an opposing force to construct a plot, it is your characters’ motivations, the reasons why they feel compelled to chase after their goals, which will most powerfully connect to the hearts of your audience. Compelling motivation is always spawned from conflict, when a person is dissatisfied or unhappy and their wants and needs are not being fulfilled. When they are forced by events beyond their control to confront danger, or the darker alleyways of their own soul.
Powerful wants and needs are core components of being human. Something we have all experienced over the course of our lives. Such drives are relatable and are powerful hooks. A human connection that bridges the lives of your characters with the interest of your reader. Motivated goals set against a central conflict lead to action. And as your readers follow the journeys of your characters, witnessing them struggle and face the consequences of their decisions, your audience will quickly find themselves drawn into your narrative for the long haul.
Sources of external conflict
Person vs. person
This is a classic source of conflict in literature as well as everyday life. In a person vs. person source of external conflict, one character is pitted against another. The nature of their conflict can take a number of forms, including:
One character wants to take what another character possesses. This can be material goods such as money, food, and shelter, social status, or even their spouse and family.
One character wishes to humiliate, hurt, or kill another out of envy or spite.
One character desires to destroy something that another wishes to protect.
Both characters want the same thing, but only one can have it. This can be a position, a lover, to be the first person to accomplish something, etc.
Both characters want different things, but still stand in the way of each other’s success (cops vs. criminals, etc.).
When choosing a person vs. person central conflict, the important thing to keep in mind is that both sides of the struggle need to be well-developed in order for your plot to achieve balance. Both forces (individuals) set in opposition should possess equally intense desires to achieve their goals, powerful motivations for why they want them, the ability to make their own decisions, and comprehensive personalities and backstories.
Person vs. society
Sometimes it isn’t another individual that is in conflict with a protagonist, rather their struggle is against a particular aspect of human society. This can take the form of a corrupt religion, an oppressive dictator or military, predatory commercialism, and more. Sometimes it is the perception of society as a whole that a character is trying to survive or change, and the opposing force takes the form of prejudice (racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc.), systemic injustice, or the oppression of vulnerable segments of the population. In other cases, society as a whole might be struggling with a major problem, such as recessions and depressions, the emergence of disruptive ideologies, or even revolution.
Common themes in person vs. society stories include: justice, freedom, equality, corruption, or the preservation of a way of life. Person vs. society stories also tend to possess significant internal conflicts as part of the plot, as the characters living in an imperfect society are forced to deal with their dissatisfaction, compliancy, powerlessness, or direct role in perpetuating the problem.
Person vs. nature (or technology)
Perhaps the most fundamental struggle is a conflict between an individual and the natural world. In tales that are centered on a person vs. nature conflict, the character is most often motivated by the primal need to survive, struggling in the face of dangerous creatures, terrain, weather, or other disasters (plagues, famine, panics, etc.). Some stories begin with the initial onset of these forces, while others focus on characters who are attempting to survive in the aftermath of a major (often planet-wide) disaster.
Another variation of person vs. nature conflict occurs when the sources of opposition arise from a technological phenomenon. Different from stories where the emergence of technology in society is the source of conflict (these follow the person vs. society format and tend to deal with themes of greed, corruption, and other forms of human imperfection), these stories involve a technological force gone awry, usually to the point where it now represents a natural disaster. Examples might include: extreme weather, nanomachine plagues, or the perennially popular zombie apocalypse.
Characters in person vs. nature stories are generally motivated by the simple need to survive or protect important others. However, such tales also tend to feature significant internal conflicts as well, as the characters come up against their own limitations regarding stress, stamina, loss, hunger, and pain.
Person vs. monster
I will be covering monsters and magic in detail in a later installment of this blog. But still I wanted to talk about a special kind of conflict here, which is unique to fantasy, science fiction, and horror stories: person vs. monster.
Monsters are always in essence either a person, an animal, or a force of nature, with additional horrific elements added to the mix. They are the personifications of our primal fears, the combination of something ordinary blended together with something extraordinary, unknown, and dangerous. Person vs. monster stories are fundamentally no different from person vs. person or person vs. nature stories, except that the rules of the conflict are determined and guided by the specific aspects of the supernatural force you have created. Sometimes these can lead to unique story situations, such as when a character is possessed by a supernatural being and must battle them for dominance within their own minds and bodies.
Sources of internal conflict
Person vs. themselves
In each of type of external conflict we just covered, the primary opposition comes from outside of the characters. To create internal conflict, your characters are going to become their own enemies, forced to contend with opposing aspects of their mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. In order for internal conflict (person vs. self) to work, a character must be driven in two opposing directions while attempting to make a major decision.
Sources of internal conflict frequently involve a character’s:
Defects and weaknesses.
Whenever one or more of these forces pulls a character in different directions at the same time, the result is internal conflict. The character must eventually come to a decision or take action, or fail to do so, and the decision must be a difficult one. When a character is thrust into internal conflict, powerful emotions will arise naturally (for them as well as your reader). They might experience fear, anger, doubt, confusion, or regret.
To make this type of conflict work, the consequences of this decision must have significant outcomes. Where no matter which decision a character makes, something undesirable is guaranteed to occur. Putting your characters’ backs against the wall will dramatically raise the level of tension powering your story, keeping it at a boiling point until they are eventually forced to act and then deal with the ensuing consequences, the next major plot point in your storyline.
Ideal (new) self vs. old self
Another common human need is the desire is to change something about yourself, but doing so is rarely easy (or you would have already done it), and the struggle to change oneself can be a powerful source of internal conflict. A variation on this theme occurs when a character’s behavior is out of sync with how they perceive themselves (cognitive dissonance), and a conflict arises between the self they want to be and the self they witness taking action before their eyes.
Deciding on the shape (structure) of your plot and then allowing it to evolve: It’s all about rising tension
Before we dive into the weeds of plot development, I wanted to cover a few different ways to structure the overall shape of your plot. Each of these formulas has been used to write thousands of successful novels, meaning there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to story structure or fundamentally right or wrong strategy for plot construction (although certain structures generally do tend to be better suited to certain kinds of stories).
Bear in mind that these rules are not “the rules” or “your rules” and that you should always strive to create the best plot structure for the story you are trying to tell, not merely one that follows these models as closely as possible. You also don’t need to commit to making any hard, fast decisions about your ultimate story structure just yet, but as you read this section and then complete the culminating exercises at the end of this guide, you should begin to see a pattern emerge.
What each of these plot structures have in common:
A starting point to begin the narrative.
An inciting incident, where the main characters are thrust into the central conflict.
Rising tension, interspersed with moments of relief (falling tension).
A central conflict resulting in a climax.
An ultimate resolution to the tale.
What makes each structure unique:
The level of tension present in the opening scenes and the pace at which it grows.
The chronology (where in the overall timeline of the story the opening act is placed).
The presence (or lack) of major obstacles for characters to overcome prior to the main climax.
I want to add here that there are many good online resources that cover the details and history of these structures in greater depth. Rather than being comprehensive, my intention in introducing them to you now is to help grant you a framework when considering your plot as a whole, so that you can make an informed decision regarding the structure you prefer.
But before we get any further, I will explicitly state one final time that you should not be afraid to break these (or any) rules. Learning how to plan out the plot of a novel is similar to learning any other skill. First you learn the fundamentals and understand their logic, then defer to your own judgment and inspiration, adapting these ideas to fashion your own personal writing approach and style.
(Modified) Freytag’s pyramid
Let’s begin with one of the oldest known literary structures, Freytag’s pyramid. This model was developed by Gustav Freytag in 1863 in order to explain the five act structure of Greek (and later Shakespearean) works and has since made its way into modern novels and theater.
The story begins with a lengthy exposition. This is where the writer introduces the characters and setting and provides background information explaining how things stand at the start of the tale.
At the end of this exposition, an inciting incident (also called a complication) occurs, usually a single event signaling the beginning of the central conflict.
From the inciting incident, the story continues with progressive scenes of rising tension, raising the stakes and level of energy present in the narrative as events begin to come to a head.
Near the center of the tale comes the climax, a highpoint of tension in the story as well as a critical moment in the plot. In a Freytag’s pyramid, the climax is the event that all the scenes of rising action have been leading up to, which the scenes of falling tension will follow.
After the climax come scenes of falling tension, lowering the level of energy in the story as things approach the resolution.
In the resolution, the central characters’ conflicts are fully resolved and any lingering plot questions are explained to the audience.
Over time, the climatic scenes in such story structures have worked their way over from near the middle of the narrative to near the end (as it’s rather boring to have a resolution that takes place over half of a novel). However, a modified Freytag’s Pyramid is still a common choice for shorter stories as well as literature intended for younger audiences. The idea is that you begin the story with exposition to explain the situation (allowing younger minds to grasp the setup over time), then gradually ratchet up the tension until things reach a climax, after which events expediently resolve and the story concludes. Another weakness of this approach beyond its extreme predictability, is rather than a hook, the story begins with a hearty exposition, making it harder to engage and retain readers until the inciting incident occurs and the real action begins.
Pros: Easy to follow. Great for simple and short stories.
Cons: Challenges in immersion and engagement. Overly simplistic for modern stories. Plot is often highly predictable.
The Fichtean curve
Next on our tour of classic plot structures comes the tried and true Fichtean curve, which has probably been responsible for more bestsellers than any other plot structure in history. The strength of this approach is that it begins immediately with the inciting incident, launching the story into its conflict and rising action right from the first sentence. This exciting opening serves as a powerful hook, drawing the reader into the thick of the action from page one.
From there, the plot continues to raise the stakes as it heads towards the climax. However, unlike Freytag’s pyramid, the Fichtean curve intersperses scenes of falling tension and exposition along the way to help vary the pace and contextualize the story. Additionally, this structure features several major events (sometimes referred to as crises) prior to the pivotal climax. After the climax, scenes of falling tension quickly pave the way for the resolution, where any last loose ends are bound together and the reader gets at least a glimpse of the new day to day reality of the characters before arriving at the ultimate end of the tale.
The power of this approach arises from its page-turning pairing of conflict and tension. Readers are thrust into the action right from the start and the major events prior to the climax prevent the narrative from losing focus and the audience from becoming bored. This roller coaster tension curve keeps the characters dancing from one crisis to the next, meaning that there is always something interesting for the readers to experience, their attention span fueled by the natural desire to discover how each new situation resolves.
Pros: Tension is present across the entirety of the story. Easy to hook readers from the opening scene. Multiple crises and resolutions create engaging pacing.
Cons: A bit harder to structure logistically, as there are more central events to prepare and balance.
In media res
Latin for “in the middle of things,” in media res stories begin the narrative in the center of the plot, at some point in between the inciting incident and the climax, usually at the start of the first or second major event. This is a bit different from simply starting the story with an action sequence, as several important events in the master plotline have already occurred. In essence, in medias res stories are simply modified Fichtean curves, with the opening chapter placed sometime after the inciting incident.
After the opening scene is resolved, the story continues with scenes of rising tension interspersed with expositional scenes of falling tension, in which more of the big picture is revealed to the reader, as well as the story of how events progressed to this point. Just like a Fichtean curve, the narrative then builds towards the climax, followed by scenes of falling tension and resolution in which any additional exposition occurs and loose ends are tied up.
Pros: Powerful hook included in the opening scene. Easy to insert foreshadowing and cliffhangers while the exposition contextualizes the story.
Cons: Requires more skill to map out the story’s chronology.
The hero’s journey
Although it is by far my least favorite modern story structure, as the hero’s journey (popularized by Joseph Campbell) has rather successfully elbowed its way into mainstream media, I feel I would be doing you a disservice not to discuss it here and let you decide for yourself what to make of it.
In essence, the hero’s journey is a circular plot structure, meaning that the protagonist’s voyage through space and time will end roughly where it began, although their adventures will have fundamentally changed them along the way. The hallmark of this story structure is that the characters begin their lives in the everyday world, before being thrust into an extraordinary reality they never before imagined. The combination of these two fundamental elements results in stories with themes heavily focused on personal transformation, with the protagonist experiencing significant character development (arc) over the course of the tale.
The gist of the hero’s journey goes something like this:
The story opens in the protagonist’s everyday world, which tends to be rather mundane, boring, and predictable. After a while, the hero receives some manner of call to adventure, which they usually ignore. At some point, an inciting incident forces them to accept the call, dislodging the unwilling hero from their everyday world and transporting them into an unknown realm (crossing the threshold). They then face significant challenges and setbacks as the action rises, eventually reaching a great ordeal, a low point where things seem hopeless or doomed.
Then, from somewhere deep within, the hero experiences some manner of fundamental epiphany, resulting in their psychological (and sometimes literal) death and rebirth. This rebirth grants the protagonist some sort of powerful reward, enhancing their powers and understanding to a previously unimagined level and allowing them to pass through the gauntlet of this trial unscathed. The hero then attempts to make atonement as they return to the ordinary world, righting any wrongs they committed along their earlier adventure. At last, having discovered their true self and attained inner peace, the protagonist returns to the place where they began, fundamentally transformed by the journey they undertook.
So, what’s not to like about this structure you ask? Well, from my perspective it has several problems. First and foremost, the hero’s journey requires a hero, someone who is special because of the circumstances of their birth and possesses some unique power or lineage. The hero is able to overcome their struggles not because of their willpower and sacrifice, but because they really were somehow special compared to everyone else. This in my mind is one of the least satisfying answers in literature, and has the side effect of transforming the protagonist into some sort of superhuman being, inherently separate from the rest of humanity.
My second beef with the hero’s journey is the “ends in the same place it starts” bit, where nothing meaningful has changed except for the hero’s inner world, further reinforcing the perception that the protagonist was the only truly important person in the story, because only they experienced meaningful change in response to the tale’s pivotal events. Much like the real world, to my mind, a good story is an ever-changing place that no one person is the center of. Additionally, no one winds up in the exact same situation after undergoing a life altering-ordeal, falling back into the same old role and routine. That kind of ending is just too neat and tidy, while I prefer a world that changes organically in response to major events.
Pros: Proven formula for hero stories (especially coming of age variants). Provides nice pacing for main themes involving personal transformation and person vs. self central conflicts.
Cons: Resolution often too neat and tidy. Hero must be someone inherently special. Rather predictable these days, as the story tends to read like fairy tale (or Disney movie).
The epic curve for multiple (serial) act stories
This last story structure is one of my own design (based on epic games, anime, and fantasy literature), although I’m sure that many other authors have worked out a similar structure on their own as well. It is intended for use in serial (multi-novel) stories as well as in individual books considerably longer than the average novel (several hundred thousand words+). The idea is that before reaching the ultimate climax of the novel or series, one or more lesser climaxes occur at key points along the way. This provides the reader with an experience similar to a Fichtean curve, but one that opens up the story after arriving at the first climax instead of heading immediately towards a resolution, transitioning the narrative to the next major story arc as the series slowly works its way towards its ultimate conflict and finale.
The plot of any given novel (or major story arc) in an epic series should be self-contained, but also transition into the plot of the next book as well as head towards the central climax of the entire series. In a sense, the central conflict of each successive novel serves as a subplot in the overall flow of the story, but is still be a meaningful and complete narrative experience in and of itself.
If the series conflict involves a war, the central conflict of an early novel would likely feature the initial invasion and first major battle. In a fighting story, the series conflict might include winning the world title, while an individual novel’s central conflict might detail the outcome of a smaller tournament. If the series conflict is about defeating a super villain, the first novel’s conflict might center on dealing with one of the boss’s powerful subordinates, or the hero’s first major skirmish with their nemesis in what will prove to be a lengthy struggle.
One of the main differences with this structure is that the novel includes a significant section of falling tension after each climax, allowing for a hearty block of resolution and character development before another inciting incident thrusts the characters back into the action, now focused on the next major event. I plan to write a complete installment on series writing a little later on, just as soon as I complete by second novel and have more direct experience with the process of planning out a multi-novel epic curve under my belt.
Pros: Allows for multiple pivotal events and climaxes prior to the end of the novel/series.
Cons: May not be suitable for shorter works.
A word on power creep
Many fantasy and science fiction stories feature characters who possess special powers. Characters who battle progressively stronger enemies and who are forced to train, research, and/or develop themselves to combat this rising threat. In such cases, matching the protagonist’s progression to the level of their opposition is a vital balancing act. After all, once your main characters obtain the power to demolish city blocks single-handed, more mundane threats like wild animals or rough terrain naturally lose their ability to provide tension going forwards. The reason for the characters’ abilities and their opposition’s being at their present stage, while clearly possessing the power to evolve well beyond them, needs to make sense and feel authentic to your audience or your story will lose much of its appeal.
Also, if your characters are growing stronger but the other people around them are not, it results in special challenges as your heroes have fundamentally become something greater than human, which can cause friction with the local populace, generate unique moral dilemmas, and more. When plotting these type of stories, it is vital to have a clear picture of where your characters will start and end regarding the power of their abilities, as well as the manner by and the degree to which they will improve.
Plotting a novel from front to back: Planning the opening, middle, and closing of your story arc
Before we move on, I want to take one final look at plot development with you, starting from a different angle. The idea here is simple. Every story, no matter is particulars, has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. As such, there are some important options to consider when planning out each of these parts, regardless of your chosen story structure. Once you have finished with this preliminary process, you will be ready to begin working on your story outline, which will eventually be consolidated into your master plotline. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to outline a novel just yet, as we will cover it in detail a bit later on in this guide.
Plotting the start: Hooking your audience
When thinking about how to begin your novel, remember that nothing is more critical early on than hooking your potential readers. A good rule of thumb is that if you haven’t grabbed their attention by the first sentence, piqued their curiosity by the first paragraph, and cemented their interest by the end of the first page, they are going to pass up your story in favor of something more engaging.
Some key questions to mull over as you consider potential opening scenes are: “Why should my reader (immediately) care about what is happening here?” and, “Is my hook as powerful/interesting/exciting as I can possibly make it?”
The beginning of a novel usually covers the first 20-25% of the word count and comes to a close when the inciting incident launches the story into the middle of the plot. If you wait much longer to place the inciting incident, your readers will become bored while waiting for the real action to start.
The opening scene
Start from the first sentence by introducing your protagonist, one of those compelling characters you have been crafting and refining since the start of this series. By now, this individual should be pretty interesting, and I have no doubts that you have chosen well and diligently fleshed them out over time. But relying on the sheer coolness and charisma of your main character isn’t going to cut it all by itself if you really want to hook your reader. A carefully-selected event that is vital to the main plot, the first consequential thing that your readers will experience after placing their imaginations inside of your story, is required to seal the deal.
The opening scene should be as easy to understand as possible, requiring little if any explanation in order to jump right into the thick of things. Let the action provide the initial context and save the start of any exposition until the first scene of falling tension (which should arrive in the next chapter or subchapter). Keep the opening action clean, direct, and moving along at a steady pace until after you reader has committed to the long haul and has had time to become interested in learning more about your world and its inhabitants. Nowhere is the writing maxim “boredom is death” (ok I may have just invented it) more true than in the opening scene of your novel.
Introducing the world
After deciding on an opening scene designed to hook your reader from the outset, there are a few additional considerations to keep in mind as you go about planning the early chapters of your novel.
Keep it clean, simple, and relevant
First and foremost, try to think about how things appear from the perspective of your audience, who are experiencing your cast, settings, and plot for the first time. By now, your story and its participants should be beginning to feel like old friends to you, their creator. A familiarity which will only continue to grow as you keep on turning out those pages. But all of this information is still brand new to your readers right now, so it is important not to overwhelm them with unnecessary names, characters, and details early on.
Ways to go about achieving a focused simplicity include:
Don’t introduce more than one or two named characters in the opening chapter, or dive into their backgrounds and life history just yet. All of that can come after you have hooked your reader, allowing them to bond with your characters and story.
Reveal the protagonist’s character goals (wants and needs), core values, and cornerstone experiences (cores and cornerstones) as early on as possible (without forcing it). This makes it clear to the reader who the major players are and what kind of story they are reading.
Don’t use too many locations in the first chapter or two, limit yourself to one major setting and one or two minor settings.
The inciting incident
After taking a few chapters to introduce the world and your starting cast of main characters, it’s time to transition into the middle of your story. This is almost always accomplished by a type of scene known as an inciting incident, in which the characters are thrust into the midst of the story’s central conflict. Whether they choose to enter this next phase willingly, after much soul-searching, or are forced by circumstance with no choice whatsoever, after the inciting incident your characters will be facing the full fury of the novel’s oppositional force and the overall level of tension in your narrative will start to rise until the story reaches its exiting climax.
A few tips to really nail this stage:
Make the inciting incident directly relevant to the central conflict.
Have it raise compelling questions to be resolved later on.
Let it set the tone for the rest of the story.
Allow it forever change your characters.
What if the opening of the novel is the inciting incident?
So what happens if your opening scene is the novel’s inciting incident? Are you simply done with the beginning from the outset and ready to plunge into the middle of your novel from the second chapter? Not so fast. For even if the action of your opening scene precipitates or directly involves the inciting incident, the readers have yet not had the chance to understand the full implications of this event.
In this case, I advise that you plan out the start of the novel much same as you would for any other story structure, and consider the end of the beginning of your story to occur when the full, fell implications of the inciting come crashing down upon your characters, revealing the terrible extent of the novel’s central conflict.
Plotting the middle: Making stew
For our discussion on planning out the middle of your plot, I am going to craft a metaphor. Imagine if you will, that your story is a stew. A delicious, bubbling concoction formed of your characters, settings, and events, all simmering away over the tension of your plot. Using this framework, the start of the book provided your stew with its broth (an initial picture of the world) and its meat (your wonderful protagonist), but there is still a fair amount of cooking to do before your meal will be ready to serve to your hungry guests.
Plotting out the middle of your story is an exciting process, as the depth and complexity of your world and its inhabitants come fully into their own. In most stories, the middle is where the protagonist’s true journey begins. Where they set out into the unknown (literally or metaphorically) and leave behind the world of the familiar and mundane. The middle of a story generally runs until about the 80% mark, where you are ready to bring things to a head and then to a close.
Into the thick of things (tossing in all of your ingredients)
After the inciting incident usually comes a period of falling tension, in which more of the big picture is revealed to your characters and audience. Before you begin to think about the climax, it is time to toss in most of your remaining ingredients before turning the heat back up. In this stage, you are going to be broadening the scope of your narrative by choosing scenes that will demonstrate the full implications of your central conflict, introduce new main characters, and set various subplots into motion.
During this stage, characters don’t instantly begin to pursue their ultimate characters goals, as the central conflict is too large of a problem to have a tidy or obvious solution. Instead they struggle to wrap their minds around the present situation, taking the next perceivable step while battling to keep their heads above water. As events progress, the characters gain a deeper understanding of the state of the world, acquiring new insights about themselves and their conflict along the way. After a while, events will begin to turn towards the midpoint, where the tension and conflict escalate dramatically as the story heads towards its climax.
Aside from the hook at the start, this stage and the one proceeding it are where you are in most danger of losing your audience. A sagging middle, where too much focus is lost and tension is dropped, is a common place for an otherwise engaging story to lose steam. This is avoided by the inclusion of subplots, as well as by raising the overall stakes at a measured pace. If you have ever played the game as a child where you and another person take hold of a rope, lean back, and then spin around in circles, you already have a good model for how tension should operate across the middle of your story. Too little tension and you let go of the rope and lose engagement. Too much and the other person gets pulled off balance and can’t enjoy the ride’s natural pace. In either case, they will pick themselves off the ground, frown, and go home. This is why intermixing scenes of rising and falling tension is so important, as the fluctuation of action and relaxation retains the reader’s interest while the main plot continues to simmer.
Raising the stakes at the midpoint: Bringing your plot to boil
By now, most of your ingredients have been thrown into the pot and your stew is starting to gain its full texture and flavor. Now it’s time to put the lid on and turn up the heat to a roiling boil as you prepare to tighten the overall scope of the narrative and draw events towards their ultimate climax, in which the protagonist(s) faces off against the novel’s central oppositional force in a decisive showdown. However, if you want your climax to feel exciting as it draws near, riveting when it arrives, and satisfying afterwards, you are going to need to do two things well.
First you need to choose a climax that is right for the story you are trying to tell. But we will cover that in depth in the next stage. Beyond that, the most important element to get right is the groundwork that precedes that climatic moment, which is what this step is all about. Even the best climaxes in the history of literature and film would fall flat without the earlier scenes that gave them context and energy. Those invaluable moments that made the audience care about that world and its inhabitants. This process allows for the climax to feel surprising without blindsiding your audience, creating what is sometime called an “oh-of-course surprise.”
So then, how do you go about setting up a successful climax?
Begin by raising the stakes near the novel’s midpoint, then dramatically escalate this process as you head towards the final quarter of your page count. This is also where you will begin to foreshadow and prime the climactic scene (see the section on plot twists below).
Introduce any last new characters and subplots by this time, as it will be an unpleasant surprise to your audience if a major player comes out of nowhere during the final scenes.
By the same token, it’s time to begin resolving most of your subplots, except for a few that can be wrapped up during the story’s resolution.
As you begin to raise the stakes, have your protagonist(s) take an increasingly active role in facing down the novel’s central oppositional force (or antagonist), ramping up the level of tension in the narrative until things come to a head in the climax. This can be accomplished by giving your characters less and less time to deal with each new threat as well as by ratcheting up the danger of each, creating a rising tide of suspense.
Several intense sub conflicts often proceed the final conflict in this phase. However, any seeming successes your characters have managed to achieve up to this point will fall away in the face of the true threat now looming before them.
Finally, immediately before the climax, any last setup that needs to occur should be dealt with (characters changing locations, reminders the audience needs, the framework for any plot twists, etc.).
Plotting the ending
Well, we have finally done it. We have journeyed through the heart of your story and, at long last, are ready to tackle the conclusion of your tale. Take a moment to celebrate just how far you have already come since making that initial decision to write a book. There is still a lot of work left to do, but standing here at this point in the process is a major milestone and you deserve a pat on the back for the long hours and considerable effort you have put in thus far. Since we are nearing the end of planning out your plot, this seems like a good time to ask: “What constitutes a good ending for a novel anyway?”
Obviously there is more than one answer to this question, as there are many successful approaches to concluding a tale. However, in general a well-crafted ending needs to satisfy your readers, both in the manner by which the central conflict is resolved, as well as by giving them time to enjoy the satisfaction of a thrilling read. Of course, depending on nature of your story, its ending can be happy or sad. Triumphant, tragic, or anywhere in between. However, a satisfying ending is always one that makes sense in terms of the novel’s conflict and theme as well as one that rewards the audience for the time they spent getting to know your world and characters.
The end of a novel usually covers the final 20-25% of the page count and is comprised of the climax, the resolution, and a short section I call “the farewell.”
The climax: Dinner is served
The climax is the ultimate head-to-head showdown between a novel’s main characters and its central oppositional force and/or antagonist. After it concludes, the novel’s conflict should be definitively resolved (at least for now). As we discussed, the pacing and tension of the narrative should rocket intensely before the true climatic scene. One common technique is to have the characters face a gaping low point (also known as a dark night of the soul or black moment) right before the climax starts. Things might have been tough until now, but they were starting to look up, right before the situation was suddenly plunged back into chaos and potential disaster with the emergence of the story’s climax, raising the suspense through the roof as the reader waits on pins and needles to find out how the showdown resolves.
The climatic conflict itself should:
Matter deeply to the characters.
Contain both internal and external struggles.
Remain uncertain and unpredictable (suspenseful) until the decisive moment.
Be definitive in its resolution.
Confront the characters with significant odds of disastrous failure.
Be true to the novel’s theme.
Be emotionally intense, more so than any other scene in the story.
Represent a culmination of the core plotline.
Be believable (Make sense in the context of the world and its events).
Include a revelation that transforms the protagonist, completing their character arc.
When planning out your story’s climax, nothing is more important than the decisive moment, where the protagonist is forced to draw upon their true strength and the lessons they have learned throughout their journey. How satisfied your readers are with your conclusion hinges on this moment, in how skillfully it set up and then executed. Although it is not necessary, most stories climaxes involve the protagonist arriving at this final moment (walking into the belly of the beast) alone.
Other important questions to ponder when crafting your novel’s climax include:
Is this the best/most meaningful place for your showdown to occur? Many climaxes occur on the antagonist’s home turf.
Did the character(s) earn the resolution based on their own struggles and merits?
Did the climax fulfill the promise of the novel? Did you deliver on what everything has been leading up to?
Did you end on the right emotional tone for your story?
Does the arrival of the climax feel organic in context with the rest of the tale?
The resolution: Taking time to bask in the satisfaction of a delicious meal
After the climax comes the last 5-10% of the page count, in which the resolution following the climax is unpacked, any final subplots and lingering questions are resolved, and the readers get a glimpse at the new normal for the world and your characters. Although this section is necessarily short (it becomes boring to linger too long), it is still important, as it gives your audience some space to absorb the impact of the climax as well as to savor the satisfaction of arriving at the end of a well-told tale. Getting this part right ensures that your readers will end on the emotional note of your choosing and solidifies their final impression of your book.
Hallmarks of a powerful resolution include:
A satisfying resolution has a feeling of finality, of the characters’ lives returning to a (new) stable configuration. The ultimate story might not be over just yet (in the case of a series), but at least for today the conflict has been resolved and the tempest has blown past. Additionally, any loose threads (subplots) need to be tied up by the end of the story, or your readers will experience an unpleasant feeling that you forgot something or that the tale concluded too abruptly. You should take a few scenes to celebrate the success of your central characters as well, so that your audience can vicariously share in the emotions arising from the completion of their difficult journey.
A good resolution should be clear. Any remaining mysteries should be put to rest by this point (whether the characters learn their truth or not). It is fine if the reader doesn’t know how every situation resolves, but in this case they should know that they weren’t told and not feel like the author simply never went back and addressed the issue. A bit of ambiguity is fine too (was the villain truly defeated?), but only if this is deliberate and not an unintended artifact of being vague.
No matter what the ultimate emotional tone of your ending, you should avoid making it too monochromic. Happy endings should be tempered with notes of loss or imperfection, while tragedies should still offer a glimmer of joy and hope. Just as with your characters, your ending should be neither perfectly wonderful nor devastatingly tragic, as adding hints of other emotions will grant your conclusion a sense of authenticity and realism.
Brevity (without feeling rushed)
Again, this section is where you wrap things up and prepare to say goodbye, so the resolution should really only take a chapter or two to conclude at most. You don’t want your ending to feel rushed, but neither should you draw out the resolution too far. Once you decide on the endpoint of your story, resist the temptation to write additional scenes solely for the purpose of spending more time with your characters.
The farewell scene of your novel is the last decision you will need to make regarding your plot. As it comes at the end of the resolution, I recommend that you don’t let this final scene play out for more than a few pages at most. Just decide on how you want to say goodbye and then get it over with. Some authors like to leave the reader with a final thought (perhaps in the form of a brief internal monologue by the protagonist), while others may skip ahead to some point in the future to show the lasting impact of the story’s events.
Either way, keep in mind that this is the last moment your reader will experience in the world of your story, so decide on a final note that rings true to your theme and conflict. This is also where the transition to the next story arc occurs in multi-novel stories. Usually this is just a glimmer (shaped in the form of a hook) of what the next book will be about.
Subplots and scenes: A deeper dive into plot construction
For our last entry in this chapter to planning out your plot, I want to take a closer look at three final components of story-building, (various types of) scenes, subplots, and character arcs. We have discussed scenes of rising and falling tension a bit already, but now we are going to explore what they are and how to use them in greater detail, as well as the nuances of subplots and plot twists, before ending our discussion with a few thoughts on character arc, the intersection of character and plot.
Scenes of rising vs. falling tension
I will be discussing the intricacies of scene-crafting in the drafting section of this guide, as well as in later blog entrees. So for today’s discussion, I will limit the scope of my analysis to scenes of rising and falling tension. In general, a novel will include many more scenes of rising tension (at least as far as the word count is concerned), but understanding how both work is just as important as putting on both shoes before stepping outside.
From the opening scene all the way up to the climax, the overall level of tension present in your narrative should continue to rise. Thus, most of the scenes in your novel will feature elements of rising tension. Scenes of falling tension help to moderate this process, as well as to give the reader (and characters) a bit of time to decompress and absorb the events they just experienced. Scenes of falling tension usually follow major scenes and almost always proceed pivotal events. They can be used to alter the pace of the narrative, to compress time or change location, to allow for character development and interaction, as well as to give your subplots a place to live (although major subplots will generally tend to follow the same pattern of rising and falling tension as your main plotline).
Free yourself from the paradigm of scene and sequel, but do take the time to learn from the strengths of this approach.
This is a good time to bring up the concept of scene and sequel (coined by Dwight Swain), also sometimes referred to as action and reaction scenes. In its original (and in most cases modern) iteration, scenes and squeals represent the attempt to create a formula for a successful plot, largely by reducing the entire plotting process to two base elements. Personally, I find the result to be overly reductionistic, limiting, and forced. However, the attempt was a noble one and many authors do still swear by this technique.
In the action phase (scenes), characters attempt to achieve a goal in the face of some manner of conflict, often winding up in a worse position then when they began. A scene is further divided into three phases (goal, conflict, and disaster) and is always followed by a sequel.
Sequel scenes on the other hand, are reactive and possess little action and no conflict. They are intended to grant the characters space for introspection and reflection, as they absorb and react to the events of the paired scene. At some point in this process, the characters will come to a decision, the event that launches them into the next scene, now armed with a new goal. Sequel scenes are also divided into three steps or stages (reaction, dilemma, and decision). In this framework, scenes and sequels continue to alternate until the end of the novel, creating a steady pace and flow.
So what’s not to like about this framework?
Well for one thing, it attempts to take a highly complex concept (scene-crafting) and reduce it to a simple, almost mathematical formula. While this is interesting as an intellectual exercise, stories and the human experience of digesting them are far too complex to by accurately modeled with such a basic formula. For another, many successful stories heavily modify this pattern or ignore it all together. For example, longer scenes may include elements of both rising and falling tension (scene and sequel), and it is perfectly ok to string together scenes of rising and falling action without alternating them (just don’t let the tension go slack).
The level of tension present in the plot vs. a given scene
You can (and should) continue to use scenes of falling tension for pacing, even when the overall tension in the plot is rocketing towards the climax. In this case, you can think of your scenes of falling tension as the release valve on a steam engine, occasionally letting off a bit of pressure here and there so that the boiler doesn’t go critical before the big moment.
Should I always alternate scenes of rising and falling tension?
No! While this is a powerful construction that will serve you well in the pages ahead, many stories mix up and vary this pattern to great effect. Ultimately, you should write whatever scene best serves the story you are telling. One fairly common variation is to begin a scene of falling tension, only to almost immediately interrupt it with a second crisis, ratcheting up the adrenaline once more as thing head for the true resolution of the scene.
A momentary victory might only be the eye of the storm, or the warm up (or even precipitation) for the true predicament. Note that it is more than possible (and probably a good idea) to intermix individual notes of rising and falling tension into longer scenes, less the constant pace lull the reader into boredom or competency, even in the middle of the action.
Additionally, breaking the alternation of rising and falling tension allows for powerful techniques such as:
The fake out.
Other advanced tools of scene-crafting I will be covering in a later installment of this guide.
Core plot vs. subplots
I am going to get into the nuance of subplots a bit further down in this post, but I wanted to draw a distinction early on regarding the differences between your main plotline and the various subplots you will be sprinkling throughout your novel. Outside of shorter pieces, most novels involve multiple subplots that are introduced and resolved over time as the main plot progresses.
Main (core) plots:
Revolve around the protagonist(s) and the story’s central oppositional force.
Ultimately climax and conclude near the end of the novel.
Add flavor, depth, complexity, and pacing to the main plot.
Are important to some of the characters, but not to everyone.
Help to reveal the personality, drives, relationships, and passions of your characters.
Why do subplots matter?
Including subplots in your novel is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they allow for you to write longer pieces that are deeper and more robust than a simple Freytag’s pyramid. Additionally, they help to retain your readers’ interest, allowing for moments of intensity when the main plot is still unfolding, as well as interludes of levity during the midst of the pre-climax. Subplots also add complexity and diversity to your story and its world, allowing for characters to deal with a variety of conflicts and interpersonal relationships beyond the novel’s central oppositional force.
On that note, subplots are where you can carve out some space to reveal the personality and life-experiences of your cast. Where the character goals and arcs of your non-protagonists get to spread their wings and take flight. They are invaluable tools for adding contrast to your main plot as well, allowing you to alter the pacing and emotional overtone of the story without interfering with the main progression of rising tension.
In short, subplots more than matter. They are a critical tool that no successful author can afford to ignore. The better you become at crafting vibrant subplots and weaving them into your overall tale, the more engaging your novel will become.
Major vs. minor subplots
As with several other constructs, I like to divide my subplots into the categories of major and minor. Major subplots should be structured in a manner similar to the main plotline, in that there should be a hook, goal, and a primary conflict, followed by a series of progressive scenes that eventually lead to a climax and resolution sometime before the end of the book. These subplots should feature significant consequences and outcomes for the characters involved in them, often corresponding to their individual character arcs. A major subplot might be resolved over the course of a single scene, but are more commonly spread out over the course of the story.
Minor subplots on the other hand, are included more for texture and flavor than to directly change the trajectory of the narrative. They can take the form of minor mysteries to be resolved later on, but are often complete in the scene or chapter they first appear in.
Adding subplots to flesh out your characters and enrich your tale
Going back to our story as a stew metaphor, subplots are the spices and garnish that transform a hearty meal into a savory banquet. Although they can be individually identified, they are ultimately inseparable from the rest of the story. Subplots do not exist in isolation from each other either, as their effects on the overall story merge within the reader’s imagination. These impacts can be subtle, a wave from the bow as two ships pass in the night, or intersect as conclusively as two freight trains colliding. Remember that your major subplots each need their own climax and resolution that takes place before the end of the novel.
Every new central character adds a subplot to your story as well (doubly so for those used as the point of view for multiple scenes), as their personal character goals get tossed into the brew (although some of these might be resolved by the events of the core plot). Do attempt to limit the total number of subplots to a manageable level, as too many will dilute the power of your core plot.
A few points to consider when crafting subplots
Subplots should always:
Possess a distinct purpose for being.
Help to explain the world or enhance our understanding of the characters.
Be important to at least one central character.
Add variety to the events of the main plot.
How to handle adding subplots to your story
Crafting and developing subplots relies on the same skills and principals used in planning out your core plotline. The main difference is that they are smaller in scope and usually involve conflicts other than the novel’s primary oppositional force. At its most fundamental level, a subplot contains five elements:
A hook to introduce it.
A problem or a goal to address.
A conflict that makes solving the problem difficult.
A climatic moment where things come to a head.
This doesn’t mean that some of your subplots won’t be fairly complex, spanning many scenes before they ultimately resolve. In general, try to treat your subplots as intact short stories, in that they should feel complete if you read the included scenes back to back without any of the rest of the novel. With longer subplots, you will want to first divide them into individual scenes and then portion them across your main plotline (see the exercise in the next section on crafting your master plotline).
Dealing with plot twists
On its most fundamental level, a plot twist is defined as a surprising revelation or event that takes place at some point in a story. A solid plot twist is exciting and leaves the reader with something to mull over for some time to come. Plot twists can be large or small (but beware of overusing them) and can occur at any point in the story (not only the climax). However, in order to be both effective and enjoyable, a good twist needs to be carefully set up beforehand.
Why bother adding plot twists at all?
Plot twists can be used to add unexpected excitement, to change the meaning of current events, our feelings regarding characters (the sidekick was the villain all along), and to reverse fortunate outcomes/outlooks during major scenes. They are also frequently used when killing off some of your central characters. I like to think of plot twists as adding an element I call benign unpredictability (or fun surprise) to an already engaging narrative. Plot twists can also be used to resolve several story arcs at once, as multiple subplots collide in an unexpected fashion and then resolve together in the same scene. Major plot twists are commonly placed in a story’s climax, but they can be used to great effect to prime or catalyze the the moments preceding the climax too (as well as during the dark night of the soul).
How to set up a solid plot twist
In order for a twist to be meaningful and effective, there must be ample setup that occurs in the pages prior. My rule is that the biggest twists should receive the most setup, so major twists occurring in the climax should have their groundwork laid during the middle of the plot if not before. There are two major elements involved in this kind of setup, foreshadowing and direct clues, both of which should be presented with elements of misdirection, so that the twist isn’t too obvious before the big reveal. Well-crafted plot twists should be hard to see coming, but still make perfect sense when they occur as well as when the novel is read a second time.
In no particular order, here are some things to keep in mind when working out your twists:
Only include plots twists with a clear purpose, with an eye for the reader’s reaction. Always try to view things from the reader’s perspective (what do they know and what have they been lead to believe?).
Always set up plot twists ahead of time, otherwise they will generate confusion, sap satisfaction, and break immersion.
Make sure that each twist is believable, necessary, and makes sense in the context of your story, as a forced or false seeming twist will frustrate the reader greatly.
Don’t be afraid of a bit of artful misdirection. This means that when you place clues in the text, the focus of the action should be elsewhere. Just like a magician’s trick, the setup happens in plain sight, but never where the audience’s eyes are focused in that moment (for example, try dropping some solid hints into the middle of an exciting battle). Other forms of misdirection include red herrings, where information is included that is designed to help the reader form a false assumption, and dead ends, where the expected outcome is suddenly and definitively shot down (the primary suspect is slain by the murderer).
Subtle foreshadowing can be used to set up clever twists as well. As with direct hints, these clues should be small enough that they are easily missed the first time, but seem like neon signposts when read a second time after learning the truth. This leads to the kind of “of course surprise” you are looking for.
Never rely on gimmicks or cliché, as these will torpedo your reader’s engagement.
Try to create a twists that create or resolve mysteries and that make the reader think.
Maintain the momentum after the big moment. The action following a twist is just as vital to its success as the setup and execution.
Subplots and flashbacks are great places to set up twists, as the information contained in them can intersect with the main plot in interesting ways later on. This means that a seemingly small subplot can play a much greater role in the story than it initially appears (an old bone that the dog found a few chapters back is actually the missing evidence, etc.)
Character arc: The intersection of character and plot
As we discussed when planning out your characters, each member of your central cast must possess a concrete goal. This can take the form of a passionate desire, a desperate need, or anything in between. Imagine a story where the characters were already totally happy and content. Where nothing has gone catastrophically wrong and there is nothing in their world that needs to change. Well, you wouldn’t really have a story at all. There would be no hook to engage your reader and none of the tension required to keep them turning those pages. In short, if you don’t have characters with clear goals, you don’t have a plot to begin with.
The goal of your protagonist should be especially urgent, meaningful, specific, and difficult to achieve. And the needs of your other main characters should be impactful as well. The forces that prevent them from being able to easily achieve their goals are key sources of opposition in your story, serving as critical foci around which the structure of your subplots will revolve.
Do my central characters really need an arc?
Yes, they really do. Although not all of your characters will change greatly over the course of your tale, the human experience of watching others struggle and triumph (or fail) is a powerful source of emotion in a story. Furthermore, we expect people to change when their world is turned upside down and they have battled long and hard in the face of opposing forces, confronting and surpassing their own weaknesses and limitations along the way.
I think most of us want to believe that our own struggles and suffering are meaningful and we gain this by finding meaning in the stories of others. Thus, not including this kind of change cheapens the meaning of your characters’ conflicts. While character arcs vary greatly in how much change they enact, there should always be a clear direction. Having a sense of this arc early on will prove invaluable as you include your characters in later scenes.
What kind of arc is best for my character?
As with the other narrative elements we covered, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to character arc. A character’s arc represents their internal and external journey over the course of a novel and a character can change in more than one way as a result of their experiences. Remember that not every central character needs to be given a wide arc, but they should all change in perceptible ways in response to the struggles they overcome.
In general, a character’s arc is inseparably bound to their character goals. To those wants and needs we baked into their design early on. Also, bear in mind that not all character arcs are positive, some are sad (the character slowly drifts off into delusion or mental illness) and some are negative (the character becomes corrupted or succumbs to temptation). The hero can even become a villain (or vice versa). Regardless of their emotional overtone, your character arcs should be believable, meaningful, and satisfying to your reader.
Worldbuilding 101: How to Develop the Setting of a Story
In the last entry I discussed the importance of creating compelling characters and I will cover planning out your plot in the following section of this guide. But for now, let’s focus on another fundamental component featured in (nearly) every story ever told, setting. Although developing your settings might not seem as important as inventing a charismatic cast or assembling a riveting plotline, allow me to assure you that it is still a critical task in writing a successful book.
In fact, fashioning vibrant settings that will capture your reader’s imagination is a core component of storytelling, an aspect which many authors seem to spend too little time on over the course of completing a novel.
The power of setting
What is the setting of a book?
At its most basic level, the setting of a story is defined as the physical location where a given scene occurs, along with the surrounding geography, climate, and culture. Setting also includes such elements as the weather, the time of day, and the impact of recent events on the local environment. Examples of the setting of a story include: the apartment where your main character lives, the bar where he fell in love, and the graveyard where he buried his wife after the tragedy that launches him into the conflict of the story (inciting incident).
Why is setting important?
A setting is much more than a simple backdrop to place behind a given scene. It is a vital, interactive feature of your narrative itself. A solid setting can help immeasurably in establishing immersion for your story, while a poorly-developed setting can prevent immersion from occurring to begin with. A lively setting can help to set the mood of a scene, serve as a source of foreshadowing or conflict, and a great deal more. Certain settings will also possess additional significance for some of your central characters, evoking powerful feelings, memories, or other associations when they reside in that environment. Furthermore, a setting does not operate in isolation, rather it cooperates with the other elements of your narrative to establish and enhance the action, atmosphere, and meter of your story.
A vibrant setting can improve the quality of a story in a number of important ways. To start with, the environments you chose as stages for your various scenes help to set the overall mood. For example, a lonely, moonlit hilltop conveys a rather different emotion than a verdant field of wildflowers. A setting also provides both limitations and possibilities for the characters who frequent them. A protagonist living on a small farm will have a worldview that is miles apart from someone living in the big city, and their respective options for recreation, romance, and commerce will be shaped by their environments as well.
A setting can also have its own unique personality or voice, contributing to the variety and complexity of a novel in much the same manner as its characters. Thus, some of your settings will be ideal for scenes of rising tension (see the post on planning out your plot), while others may be more suitable for scenes of falling tension. Some places will feel relatively safe, while others may be filled with an inherent sense of adventure and danger. Additionally, changing settings can be used to alter the pacing of a novel by accelerating or compressing time as well as to shift the atmosphere, flavor, and present level of tension flowing throughout the narrative.
Finally, places have the power to transform over time, evolving with the overall flow of your plot. This can be used to create powerful emotional effects. Just imagine the impact of a protagonist who is returning to his hometown (a place where several prior happy scenes occurred), only to witness it devastated in the aftermath of a regional conflict or suffering in the midst of an environmental disaster. Setting is important for a number of other reasons as well, some obvious and others more subtle, but hopefully this is enough to convince you that developing your settings is worth more than a mere afterthought.
A picture is worth at least a few dozen words
I’m sure that you have heard stories about authors who have traveled the world, spending weeks or even months touring exotic locals in order to gather true-to-life material for their novels. Well, I am here to tell you that unless you are writing a work of fiction that is set in a specific real-world location, all of that traveling is totally unnecessary, at least as far as building believable settings that enable realistic descriptive writing are concerned (but by all means go anyway if you have the time and money to spare).
This is because we have the great fortune to live in the digital era, where a thousand lifetimes’ worth of sights, sounds, and first-hand descriptions lie at our fingertips. At no other time in history have authors been able to access countless millions of pictures, videos, audio recordings, and other historical documents, all at the press of a button. And thus, you can use the internet (as well as physical photographs) to generate compelling scenes, full of lively details that will allow your readers to immerse themselves within them. For example, I have several chapters in my first novel that take place within a fantastical version of a tropical rain forest (the Deepmist Jungle), an exotic terrain type I have not yet had the opportunity to visit in person.
Do bear in mind as we continue this discussion, that revealing a setting to your reader is established by the quality of the details you present, not the quantity. In fact, it is counterproductive to bombard your audience with long lists of sights and sounds, as the setting is there to serve your narrative and not the other way around. Instead, allow a few carefully chosen details to establish the atmosphere or “flavor” of a given scene, pulling the reader into the present reality of your story by introducing them to a few evocative particulars. Then you simply need to get out of the way so that their imagination can paint color between the lines you have drawn.
Exercises for developing settings
Exercise:Using Google image search (and other photographs) to flesh out settings
For this exercise, you are going to use Google image search to help build up a setting, as well as to generate some of the early descriptions you will be incorporating into your novel. You can also use Google street view for this exercise if your setting is in a modern city. To begin with, simply jot down a few search terms that are related to the environment of your setting. In my case, when I was researching my fantastical rainforest, I began with some basic terms like “jungle” and “rain forest.”
After entering each of these searches, I first unfocused my eyes and took in the totality of the images sitting side by side on the page, getting a feel for what it might be like to fly over these locations from a bird’s eye view. Eventually, some of the individual images began to stand out and demand my attention, and these I opened to full size and considered at length.
After you have saved the best among this first set of images, try mixing up the search terms a bit to see if you can find anything else that might be of use. In my example I wanted a few more shots of a certain look of tree, so I searched for, “tropical canopy,” “banyan trees,” and perhaps a half dozen more terms to round things out. After a while, I selected ten images that spoke the most powerfully to me, saved them, and began to ponder them one at a time, describing the details that leapt out at me in brief phrases and sentence fragments, words which I came back to when describing my jungle setting during the novel drafting process.
Now if you are going to be writing about a specific real world location (contemporary or historical), Google image search alone is not going to cut it. To really get the details right, you are going to need to do a bit of research, first by pouring through multiple first-hand descriptions and then by making a visit in the flesh.
Exercise:Using audio recordings of ambient sounds
After I had a nice collogue of relevant images to refer back to (which I also tended to put in the background while working on scenes in that environment), I began to search for and then peruse audio recordings of various jungle noises as well, once again describing the aspects of the soundscape that I wanted to use for my own story. At this point I had a nice reference filled with rich details to pick and choose from, and so I proceeded to draft the initial descriptions of my jungle, the ones I used when my characters were exploring it for the first time. When utilizing this soundscape searching technique yourself, don’t worry if the scene you are listening to isn’t a perfect match for your setting (unless your story depends on true-to-life specific locations). Simply extract the relevant noises you feel would work well in your own environment and leave the rest behind.
Exercise:Building up settings by drawing a map
Another powerful tool for developing your early settings is map drawing. Regardless of whether a given setting is composed of a swath of wilderness, a city, a building, or even a single room, mapping out the location and its contents can help immeasurably when attempting to visualize your fictional local (I advise drawing a map even for settings based on real-world locations). This exercise will help you to wrap your head around the layout of your setting early on, as well as serve as useful reference later in the drafting process.
Being able to take in at a glance the individual buildings, doors, windows, and even furniture present in an environment will assist you when your scenes involve characters moving through these locations, as well as help to ensure continuity when revisiting these settings later on. For example, if someone bursts in through the front door of a bar and runs up to the counter, just looking at your map will tell you how far away they are when they enter the room, what they have to maneuver around on their approach, etc.
You don’t need to go crazy and include every last chair or residential block on your maps, but do try to jot down the relative position of anything the characters will likely have to interact with, pay attention to, or move around, over, or through during the course of the scene.
Exercise:Drawing inspiration for settings from your favorite places
This is a variation of my image search exercise. But this time, instead of trying to craft a setting from various pictures and audio recordings, you are going to attempt to distill some of the feelings and associations you have regarding your favorite real-world locations. For this exercise, make the effort to go out and visit the place in person if you can, but working from memory will do in a pinch. Once you are on scene with paper and pen in hand (or are imagining doing so), start by writing down the details that initially jump out at you. The sights and sounds that in your humble opinion, make this place unique and wonderful. After you capture some rich details from each of your five senses, keep sitting there for a while and take in the atmosphere.
You are going to be looking for two things next:
First, focus on your personal associations, emotions, and memories of the place, the reason it means something to you to begin with. These will be useful when determining the relationships between the fictional settings you base on this place and some of your central characters.
The other thing to keep an eye out for is anything interesting that happens. Snippets of conversation and the brief interactions between the people walking by. The banter of merchants and their customers, the shuffle of the line in front of a nearby club, etc. These details, ones set in motion, are great to include when describing your setting for the first time and tend to be more interesting to your reader than long lists physical traits.
How to worldbuild: Treating your setting like a character
I want to talk a little bit more about the process of transforming lists of physical and auditory descriptions into living, breathing environments. As you start to assemble these various details into unified settings, you are going to want to spend some time fleshing things out, just like you have for your central characters. You want these environments to be as interesting as possible, as rich and vivid in your mind’s eye as you can make them before you begin writing, so that they come to life on the page when your characters arrive and begin to explore.
This effort will pay off when you start drafting in earnest, as your settings will evoke a compelling atmosphere, flavor, and texture naturally, all thanks to the time you spent getting to know them before your pen hits the page at full tilt. Remember that it is perfectly natural for a given setting to become richer in your mind over time as you continue to write your novel, in fact this is one of the reasons that revision usually requires multiple cycles. But for now, you want your main settings to be about as well-developed as your central characters.
How to describe a setting
Describing a setting for the first time
As when describing characters to your readers for the first time, the first time that you introduce an important setting to your audience, you are going to want to highlight enough details to provide them with a complete picture. I want to emphasize that describing a setting should never upstage the characters and events of your story themselves. A setting provides context and atmosphere to a scene, but should not get in the way and interrupt the pace of the action.
This means that you should avoid barraging your reader with long lists of details, as this is actually counterproductive to engaging their imagination. Instead, focus on a handful of vibrant particulars, presented in the order that a given character notices them. You won’t need to include such a lengthy description of this setting the next time you use it in a scene, so feel free to go on for at least several sentences as you introduce the environment to you reader. That way, when you return to it later, you can refer back to a relatively small handful of details in order to refresh this description in their mind.
When working out these early portrayals of settings, try to move from the general to the specific, the same way that a reader’s mind would process the location if they were to walk through it for the first time. Start with tangible, concrete details, the things that a character can touch, hear, and see. Tabletops and paving stones. A scent of brine and the sound of waves lapping against the pier. Then move on to more nebulous or abstract details that are more a part of the present atmosphere than the enduring physical environment. The hint of an arriving storm in the air. A creaking sound that is out of place. Notes of tension thrumming throughout the crowd filling the street.
Bear in mind that the descriptions of your setting should match the skills and familiarity of the point of view character who is experiencing it. You would describe a busy workshop quite differently if your character were visiting it for the first time as opposed to being in charge of the shop. The chaos of industry might be distracting bordering on overwhelming to a newcomer, but should reveal a hidden order to someone who belongs there. A rack of tools might feel like a jumble of wood and metal to the uninitiated, while each device would possess a distinct purpose and identity to a craft master.
Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion
This is a fairly common piece of advice, but since it is such a good one, I wanted to make sure to include it here as well. The idea is that your readers will have a hard time digesting block paragraphs of description all in one go, so it is helpful for you to distribute details evenly across the introduction to a scene. A powerful technique to achieve this outcome is to describe your settings while your characters are walking (running, strolling, dancing, or fleeing for their very lives) through them, using the pace of the action to spread out your descriptive attributes.
For example, say you have a rural farmer visiting the big city for the first time. Rather than listing everything that he witnesses all at once from the moment he steps through the city gates, try dropping in shorter segments of detail as he continues to explore the setting. Given his humble upbringing, our farmer might reach down and touch the bricks in the road, marveling at their red hue and evenness. As he continues toward the market, he might stop to admire the sheer number of people going about their daily routine, so many more than he has met over the course of his entire life.
Instead of merely describing the various shops and merchant stalls, lay out how wondrous and luxurious the goods on display are. How wealthy the (modest) shopkeepers appear and how opulent their goods seem to our farmer’s eyes. Of course, a character who grew up in this hypothetical city would be completely used to the sights of commerce and trade by now, and you would describe them with a sense of casual familiarity if this was your PoV character instead.
Allow your narrative descriptions to flow naturally as your PoV character moves across a setting and scene. Think about which details he or she would notice from these various sub-settings first, as well as which would only sink in after some time. Throughout this process, try to pair detail with action rather than providing simple lists. Our farmer might have to detour around a crowd or fight his way through it as opposed to merely glancing at the throng while walking on by. Feel the warmth of the morning sunlight on his skin rather than simply observing the time of day. By putting your descriptions in motion, your reader can more easily imagine your settings, enhancing immersion and allowing the unique ambiance of your fictional environment to shine through.
Exercise:The five senses in motion check (Taking a stroll through your setting)
This exercise is intended to assist you in further developing settings that have already had some work put into them, especially as you ponder how to describe them in motion. The idea is that you want to incorporate sensual details regarding not only how the setting appears to the eyes, but data from the other four senses as well. Keep in mind that you won’t need to use all five senses when describing every scene (taste gets used less for obvious reasons), just enough that the environment will come to life and appear authentic to your reader.
This is a bit similar to my earlier exercise on following a main character around over the course of their daily life. But this time, instead of walking a step behind a character, you will be taking a mental stroll across your setting “in person.” Start by closing your eyes and pretending that you are entering this environment for the first time and go from there. As you begin to build up this image in your mind, write down any relevant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile details that come into focus. If anything action oriented is happening, follow it for a while and see if something exciting occurs.
When you feel like you have exhausted this mental exploration, its time to mix things up. Try changing the weather or time of day. How does the place appear in the morning, evening, or middle of the night? What does it feel like when it is sunny, stormy, or overcast?
You can also experiment with moving the “camera” in this exercise. What does the setting look like from a hundred feet up in the air? How about thousand? Now try zooming in for an extreme close up, describing your approach in order. Start by viewing things while remaining far away, then move forwards to get up close and personal, and then head all the way inside (this last bit only applies to buildings and other enclosed spaces, obviously).
Now, I want you to come to a stop in your mental meandering, ideally somewhere in your setting that has a good view of the surrounding terrain. Next, I want you to take a long, lingering look at the horizon. If you haven’t already done so, now is a good time to consider what lies beyond the immediate boundaries of your setting. When your characters look out their windows, what do they see? The profiles of tall buildings and chimney tops? Rolling hills or snow-capped mountains? Perhaps a distant glimpse of the endless ocean?
Once you have written down whatever details come to mind, slowly turn in place, jotting down any additional features that reveal themselves. Anywhere that your characters will eventually be visiting should receive some extra attention, so that their descriptions will lead your reader to become curious about this faraway place. A curiosity that will be sated a bit later on when your characters arrive in person.
Life in and near the setting
If you have not already done so, now is an ideal time to consider what daily life is like in and around this place. Is your setting heavily populated, small and cozy, or a veritable wasteland? On that note, what do the people that live here do for work? Where do they get the food and other supplies they need to survive? Do they trade, live off the land, or some combination of both?
Moving on, what do the people here like to do for recreation? Does the place have any nightlife, or is everyone in bed with the setting sun? Along with daily conditions, what are some of the local customs or seasonal events that take place nearby? Are there any major festivals, rituals, or celebrations for your characters to attend? Are outsiders welcome to view these occurrences or are they barred from participation? You won’t be including all of this information in your story of course, but thinking about what it is like to live in or near your important settings will help them to come to life within your imagination.
The natural world
Whether your setting is urban or rural, it is important to include the impact of the natural world. Even big cities are home to countless insects, rats, and dogs, while rustic environments will be filled with a wide variety of plant and animal life. Take a few moments to ponder what lives in and near your environment other than people, as well as the relationships between the locals and the natural world. Climate and weather are core parts of nature as well, and knowing a bit about both regarding your settings will provide you with some nice options for potential sources of conflict as well as ways to change up the atmosphere of your various scenes.
Using setting to establish atmosphere
Before we finish wrapping up this section, I wanted to talk a little bit more about using your settings to reveal and mirror your characters’ moods, as well as foreshadowing. To start with, the vibes that a character receives from a given setting can change dramatically from scene to scene, a transient property of setting I call atmosphere. Changing up the atmosphere allows your setting to provide different emotional experiences to your readers at different times, ratcheting up the level of tension in the narrative here, or taking it down a notch there.
Including different characters in a scene can significantly change the atmosphere of your settings as well. A corner store might be just a place to grab some groceries to most of your cast. But if one of your characters had witnessed a murder take place outside, having them around would add considerable tension and other powerful emotions to the scene.
The same idea applies to the present emotional state of your characters as well. You would describe the same environment very differently if they were relaxing on their day off versus in the midst of dealing with a crisis. Or put another way, you can reveal the mood of your characters through the manner in which they perceive their environments, and there should be harmony between their mental states and what they notice about the world around them.
Utilizing subtext, where the details revealed over the course of a given scene imply a completely different meaning than the one initially presented to the characters, can be an excellent tool for foreshadowing. A classic version of this type of narrative occurs when a character is walking into a trap, where the reader may very well realize the danger while the characters remain blithely ignorant, ratcheting up the tension with every step until the critical moment when the action begins.
In an established setting you can alter the mood (atmosphere) by:
Letting the weather play a role: A sunny afternoon vs. a coming storm.
Changing the time of day: The break of dawn vs. the depths of midnight.
Changing of the seasons: Spring, summer, winter, and fall each evoke unique associations.
Changing who is present in the environment.
Changing what a setting means to a character (after a major event).
Using settings as obstacles and sources of conflict
One of the core types of conflict besides person vs. person, is person vs. nature (see the following section on planning your plot for more detail). Part of being a good storyteller includes throwing a wide variety of obstacles and curveballs into the paths of your characters and the environment is a perennial source of potential conflicts. Bad weather, natural disasters, and even simple darkness can all provide powerful sources of tension as well as play a vital role in the plot across your various scenes.
Tips for transitioning between settings
In order for a reader to imagine a scene playing out in their mind’s eye, they have to first know where that scene occurs. Thus, whenever you change up the setting, especially when transitioning to a new scene, it is vital that you let your audience know where they are as quickly as possible (as well as who the PoV character is). It can be incredibly disorienting and immersion breaking when a reader finds out, three pages into a scene, that they are no longer standing in the place they imagined.
Major vs. minor settings
My final thought on this topic involves major vs. minor settings, another distinction that I use in my personal storycrafting process. Just like your characters, some settings will be central to your story, while others will appear only briefly. Like minor characters, minor settings require significantly less development to use effectively. But it still important that the details you do provide to your readers serve your narrative and remain internally consistent if you revisit them later on. This means that you will want to focus on a few carefully-chosen details that really bring out the uniqueness of this place. Examples of minor settings might include: a cave the characters spend a single night in, the living room of a close friend, or a bar where two characters meet only once or twice.
When developing minor settings, ask yourself:
How can I sum up this place in a few sentences?
What images do I want to conjure for my readers?
What emotions or thoughts do I want this setting to evoke?
Don’t overwhelm your reader with too many settings over the course of one story
Just like you don’t want to overload your reader with too many descriptions, or dozens and dozens of main characters, you also won’t want to use too many settings over the course of a story. When considering the total number of settings to include in your novel, remember that less is more. The fewer locations that your characters transition between, the more familiar and comfortable your readers will be with each scene. This doesn’t mean that your story can’t include dozens of major and minor settings, rather that you should only include the ones that serve the needs of your story and leave the rest on the cutting room floor (or better yet, save them for your next exciting tale).
Keep in mind that setting plays a major role in establishing and enhancing plot, pacing, and atmosphere. For each additional location that you are considering including in your novel, ponder what unique elements it adds to your story and whether you could effectively use an existing setting instead.
Many times, the location where a given scene occurs is essential to the action of the narrative, making selecting the ideal setting relatively easy to do. But some of the scenes in your novel are likely less location-dependent, meaning that you have options regarding which setting to choose. For these scenes, consider reusing an existing environment rather than constructing a new minor setting, as it is an easy way to consolidate your narrative. As always, try to remember that every setting should be more than a mere backdrop and even minor settings are important when establishing the mood, adding depth to your world, and complimenting the action occurring around them.
With a bit of practice, you will soon be crafting major and minor settings that possess their own unique ambiance and provide your readers with a healthy balance of immersive images.
Residing within the heart of every engaging story is at least one compelling character.
A story that does not possess memorable characters to inhabit its pages is a story fated to remain on the shelf, unloved while gathering dust, no matter how imaginative its settings or masterfully-crafted its plot.
In addition to their central role in the story itself, it is up to your characters to spark the reader’s imagination. To suck them into the reality you have created and then tug at their heartstrings, allowing them to witness your characters’ struggles and triumphs from eye-level.
Following in the footsteps of a well-constructed character enables us to suspend disbelief and feel like we are living out the events of your plot firsthand, and this process of immersion empowers your story and central themes to remain with us long after arriving at the conclusion of your tale. Thus, learning how to craft compelling characters is one of the most important skills for you to master as you prepare to begin drafting in earnest.
In the end, the most important challenge your characters will have to overcome is convincing your audience to care. To become invested in the unfolding drama of their lives, hopes, and dreams. For once your readers form an emotional bond to your characters, all of the wonderful details of world and plot-building that you have been working so hard on will come to life within the theater of their mind’s eye.
Generating characters who turn pages
One of the joys of reading a novel is getting to follow its characters around while looking over their shoulders, or even watching out from behind their eyes. And so it is vital that your characters capture the reader’s interest from the outset. After all, no one wants trail in the wake of a fictional being for hundreds of pages, unless they can first form a meaningful connection. Thus, it is helpful when you are starting the character planning process to arm each of them with a hook that grabs the reader’s attention, much like the beginning of the novel itself.
Of course, coming up with characters who will hook your reader’s imagination starts with you, the author, becoming curious about those characters yourself. With practice, you will learn everything required to fashion well-rounded individuals who will leave your audience wanting to know more. Whose stories will resound within the hearts and minds of your readers, allowing them to live out the events of your novel vicariously.
It is safe to say that if you, the author, do not possesses a deep insight into your characters, then your readers will not be able to truly connect with them either. Thus, the more time you take to get to know each of your characters, to become acquaintances and even friends with them, the more natural it will feel when you insert them into the various situations and interpersonal dynamics your plot requires. In essence, the point I am trying to make here is that the more real your characters feel to you, the more alive and authentic they will appear on the page.
Character development in five stages
What is character development?
The definition of character development is: “the process of creating a believable character in fiction by granting the character additional depth and personality.”
I will now detail my five step process for how to develop a character. These exercises can be used to create customized character development worksheets and are intended to take your characters to the next level of refinement. Before we begin, take a look at and complete my preliminary exercises for finding ideas if you haven’t already done so.
Diagram: The five stages of character development
In the first stage, you will provide each of your characters with a want and a need, powerful drives that will help to shape their character goals, as well as the obstacles preventing them from easily sating their desires. This will help to transform your early cast from passive lists of traits into living, breathing people with concrete goals and longings.
In the second stage, you will generate core values and cornerstone experiences for your characters, the foundations of their personalities, perspectives, and choices.
In the third stage, you will further refine the physical and personality traits of your characters, in order to make them stand apart and off the page. Additionally, you will begin to explore each character’s life history, granting you a better understanding of who they are and where they came from.
In the fourth stage, you will begin to think about your characters’ futures, providing them with initial outlines of their character arcs as well as a bit more direction across your early chapters.
The final stage takes place over the course of drafting and revising your novel, in which you add additional filigree to your characters as you get to know them better and include them in more scenes.
Let’s take a look at each of these stages in greater detail:
Preliminary work: Brainstorming to generate rough character outlines
The first step in creating characters is to come up with their rough outlines. This can be accomplished by brainstorming lists of physical and personality traits and then putting them together to form interesting micro-narratives, providing you with an initial batch of character prototypes to pick and choose from. For more detail on the brainstorming process, refer back to my entry on finding ideas as well as the advanced exercises below.
Stage one: It all begins with a want and a need
In many stories, a character’s goal is the first significant detail you learn about them, and for good reason, as the most important thing you will ever give your characters are relatable goals. A character who wants or needs nothing provides no tension or drama to a scene, and has no real place in a novel. Your characters’ goals form the groundwork of their journeys, and provide stable threads to weave the rest of your plot around. Thus, it is critical that you spend sufficient time on this initial stage, as deciding what desires push and pull your characters forms the basis for a great deal of the rest of your novel.
In my work, I further divide character goals into two broad categories, wants and needs. Wants are the things your characters actively desire, their self-chosen goals for the (often immediate) future. Needs on the other hand, are the conditions your characters require in order to be truly happy, whether they know it or not. Sometimes (survival stories for example) a character’s want and need may be the exact same thing, but usually their perceived want is superficial compared to their true need. Often times a character achieves what they thought they wanted, only to realize it wasn’t what they needed and that their journey is still far from over. Put another way, wants and needs provide ebb and flow, tension and release as your story progresses, providing your main characters with sufficient motivation, reservations, and temptations to amplify the events of your plot.
Exercise:Tell me what you really want
This exercise is intended to help you start developing your characters’ goals, to provide a shape to their wants and needs. Start by picking a character, visualizing that they are sitting down beside you. Once you have a clear picture in your mind, imagine asking your character “What do you want most right now?” and then, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” You might need to mix up the wording and ask a few times, sifting through the superficial desires of the moment until you uncover their genuine longings and cravings.
The answer to these questions will help to reveal your characters’ wants. To determine their needs, you need to dig a bit deeper, moving past the here and now and diving down into their base motivations. Bear in mind that needs are always dependent on circumstances and that the need to survive will usually overshadow all other concerns if a situation is sufficiently dire.
Common character (human) needs include:
To feel safe.
To be loved.
To feel that one’s life matters, possess a sense of purpose.
To have a place to belong.
To alleviate the suffering of others.
To right injustices in the world.
Many characters’ needs will be a variation on one of the above themes. However, certain needs will be highly unique, based on that character’s individual circumstances (e.g. to bring a specific truth to light or villain to justice).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
One helpful way to think about character needs comes to us from psychological literature and research. This model was developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in the attempt to describe which needs are fundamental to human existence, and which can only be pursued and achieved when those primal needs have been met. In the end, Maslow formed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs that is still widely used today. Let’s take a closer look at each level now:
Physiological needs: At the bottom of the pyramid comes the need for resources that are required for survival, such as food, water, sleep, and shelter.
Safety: After an individual’s survival is assured comes the need for safety and security. This can include physical security, economical/financial security, and freedom from abuse.
Social belonging: Moving up the pyramid comes an individual’s desire to belong, their need to be close to and accepted by others. This can include friends, family, and romantic partners.
Esteem: The need for esteem can be broken down into two parts. First the need to be recognized and respected by others, followed by the need for what is known as self-esteem.
Self-actualization: Finally, at the top of the pyramid, comes an individual’s need to self-actualize. Once all other needs are met, a person still desires to reach their full potential, to become that which they dream of becoming. This can include the mastery of a skill or pursuing a life’s work, as well as leaving a legacy for the next generation.
Stage two: The heart of a character (Cornerstone experiences and core values)
Once the initial stages are complete and you are looking at a fledgling cast of potential characters for your novel, each of whom now desires something, it is time to start fleshing them out. To imbue these rough-hewn individuals with additional depth, purpose, and personality. One helpful way to move forwards in this process, while you continue to spend time imagining what drives each of your characters, is to come up with at least one cornerstone experience that helps to define who they are in the present of your story.
Exercise: Cores and cornerstones
Now that you have created a rough outline for at least one of your characters, I want you to try to come up with at least one core value they possess. This can be something simple like, “Sally can never turn away from someone in need.” Or a bit more complex, such as, “Gerald always repays his debts.” Once you have come up with a key value (or short list) that feels right for your character, the next step is to imagine a life-changing (cornerstone) experience that explains why that particular value is so important to them. This cornerstone experience can be a single event, or transpire over a longer period.
For example, maybe Sally grew up poor in a rough neighborhood and saw too many people suffering firsthand to be able to easily shut out the needs of others. Or perhaps Gerald had his life saved by someone, but was unable to repay the favor before they passed away. You don’t need to include these cornerstone experiences in your novel itself (although many stories do to powerful effect), but chances are that if you come up with a solid set of core values and cornerstone experiences, they will come out in at least some way over the course of your story, as well as grant your characters a greater sense of meaning and direction.
Stage three: Taking a deeper dive with your characters
Now that you have put some time and thought into your main characters and enhanced those rough sketches with key values and experiences, it’s time to add enough depth to your cast that they can be freely inserted into your scenes. You don’t need to try to capture every last measurement and freckle at this stage of development, just enough detail that describing their appearances, dialogue, emotions, and behaviors will feel authentic and consistent to you and your reader. As you get to know your characters more intimately by including them in later scenes, you can always go back and drop a few more details into their profiles. But for now, let’s just focus on completing things enough to start drafting the beginning of your novel.
Below is a list comprised of a few basic categories for you to think about as you add additional background and detail to your characters. Again, try to focus on quality rather than quantity when working out these particulars, as a few well-chosen specifics will add to your story immeasurably more than a long list of tepid traits. Don’t feel that you have to hit every category for each character now, and feel free to jot down any ideas that this process sparks within you, even if they don’t fit into these buckets:
Appearance and props: This is the first thing people generally tend to think about when imagining a new character. This includes their physical traits, grooming habits, and dress.
Is your character tall or short? Clean cut or thickly bearded? Do they tend to hunch over or sit up straight? Do they use a cane, smoke like a chimney, need glasses to see? Do they have a nervous tick? A chronic grin?
Personality, habitual tendencies, and speech patterns: This is usually the second thing that people begin to ponder immediately after their character’s appearance.
What kind of person are they? Are they kind, happy, fearful, or cruel? Usually relaxed or in a hurry? Along with their basic personality, what are their habitual tendencies? Do they interrupt others or listen carefully? Do they think things through or jump right in? Does this character have any verbal tics or phrases they commonly use?
History and life experiences: Although you don’t need to come up with a complete life history for each character, it is helpful to at least jot down some of their major accomplishments as well as the challenges they have overcome.
Did they finish college? Drop out of high school? Did they grow up wealthy or in poverty? In relative security or in a dangerous neighborhood? What did they witness as a child that made a significant impression on them? How about while growing up?
Family and friends: Does your character possess a strong emotional support network or are they all on their own? Do they get along with their family, or are they a black sheep (or even an orphan)? Do they have any close friends? Beyond their inner circle, does this character possess a large network of casual acquaintances or are they mostly a loner? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
Career and living situation: How does the character spend their time and how do they put food on the table? Do they have a career or regular job, or are they living paycheck to paycheck? Is their profession entirely legal? Do they have any formal training or marketable skills? Are they sexually active or celibate? Are they living alone, with a roommate, or significant other? Is this by choice or by circumstance?
Likes and dislikes: Again, you don’t have to try to come up with a comprehensive library of preferences for each character. Rather, settle on a few memorable likes and dislikes that will stick with your reader while providing them insight into the personality of your character.
Do they like mornings or staying up late? Do they prefer going to a bar to unwind, or burying their nose in a book? What kind of stories do they love and hate? What kind of people attract and annoy them? What are their hobbies and preferred forms of recreation? What are they passionate about?
Strengths and weaknesses: It is helpful to make your characters good at something, as this ensures that they are interesting and unique, but beware of making them good at everything. A character’s weaknesses and limitations can be just as interesting as their strengths (if not more so), and will provide fertile ground for developing your plot as your characters struggle against their own shortcomings in the attempt to reach their goals.
Remember that all human beings are imperfect. The impact that your characters’ flaws have on their decisions, perceptions, and relationships will help to render them more relatable to your reader, as no character will feel complete without a few skeletons in their closet. Additionally, pondering fears, doubts, disappointments, and insecurities is a great way to generate story material.
Contradictions: Another powerful way to make your characters seem a little less perfect, a little more interesting and real, is to provide them with contradictions. Almost everyone has at least a few discrepancies between their beliefs and values and their own behavior, or are torn at times between multiple ways of viewing or dealing with a situation.
Possessing minor (or even major) contradictions will go a long way in making your characters stand up from the page and will help to spark your readers’ imaginations as well. Having needs and wants that are difficult to perfectly satisfy makes your characters that much more interesting, as typically a reader will care less about a character without any real passion or drives.
Quirks: Whether or not they are good at hiding them, everyone has at least a few odd qualities, tendencies, or desires. Many times, these unusual traits are a significant part of what make us memorable and unique. It will render your characters more identifiable and interesting if you grant them a few such quirks as well.
Exercise:Using photographs to generate descriptions (How to write a character description)
So what do you do if you need to describe several dozen characters, but don’t have a crisp image in your mind regarding the appearance, age, dress, and mannerisms of them all, let alone the words to describe each character? Well, fortunately this planet has several billion people presently residing on it (as well as pictures dating back centuries), and any one of them can be used to generate concrete descriptions for your characters. Begin by simply browsing photographs (or even YouTube videos) until you find a likely candidate, someone who feels like a close fit for the person you want to detail, then start describing their appearance in complete sentences.
Anything that strikes you as interesting coming out of this process can be used for your characters, as there will be little if any connection between the photograph and the image your description evokes within your reader (unless you pick a uniquely identifiable figure like Abraham Lincoln in his top hat). You might even discover that looking at a given picture suggests some personality traits as well, as your imagination adds its own input to the process. Feel free to mix and match from multiple sources to create original characters that are an amalgam of several images as well as your own robust imaginings.
Stage four: Thinking about the future with character arc
Character arc: How characters change over time
One of the primary differences between central and peripheral characters, is that the major characters in your story will change over time in response to the events of your plot, while minor ones will not. You should have some idea early on in which direction a given character will grow (or fail to do so), and this progressive change over time is known as a character arc. As long as your reader has formed a meaningful bond to a given character, they will experience a sense of satisfaction in watching them grow and change in response to the challenges they have overcome. Additionally, witnessing such changes in your characters will make the events of your novel seem that much more significant to your audience.
I will be covering planning out the plot of your novel in a later section of this guide, but even early on in your character development cycle, it will be helpful for you to have a clear idea of your central characters’ arcs. The changes that they will undergo in response to your plot, occurring somewhere in between the first and last pages of your story. Changing (in a positive direction) in real life can be incredibly difficult and your fictional characters will likely change a bit more than a real person would experiencing similar events. However, this is a powerful feature and not a bug, as watching charismatic characters struggle, grow, and accomplish their dreams can be extraordinarily cathartic and liberating for your readers, even down right inspirational.
Now not every character in your story will change radically, but it is a good idea to grant all of your central cast at least minor arcs. These changes should occur gradually and follow a clear direction. They should also tend to stick (otherwise what was the point of everything the character went through?). Not all of these changes need to occur immediately after a major event, as human beings naturally tend to require some time to absorb and adjust to new experiences (and besides, this period of adaptation can form a colorful bit of narrative in your tale).
Some questions to ask yourself while pondering character arc might include:
Who is this person at the beginning of my story?
What life events made them this way?
What event will propel them into a period of change and what goals will drive this journey.
What trials and struggles will they be forced to overcome along the way, and how will these challenges change who they are and the manner in which they see the world (and themselves).
What character arc is best in line with the central conflict and theme of my novel (more on this later)?
What will they face at the climax of this journey, and how will they change in the aftermath of these events?
Stage five: Finishing touches
This final stage is the least formal of the set and will take place gradually, as you complete an initial draft of your novel and begin the revising process. As you get to know each of your characters better by involving them in additional scenes and interpersonal relationships, you will gain increasingly greater insight and clarity into their minds, motivations, and past experiences. As you add these vibrant bits of filigree to your character profiles, you may wish to revisit earlier scenes of your novel, inserting these additional details into them so that your finished characters seem consistent from their introductory scenes, all the way to the end of your novel (except of course, for deliberate changes resulting from their character arcs).
Basing characters on real people
Basing parts of your characters on real people, especially ones you know well, can be a powerful way to generate a realistic and personable cast for your novel. However, before you attempt to write a character by Xeroxing your friends and family into your stories wholesale, I would like to first humbly remind you that your characters are unique individuals. They are more than mere carbon copies translated into print, and as such, they deserve a chance to find their own identity, direction, and purpose.
Founding too much of any given character on an actual person (or historical figure) can prevent them from developing into the best possible character for your novel. And so I advise using only fragments of a real person as the inspiration for any given character. Borrow a few physical features here and a snippet of personality there, in order to come up with a blueprint for their speech patterns and mannerisms, rather than attempting to transcribe that person whole cloth into the world of your story.
This warning goes doubly for you the author, in using yourself as a template for your characters. As they are born from your own subconscious and imagination, it is inevitable that you will embed slivers of yourself into each of your characters. In fact, one of the reasons that many authors find writing fiction to be so much fun, is that they can live out their wildest fantasies vicariously through their cast. But I assure you that this caution is warranted. Experienced readers can tell when an author has written him or herself into their novel, and this rarely goes well.
Thus, I will say it for a final time. Be careful not to base any character, especially your protagonist, exclusively on yourself, and to the extent that you do, do not create characters primarily as a form of wish fulfillment. While this may be cathartic for you, the author, the result will inevitably feel artificial to your audience.
That being said, I have absolutely taken bits and pieces of myself (and past selves) and baked them into my cast, but I try to distribute these various experiences and attributes evenly over many characters. A name similar to my own here, my tattoo there. How I saw the world in my twenties somewhere far removed from the rest. With time you will learn how to balance drawing inspiration from the real world with figments of your imagination in order to come up with memorable characters who your readers will adore.
On character profiles: Writing profiles backwards
Whenever I create a new character and go through the first four stages of my process, I usually feel like I still only know a little bit about them. A few scraps of their core personality and appearance, and maybe a few additional habits and mannerisms if they are based loosely on someone I know in real life. As these characters are placed into various situations over the course of my scenes, they are forced to make choices and react to the world around them. Each of these decisions helps to reveal more of their personality to me, as well as how they think about their environments and process their experiences.
As these additional details become clearer, I add them into that character’s profile, ensuring that they will have continuity as I include them later scenes. Thus, rather than spending an exorbitant amount of time trying to imagine what a given character might be like right from the start, I tend to simply put them into some early scenes and see how they behave. Key details of their inner worlds soon begin to reveal themselves, adding depth and color to my characters as they are involved in longer sections of my story.
Developing character profile templates
Now that you have begun to craft detailed personalities, traits, and backgrounds for your characters, you are going to need some way to organize this information so that you can access it easily when you need it. Some writers like to make these profiles fairly exhaustive, creating a spreadsheet or other template with various fields for appearance, background, etc.
While I do find creating a binder of character profiles (or a digital equivalent) to be helpful, I personally don’t feel the need to attempt to fill out every field for every character. I do like to look my profiles over when drafting a new scene, as they are useful for refreshing the details I have already worked out in my mind before inserting a given character into the middle of the action. As long as your system allows you to find information quickly when you need it, it is not necessary to build a comprehensive database, although many authors prefer to do so.
If you are the type of writer who likes to come up with pages and pages of background for each character, just bear in mind that not all of this information will be included in your story. The purpose of these profiles is for you to get to know (and later remember) your characters, in order to gain insight into how they will behave and react within a given scene. This ensures that they will behave consistently across the length of your novel, except for when your story calls on them to change.
Exercise: Developing profiles by spending some time with your characters
So what do you do if you have gone through all of my stages and are now staring at a list of traits assembled into the rough outline of a character, but haven’t yet placed this newly-forged being into many scenes and they are still feeling a little flat?
This exercise will help you to flesh them out, and can even be useful with more developed characters during later stages of your novel writing process. The idea is that you will use your imagination to spend some time simply hanging out with your characters, watching over their shoulders as they go about the business of their daily lives. Some people like to pretend that they an invisible camera for this exercise, while others may wish to have actual “conversations” with their characters, kind of like an informal interview.
Start by imagining that your chosen character is waking up first thing in the morning and go on from there, all the way to the end of the day when they are climbing back into bed. As you go, jot down any meaningful details of their day, as well as any significant characters they interact with, or habits and routines they follow. If something particularly interesting happens, write down the relevant details in complete sentences, as you might decide to incorporate them into a scene for your novel. If this “invisible camera” style is feeling too passive for you, try inviting your character out for lunch and then informally interviewing them (let them pick the place and order for you).
Major vs. minor characters
Now that you have some ideas for characters under your belt and have begun to round and flesh them out, it’s time to decide just how important a role these fledgling characters will play over the course of your novel. For that matter, just what is the difference between a major and minor character anyway? In my experience, the difference lies in how much of the novel they appear in, how central they are to the story’s pivotal events, and in how much they change in between the first and last pages of a tale. Characters who play central roles, directly affect the core plot, and change in response to the main events of a novel belong to the category I call major (main/central) characters.
Only a handful of the characters appearing in your story will wind up playing a major role (or perhaps as many as several dozen in works of epic fiction). It should come as no surprise that you will need to spend considerable time developing these key movers and shakers, making their profiles as robust as possible, as they will be carrying a great deal of the weight of your story as the reader keeps on turning those pages. But the importance of your central cast doesn’t mean that minor characters and even extras don’t need to be carefully thought out as well. For even though they aren’t as central to the plot, these peripheral characters will still play a vital role in adding to the color, depth, and realism of the worlds you have crafted and the events you have set into motion.
It is important to try and come up with an overall cast of characters who complete and balance one another out. Especially in longer works, you are going want to try to represent the full spectrum of human personalities and behavior, at least to the degree that each of your major characters feels genuine and distinct from one another. This helps to ensure a dynamic balance of tension, as some of your characters will bond, while others will clash. Some will push for action, while others will caution restraint. You will be introducing some of your characters to your readers early on, while revealing others over time, and there are useful tricks you can use to convey their traits to your reader in each case.
Human beings possess a natural tendency to categorize others, as creating categories is one of the primary ways in which we make sense of and navigate the world around us. Thus, it is easy to quickly stereotype strangers until we have an opportunity to learn more about them. Knowing that your readers will likely form such assumptions regarding your characters is helpful, as major characters will become more complex by forcing the reader to revise their initial impressions, while minor characters can be categorized or “typed” in order to quickly establish their roles without taking up too much room on the page.
For the purpose of this section, I will draw a distinction between four classes of characters, ranked by their relative importance to your story: protagonists, central characters, supporting characters, and background characters (extras).
Especially early on in the planning and drafting of your novel, you will be spending most of your time in character development working on the main character of your story, also known as the protagonist.
So what is a protagonist in a story anyway? Every story has at least (and usually) one protagonist, although longer sagas, such as my own, may possess a small cast of (almost) equally central protagonists. The protagonist of a story is often the hero of the tale, although some novels feature unconventional protagonists who possess few if any herolike qualities (also known as an anti-hero), or even a villain protagonist. For all intents and purposes, the protagonist(s) is who the larger story is about and the events they will experience are inseparably bound to the core plot and central conflict of a novel.
The key difference between protagonists and other central characters is that the goals and drives of the protagonist are directly interwoven with the pivotal events of a novel as well as its theme, to the extent that the culmination of the story usually revolves around the protagonist’s core dilemma. Even in multiple viewpoint novels, the protagonist remains the primary point of view (PoV) character, the spot where you will be placing “the camera,” allowing your narrative to follow in the protagonist’s wake as they progress through the story.
As important as the protagonist is to a story, they would inhabit a lonely, solitary world without other characters to interact and compete with. This second tier of characters is still vital to your story and each will require a fair amount of development as well, as these central characters will be the bearers of important subplots and help to move the main story forwards. In multiple point of view novels, the PoV of central characters are commonly used alongside that of the protagonist.
So then, exactly what are the differences between your protagonists and other central characters? Both types will certainly inhabit significant sections of your novel, and the core plot will affect them all in important ways. The largest difference is that actions and drives of your protagonist are intimately tied to to the core conflict of your novel, while the goals of other central characters may be focused on other things. Protagonists are almost always on scene for key events in your primary plotline, but other central characters may not be, and will likely possess their own subplots that are resolved before the ultimate culmination of your story.
Before we move on, I want to take a moment to discuss a special type of central character known as an antagonist, whose motivations and goals are in direct conflict with the story’s protagonist. Now not every story features a central antagonist, but oftentimes they become memorable and vibrant additions to a tale, serving as foils as well as providing powerful insights into events that other characters do not possess. Antagonists can be true villains (evil to the core), but more often take the form of everyday antagonists, who are just regular people whose goals and desires place them into direct conflict with the protagonist. If your novel does include a core antagonist (or even a group of them), make sure to spend at least as much time fleshing them out as you would any of your other central characters.
Now a question I hear asked at times is, “Can the protagonist be an antagonist?” Well, perhaps not by definition, but it is certainly more than possible to have someone who is not your typical hero type be the star of the show. Even someone who is actively working to harm others can be an interesting protagonist. Just be sure that if you do feature a central antagonist in any capacity, that you balance out their negative traits with at least a few positive ones, so they do not appear one-dimensional in your story (like cartoon super-villains).
Next in order of importance after your protagonist and central characters comes a larger group who will appear briefly and often multiple times over the course of your story, but who are not involved in the main plotline and change little if any over time. These are your supporting characters and they can include local shopkeepers, neighbors and family members of the main characters, or the henchmen of a villain. It is easy to underestimate the value of well-crafted supporting characters, because even if they don’t move the plot along themselves, they are still adding tremendous depth, color, and grit to your various events and scenes.
Supporting characters require only enough details to capture a reader’s attention and do not necessitate the extensive backgrounds and personality profiles you have built for your main cast. They just need a few colorful traits, enough to make them interesting to the reader as they go about adding variety and breadth to the world of your main characters. By definition, almost every story will include a vastly larger cast of supporting characters than their corresponding central players, so even though any given supporting character might not be incredibly important to your narrative, learning how to craft and skillfully insert them into a novel is a vital skill for any author to develop.
Supporting characters are rarely used as point of view characters, although I personally like to use them (sparingly) in short scenes in order to show what is happening in places where my main characters are not presently residing. If you want to try using this technique yourself, I recommend keeping these “supporting character as the camera” sections brief, without delving too deeply into their lives and inner worlds. This is because if you make your supporting characters too rich and interesting, the reader will begin to treat them as central characters in their mind and may be disappointed or feel like something is incomplete when you don’t return to them later.
With your supporting cast, it is perfectly fine to allow the reader to form stereotypes about them quickly, and then to lean on those assumptions to help these minor characters stick in the reader’s imagination and memory. This is because these characters won’t be changing much anyway, so once they meet them, the reader will know what to expect from each supporting character going forwards. So feel free to focus on only one or two salient traits for these individuals, leaving the rest in the periphery of your own mind as well as the story itself.
Background characters (extras)
Just as in movies, novels almost always include dozens or even hundreds of characters who exist only for the course of a single scene and who are not individually worthy of the reader’s direct attention. Extras can be the crowd at a sporting event, the people walking down the street, or the other kids in a classroom. In general, these extras do not require more than a few colorful details to help tie them into the scene, or even individual names. Put another way, these extras are more a part of the backdrop of your scenes than distinct characters themselves. Most of them will never speak or interact directly with the PoV characters and will be introduced to the reader with only by a single trait or label.
Unless your characters are interacting directly with the extras, for example pushing their way through a crowd, they will simply stand in (or move their way through) the background, not drawing attention to themselves or acting to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way (although catching a few stray sentences from a crowd can useful when establishing a setting). Even if there is a large crowd of characters in the background, don’t stop to point out more than a couple of stray details regarding their presence, just enough for the reader to paint them onto the canvas of their imagination.
The Power of charisma: Making your characters likable and lovable
By and large (and with notable exceptions), you are going to want to make your central characters as likable as possible as you continue to broaden and develop your cast. This is because likeable characters are generally easier to sit with (and stand beside) over the course of a novel and tend to be more relatable as well (see the section below). If a reader discovers that they like or even love a character early on, they will naturally care about what happens to them, including whether they are able to achieve their dreams and desires. Again, try not to make any character too perfect by including too many virtues and too few flaws, but do attempt to make them someone who we can cheer for, cry with, and befriend within our own minds.
In general, readers will tend to feel positively about characters who:
Possess a strong moral compass.
Are kind to others without the need for reward.
Can be relied on in a pinch.
Are willing to risk themselves for the things they love.
Won’t betray their friends and family.
Are victims of unjust circumstances.
Have a robust sense of humor.
Behave rationally in a crisis.
Possess goals and dreams we can relate to.
Are fairly intelligent and skillful.
Volunteer themselves when the situation calls for action.
On the other hand, readers will tend to feel negatively about characters who:
Enjoy hurting others.
Lack sympathy and empathy.
Fall apart or panic under stress.
Lie, cheat, bully, and steal.
Are responsible for the suffering of innocents.
Are crazy (the dangerous and unpredictable kind).
Are selfish, narcissistic, or cowardly.
Fail to practice what they preach.
Beyond charisma: Crafting relatable characters
Regardless of whether a given character is larger than life or just a regular Joe who stumbled into the middle of the action, you are going to want your make it easy for your readers to immerse themselves within their story and struggles. In order for a reader to move beyond casual interest, to fuel their desire to know what happens next into a raging bonfire of curiosity, you are going to have to render your characters relatable to your audience. Even your villains and bullies will feel flat and forced if they do not possess some relatable human traits, common ground that will allow your reader to form a bond with their journeys and become emotionally invested in their outcomes.
In order to make your characters relatable, you are going to need to find some way to reveal their humanity as your story progresses, enabling your audience to emphasize with at least a portion of their situation and choices. If a reader feels like they possess a bit of common ground between themselves and a character, even a villain, they will be able to understand where that character is coming from and why they make the decisions they do, allowing your reader to care about that character’s journey, even when they are rooting for them to fail.
In order to help make each of your characters more relatable, I highly advise going through my five stage process, with a particular focus on cornerstone experiences and core values. Additionally, arming your characters with relatable human goals (even ones we view negatively) will go a long way by itself in forging a bond between your characters and readers, especially if you provide a bit of insight into their struggles to achieve their desires.
As I have said several times now, avoid making any member of your cast too perfect or too evil. People in the real world (the best and the worst of us) tend to have at least a few redeemable virtues or regrettable flaws, and a character without both will not feel real, feel human, to your reader, preventing them from bonding to your characters and severely impeding the immersive quality of your tale.
Additional tips on creating interesting characters
I am going to conclude this section with a list of ideas for generating characters who will spark your readers’ imaginations. This bit is just here to help inspire you and is not intended to be comprehensive, nor do your characters need to hit every point on this list. Keep in mind that a great deal of crafting characters who will engage your readers is accomplished simply by finding ways to make yourself curious about them.
In order to craft compelling central characters, make them:
Possess interesting and useful skills.
Consistent in their personalities, behavior, and values.
Change over time in response to the events of your story.
Possess meaningful bonds and feelings.
Have interesting things they want and need (that are difficult to achieve).
Possess flaws and blind-spots.
Take risks and confront their weaknesses.
Agonize over difficult decisions.
Suffer and cope with failure, loss, and setbacks.
Possess relatable wants, needs, and goals.
Something to love.
The agency to make their own decisions (and mistakes).
One of the first challenges that budding authors invariably face after deciding to write a book is figuring out how they will generate enough story ideas to fill hundreds of pages. Sitting there, staring at the pristine expanse of a blank page while pondering all of the work lying ahead can be incredibly disconcerting. Without having mastered effective techniques for inventing and embellishing people (characters), places (settings), and plot, it’s easy to wind up feeling frustrated and run out of steam.
But never fear. For I am here to tell you that all of that worrying is totally unnecessary and that the blank page will soon come to represent an exciting frontier in your writing process, rather than a mortal enemy. This is because, whether you know it or not, your brain is a living library. A bottomless reserve of stories, plot twists, and narrative techniques. All you need to do is learn how to connect this fathomless reservoir of knowledge to the task at hand. Then you will be able to reliably come up with ideas for your story through an organic and painless process.
The world of stories
Although you might not have thought about it before, stories are one of the key building blocks of human civilization and our minds are immersed in a vast ocean of narrative at all times. The people, places, and objects you encounter on a daily basis are all infused with vibrant threads of story, elements which you can learn to mindfully contemplate and then incorporate into your novel. Thus, leaning how to spot and draw inspiration from the stories thrumming throughout the world around you will prove to be an invaluable source of raw material as you continue to make progress on your novel.
Put another way, you already possess enough seeds of story within you to grow hundreds of novels, regardless of your age, background, or lifestyle. All of your life experiences, every hour of every day, still reside somewhere within your conscious memories and unconscious mind, and each and every one of them contains elements of story. More, you have been absorbing story from the world around you since the day you were born and by now have witnessed countless tales firsthand simply from living your life. You have also been listening vicariously to the experiences of other people, feeding your narrative-loving brain with another hearty slab of storytelling. In addition to your direct and second-hand experiences, you have been exposed to even more seeds of story through the vehicle of your imagination, along with your fantasies, longings, and dreams. Not to mention the contents of every book you have ever read and movie you have watched.
The heart of a story: Drawing inspiration from everyday life, monumental moments, and dreams
The ordinary drama of your daily life, the important events from your past, as well as your fantasies and dreams, can all be mined and transmuted into fantastic storytelling material. The things that have hurt you, the things that have helped you. Love and loss. Memories of those times that have filled you with anticipation and joy, suffering and dread, even the boredom from your weekly routine, can all be harvested for valuable ideas to use with your plot, settings, and characters. Everyday events as well as monumental moments.
In fact, every fictional story draws inspiration from everyday life in a number of important ways, even those dealing with fantastical subject matter and larger than life characters. This is because carefully positioned droplets of ordinary emotions and universal human experiences are the glue that holds the rest of a story together. Their inclusion in your novel helps to ensure that the events occurring within will resonate with the reader, enabling your story to linger with them long after they leave the last page behind.
I am not suggesting that you literally recreate these events from your past in your stories. However, their emotional significance can be translated into the world and characters of your novel, helping the reader to connect with your narrative by infusing it with a sense of authenticity.
Distilled down to its bare essence, every story is built from:
One or more main characters.
A core plot (and often various subplots).
At least one setting.
Your first task as an aspiring author is to find sufficient ideas for each of these fundamental narrative components. Inspiration is a fickle mistress at times, but in the end, you are going to be drawing on:
Elements of your everyday life.
Significant experiences from your past (that helped to shape who you are today).
Your fantasies, imagination, and dreams.
Virtually every story ever told includes aspects drawn from everyday life, including familiar: objects, places, people, situations, emotions, and events. As you begin to develop your novel, it will be up to you to figure out which of these everyday elements to highlight and blend into your own story, woven alongside your characters, settings, and plot, in order to make your story feel real to the reader, all without stopping to focus too long on any one component.
That being said, these everyday elements are a powerful spice, in that a few well-chosen details can go a long way in fleshing out your narrative. This means that you don’t need to try and cram in every stray experience you can remember. Instead, only include the seeds of story that spark your own interest and imagination and leave other aspects at the periphery of your tale or avoid them all together.
For example, the view from your living room, the warm feeling you get when speaking with your best friend, and the taste of coffee from your local venue, are all potential seeds of story. Bits and scraps of everyday life you could potentially incorporate into a novel, set beside other elements inspired from your childhood memories, your plans for the future, and last night’s dream. As you become more skilled in mining the people and places around you for seeds of story, you will begin to see just how rich the world of story engulfing us truly is. And as you learn to better perceive and appreciate it, your everyday world will become a lifelong source of inspiration for your novels.
Painful moments, joyous recollections. Embarrassment, humor, success, and failure. All of us possess key events from our past that involved powerful feelings and significant outcomes. Some of these moments may have even been turning points in our lives, changing how we saw the world and ourselves and setting us onto a different path, perhaps one we never before imagined. It should come as no surprise that all of your past experiences and intense emotions are now potential allies in the novel writing process, even those memories that were awkward, frightening, or painful to live through.
The death of a loved one, getting into a top school, or even a run in with the law can provide the template of a scene that will suck your readers into the world of your novel and keep them turning those pages. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to recreate these events from your past verbatim in your story (although do feel free to draw from them liberally), rather focus on the aspects of those memories that still resonate powerfully within you and attempt to translate them into the world of your novel.
Fantasies and dreams
Every fictional story draws heavily from its author’s imagination. In fact, many famous tales originated directly from a writer’s childhood fantasies and daydreams, along with their nightdreams and nightmares. It is not uncommon for a writer to go to bed with a story-related problem on their mind, only to wake up the next morning (or even in the middle of the night) armed with a solution. Writers with particularly active imaginations might begin to frame a scene in their head, only to have it turn into a lengthy daydream, complete with numerous details and events that can be incorporated into their story.
Even if you aren’t the type of person to draw ideas directly from dreams, your imagination is still a vital source of raw material. In fact, once you begin to develop the plot of your novel, your brain will most likely start to think about it off and on as you go about your daily life, often leading to major breakthroughs or valuable embellishments during the planning and drafting stages of writing a book. Additionally, many stories are written as a form of wish fulfillment, the realization of powerful longings and needs that have been denied to the author back in the real world. The robust emotions surrounding these desires and goals are vibrant story elements that you can learn to insert into your novel as well.
Learn to carry a notepad with you
As you grow more skilled at drawing material from your memories and the world around you, you never know when inspiration will strike. And by the time you get back to a desk and write it down, valuable content and momentum might be lost forever.
Thus, as you continue to search for additional ideas for your novel, I encourage you to develop the habit of keeping a notepad (or electronic equivalent) with you wherever you go. Tuck it into your backpack at school, your car as you drive, and near your bed at night. That way, whenever you spot a rich detail in the world around you, you can write it down in your notepad, capturing the essence of what drew your attention to it in the first place while it is still alive within your mind’s eye. In addition to sensory details and other experiences collected from the world around you, write down any memories that come to mind that still have strong emotions and sensations attached to them, as well as any other promising trains of thought.
Finally, whenever you come up with a good idea for your story directly, jot it down in as much detail as possible, fleshing out the thought in the moment inspiration strikes, or as close to it as you can. These can include:
Ideas regarding the overall plot of your story.
Inspiration for the next key scene you need to draft.
Cool ideas that don’t necessarily fit into your novel right now.
Personality traits and backgrounds for your characters.
Sensory details for your settings.
These lists, which only require a few minutes here and there to develop, will soon become a valuable trove that you can draw from later on down the road, giving you a head start on future characters, scenes, and settings.
Early exercises for generating story ideas
I am now going to share with you a pair of simple techniques I use for finding good story ideas, ideal for early on in your novel planning process. I will be going over each of these narrative aspects (setting, character, and plot) in greater detail in successive posts, so these are only meant to grant you a view from 10,000 feet up in the air. Don’t worry, we will be zooming in and getting a good deal more granular as things proceed. In these exercises, you will first be brainstorming to discover tiny bits of narrative I call story seeds, then I will show you how to assemble a pile of seeds into micro-narratives that you can sprinkle into your novel. Early on, the secret to generating story ideas for your writing is to use short, targeted prompts to grant you direction and focus.
Finding ideas for your novel part 1:Brainstorming
Start by reading the text on characters, setting, and plot below, then pull out a sheet of paper and start brainstorming (I prefer to use physical paper for this exercise, but a word document is fine). Once you get going, continue writing down whatever comes to mind until you run out of steam. It may take several brainstorming sessions, but you will eventually wind up with a decent list of options that you can use both now and later on in the project. As you ponder each of these narrative elements, whenever you come up with an idea, anything that sounds like it might work in the context of your story, set it to ink along with a few additional sentences to flesh the thought out.
For example, when brainstorming for a new novel, I might already know that I want my protagonist to be a police detective. Just from having made that initial decision, I can tell that I am going to need to invent a primary suspect as well as a police captain before I can get much drafting done. I think my detective is going to be a serious fellow, so I will likely want to include someone rather more lighthearted in his precinct to use as a foil, but I’m not sure yet who will fit that bill. I also know that I want the story to feature a blistering heat wave that will occur near the climax, as it is important to how the case gets solved.
As you begin to brainstorm, remember not to be too critical or take too long working on any one idea during this exercise, but do come back and keep developing these lists until you have complied an ample set of options that inspire you to write. This early stage of finding ideas might take some time to complete, but this is only natural as you are sifting through your subconscious while seeking out your best ideas, and even early on, this exercise will lead to helpful insights.
Once you have finished your preliminary lists for the people, places, and plot of your novel, divide each of your ideas into piles of hot (really fuels your imagination) and warm (maybe). Keep the rest in a separate cold list that you will want to peek at again once or twice later on, just in case something in there is useful for a part of your story you haven’t gotten to yet.
Finding ideas for your novel part 2:Building story seeds into micro-narratives
Once your initial brainstorming sessions are complete and you have a list of ideas ready for each category, it is time to combine several of these assorted story seeds into miniature narratives (preliminary characters, settings, and plot points with several details attached). Keep playing around with these piles of potential traits and events until you have early versions of your core characters, settings, and plot that are ready to be injected into your novel.
Continuing from the example above, I have already decided that one of my central characters is going to be a detective. Just by trying to picture them in my mind, I can see that he is going to be middle aged man, although I’m not sure exactly how old yet. Looking at my list of character ideas generated via brainstorming, I see that I had considered including someone with a grating laugh and a hidden mean streak. These attributes feel like a good fit for my detective, so I go ahead and slide them over into his description. I also have several names I like resting in my character pile, but none of them feels like a good fit, so I leave my detective nameless for this session.
Next, I decided during brainstorming to use a small town as one of my primary settings. Looking at my list of setting ideas, I can see that I wanted to tell my story somewhere with dry, hot summers and cold winters, so I choose to place my town somewhere in the Midwest of the United States. I don’t want to use a real city for this particular story, so I look at a map and then plot my imaginary town just a little outside of Austin, Texas, which also tells me a great deal about the local climate and culture. Finally, a big parade that occurs in the middle of an unseasonably late heat wave is the one clear scene I have in my head thus far, and so I make sure to note that my fictional city always throws a massive celebration for homecoming, setting things up for a climax occurring in autumn.
At this point, even though my fictional detective and town are still largely unexplored, they now possesses enough traits to begin to fuel my imagination. I will continue to add to and revise their descriptions as I complete the more advanced exercises detailed in the following sections of this guide.
Finding ideas for the characters in your book
I want you to stop and ponder for a moment the sheer number of people you have known over the course of your life. From the thousands of individuals you have met on a casual basis while going about your day… to the hundreds of people you have had meaningful interactions with at work, school, or recreation… to the dozens of friends and family members you have known well for many years. Now to this already impressive pile of individuals, stack on top the thousands of people you have heard about from others, along with the countless characters you have read about or watched in television, books, and movies.
The point I am attempting to help you understand, is that you already possess a goldmine of knowledge regarding the personalities, choices, appearances, and behaviors of many thousands of people. Not to mention their speech patterns, posture, habits, preferences, fears, prejudices, and more. In fact, you already contain sufficient raw material to generate more characters than you could ever hope to write about, lounging around somewhere in your memory and unconscious. All you need to do is learn how to draw from this massive repository to create the characters who your present story requires. Of course, there is one person that you have more insight into than any other. You yourself, the greatest resource for building characters that a writer could ask for!
Now, you probably already have an idea or two regarding your characters, but this exercise will help you to flesh them out further, as well as grant you some additional options for later when your novel calls for a larger cast. Using my two part technique detailed above, all you need do is take the various physical, psychological, and emotional attributes of the people you know and use them to generate unique fictional characters for your story. While brainstorming, focus more on capturing these traits in broad strokes rather than embellishing fine details (which will rise to the surface organically as you draft scenes involving your characters).
Exercise: One powerful way of going about this is to take a person you know well and write down their memorable attributes (appearance and personality, strengths and weaknesses). Since you already know this person in real life, you can use these observations to create characters who are both realistic and engaging. In general, try not to simply recreate intact people from your life into your book (although in certain cases this has been done to great effect). Rather, mix up these traits and shuffle them together to invent new, original individuals organically. In my novel, a given character might possess the personality of one of my friends, the appearance of an acquaintance from school, and the life circumstances of one of my instructors. However, don’t feel like every element of your characters needs to be based on a person in the real world, and of course, you will be injecting many elements of yourself into all of your characters. See my entry on planning characters for more extensive exercises.
Finding ideas for settings
Just as you have met and heard about thousands upon countless thousands of people in your lifetime, so too is your memory filled with myriad locations that can be transcribed to create realistic settings for your novel. Foreign countries, historical monuments, as well as the mundane reality of your local grocery store can be all mined to create settings that will resonate with your reader. Even if you have not traveled much, you have still clocked thousands hours of observation of potential settings, simply from going about your daily life in your home town.
Remember that you don’t need to try and reconstruct these settings brick by brick. A favorite bar could inspire a realistic facsimile set in the distant future or past, or even a fantastical realm not of this earth. There is something that resonates when you share aspects of environments that you have lived in and known well, and your reader will pick up on these details if you use your personal experiences as the starting point for your settings.
Of course, you should always feel free to make up settings that are very different from anything you have experienced firsthand. You don’t need to visit the rainforest to be able to write about the jungle, or the desert to write about an oasis. Still even in these exotic locations, you can incorporate details from the places you know, set alongside those you have researched, to develop settings that will speak powerfully to your reader. Be sure to see my entry on planning setting for advanced exercises that will help you to bring your fictional environments to life.
Exercise: To start discovering ideas for your settings, begin by asking yourself where your characters will be at the start of the novel and write these various locations down in a list. If you make it comprehensive enough, this list is guaranteed to include some of your early settings. If you know that your cast will be spending lengthy periods of time in certain locations by the middle of the book, you can list these and begin to develop them as well. Some of your settings might start off vague (e.g. the desert or a bar), while others that are based on real world locations you know well may already possess a wealth of vibrant sights, sounds, and inhabitants.
Finding ideas for the plot of your story
At this stage you are not trying to develop the entire plot of your novel, rather to find a handful of key events that you will structure the rest of the plot around as you begin to draft text and ponder your story in greater detail. Again, here we are looking for seeds of story to plant and nourish, not the complex pacing and plot twists that will arise naturally later, as you become more familiar with the world and conflicts of your novel.
Exercise: To begin finding ideas for plot, start by writing down any key events you already have in mind. Then add to that list the motivations of the characters you have created thus far, as their wants, dreams, and desires are fertile ground for developing your main plot points and various subplots. Don’t worry if many of the events you come up with seem small or are not directly related to the overall scope of your story, as they can still help when coming up with ideas for scenes and chapters. Keep this list of potential plot elements with you, as it can provide raw material to use later on. See my post on planning your plot for additional, in-depth exercises.
Ideas for fantasy and sci-fi stories
I plan to cover fantasy and science fiction stories extensively in a later installment of this guide. But to help you get started on finding ideas for your fantasy or science fiction world, here is another simple exercise. The idea at this early state is to get creative, knowing that many of the ideas you come up with will ultimately be left in the scrap bin (but who knows when they might be useful later down the road in this or a following project).
Exercise: Find what is cool, exciting, and makes your curiosity tingle.
For this exercise you are going to make a list of every fantastic element (technology or magic) that might find a home in your story. These can be inspired from your favorite works of fiction, daydreams, or anywhere else story that resides (refer to the above sections for more detail). Just like the earlier exercises, you are going to separate these ideas into hot, warm, and cold piles.
Dragons, wizards, and fairies. Spaceships, aliens, and killer AI’s. Over time you will add to and flesh out these various elements, deciding which to incorporate into your own tale. These will eventually form the base ingredients of your unique worlds, which you will enrich and blend in later stages of writing your novel.
That’s it for today’s lengthy entry, if you haven’t already done so, I suggest checking out my prior post on overcoming writer’s block for even more tips on how to keep your writing momentum going strong.
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