Structure & Tension: The Plot

When writing, nothing should happen at random. Every element in a story should be for a reason. Names, places, actions and events should all have a purpose. If it isn’t going to lead somewhere, delete it.

Here is what you need for a very basic plot:

  • A likeable lead character who has a desperate need for something, which can be knowledge, success, love, a solution or to avoid some sort of danger.
  • He or she makes an effort to reach success or achieve what he needs.
  • Every effort seems to block him or her from their goal and they just seem to find themselves in deeper trouble.
  • Every new obstacle is larger than the last, and when they finally reach the end, the last obstacle must seem insurmountable, requiring the character to call upon new found strength to accomplish the goal.


  • When things are as if they couldn’t get any worse, the lead character manages to get themselves out of trouble with effort, intelligence and ingenuity.

Each scene and chapter should have this same kind of plot structure yet at the end of each scene or chapter you should have a question unanswered, a problem to be solved, or a mystery that impels the reader to read on. It is a good idea to have several plots going throughout the story with some of them being solved as you go and other opening up. This keeps the pace and the mystery going.

Usually there is a surprise or shock set somewhere in the book, sometimes even two. One about a third to half way through and the other at the climax of the story.

The plot “begins” long before the story. The story itself should begin at the latest possible moment before the climax, at a point when events take a decisive and irreversible turn. We may learn later, through flashbacks, exposition, or inference, about events occurring before the beginning of the story.

The main plot and every subplot must be dealt with at the end. Never leave the reader wondering what happened.

In Summary

The first quarter of the novel is setting the scene – you know, setting the conflict in motion, making us recognise that the main character is in deep trouble.

The middle is half the book, and that is where the major actions take place. The twists, the turns and reversals happen here — and they MUST happen to keep the reader satisfied. Readers WANT to be surprised (but not confused), so about halfway add the second big surprise, and then at the end of the middle, throw in the third big surprise. The middle is for the rising stakes in the situation — things are getting worse for the hero, they are more committed; in fact, in the middle their motivation shifts. The surprises and failures of the hero should get progressively worse in the middle, and as the middle progresses, start closing off the hero’s options.

The ending is the last quarter of the book. The forces gathering in the middle must come together, a decision must be reached, a confrontation takes place. The deepest parts of the character are revealed, and the biggest emotions are exposed here. Again, this is where the main plot and all subplots are brought to a final close.

My Progress

I’m taking my time working through the steps of the Snowflake Process.

Step 1 was easy enough. I had to write a sentence in up to 15 words showing the overall story. I wrote several versions and then tailored the one that best describes my proposed manuscript.

Step 2 was much harder. All I had to do was write a paragraph showing three disasters and the ending. I realised I didn’t know the story well enough to write the paragraph so that prompted me to do some more thinking. Now I have the required paragraph, a sturdy plot, personalities for my characters, a rough chapter outline and a sense of achievement.

Step 3 is where I’m up to now. I have to do a basic character profile by writing in one sentence what the character’s storyline is (which is a different thing to the actual plot). Then I had to work out what motivated my characters, what their goals are and what they will learn by their experience in the manuscript. By doing this I discovered one of my character’s personality wasn’t strong enough and he’s been given a bit of a shake to get him motivated.

I’ve only written the basic character plan for one character. I have two more major characters and the antagonist to go but it’s not hard, it just requires some thinking.

No wonder my brain hurts today!

Building a Fantasy World

It’s your story so why not create your own world.

Personally, the thing I especially like about writing fantasy novels is the opportunity to create my own world. The people and the place can be exactly how I want them to be because it is a fantasy world, I don’t have to follow rules. The world, as we know it, is shoved in a dark corner somewhere and a brilliant new world is built from scratch.

Some people hardly think about the world in which their story is set and just make it up as they go along. This, however, leave room for major errors unless detailed notes are taken along the way. Others have a wishy washy idea about what they want but nothing set in concrete. Then there are those that believe that this is one area of your writing that you should invest a lot of time and effort into. I fall into the last catagory and I really do believe that you will get a lot of personal satisfaction from doing it right before you start writing your novel.

During this process, you may discover that you develop something much bigger than you’ll ever use in your novel but that doesn’t matter. The more solid your world is in your own mind, the more you will be able to portray that world to your readers and the more believable it will become.

How to Get Started

First, ask yourself the obvious questions like:

Where will the story take place?
How much ground will the story cover?
What are the most striking features of landscape, climate, animals, etc. in this area?
How will these features affect travel time, communication, etc.?
Are there are non-human inhabitants and are there any areas they particularly claim as their own?
Is magic used by the people in general or by a select few? Maybe it won’t be used at all.

Go here for more world building questions.

The Map

This is important, you need a map. If your story stays in the boundaries of one house, you need to draw a floor plan showing each and every room, show windows, doors, hallways, staircases.

If your novel is built around a town. Draw a map of the whole town. Name the streets, show parks, shops, houses, alleys, local hang outs, schools and all other areas of importance to your story.

If your novel is based in a fantasy world. Draw a map of the entire world. Show lakes, rivers, towns, mountain ranges, you can mark explored and unexplored territories and any other areas relating to your story. Think about things like how many suns/moons circle your world, the fauna and flora, the animals and the seasons.

Preparing a detailed map before you start working on your novel makes it easier when you need to know where your characters are heading, or what you’ve said is at the end of the street, or what will be found in a particular room. Basically, it takes the guess work out of the writing and leaves you to concentrate on more important things.

The Inhabitants

Who or what live in your world? Are they three eyed monsters who only eat green leaves? Dragons who breath deadly vapours? Wizards who cast many a spell or just ordinary humans?

Make detailed lists describing each inhabitant and what their role in your story is. If you have non-human characters you will need to know what form they take. You could even draw pictures of what they look like but this is entirely up to you (and your ability to draw!)

You also need to think about basic things like how time passes and how distance is measured. Do the inhabitants think in terms of days and weeks, miles and kilometres or is their world governed by the passing phases of the moon and distances counted in leagues?


There are many different people in our world and just as many different cultures so in your fantasy world it would be reasonable to say that the same thing would apply.

Referring to your list of inhabitants, define their individual cultures. Think about everyday clashes within the inhabitants as well as clashes amongst all of the inhabitants.

For example, if you have people that use magic but only a selected few have this ability – will there be conflict between the people who do use it and the people who don’t? Will the users feel they are superior? Will the other people (the non users) feel resentful? Now think about another race in your world, perhaps they live underground. They have their own social hangups with each other but they also want to enslave the magicians for their own reasons. Would this dilemma force the community who use magic to stand together or would the non-users turn their backs on their own kind?

Once you have decided these types of things, you will be providing yourself with a solid foundation for when you start building your character’s personalities.

Your Characters

You have a world and the final step you have to take is to populate that world with characters. You’ve already provided the basis of these characters by the conflicts you’ve decided on. Now you can start to build on their individual personalities.

Go here to find out more on Characterisation

World Building Questions

Here are some questions to help you get started:

Where will the story take place? Will it be a magical world? Will there be demons, witches, ogres, made up animals?

How much ground will the story cover? Will you need to draw a map to keep things in perspective? How long will it take to travel to whole of the land?

What are the most striking features of landscape, climate, animals, etc. in this area? What are the dangers? Where should your characters avoid? Where are they safe?

How will these features affect travel time, communication, etc.? Do you have technology? Is your world more medieval?

Are there are non-human inhabitants and are there any areas they particularly claim as their own? Are they dangerous? Can you characters defend themselves against them?

Is magic used by the people in general or by a select few? Are there limits to the powers? Are there consequences when magic is used? Maybe it won’t be used at all.

Who or what live in your world? Are they three eyed monsters who only eat green leaves? Dragons who breath deadly vapours? Wizards who cast many a spell or just ordinary humans? Write about each variety of creature/human in as much detail as possible so that you know them inside out.

Do the inhabitants think in terms of days and weeks, miles and kilometres or is their world governed by the passing phases of the moon and distances counted in leagues?

Think about everyday clashes within the inhabitants and amongst all of the inhabitants. For example, if you have people that use magic but only a selected few have this ability – will there be conflict between the people who do use it and the people who don’t? Will the users feel they are superior? Think about religion and politics too and how these things affect your characters.

Think about things like how many suns/moons circle your world, the fauna and flora, the animals and the seasons.

How do your characters travel the land? Are there only horses and wagons, or do they have trains and air craft?

Think about the neighbouring kingdoms of your land. Are the inhabitants friendly or hostile? Do the kingdoms trade goods, fight, have different beliefs?

Consider doing a timeline, showing the history of your world for the last 200 or 300 years. Make sure you include at least one major event in each 100 years.

Charaters: Without them, there is no story!

Remember that your reader invests time and money into your story and it is important that your characters capture your reader’s attention, so that they will want to spend more time getting to know them. If the reader does not develop an interest or connection with the main characters from the beginning, chances are they will not feel compelled to finish reading your characters’ story. One of the best ways to make sure this does not happen is to make sure you develop plausible, complex characters. This is crucial to successful storytelling.

Your Main Characters

These characters are normally the people you introduce in the opening chapters of your story. Remember that your main characters must appear throughout the entire story. It is a good idea to do a “Character Profile” for each of your main characters which will cut out a lot of confusion when you are working on your story itself.

It is hard to remember everything that you have said about a character so building a character profile will eliminate any embarrassing errors (ie Mary had blond hair at the beginning of the a chapter but somehow ended up with auburn hair near the end).

Some people just work out the very basics such as how old they are and what colour hair they have. Are they tall, short? Can they be based on someone you know? And, naturally, what are their names? That sort of thing.

Others prefer to go to a lot of trouble and prepare cards with the necessary information written on them, or start data bases on their computers and some go as far as filling out large questionnaires.

It really depends on how complex your characters are but here’s a list of some of the questions you could be asking yourself:

  • Character’s Name
  • Age
  • Birthdate
  • Weight
  • Height and Build (example, 5″2′, petite slender build)
  • Gender
  • Religion or other beliefs
  • Hair Colour
  • Eye Colour
  • Does the character wear glasses or contacts?
  • Does the character have any health problems? (If so, explain)
  • Shape of face
  • Any distinguishing marks or scars?
  • Type of personality
  • Marital status
  • Does character have a current love interest?
  • If so, what is that person’s name & how long have they been together?
  • How did they meet?
  • Any children (If they do have children, list their names & ages)
  • Occupation
  • Mother’s Name
  • Father’s Name
  • Who raised the character as a child?
  • What was their childhood like? (Happy, tragic, lonely, etc)
  • Does the character have any brothers and sisters? (If yes, list their names and ages)
  • Where were they born?
  • Where are they living now?
  • Weaknesses
  • Strengths
  • Any bad habits? If so, what?
  • Character’s Best Friend(s)
  • Any enemies. Why?

I’m sure you could think of several others too.

When developing your characters, keep the following in mind:

  • Solid Background. Give the character a history. Describe their home, possessions, medical histories, tastes in furniture, political opinions.
  • Speech. The way your character speaks (both content and manner) also portrays their personality: are they shy and reticent, aggressive and frank, coy or humorous.
  • Behaviour. Always be consistent with the way your character acts. It’s all right for the character to grow throughout the story but you should never swap between two sets of behaviour as this confuses the reader and your character becomes less real.
  • Motivation. The characters should have good and sufficient reasons for their actions, and should carry those actions out with plausible skills. If we don’t believe characters would do what the author tells us they do, the story fails.
  • Change. As the story progresses your characters should respond to their experiences they are having by changing–or by working hard to avoid changing. It is only natural that the more we experience the more we grow and your characters are no different. If a character seems the same at the end of a story as at the beginning, the reader should know why the character didn’t change.

Your Other Characters

Think of the “Other Characters” like you would “extras” used in a movie. “Other Characters” should be used to advance your story, to teach your main character an important lesson, and/or give them information needed in order to advance your plot line. Although it is generally good to know a few facts about these characters, as it makes the storyline more realistic, normally a full character profile is not necessary. Often, these characters will not even have a name.

Choosing the Right Name

When selecting a name for your character, there are a couple of things that you should consider:

  • Personality – Consider the personality of your character’s parents; and the personality of the character you are trying to portray.
  • First Impression – Often your character’s name will portray an image to your reader. For example, if you are creating a story about a twenty-year-old heroine you may want to consider a name that was fashionable twenty-years-ago, not a more old-fashioned name such as Ethel, Bertha, Mabel, etc. Remember that there are exceptions to the rule as your character may have been named after a great grandparent, an aunt or uncle.
  • Era – Different names range in popularity in different time periods. For example, if your story was set in a fictional western frontier in the 1800’s you may not want to name your herione Skye or Summer. Although these are lovely names; and popular today, the names were not at the height of their popularity during the 1800’s. Names such as Mary, Elizabeth, Eleanor, etc would be more appropriate. A great way to find out what was popular during a specific time period is to consult old census reports, history books, or even to read novels written or set up in that particular time period.

Here are some places you can look to find names:

  • Baby Name Books
  • Census Reports
  • History Books
  • Telephone Books
  • Character Naming Sourcebooks (can be ordered from book clubs or found at local bookstores)
  • The Bible
  • Old Family Records
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Soap Operas/Movies/TV
  • Library Books

However you decide to name your character and whatever you decide to name them, be sure to remember that the name you choose will convey an image of your character’s appearance to the reader.

Finally, enjoy creating your characters. You’ll be surprised how quickly they become part of you.

POV: Who’s telling your story?

Multiple viewpoints are very useful in any novel! In the third person, several viewpoint’s allow the reader wider access to knowledge and events not necessarily involving each character in the story. In addition, changing the viewpoint will often increase the pace of the story and can be used to create mystery and tension.

It is acceptable to use at least two Point of View characters yet four is a good number for most novels. If your story is long and stretches over a longer period of time, however, 6 to 8 is quite reasonable. You should only use main characters, NEVER tell a story from a minor characters Point of View, not even for one paragraph. The reader will automatically assume the character is important, and will wait for him to reappear in the story to do something crucial to the storyline.

It is important to remember, however, shifting viewpoints too often may irritate the reader and you should never change viewpoint within a paragraph or scene. Always swap viewpoints with a chapter or scene break, which is usually marked with three or four asterisks. The opening line of the new paragraph should immediately tell the reader whose viewpoint it is so that it is easier for the reader to follow the storyline.

Types of Point of View

  • First person – I go, ie. an eyewitness account
  • Third person – he/she goes, ie. narrator can be absent
  • Second person – you go, (used mainly in non fiction)
  • Third person plural – they go

Advantages, Disadvantages and Mistakes of Each View Point

First person

Advantages: Creates an intimacy between the reader and narrator. The reader experiences everything through the narrator’s perceptions, coloured by her motives, driven by her motivations.

Disadvantages: Character must be present during key scenes and the reader can only know what this character knows.

Mistakes: The character describes what is going through other characters’ minds rather than just her own.

Third person

Advantages: Allows the reader to see all the events occurring . Allows the author to mislead the readers without cheating.

Disadvantages: Doesn’t allow a strong identification with any one character and can take longer to impart information.

Mistakes: More likely to switch viewpoints by accident.

Your Voice

This should not be confused with Point of View. Here we are talking about our own trademark, what makes the story ours. Your voice is natural — like how you speak and think. But it changes as you change and depending on the tone of the piece you’re working on. A writer’s voice should be real, authentic and honest.

Some authors write to a ‘recipe’ and every book you pick up written by that person has the same formula. Sidney Sheldon comes to mind, his books are written to a particular formula and the reader can foresee what will happen because of this yet all the books I’ve read of his have kept me captivated to the very end.

Why? His stories keep moving along, he constantly throws in sub-plots and twists to keep things interesting. He doesn’t have a lot of description yet it isn’t necessary. He uses a chapter for one Point of View then the next chapter for another – usually telling a completely different story. The two stories finally come together at the climax and the book is wound up. He has written many books using this same formula and is a successful author. His ‘voice’ is apparent in his writing, this is his trademark (so to speak).

So when you write try to develop and cultivate your own ‘voice’. Something that a reader will recognise and know is you.

Writing the Perfect Scene

Writing the Perfect Scene – When I read this it made perfect sense to me. A light went on in my head – “this is something I’m doing wrong”.

I will learn to write using the Motivation Reaction Units within my Scenes and Sequals.

Motivation is what the character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels (as in touch). It is external and objective.

Reaction is what the character feels internally. It is internal and subjective and is broken down into three parts:

  • feeling (this always comes first)
  • reflex (this happens as a result of the feeling)
  • rational action and speech (this happens when the character has had time to think and act in a rational way)

Motivation and Reaction should always be written in different paragraphs and should always be in this order.

But what are Scenes and Sequels?

Scenes should have:

  • Goal – what the character wants at the beginning of the scene. The character doesn’t sit back passively and wait for it to come to them, they go after it.
  • Conflict – The obstacles the character faces as they try to reach their goal. Naturally, there has to be a struggle otherwise the novel will be boring.
  • Distaster – This is failure to reach the goal. Something bad has to happen to make the reader turn the page and keep reading.

Straight after a scene, comes the sequel.

  • Reaction – The emotional follow through to the disaster. Show the characters reaction to what has happened. Show a passage of time when there’s no action but there is re-action. Then have the character “get a grip” and look for options.
  • Dilemma – Oh, there are no options and the character has a dilemma. They wonder what will happen next and have to work through the choices available.
  • Decision – Let the character decide on the best option and decide to carry it through. Let the reader respect the character for trying. This gives the character reason to be proactive again because they now have a new goal.

And the pattern starts over.

Within the Scenes and Sequels you must rember to use the Motivation Reaction Units. If you do this well, you will have written the perfect scene.

The Snowflake Process

Randy Ingermanson Talks About Writing but more importantly he explains a not so complicated method of writing a novel using The Snowflake Process.

I’ve heard about this before and have been to his site before but it was only tonight that I took the time to read his words. I think all writers grow as time passes and I’ve come to believe that ALL stories should be thoroughly planned BEFORE we start writing.

How often do you hear a writer say “my characters just won’t do what I want them to do”? That used to be me but not any more because that actually means that you have no idea where the story is going and you’ve lost control. Well, it’s time to take back control. It’s time to plan your story from beginning to end…

Don’t worry. That doesn’t mean the creativity has disappeared because you’ll still have flashes of inspiration and all plans can be changed but at least you’ll know where you’re heading.

Anyway, take a look at The Snowflake Process of Writing a Novel. It’s very interesting.