Fantasy Writing Course

Empower Your Words Today


How to build a plot

So how do you go from a basic ‘boy meets girl’ plot to something more readable and convincing?

There are 2 groups of ‘elements’ you might consider:

  • ‘Adventure’ – more and different ‘conflicts’ and dramatic events or emotional progressions.
  • ‘Mystery’ – the introduction of suspense, intrigue, and so on.

Introduce backstory by author asking questions:

  1. And then what? -> adventure - the unfolding of events.
  2. And what if …? -> mystery - the gradual disclosure, confrontation and possible resolution of conflicts. Suspense is created in the delay and disclosure of each new event and conflict that the characters face, with one hopeful result: that the reader is sufficiently engaged to ask ‘what happens next?’

Time, in this sense, is the great mover of any story. Leave an apple out on a table, and a week later, it will have changed: there’s your story. This is a good example of the way that, in writing, you don’t have to keep dreaming up dramatic, unforeseen events: simply place your characters and place(s) in time, and a story will follow naturally – a case of cause and effect on the most rudimentary level.

This is where your journal can prove invaluable. Few people can hold a complicated plot in their heads without forgetting details or nuances that might prove central to the story.

For your notebook:

As part of an ongoing exercise, start making notes in your journal of possible plot lines for stories that you might like to work on. These notes can work like a map, so that you can see in advance of writing which elements work, and which don’t.

Interrogate your plot: once you’ve mapped out your story, and looked at the dynamics of your characters’ motivations, and the causal relations between one event and another, be ruthless with yourself: does it ‘ring true’ for a particular character to behave that way? If not, should you re-think your plot? Or give your characters clearer or more convincing motivation? This again is a matter of specificityand clarity: creating a concrete character and place, without vagueness of expression.


In its simplest sense, a narrative is simply an arrangement of events in a time sequence. In this sense, we are surrounded by narrative.

The novel and the short story are particular forms of narrative, two mediums in which you can choose to present narrative(s). You might choose non-fiction, the cartoon strip, film, rap or poetry.

So a narrative is an arrangement of events in a time sequence. A narrative doesn’t have to relate events in the precise order they occur, nor does it have to accord each event equal weight within the story. But the events do have to occur in time. You’ll look at these points in the next section of this block.

In this sense, narrative is the vehicle by which you get your story from A to B, which affects how this story appears on the page – whatnarrative form the final work takes. For example, a story might be suggested by a single image. To bring this story into existence, the image has to be transposed into its fictional narrative form. The question then is: how is this image best delivered within your story?


How do you convey ‘real time’ within the fictional world of your story?

David Lodge again:

Through time-shift, narrative avoids presenting life as just one damn thing after another, and allows us to make connections of causality and irony between widely separated events.

(Lodge, 1992)

Time-shift may be more familiar to you as the cinematic ‘flashback’. It can be used in a number of ways:

  1. Where a scene from the past, or the backstory of the narrative, might be inserted either as one of the character’s memories, or as an unmediated scene, as in cinema.
  2. It might be framed, or set up, like this: ‘It all began when …’ This narrative framing device is used in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the story is narrated almost entirely in flashback, framed by the narrator, Marlow.
  3. It might also be used in fiction to ‘flash forwards’. Most typically, simply as a way of moving across time from one part of the story to the next, leaving out the intervening ‘real time’ where it’s not relevant to the story, and also to avoid ‘presenting life as just one damn thing after another’, as Lodge describes above.

How might this be done? There are a number of ways of moving forwards through time, for example:

  • By the narrator intervening to ‘tell the reader’ that this is happening: ‘Now flash forwards ten years, and there we still are, working on the same project as before.’
  • Or, less intrusively: ‘It was five years before I saw him again, and in that time a good deal had happened, or so he said: he didn’t tell me what, exactly.’
  • Or: ‘Time seemed to fly by in those years – my twenties became my thirties and now I’m a middle-aged guy with a family and kids. How had it happened? I looked back over my life and tried to see at what point in time – was there a moment, or did it just happen by increments? – I became the man I now saw staring back at me from the mirror.’
  • Alternatively, time-shift – either forwards or backwards – can be achieved by a simple narrative device such as a date at the head of a chapter: ‘Chapter 1: 1925. Chapter 2: 1950.’

You can frame your subject in time.  E.g.  He suffered for almost a year after she left.

You can withhold and reveal. E.g. take a character, X. You show him acting in a threatening manner: buying a gun or a knife, appearing to spy on the street outside his window, making a note of train timetables – from these actions alone your reader might infer that he is a ‘bad character’, the possible villain of your story. In the next scene, later that same day, a murdered woman is discovered, and X’s flat is empty. The following morning, someone reports seeing X in a different city.

Again, your reader will quite probably infer that X is the perpetrator. By not showing what X does in the intervening time between first and second sightings of him – by shifting through time without showing what happens in the intervening stretch of hours – the writer can arouse the reader’s suspicions, encouraging them to infer what happened. Here, the writer has also created suspense, because the reader cannot be certain what has happened.

However, had the ‘writer’ shown what X did in the intervening time between the morning and the following day, it might have gone something like this:

‘X left the shop with the gun wrapped in brown paper. He had never held a gun before, and he had hated to have to buy it, but he was worried sick about his mother living out of town in that lonely old house. She had told him, ‘I’ll come into town on the 5.42 and take a taxi to your apartment. If I’m not there by dinnertime, then you can worry, and I don’t mind if you come out to check up on me, but otherwise stop fussing.’

Time, tense and the mood of your story

Deciding whether to use the past or present tense can dramatically affect the mood of your story.

  • Which tense is appropriate to your subject matter?
  • What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of particular tenses?

Consider the effects created by the following use of different tenses:

  1. The continuous present tense: Helen is laughing wildly now and clapping her hands, and Janice is wondering what she’s finding quite so funny about the sight of the old man leaning so hard on his stick that it looks like any moment he’ll keel over onto the pavement.
  2. Continuous past tense: The boys were throwing sticks into the river, watching the way they floated off beneath the bridge. It seemed then that the summer days were stretched beyond their natural length, and it would be ten o’clock before they’d go running home through the long grass singing their rival football chants, each one trying to out-sing the other.
  3. Past tense: Yesterday, she went to the doctor to complain about her aching legs. She waited for an hour before she was seen. Finally, the doctor asked her to go in. But it was no good, he could offer no explanation, and that night at home, she told her husband. ‘Jim, you’ll never believe,’ she started. ‘Earlier today …

In many ways, time is the main subject and greatest player in any story. It could be characterized across a lifetime or in the individual moments of a character’s story, or it could be the ‘sleeping partner’ in the story – the character who is never seen, but whose presence is most acutely felt.