Building a Story – Plot Elements

Cropped A3 Poster with Red Button

I will be the first to admit there are about a million ways to skin a cat.

When it comes to writing, there are as many valid approaches as there are writers. In fact, I am always fascinated by the varied processes of other writers. I never tire of hearing about it, as though each unique method is like another peek under the hood of some amazingly magical, complex machine. A machine I’ll never have a hope of truly understanding.

That said, I am pretty structured in my own approach. So if I’m going to pass on what I know, it’s going to be an organised method. That’s going to be a godsend to some, perhaps an annoying thorn in the creative brain to others. Either way, I hope you enjoy hearing about it.

OK. Plotting.

In formulating a story, I work around three basic elements. Character, Conflict and Setting.

In a good story, each of these elements should be integral to the others — i.e. the elements of the setting should be unique and have some interrelationship with the characters and their main conflicts. The conflict should be unique to the relationship between character and setting etc. But don’t strain your brain about that too much now.

Starting to put together a story is a time for free-flowing thought – anything goes. There is time enough to scrutinise later (believe me).

When I started putting together plots, it was all pen and paper (I was going to say clay tablets and stylus just for fun, but hey – I’m not that old).

Nowadays I put everything into a single Word file. All plot related notes, the actual plot flow, and all the research notes. Why? It’s so damn easy to find everything! Gone are the frustrated hours trying to find that key handwritten paragraph amidst a mountain of scrawled notes. The Word search function is a bit of code blessed by the Writing Gods. All you need to do and insert some key characters, or just make a mental note of the heading you need and presto, you are there. Between the search function and the ability to split Word into two screens, the power of that single Word document to facilitate the development of your story is truly amazing.

Right. Back to plotting.

I usually start by sketching out all the headings. When I say I have an organised approach, it doesn’t mean my mind is linear — not by a long shot — let’s face it, all creative people have thoughts like supercharged ping-pong balls, all of which insist on going sideways. It makes regular work meetings a nightmare.

What the structure enables me to do is capture these thoughts and ideas as they come, fleshing out the story background, then the story itself.

Here are the general headings I use:

General Notes & Ideas

What is the Book about?




Plot Flow

Specific research I put after these sections, under its own headings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is usually some key creative spark – that initial conception – that is your way into the story.

Right at the beginning I start with the General Notes and Ideas section, jotting down all the ideas that relate to the story. I am a visual person, so something in the act of writing these things down helps to solidify and expand the whole storyline. These notes could be plot ideas, character ideas or even worldbuilding. Anything really, just to get the creative juice flowing.

Then, depending on the book, I might need to do some specific research. How much? This is really a gut feel thing. As a general rule, I would say be guided by your own instinct about what you need to read. Don’t be too dogmatic to yourself. Don’t say: ‘Right. If I’m going to X I really need to research Y’. Choosing research is as much part of the mysterious craft of writing as anything else. This is a fact that many people miss. That same itch, or instinct, that makes you want to write in the first place will direct your attention to the work you need to pursue. You will know. It’s like that scene in Dragon – the Bruce Lee Story — where he is in the dream sequence with the demon. He is getting the snot knocked out of him in the graveyard (in the rainJ) and then suddenly there is a beam of light, showing Bruce a pair of nunchucks in the mouth of a lion statue. It’s exactly the same. There will be some beam of mental illumination or gut instinct that will tell you what you need to be reading and researching as background or aid to your work.

Of course, if your world is completely invented, your ‘research’ might be creating things from scratch, although I would usually put that under Setting.

Your research notes can be as clunky and disorganised as you like. The beauty of search function is you can easily find it if you need it.

At this stage I am usually bouncing back and forward between pursuing some research thread (again based on gut instinct) and scribing down ‘light bulb’ moments under the General Notes & Ideas heading as they occurred to me.

I am creating a mosaic of the work to come.

After doing this for a while I reach some sort of threshold and I begin to get more concrete ideas for the book. Often the first area to fill out is the Setting for the world. I have a particular love of Worldbuilding, and I often go pretty far down the rabbit hole sketching out culture, history, life forms, weaponry and of course — magic systems :).

But it’s never the same. A good chunk of the plot flow might come in one piece. Or perhaps the particular conception for this piece of work might actually revolve around a piece of conflict. In this case I might spend some time sketching out the warring parties, the internal dilemma, or even the scene I see.

I do sketch down thoughts on characters in much the same way. But I guess of all the areas I am more deliberate in my approach to Character. Apart from those initial ideas I might get on the fly, I usually have to make a conscious choice to walk down the character development path. I suspect this is very different from pantser writers, who are dragged by the nose by characters who very much take a life of their own from the outset.

In order to flesh out characters I use a number of key category areas to tease the story out of them (more in later posts on that). I work on each of the major characters until I have a really good idea of their personal history, what motivates them, what their current challenge is, and what is driving them in the story.

I usually find that I cannot properly build up the Plot Flow until I know the characters. The secrets of the story – the nuances and the key forces that comprise the narrative momentum — are lurking inside the characters. I’m with Stephen King on that one.

The vast advantage of being able to construct a plot flow before engaging in the actual process of writing as that you can add complexity. Multiple sub-plots. Red herrings. Tiny stories that happen in the background that are living part of setting.

As a reader their is nothing more satisfying to me than being surprised by a satisfying ending where multiple threads come into alignment. That is a truly thrilling part of this art to me, and it cannot happen without structure. To pull that off without sketching out the plot before hand, you need astounding luck and a story sense that is most likely bringing out structures that have been absorbed from other works of fiction.

Again, this is what works for me and my approach is structured.

I have other more specific headings I have not included – the exception being What is the Book About? This is a pretty key thing to give some attention to. It’s usually something I have to consider deliberately, and quite a bit down the track of story development. This is all about theme. It’s critical to get clarity on this. It helps to solidify your thinking, and is vital to later efforts to market and communicate your work. This is the raw material from which you will distil the ’25 words or less’ that sums up your work, often dubbed the Elevator Pitch. This is where you find yourself in an elevator for 2min with a publisher and have only a brief moment to convey your concept. The most memorable being the one used for the movie Twins with Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pitch was simply. ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny Devito — Twins.’ That was enough to sell a movie.

Anyway, I hope some of you found that helpful. I describe my own method to get your brain working. Use what works for you – but never stop listening to your own instincts. Remember, there are as many approaches to writing as writers.

Next (I’m doing the longer posts on Writing Craft every two weeks) I’m going to look closer at Conflict.

Research Vs Writing

I have always been an avid admirer of writers who manage to keep multiple balls in the air at once. They manage new work on one manuscript with research on the next project running at the same time, perhaps with editing of the last manuscript (or two) on the sidelines.

I’ve never been able to do that. I am a great finisher, but getting started on anything is always the hard part for me. I need to build up a substantial head of steam to break the ice on any new project.

That’s the reason why when I am in the very beginnings of a new project, the story research is just about as much as I can manage to squeeze into my brain. This is really just fuel for the formation of the storyline (which I create in a fair amount of detail) and the broader canvass of the world and characters. Every new research direction (very much driven by intuition) is compared against some intangible sense for what the story will be. Then it is either expanded on or discarded. Once in a while I ‘break through’ and major piece of the story puzzle falls into place, inspired by that leap-frogging from research fragment to fragment.

So – is this research writing? It is part of my process. It is crucial to the formation of the story – which I need to have ‘front-loaded’ into my brain before the words begin to flow – yet it is not actual ‘words on a page’.

I guess I’m trying to make myself feel better for this huge chunk of time when I don’t actually write anything other than story notes – while the compelling voices in the wilderness continue cry ‘you must write, write, write!’

So what do you think about the research-writing spectrum? Does research qualify as writing? Or am I just a slack writer who can’t multi-task?

PS: Thanks to everyone who entered The Calvanni giveaway. The winners have been selected by Goodreads and the books will be on their way in the next couple of weeks. We had two winners from the USA, one from Canada, one from the UK and another for India. Congrats!

What’s in a Name?

Cropped A3 Poster with Red Button

Plotting a new novel recently I have come across a familiar phenomenon. I’m working away on the plot, then move on to fleshing out a particular character, or describing that particular character’s backstory or role in the plot.

Slam. Dead stop.

I need the name.

If I cannot get a name that works for me for that character I am completely stumped. It is part stubbornness, part determination, part – well I don’t know what. But I have an instinct for what name is right. It’s like the core of the character starts as a seed of emotion, and I know that thing intimately. I know that I need to find the right name to unlock it, as though that unique combination of letters and sounds is itself a key.

Once I have the name, everything starts flowing. I can describe the character, I can move on with the plot. Suddenly I know what happened when they were seven, how they feel about their mother and what colour their hair is.

So what is it about names? Do other people find it the same when they are fleshing out a new book?

The idea of changing character names after the book has been written makes me shiver like a ghost just walked on my grave.

In fact, come to think about it. I can’t even start plotting a book until I get the title of the book.

So what is it? What’s in a name?

Books and Films Where the Protagonist Dies

Following on from an interesting discussion I was having a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about stories where the key protagonist dies at the end of the book. Always a controversial way to end a storyline, it can be downright book-at-the-wall territory.

I guess it comes down to what you are looking to get out of the books and films you read. If you are looking for the classic hero’s journey, losing that character – that proxy vehicle of your hopes and dreams – can be downright distressing. Then again, if you are motivated by unconventional plots and enjoy a surprise ending then it might be a pleasant experience of difference – ‘Well wasn’t that clever?’

I’ve been wracking my brains to think of books where this happens, but a number of films immediately came to mind, such as American Beauty and Sin City (where the cop – Harrigan? – kills himself at the end to save Nancy). As it happens, I did read Mark Lawrence’s ‘Emperor of Thorns’, last in his three books series. If you have not read this and want to – LOOK AWAY NOW! In the third book the narrator Jorg (and this is all first person) kills himself so that he can find and save his dead older brother in the worlds beyond (and save the world). The final sections are written by a ‘data-ghost’ of Jorg created by the ‘machines of the builders’.

In terms of plot construction and narration, it’s a tricky balance, trying to withhold enough information so the end is not telegraphed. I guess this is in the territory of the ‘unreliable narrator’.

Although I don’t really enjoy these types of endings, as long as the central character stays true to their initially sketched nature and goals, I’m willing to accept them.

So where do you come down in the debate? Can anyone out there think of a book where the narrator dies?

PS: On 9th and 10th November I’ll be at Brisbane Supanova with a whole bunch of copies of Calvanni, Scytheman and Sorcerer, hot off the press. Come and say hello.

You can also find them at on-line retailers like Amazon.

 New Calvanni CoverScytheman CoverSorcerer Cover

Back of the Envelope

Hi, everyone. You guys had quite a bit of fun tracking down the lost methane. We should do an open floor more often.

Quite a few years ago I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. I’m a chemical engineer, and my work for these guys was all in the environmental area. Most of the engineers who worked there were of the geotechnical kind. At one point a graduate geotechnical engineer started at the firm. To say this young guy was brash would be an understatement. The first thing he did was walk into the offices of both the Principals, experienced and very serious men who walked around with an invisible neon sign saying “GOD” above them, and give them both a small white envelope. He then asked them to write everything they knew on the back!

Condensing all the things you’ve learnt over a career can seem well-nigh impossible, but it’s an interesting exercise to thing about the most valuable insights.

As writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best thing I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing will not work for another. Some people do some things instinctively and everyone has unique ways of working – and blind spots.

For me, the first insight was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft ever was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that integral that to the story that if you took it away, you would have a different story – or would not be able to tell the story. The character also has to be unique to that story, formed by that setting, primed for that conflict.

So what would you put on the back of your envelope?


There is often a lot of discussion about crafting the beginning of a story – the first line and following paragraphs. There is no denying a good beginning is essential to hooking a reader or prospective editor. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) “The End”.

A good beginning combined with an attractive character might net a sale despite the book’s other faults. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation (super-cool protagonists can carry a story through loose or even illogical plots), or that support themselves on superior prose style. But for the other books that lack that well crafted ending, are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending? For me it’s emotional punch and a simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation. A feeling of emotional resolution. When the character arcs have reached their end in a satisfying climax of drama and action that leaves the protagonist changed for the better. I know this does not work for everyone, perhaps seeming too ‘formula’. Some prefer unresolved endings, particularly in short fiction. I think everyone enjoys a surprise ending to mystery that is built well from the beginning (i.e. not ‘the gardener you saw for one paragraph on page 4 did it’).

What do you consider a good ending?

Dealing with the Cast of Thousands

I’m pleased to announce that my fantasy series, the Jakirian Cycle, is finished! All the last edits are done and it should be hitting both the real and electronic shelves around October.

It’s exciting to have completed the trilogy, and it will be great to end the wait for those who started the series with The Calvanni, either in its 2006 Australian print incarnation or its later 2009 electronic version.

One of the things I grappled with Jakirian Cycle (typical of fantasy series) was the considerably wide scope of the story. Without giving too much of the plot away, at the start of The Calvanni the Eathal – the cavern dwelling cousin-species to humans – are launching a major offensive on the remnants of a once vast human Empire. But this is very much in the background.

In the first book the central characters are struggling to survive amid civil strife and assassination attempts (Ellen), while dealing with the emergence of their own unique magical powers (Cedrin).

In the second book, the first major engagements are taking place between the Eathal and the last few human Legions, but the focus is still on the characters and their personal journeys and the mystery of the Scion (the lost heir to the fallen Empire).

In Sorcerer – third book of the trilogy – the clash of human and Eathal occurs on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of human and Eathal troops are fighting across two major fronts. From the PoV of the central characters, they are being drawn more and more into the centre of power in Yos. Both Cedrin and Ellen find themselves right at the core of the reestablished Bulvuran Empire. Amidst all this are the various Warlords who divided up the fallen Empire. The most powerful of whom is facing the Eathal in southern Yos while being heavily outnumbered and under strength in the magical department. To do justice to this, I needed to make that Warlord a PoV character, and needed to portray these major engagements.

Various subplots that have been in the background since the first book all come to the fore in Sorcerer. All of this led to the introduction of a lot of new characters. Each is important to the story in some way, but most are not central or point-of-view characters. Trying to control this crowd, and do them justice was certainly a challenge!

Numerous times I’ve had to scramble back through the book and insert a few key paragraphs. ‘Oh, Damn! Such-and-such was still with Cedrin in that scene.’  or ‘Oh, crap. Where were they when that combat was happening?’ I need to keep them in the picture, but without diluting the thread of the main character too much. There were so many of these minor characters it really proved a teeth-grinding experience. Oh for a simple story! I am my own worst enemy with this. Yet with book three  I also tried to lay the foundation for the ultimate conclusion of what might extend to a possible six books series. Don’t worry – Sorcerer ends with a great climax and the first three books stand as a trilogy.

If you love battle scenes, Sorcerer will definitely be your sort of thing. In that regard it is my homage to David Gemmell:) Using the unique magic of Yos, including the glowmetals, on that scale was a real buzz.

Back to dealing with multiple characters: I always try to maintain the focus of the story through a small number of key point-of-view characters. There may be many other characters introduced to support the story, or to give the setting the feel of the political landscape, but I try to have these experienced through the viewpoint of the key characters. I think it can even aid the tension in the story to have the motivations of these characters unclear – and that’s hard to pull off if they are the narrator. It’s also surprising how much you can convey objectively, without having to make them a PoV character.

It is a tricky balance though. It’s hard to do them all justice, to convey their motivations and to give the reader a sense that these minor characters are moving through the story not just being present as a background cut-out. More than once I shook my head writing Sorcerer and said ‘What the Hell have I got myself into?’

Still, I think it’s worth it to see the various sub-plots come into effect. It gives the whole thing a depth and complexity.

Have you ever been frustrated by the Cast of Thousands? How do you deal with it? Kill them off? Limit their appearances? Tear up your draft?