In novels, screenwriting, and play-writing a scene is a useful structuring device for deciding what happens, where, to whom, and why. There are many ways to outline a story, but planning scene by scene is a useful way to make sure every scene has purpose, intrigue, and the other ingredients of a great read.
Here are 5 tips to plan and link individual scenes to create structured story arcs:
1. Start with what you want your scene to reveal (purpose)
Telling a story is a process of revelation, as well as of concealment. We reveal what we want the reader to know (about characters, situations, intrigues, threats, and more). And we conceal
some information (to create mystery – or because we don’t know all the answers yet ourselves!)
When creating scene summaries to organize and guide your story’s draft, ask:
What does it introduce that makes the story more interesting (e.g. new characters, goals for existing characters, obstacles, surprises)
Let’s briefly examine purpose in a scene by a master of plot, John le Carré:
Example of finding a scene’s purpose: The Spy who Came in from the Cold
In le Carré’s classic Cold War spy novel, the opening chapter titled ‘Checkpoint’ begins with a scene where a British agent, Alec Leamas, is awaiting the arrival of a double agent:
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”
Immediately, we have an interesting situation – characters waiting for another person, late in the night.
Le Carré creates further intrigue:
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
“You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the Polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”
“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”
“But you can’t wait forever; he’s nine hours over schedule.”
After more pushing from the second man at the checkpoint, Leamas snaps:
“Agents aren’t airplanes. They don’t have schedules. He’s blown, he’s on the run, he’s frightened. Mundt’s after him, now, at this moment. He’s got only one chance. Let him choose his time.”
Thus the scene reveals:
Who key players are in the story (Leamas, the unknown man whose cover is blown, and some person called ‘Mundt’ who is after him)
A key unknown or point of tension for further development: Whether or not the man will make it to the agreed checkpoint
We could summarise this scene thus, if we were le Carré and at the scene planning stage:
2. Decide conflicts or unknowns to plant in your scene
Conflicts and unknowns in storytelling are like seeds that you can plant, to grow into ordered, tidy events or tangled, thorny messes. What comes next, once you know the purpose of a scene, how it relates to your characters’ desires, fears or goals?
Think about conflicts or unknowns that will give you something to develop in coming scenes and chapters.
For example, in the scene and chapter summary above, we see le Carré’s given readers:
Unknowns: We wonder who exactly Leamas is waiting for and how is he connected to Leamas (and vice versa). Keep in mind le Carré has not, at this point, revealed the man’s role or identity to the reader
Conflicts: There’s external, implied conflict in Leamas’s words that Mundt’s ‘after him, now, at this moment’. This gives immediate tension
Further unknowns include questions such as: ‘Will the man they’re awaiting show up?’ or ‘Will Mundt get him before he makes their meeting?’ The implied conflict could spill out in further scenes, for example, a switch to the agent’s POV as he tries to avoid Mundt’s onslaught.
Once you’ve planted these seeds of story development, it’s easier to keep summarizing subsequent scenes. What will they reveal? And conceal for now?
3. Think about who your scene will involve
An important step in how to plan a story in scenes is deciding who will appear in what scenes.
This is an especially important consideration in scriptwriting and playwriting, as characters have different shares of time on-screen and on-stage (so every secondary part has to really count and be enticing to an actor).
Some genres, of course, need these ‘types’ more than others. In literary fiction in particular, roles aren’t always clear-cut. Even in popular action stories, a hero might turn out to have villainous aspects (and the villain might be more human than we first thought).
You can also assign characters ‘role’ types in the ‘Characters’ section of Now Novel’s story dashboard based on their title or function, e.g. Leamas’ role as ‘station head’:
Example: Using Now Novel’s Scene Builder to link your character profiles to scene ideas.
4. Brainstorm further developments
Once you know what the key function of a scene is, creating more scenes is a matter of asking questions. Ask questions such as:
What if? (E.g. ‘What if the man Leamas is waiting for were captured (or even shot dead) by this Mundt guy?)
What else? (E.g. ‘What else is riding on the man making it to Leamas in time? Is there another tense situation urgently needing the man’s input/skills?)
Who else? (e.g. ‘Who else besides Mundt has an interest in the awaited man? Who all could he be serving/playing?
Curiosity is a major part of the storytelling process. We have to be curious about characters and their situations. What else could go right, and what else could go wrong? What’s the worst-case scenario, and the best? [These questions are key steps in the ‘Core Plot’ section of Now Novel’s story dashboard.]
If you’re adding a scene to your outline that starts a new chapter, also ask ‘who/what could this scene circle back to?’ Another pleasure of reading a great story is the way narrative circles and echoes what’s come before, as we encounter familiar faces, places, and questions.
5. Group scene ideas into larger units
It makes sense to outline at a scene-by-scene level and then only find the larger units of your story (your chapters, story arcs and other organizing larger ‘chunks’). This way, you can find the linear developments of your story, and later decide how you will chop and change between events, characters’ viewpoints and scenes.
In the Scene Builder tool on Now Novel, for example, you could group your scenes into chapters, or you could organize them according to arcs (naming each group of scenes with titles such as ‘Leamas’ Arc’).
The point here is that planning and structuring a purpose-driven story doesn’t have to be a bore. Creating a skeletal structure for events can be as much fun (and as creative) as the adventuring of drafting, where you give your reader the more detailed, blow-by-blow account.
Great scene writing makes each part count towards the whole. This is particularly important when working in shorter forms such as short stories or one-hour TV episodes. Keep your scenes lean using these 5 simple tips:
1. Remove scene scaffolding
Critics often marvel at the spare or ‘stripped down’ prose of writers like Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Lean, economical prose is tricky to master.
Critics have said that Alice Munro’s short stories accomplish in a few pages what others take whole novels to achieve. This is due in part to the short story’s economy of phrase and scene. You simply have less space to say more.
Scenes bloated with unnecessary information have the opposite effect.
One type of filler is ‘scaffolding’.
What is scene scaffolding?
‘Scaffolding’ consists of sentences we write that feel like a warm-up to the actual unfolding story. We don’t always remember to take these lines out. If you read through a scene you’ve written and it feels like you’re telling the reader too much instead of showing, it’s often leftover scaffolding.
Take this example:
The three sisters had waited all day for their father’s return. He’d driven across the state line to visit their ailing aunt, and none of them knew how bad her condition was. Towards the late afternoon, they’d sat restlessly near the lounge window, looking down the drive. Sam saw the gates at the end of the drive start to swing inwards.
“He’s here!” Sam’s sisters ran to the window, to peer down the long drive beside her. Evening fell as their father finally returned, his car rattling around the corner.’
When revising a scene, look for long-winded exposition. See if you can spread out the information you reveal (and balance it with action).
Try write a scene two ways, first with front-loaded exposition (like the first example above) and then with action upfront. Find which you prefer – the second will likely yield a leaner, more event-focused scene.
2. Decide your scene’s purpose
Often scenes include filler because we don’t ourselves know where they’re going. ‘Pantsing’ your way along is part of the exploration, the fun, of writing.
When you draft a scene for a short story or novel, try doing some pre-planning to work out the purpose. Use the Scene Builder in the Now Novel dashboard to brainstorm the focus and story purpose of each scene and create structured, linked scene summaries to group into chapter outlines.
Pre-planning and deciding on purpose is one way to cut out filler before you’ve even begun. When you start writing a scene, ask:
Who appears in this scene?
Where does it take place?
What unknowns could it introduce to develop in subsequent scenes?
What conflicts could occur?
The prompts in the ‘Add New Scene’ steps in the Scene Builder cover questions like these and more. Once you know a scene’s purpose it’s easier to find the ‘so what?’, the reason every scene matters to your broader story arc.
3. Avoid focus-reducing cutaways
A big pleasure of scene writing is you can play with narrative time. For example, you could describe one character’s situation and start a new paragraph with, ‘Earlier that day, she …’, showing your reader earlier events and actions that relate to what will happen next.
If, for example, you’re describing a tense bomb diffusal, it doesn’t make sense to cut away to lengthy dialogue the disposal techie had with a colleague earlier that day. If the information of their exchange is important, you could find another moment for the dialogue.
To check the focus of a scene (and keep it lean), take your draft and double-check how clear focus is, paragraph by paragraph. What new or relevant information to the current scenario does each paragraph give your reader?
4. Keep scene transitions concise
One of the challenges of scene writing is shifting the story from one location (or time, or viewpoint) to another.
Take this scene transition example, from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. In the chapter titled ‘The Button Factory’, Iris Griffen, the protagonist, describes the general conditions of summer before describing an excursion:
Myra says I should get air conditioning, but I don’t want it. Also I can’t afford it. “Who would pay for such a thing?” I say to her. She must believe I have a diamond hidden in my forehead, like the toads in fairy tales.
The goal for my walk today was The Button Factory, where I intended to have morning coffee. The doctor has warned me about coffee, but he’s only fifty – he goes jogging in shorts, making a spectacle of his hairy legs. He doesn’t know everything, though that would be news to him. If coffee doesn’t kill me, something else will.
Erie Street was languid with tourists… (p. 51)
Notice how Atwood starts by briefly outlining the new location her character will visit. She gives a brief, character-revealing aside about the doctor, showing Iris’s headstrong nature, and then returns to describe the streets surrounding The Button Factory. The aside is also related to the new setting (a coffee shop), showing Iris’s chain of associations when she thinks about her excursion.
The narrative moves smoothly from one place to another, while revealing character. There isn’t information that doesn’t either tell us about a new setting or the focal character.
Try to similarly keep scene transitions focused on revealing key details of place and character.
5. Cut filter words and phrases
The way you construct sentences also can bloat a scene (or keep it taut).
For example, instead of saying ‘the way was dark, and she stumbled for secure footing’, you might write ‘she saw that the way was dark, and that she stumbled for secure footing’. The second version distances us from the action. We don’t see ‘the way’ itself. We see the character seeing it.
Often you can identify filter phrases by the construction ‘Subject + verb + that’. For example:
I felt that the meeting would drag on forever. I thought that the board would never reach an agreement.
Instead, your narrator could rather say:
The meeting was interminable. I was half-asleep by the time the board agreed.
Here, we experience the situation the narrator is describing with less distance from events.
Get helpful tools to structure your scenes and constructive feedback – try Now Novel.
World building tips often focus on fantastical genres such as fantasy and sci-fi, because they involve creating worlds different to our own. It’s important to create immersive, interesting and believable settings, whatever your genre. To build a detailed world, one to rival Westeros, Hogwarts (or Dickens’ London), use these world building tips:
1: Create a summary of world building details to include
Famous fantasy authors’ worlds are widely adored because there is detail and specificity that makes them feel real. Film-makers have an easier task of bringing places like Tolkien’s Mordor and Rowling’s Hogwarts School to life thanks to their creators’ rich description and imagination.
Legions of younger and older readers fell in love with Rowling’s Hogwarts, for example, because they could imagine her setting to its borders. From the castle’s dining hall with its long tables and floating candles to its outer, more dangerous limits. The nearby ‘Forbidden Forest’, for example, or the menacing vegetation and grounds where characters fear the wild, flailing tree Rowling names the ‘Whomping Willow’.
Great fictional worlds, like this one, have contrasts, details, atmospheres. The vaults of Rowling’s crypt-like bank, Gringotts, for example, have a different tone and mood to her student-filled castle.
Your setting’s role: Where will your story’s key action happen? (E.g. a central character’s home or CIA headquarters)
Broader macro locations: What cities, countries, or even continents or planets might your story span?
Names and features of towns or cities: What identifies and distinguishes one place in your world from another? In Harry Potter, Harry’s mean aunt and uncle’s house is a dreary, typical suburban home, with strict rules. Hogwarts School has its own strict rules, but by contrast is more magical, exciting and perilous
The peoples/demographics that inhabit your world (is everyone human? Are there tensions between groups? If yes, why?)
The social and cultural features of your world (for example, Rowling gives her wizard community shared sporting events (The Quidditch World Cup) and other shared cultural and social landmarks
[You can brainstorm the above details and create large-, mid- and small-scale settings in the Now Novel World Builder. Each setting you create is automatically added to your private outline in your story dashboard. Try the tool now.]
A partial summary of a large-scale setting for C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ created using the World Builder
2: Give your fictional world vivid contrasts
World building tips often stick to making your world believable. Yet believable is not the same as uniform. Every world (including our own) has surprising differences from place to place. There are many cities where rich and poor live in radically different circumstances, separated by only a highway, for example.
Think about the contrasts you might create in your fictional world. What contrasts would serve your story? Imagine a novel about a young girl who fights an authoritarian government, for example. The side of the highway she comes from will determine, to some extent, what tools she has to arm her resistance. Setting shapes our backstories.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth gives us many examples of how effective contrast is in world building. The Hobbits’ homeland, the Shire, is a world of local homeliness. Compare this to Tolkien’s un-homely Mordor, the villain’s base. Here, sulfurous pits and jagged peaks threaten travelers.
The contrasts in Tolkien’s world create additional obstacles for characters. The closer they get to Mordor’s corrupt heartland, the more corruptible members of Frodo and Gandalf’s party become, too, resulting in small betrayals. Setting actively shapes characters’ behaviour along with tone and mood.
Contrasting zones in world building is thus useful, whatever your genre. In a romance novel, for example, lovers on an exotic vacation might find an idyllic world that helps them bond, away from the city’s chaos. Alternatively, they might have a holiday from hell. Neither speaks the local language, and everything goes wrong.
As you build your world, think how you can make your settings active players in characters options, choices, goals and fears.
3: Brainstorm convincing names for your world’s settings
A great name conveys the mood of a place. Tolkien’s world is full of names that convey the tone and mood of the places they describe. ‘The Shire’ has a soft assonance, fitting a world of green pastures. It has echoes of ‘Ireland’ or many a British rural town.
Mordor, by contrast, is guttural sounding, using Germanic or Norse-sounding roots. It fits this setting’s more Gothic, somber mood.
The fantasy novels of Sir Terry Pratchett yield great examples of compelling place names. For example, ‘Discworld’. This name literally describes a core physical feature. It resembles the ‘flat Earth’ people once thought Earth itself was.
Discworld is also balanced on the backs of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle, the Great A’Tuin. Thus Pratchett gives a literal name to a setting that is absurd and imaginative, so there is contrast between the simplicity of the name and the complexity of its features. It’s this combining of the mundane and literal with the wildly imaginative that gives many of Pratchett’s novels their sly, dry, satirical humour.
When you brainstorm names for places in your world building, think about:
Purpose: What is purpose of this setting? For example, Rowling calls the magical London high street in the Harry Potter books ‘Diagon Alley’. This echoes with ‘diagonally’. It’s a good name for a street that exists just slant to our world, just beyond our non-magical awareness.
Mood: What is your place’s mood? Think about the Tolkien examples above and how the sounds of the words themselves feel apt for the place.
4: Avoid focusing only on large-scale details
Part of why we focused on creating mid-scale and small-scale setting too in the Now Novel World Builder tool is that detail is an important element of setting. What does a character’s home look and smell like? What is this street like in the morning? And at night?
Create a sense of the broader social and historical forces at work in your story, but don’t neglect the details that give us a sensory feeling of place.
Remember to include small-scale details about your world and its ways, where relevant to the story. Think about what characters in the different locations of your story wear and eat. How do their speech patterns, slang, or cultural customs differ? A naval town, for example, will likely feature fresh seafood strongly on the menu. It’s small details like these that reveal a world so that we the reader say ‘that makes complete sense’ (or ‘Wow, that’s surprising!’).
5: Use the senses to show your world through characters’ eyes
One way to bring your fictional world to life is to use sense description. Simply describing what a character sees, to start with, can bring a larger setting to life.
Take, for example, David Mitchell’s protagonist Eiji Miyake, in his 2001 novel Number9dream. The character is a boy who comes to Tokyo to search for his father. Here, Mitchell’s protagonist describes the view from a local Cafe, and the broader Tokyo cityscape:
‘Tokyo is so up close you cannot always see it. No distances. Everything is over your head – dentists, kindergartens, dance studios. Even the roads and walkways are up on murky stilts. Venice with the water drained away.’
The description effectively shows us defining features of the inner city – it’s closeness, claustrophobia and height. This sense of multiple levels is also important for Mitchell’s world building. We will later see his protagonist stumble across different levels in the city, from the ‘above ground’ world of love interests and missing fathers to the dangerous mob-ridden underworld of Tokyo that Eiji is eventually drawn into on his quest.
Later, Mitchell uses other senses – sound, smell – to deepen his world. Here, for example, he describes the same scene after a typhoon:
‘One hour later and the Kita Street/Omekaido Avenue intersection is a churning confluence of lawless rivers. The rain is incredible. Even on Yakushima, we never get rain this heavy. The holiday atmosphere has died, and the customers are doom-laden… Outside […] a family of six huddles on a taxi roof. A baby wails and will not shut up.’
As Mitchell progresses through the story, he paints a clear sense of his character’s world by describing its changing moods, atmospheres, and weathers.
Plotting just one novel is challenging, never mind plotting a multi-book arc. Having structure and a plan helps. Here’s how to plot a series in 8, structured steps:
1: Find your ‘Central Idea’ 2: Find key plot points for each book in your series 3: List ideas for your series’ end goal 4: Decide on the broad setting of your series 5: Read summaries of successful series’ plot structure for insights 6: Brainstorm characters who make readers long for each book 7: Create an outline of your series’ main events and themes 8: Choose a starting point and strengthen arcs between books later
Let’s explore each of these steps deeper:
1. Find your ‘Central Idea’
Every great series grew from the kernel of an idea. J.K. Rowling, for example, famously said that the idea for her wildly successful Harry Potter series formed while stuck on a delayed train between Manchester and King’s Cross, London in 1990. She plotted the 7 books of the series over the next 5 years – a massive commitment that paid off.
You might summarize Rowling’s central idea thus:
‘A seemingly ordinary boy, Harry Potter, orphaned and raised by his mean aunt and uncle, discovers he has magical abilities and is invited to attend a school for wizards. As a student and increasingly able wizard he forms deep friendships (and enmities), and must eventually face his parents’ killer.’
This central idea has plenty of room for expansion across multiple books. It has room for backstory about how Harry was orphaned. The adventures, magical discoveries, friends and foes he finds at his magical school. The overarching looming confrontation with his parents’ killer.
To take another example of a series idea, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series from the 1950’s could be summarised thus:
‘A mythical lion builds alternate worlds that earth-born children accidentally discover. Yet through their discovery, they also introduce evil but with the help of the lion Aslan, subsequent generations safeguard Narnia from malevolent forces that wreak destruction in their quest for power.’
Toggle between outlines to work on using the drop-down list in the dashboard.
2. Find key plot points for each book in your series
A challenge when learning how to plot a series is getting lost in detail. It’s hard to see the big picture if there isn’t one yet. That’s why it’s a good idea to draft and sketch an outline of key plot points for each book [you can do so in the ‘Core Plot’ section of your Now Novel story dashboard].
For example, here’s a summary of key plot events [spoilers alert] in the first four novels of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series [in Harper Collins’ chronological reading order, not the original publishing order, since The Magician’s Nephew was a prequel published five years after the first book]:
Book 1 – The Magician’s Nephew (1955): First encounter with the world of Narnia. Children Polly and Diggory (who is grown up and hosting the child protagonists in Book 2) are transported to another world. This happens when Digory’s uncle tricks Polly into trying on a magical ring that allows one-way teleportation, forcing Digory to go after her.
The children end up in a magical wood containing pools that are portals to other worlds. Entering one of the pools leads to an encounter with a witch queen, Jadis. Jadis killed every living creature in her world in battle by speaking ‘the Deplorable Word’. She follows them back into another pool, where they encounter Aslan, a mythical lion, who sings the land of Narnia into being. Jadis attacks Aslan and flees into his world, and Aslan tasks Digory with protecting the world from Jadis for having brought her there.
Book 2 – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950): The four Pevensie siblings are evacuated to the countryside at the outbreak of World War II. They stay in now-older Digory Kirke’s house and discover a portal to another world at the back of a wardrobe while playing hide and seek. Here they encounter the White Witch aka Jadis, who holds the world in eternal winter. Eventually, they undo her enchantment and become kings and queens of Narnia, starting a Golden Age.
Book 3 – The Horse and His Boy (1954): During the Pevensie siblings’ reign over Narnia, a boy named Shasta is sold as a slave in the land of Calormen. In a stable he encounter a talking horse that was captured from Narnia named Bree, and together they plan their escape to Narnia and freedom. They meet another pair of escapees, Aravis, a local woman who is fleeing an arranged marriage and her talking horse and travel together.
Book 4 – Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951): The story takes place during the Pevensie siblings’ second trip to the mythical land of Narnia.
They return because Prince Caspian blows a horn left behind by one of the siblings, Susan, a horn enchanted to summon help in an hour of need. While they have been on earth, in their mortal world, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia, and their former castle lies in ruins (time passes faster in Narnia). Caspian has fled into Narnia’s woods to escape his uncle, Miraz, who has usurped the throne, and the children help him save Narnia from tyrannical rule.
The key plot points from the first four novels in Lewis’ series show some important facts about writing a series:
There is continuity between the series’ plot points. Lewis weaves the events of individual books into each other, creating history and folklore for his fictional world. Characters age and their roles and tasks alter (Digory, for example, develops from being a courageous young protagonist to being a secondary part, the avuncular host to the children protagonists of Book 2).
There are key themes that echo across the books. Themes such as courage vs fear, creation vs destruction, the need to restore justice and order when malevolent individuals gain power.
The world builds from the start. First, in The Magician’s Nephew, it is a new world. Then it becomes a winter vault under Jadis’ rule and then we see (in The Horse and his Boy) its multiple peoples and cultures. It develops its own horrors (a slave trade, kidnap marriages) and wonders (talking horses and other magic). Brainstorm details of culture and history and invent worlds and countries for your story in Now Novel’s World Builder [coming soon].
Plan how individual books’ plot lines will ripple out through your series. Think how each book can add extra detail, conflicts and resolutions to prior events.
3. List ideas for your series’ end goal
Each book will ideally reach a smaller goal within your series broader arc. Yet unfinished business keeps readers coming back for more.
For example, by the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (UK title), the first book in Rowling’s series, Harry has had his first major confrontation with the arch villain, Lord Voldemort.
In the first novel of James Patterson’s ‘Alex Cross’ series, the protagonist’s final encounter with the antagonist implies future peril. The killer bribes a prison guard to leave a message threatening Cross and his family on the protagonist’s car’s windshield.
Each book in a series might bring confrontations (or, in the case of romance, romantic union) to a head. Yet there will also be lingering questions sequels can answer.
In learning how to plot a series, brainstorm what minor conclusion each book might come to early. This way, you can build in a sense of momentum and direction to a key event right from the start. You don’t have to stick with your first idea, but it’s a start.
Introducing questions and unknowns about your characters’ future (and what readers think they know about your world) will leave readers hungry to follow more of your series.
If you can already see this far ahead, list ideas for your series’ end-goal. In Harry Potter, it’s the final Voldemort vs Harry showdown. In Narnia, it’s the restoration of good leadership and freedom in the Kingdom of Narnia. Make the end-goal of your series one that is sure to involve conflict, obstacles, journeys and discoveries in the build-up.
4: Decide on the broad setting of your series
The entire arc of your series could take place in the space of 24-hours (like the TV series 24), with each book showing a different character’s overlapping experience of these 24 hours. Or else, you could do like C.S. Lewis and have parallel worlds where time passes at different rates.
Whatever you choose, plan the setting of each book loosely [you can use the ‘Core Setting’ section in the Now Novel dashboard for this]. There will be necessary differences between settings far apart in place and time. If, for example, the first book of your series is set in a realistic 1950 and the second in a realistic 2019, there will be major differences (no internet vs fibre internet, modern medicine vs older cures, and so forth).
Understanding the ‘scope’ of your series’ setting helps because:
You will have a clear list of places and time periods you can research (if writing realist fiction) or brainstorm (for fantasy)
You can think about the important ways time and place in your series will change within each book and between books
5: Read summaries of successful series’ plot structure for insights
To gain valuable series plotting insights, create your own summaries of your favourite series’ plot structure. Or read summaries on Wikipedia or other websites. Jot down, in note form, the core events of each book. Ask yourself questions, such as:
If I look at the series as a whole, what is the individual purpose of this book? (e.g. for The Magician’s Nephew: Introducing the world of Narnia and how and why evil (Jadis the witch) was accidentally introduced to it
Who are the main characters in each book, do they appear as central characters or in cameos elsewhere in the series?
How do the themes of this book relate to others in the series?
Think of additional questions to ask. Creating or reading series summaries will show how your favourite authors weave their books’ threads together.
6: Brainstorm characters who make readers long for each book
In learning how to plot a series, it also helps to use a character-centric approach. Characters, after all, are the lifeblood of your story. If we look at C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy series, central characters’ roles shift. They go from protagonists to minor, supporting characters. The one main character who appears in all seven books is the lion/creator, Aslan.
Take Harry Potter as an example. We can imagine having Harry as a starting character before sketching out the story. You could start by working out what roles Harry and other characters play.
Characters’ relations to Harry include:
Helpful, steadfast friends with interesting, contrasting (often conflicting) personalities. Laid back, slightly lazy Ron and energetic, academic star Hermione
Characters who give Harry the psychological wounds that inform his struggles. His bullying aunt and uncle, or the main villain
Enemies. Voldemort’s supporters, sadistic teachers, envious school bullies (Draco and his goons)
Neutral or helper characters who are also detailed. The owner of the wand shop, for example, or the minor characters who fill Hogwarts’ halls (students such as Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil)
When you brainstorm characters while plotting your series, think about what function they will serve. Will they help or hinder main characters? Or are they neutral characters who serve smaller, once-off story functions?
7. Create an outline of your series’ main events and themes
This is a process you ideally complete before you start drafting. If you have pantsed your way through the first book or two, it’s also a productive process when revising. An outline will help you see where the plot gets thin or forced.
Try to write a one-page synopsis for each book [use the ‘Summary’ section of the Now Novel dashboard to expand each book’s main idea into a page-long summary]. What are its core events, conflicts, character goals and plot twists? Print and lay these synopses out side by side. Are there any holes? Is there enough cohesion across the entire breadth of your series?
Once you know themes your budding series already tackles, outline ways you could develop them in the next books.
When you plot a sequel, think about lines of continuity. How you can extend and develop your characters’ backstory and ongoing development?
8: Choose a starting point and strengthen arcs between books later
If you want to write a multi-novel arc, don’t agonize over the sequence of things. As we see with C.S. Lewis, you could start at any point and later write a prequel. Tolkien didn’t intend The Lord of the Rings as a series but as a single volume. You can work out the connective tissue between books when you are further along in the drafting process, too.
Whatever method you choose, make sure each book in your series is enjoyable alone, as well as when it is taken as part of a larger whole. To do this, give it narrative suspense, great characters, varied settings and plot points and all the other ingredients of a great story.
The setting of your story is key to readers being able to imagine ‘being there’. How do you describe a place so it is characterful and contributes effectively to your story? Try these 6 tips:
1. Describe place through characters’ senses
We feel connected to place in a story when we see it through characters’ senses. Bring senses such as sight, hearing, touch, smell and even taste (there’s edible wallpaper in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) into your setting. Using every sense might not make sense for your book, yet it’s possible. In Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, set in a sweet factory full of wonder, it somehow makes sense even the wallpaper is delicious.
When describing places in your story, think about tone and mood. Should this setting be intimidating or welcoming? Ancient, dusty and arcane or ultra-modern and spotless? What does an ancient, dusty mood smell like (old books? Damp carpets?).
In Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye (1989), the protagonist Cordelia recalls her childhood in flashbacks. Here, Cordelia describes her childhood home, when her parents would throw bridge (the card game) parties:
Then the doorbell begins to ring and the people come in. The house fills with the alien scent of cigarettes, which will still be there in the morning along with a few uneaten candies and salted nuts, and with bursts of laughter that get louder as time passes. I lie in my bed listening to the bursts of laughter. I feel isolated, left out. Also I don’t understand why this activity, these noises and smells, is called “bridge.” It is not like a bridge. (pp. 168-169)
Atwood uses sound and smell to paint an idea of the strangeness of being a child in an adult’s world. She uses the young Cordelia’s senses to create place and this puts us in the scene, as we experience young Cordelia’s surrounds through her perspective.
2. Include time period in description
‘Time’ is an important aspect of setting. This is particularly so in historical fiction. Details from the types of buildings and shops that line the main road of a city to individual details of people’s clothing and speech contribute to a sense of when the story happens. A story set in 1950s Chicago will naturally have very different buildings, cars, and people, than one set in the late 2000s.
How do you describe a place so the reader can sense the time period?
Show technology: What are the ordinary tools people have at their disposal? See, for example, the period-specific radio in the image below
Show culture: How do people live? Are there rigid gender roles between the sexes? What do the majority believe? Convey these social patterns and habits in the way people speak and things they say
Include current interests, challenges or obstacles: In the time period of your story, what are the hot topics of the day? Are people worried about a war, a new law, a change in government?
Example of time period in setting description
In Alice Munro’s semi-autobiographical collection of stories, The View from Castle Rock (2006), the Canadian author traces the history of her Scottish ancestors. Here, she recalls the simple ways of village life in the 1700s, describing the life of her ancestor William Laidlaw:
The first story told of Will is about his prowess as a runner. His earliest job in the Ettrick Valley was as a shepherd to a Mr. Anderson, and this Mr. Anderson had noted how Will ran straight down on a sheep and not roundabout when he wanted to catch it. So he knew that Will was a fast runner, and when a champion English runner came into the valley Mr. Anderson wagered Will against him for a large sum of money. (p. 9)
The details here convey a sense of rural life in 18th Century Scotland. Descriptions of herding sheep and rival runners create a sense of an agrarian, outdoor way of life conjuring earlier, less modern times.
Munro goes further creating period in her setting by describing the clothing Will receives in reward for winning the race against the English runner:
Mr. Anderson collected a fine heap of coins and Will for his part got a gray cloth coat and a pair of hose.
The reference to hose, which men don’t typically wear in modern times, further places the story in earlier times.
3. Include small-scale changes in time
In addition to creating the broader sense of time or period, you can use small-scale time (such as time of day or the way place changes week to week or month to month).
For example, if a city is bombed over a week’s period in a story, what does it look like at the start versus at the end? As an exercise, describe a sleek, modern city in a few sentences. Then describe the same elements of the city after a week of civil warfare. What has changed and what mood do these changes create?
Including time of day can create moods such as:
Fear: Nighttime may bring vulnerabilities such as reduced visibility and general fear
Langour and laziness: The golden light of a late afternoon outdoor social gathering, for example</li.
Excitement: For example, the breaking light of an important and exciting day such as a wedding or holiday
Weaving in details of time of day as well as the way places change over a day, week, month or year will create a sense of your setting being a dynamic, active and real place.
Example of effective use of small-scale time in writing setting
In his historical novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), the Australian author Peter Carey describes a stormy nighttime scene where the lights in Oscar’s family’s home go out:
There was no torch available for my father because I had dropped it down the dunny [toilet] the night before. I had seen it sink, its beam still shining through the murky fascinating sea of urine and faeces… So when the lights went off in the storm the following night, he had no torch to examine the fuse-box. (p. 3)
Carey weaves a succession of nightly events together to show the frustrations of Oscar’s father. This use of time, coupled with the stormy setting, creates tension. When the father asks Oscar’s mother where the fuse-wire is, she says ‘I used it…to make the Advent wreath’ [for the church].
Oscar’s father’s response is to blaspheme. The mother, being devout, makes them all kneel to ask God’s forgiveness.
Carey ends the scene showing a change in the setting and how the mother interprets it:
We stayed there kneeling on the hard lino floor. My brother was crying softly.
Then the lights came on.
I looked up and saw the hard bright triumph in my mother’s eyes. She would die believing God had fixed the fuse. (p. 5)
Carey masterfully uses a tense nighttime setting and situation (lights going out in a storm) to show different family members’ personalities. The mother’s response is to turn to her faith, the father’s to think of practical matters like finding fuse-wires to fix the lights.
The stormy nighttime setting provides a dramatic backdrop to the action, giving both the cause for the situation and the mood of the scene.
Bring your character’s personalities, passions and histories to bear on the setting details they notice and describe.
We often return to this example because it’s an effective description of setting and the feelings it evokes:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. (p. 3)
This is the opening to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), describing the haunted quality of her protagonist Sethe’s family home. Morrison immediately creates a sense of feeling in her setting description. Describing her characters as ‘victims’ of the house makes it clear it is a place of trauma and suffering.
Morrison continues to convey the character of place brilliantly:
The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (p. 3)
Morrison lists interesting, mysterious details about the haunted air of 124, and the different details of place that are the final straws for individual members of Sethe’s family.
Overall, the effect of her place description is to create a sense of hostility and ‘unhomeliness’. We have a clear sense of the emotions place produces or reawakens.
5. Keep setting description relevant to the story
Often writers starting out try to describe every little detail in painstaking detail. Others describe everything in broad generalizations. Each have pros and drawbacks. The advantages of detailed place description are:
Vivid visuals: We see more of the setting in our mind’s eye
Authenticity: Details often create a sense of reality. For example, if the rooms of a house have different light, objects, curiosities
The cons of detailed description are that it can slow narrative pace and clutter your prose.
Being too broad and abstract has its own cons, however. If you describe a high street, for example, and say ‘The shops all have lavish window displays’, we don’t see any difference between them.
Relevant to impending events: E.g. Including an object that will be used in a scene, such as a murder weapon
Revealing about place or character: For example, if a character’s bedroom is messy it tells us something about their personality (that they’re lazy, perhaps, or merely busy or chaotic)
Worth mentioning: Beginning writers often include unnecessary descriptions such as ‘she walked across the lounge and headed to her bedroom’. It’s more concise to simply say, ‘She went to her bedroom’
Example of relevant setting description
In his novel Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes Dr. Juvenal Urbino as one of the most respected men in the Carribean town where the story takes place.
Here is description of the doctor’s arrival at a party in the middle of a storm:
In the chaos of the storm Dr. Juvenal Urbino, along with the other late guests whom he had met on the road, had great difficulty reaching the house, and like them he wanted to move from the carriage to the house by jumping from stone to stone across the muddy patio, but at last he had to accept the humiliation of being carried by Don Sancho’s men under a yellow canvas canopy. (p. 34)
This is a simple, effective example of relevant setting description because:
Marquez uses how a character interacts with his challenge-ridden setting (the mud and the wet) to reveal character. Because the doctor is so respected he is carried, but he is also ‘humiliated’ by this, showing his proud nature
The setting description focuses on the key transition that sets up the next scenes – people’s arrival for a luncheon to commemorate the silver anniversary of Urbino’s colleague’s graduation
6. Make a list of adjectives to describe your story locations
Learning how to describe a place means also broadening your vocabulary with words that capture setting. There are so many adjectives to describe an ‘old’ building, for example. Each of the following terms describe age, yet with different shades of meaning:
Ancient: Belonging to the very distant past (OED)
Anachronistic: Belonging or appropriate to an earlier period, especially so as to seem conspicuously old-fashioned (OED)
Prehistoric: (Informal) Very old or out of date (OED)
Archaic: Very old or old-fashioned (OED)
Venerable: Accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom, or character (OED)
Even if you don’t use every word you find, this exercise will help you pinpoint the mood of a place. Think about elements such as a place’s:
Find adjectives that convey these qualities in a way that make place more specific. ‘Venerable’, for example, suggests respect that comes with age as described above. ‘Decrepit’, by contrast, suggests falling apart and ugly with age.
The short story has a long and rich tradition, spanning everything from the Gothic tales of Poe to contemporary masterpieces. Writing a short story will improve your writing skills, as you can apply many of the techniques you master in the process to longer forms. Telling a complete story in 5,000 words rather than 100,000 nurtures your storytelling abilities because you:
1. Learn how to create good form and structure
A short story has many of a novel’s features. It typically has:
Exposition (introducing characters, their world, a scenario)
Development (developing these elements)
Rising and falling action
The last point makes writing short stories particularly useful for bettering your craft. Creating a satisfying shape of rising and falling action, well-paced high and low points, is trickier for longer forms. When you write in a smaller form you can see the broader sweep of events and moments from scene to scene easier.
Many famous authors have written now-celebrated works first in trial runs as shorter stories. James Joyce’s modernist classic A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was based in part on a shorter autobiographical book, Stephen Hero. This book gave a testing ground for ideas and the structure of events that take place in the last third of Portrait.
Seeing writing short stories as preparatory work for a novel can be useful. Given the shorter time commitment, you can play with plot devices such as starting in the middle of action (in medias res).
A plot device is an incident or anything else that changes the direction of a story or helps to moves it forward. When you write a short story, try use different devices such as:
Plot twists and reveals (surprising turns of events the reader doesn’t see coming)
Multiple time-frames or versions (you could tell each quarter of a story from one of four siblings’ points of view, for example)
Flashbacks (characters recalling earlier events) or flash forwards
A plot twist, for example, is a good plot device to practice in short story form. Why? Because if executed clumsily or obviously, a twist can frustrate or annoy readers.
The nineteenth century writers Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry were masters of creating concise, effective plot twists. In much of their short fiction, information introduced at the end of the story changes the reader’s understanding of what came before. Modern masters of this device include Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Learn which plot devices could help make your novel memorable and intriguing by testing them out in short fiction first.
3. Kill your darlings with less time lost
When you’ve poured your heart into a dense, lengthy novel, it’s hard sometimes to cut large swathes that aren’t working. The beauty of writing a short story is that you can test and expand character ideas a little more. This helps you see early who you’ll fall in love with as you write, and who’ll yield narrative dead ends.
The phrase ‘kill your darlings’, often attributed to Faulkner, means to let go of parts of your story you may be holding onto for sentimental reasons while they don’t completely serve your story. It’s the clever pun or the sarcastic back and forth that might not actually be contributing enough development or focus, for example.
Writing a short story is a good exercise for cutting away the fat and making every detail of your fiction lean and precise. While a novel is often forgiving of digressions, every moment in a short story has to push the story forward, given the limited space. You have to grab readers’ attention and entertain, move, thrill or terrify them, faster. Writing short fiction will help you master this ability to ruthlessly eliminate filler or fluff.
4. Practice concise character development
Often first-time (or even experienced) novelists are tempted to develop characters using long flashbacks and back story. These sometimes take too much focus away from the main narrative arc, from what’s happening to characters now.
In a short story, you have to set up characters and convey their distinct personalities fast, using key details. For example, you might sketch a character quickly in a few lines, based on how they are dressed or how they respond to a brief conflict. Concise dialogue also is necessary to just give enough of the voice to show.
Writing short stories helps you to focus on characters’ immediate goals, by bringing them closer in terms of the number of pages you have to help (or hinder) their reaching them!
5. Learn how to write lean dialogue
In a novel, you have the opportunity to develop the voices of different characters over a much broader canvas.
In a short story, you need to give those characters distinctive voices within a fraction of the space. Depending on the nature of your story, there might be little dialogue. Yet what little there is has to be focused so you don’t waste the short story’s limited space.
The novel Flowers for Algernon (1959) by Daniel Keyes began life as a short story by the same name. It began with the same themes.
In a short story, you can begin mulling over major themes that you will explore at greater length when you write your novel. Use the condensed medium to sketch out the basics of your characters and plot. It will result in a more tightly structured novel.
7. Refine your writing style, line by line
There is a reason that when a poet turns to writing fiction, critics will often comment on the writer’s command of language. Like poetry, short stories give you the opportunity to work on your prose at a very precise, miniature level. If a story is just a few thousand words long, you have time to pore over every word. It’s also why most successful novelists working in longer forms rely on help from skilled editors when they’re finished their drafts!
Try writing a few short stories and giving extra attention to the construction of every sentence.Ask questions such as, ‘Could this verb here be more active as a participle?’ (an ‘-ing’ word).
8. Practice point of view
Point of view is a tricky aspect of narration to master. Many aspiring writers understand the difference between first, second and third person.
In omniscient point of view, a narrator who has access to the thoughts and actions of all characters is telling the story.
In third person limited, the narrative may jump between characters’ heads, but at any given time the narrator can only report what the viewpoint (currently narrating) character sees and knows.
Second person point of view is like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, as the narrator addresses the reader as ‘you’. (‘You lift the gun and check the safety mechanism is active.’)
The real problem with point of view tends to come with switching between characters’ POVs. When you write a short story, try changing the point of view throughout the entire story as an exercise. Change it from first to third, or vice versa. How does it change the effect? Writing short lets you experiment and be free with your style. Then write that epic novel.
Writing character profiles and brainstorming main characters’ arcs helps establish story direction. A good character arc template includes facts about your characters’ goals, high points and low points. Here are 5 steps to building a dynamic character journey:
An unbearable situation your main character wants to escape (e.g. Cinderella’s awful treatment by her stepmother in the classic fairy tale)
An exciting arrival or surprise that promises new adventures (for example, the arrival of Harry’s mysterious acceptance letter to magic school in Harry Potter)
An encounter with an enigmatic stranger (for example, in Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, several strangers who’ve decided to jump from a tall building meet and start talking about what brought them to this shared point of despair)
A good starting point to use when you create a character arc template is a situation involving big unknowns. We are uncertain what characters’ next steps will be. This uncertainty creates narrative tension. This tension is what distinguishes a dull sequence of unremarkable events from a story.
A character’s first goal springs from desires and goals established early in your story. In the Grimm fairy tale ‘Cinderella’, for example, Cinderella’s desire is to escape the misery of her stepmother’s cruelty and tyranny. Her goal is to attend a ball soon to be held by the region’s prince.
Hint at obstacles: In Cinderella, the reader wonders how a girl dressed in rags can compete at a lavish ball, and how the stepmother will respond if she finds out about this desire)
Add stakes: What’s at stake if a character fails in pursuing their goal? For Cinderella, it’s remaining in her unfair situation (so we root for her). [Use the ‘Best case scenario’ and ‘Worst case scenario’ sections of the ‘Core Plot’ section in the Now Novel process to find stakes.]
Reveal character: What does a character’s first goals tell us about their desires, fears, hopes, dreams?
Sometimes, secondary characters do a little bit of both. For example, Boromir in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a core member of Frodo’s party on his quest. He is ‘the muscle’, joining their number to lend his fighting skill as they approach the villain’s heartland. Yet Boromir is overpowered by the corrupting force of the magical ring Frodo is sent to destroy. Thus he tries to snatch it from Frodo. ‘Helper’ character types can thus become hindrances, and vice versa.
For example, in Cinderella, a fairy godmother comes to Cinderella’s aid. The strength she lends is her magical ability. Cinderella couldn’t possibly scrape together what she needs to make a dazzling entrance at the ball without a little witchcraft.
Yet the godmother’s weakness is that magic has (believable, interesting) limitations. The lavish costuming and transport the godmother conjures up for Cinderella will revert to its normal state by midnight. These limitations on the help ensure that Cinderella’s arc doesn’t rise to meet her goals too easily. This urgency and limitation sustains narrative tension.
The example of the fairy godmother in Cinderella demonstrates how characters who help others in their arcs have strengths, flaws and weaknesses like any others. These qualities give characters’ actions and their consequences intriguing unpredictability.
3. Find a point of no return
Think of a character arc as a roller-coaster. This metaphor for unpredictability may be a little clichéd. Yet it captures that moment when, after the ‘clack, clack, clack’ of ascent, you reach a peak and there’s no getting off. You’re strapped in for high velocity turns and terrors.
A great character arc has these qualities. It has velocity. Change happens. Not always at the same rate. Sometimes it’s a slow, clacking ascent. Sometimes it’s that brief, gut-wrenching pause before the hurtling descent. A point of no return, where your character fully commits to a plan, goal or route, creates focus for the story ahead. For a good, cohesive arc, focus not just on the first goal but characters’ end-goals, too.
For Cinderella, the first goal is getting to the ball. The end goal is winning over the prince and thus finding love to replace her loveless home. Points of no return like this are powerful because they often involve emotional states such as fear, courage, or defiance. As readers we empathize, having experienced similar emotions ourselves.
To create a compelling point of no return in a character arc:
Give characters irreversible choices: In a romance, it might be choosing to pursue contact and connection with a mysterious ‘other’. In a fantasy quest it could be agreeing to a dangerous mission (such as Frodo’s in LOTR)
Begin to reveal the consequences: How could the initial choices a character makes now complicate their situation? What other roads could the past take them down?
Brainstorm rising and falling plot points that proceed from this point: These situations give further ups and downs. They bring your character closer to their goals or take them further away from them (you can brainstorm these in the Core Plot section of the Now Novel dashboard)
4. Plot growth and change
Intriguing arcs show the ways characters grow and change. An assassin who completes their first assignment may become bolder and more brazen once they find they can get away with murder, for example. Or else they might grapple with the psychological effects of their first major desensitizing act.
Growth and change are key to giving your story the action and reaction. Great stories show how a single event ripples out and produces foreseeable (and unforeseen) results.
The ways characters develop and change can either help or hinder their pursuit of their goals. For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series, Hermione Granger is established as an intelligent, bookish know-it-all from the start. Part of Hermione’s arc involves learning how to break the rules for the greater good (in order to defeat the series’ villain, Lord Voldemort, being the prime example).
This type of character development reveals that a character’s strengths (e.g. Hermione’s discipline) often have related ‘shadow’ sides or drawbacks (such as Hermione’s fussy rule-bound nature).
Character archetypes (such as ‘warrior = strong’) are useful, because they give us recognizable imagery and characters. Yet great character arcs can reveal the contradictions and struggles within the archetype. We see the warrior’s fear of being or coming across ‘weak’. The scholar’s fear of failure.
An effective character arc may show how a character reaches a more practical middle ground between their strengths and weaknesses. Or how they spiral down in the absence of a successful balancing act. An arc isn’t always an ascent – in a tragedy, it may be a gradual (or breakneck) descent to a worse place.
5. Bring external and internal conflicts to a head
Conflict is key to developing a good character arc. A character might struggle internally with a doubt, mistake, or other form of burden. They may also face conflict with others (individual characters or society at large) or their environment.
Whatever the main conflicts in your story, show how characters overcome or succumb. The conflicts in character arcs give us:
Narrative suspense: How will the conflict resolve? The reader has to know the answer
Fodder for change: How could your character adapt through conflict or gain new skills? Are they wiser? Tougher? More vulnerable? More self-aware?
Characterization: How your characters respond to situations of conflict gives us insight into their personalities
In The Lord of the Rings the destruction of the ring is this end-point (although the heroes still return home to find further conflict that has mushroomed in their absence). Once you have an idea of your core conflicts, you’ll have all you need to create a detailed summary of your story idea. [You can do this in the ‘Summary’ section of the Now Novel dashboard].
Understanding how to create tension in a story is key to writing a gripping, ‘I’ll just read one more page before bed’ read. Here are eight steps to ensure your story has effective narrative tension as well as tension between characters:
1: Create a conflict crucial to your characters
2: Create engaging characters with opposing goals
3: Keep raising the stakes
4: Allow tension to ebb and flow
5: Keep making the reader ask questions
6: Create internal and external conflict
7: Create secondary sources of tension
8: Make the story unfold in a shorter space of time
For example, you might have a teenage rebel protagonist who wants to stay out later than their curfew and get up to no good with their friends. A likely conflict would be a disagreement with their parents, and consequences that thwart some of their further goals.
Conflict can be as small as an internal struggle or a relationship between two people breaking down. Or it can be as large as the fate of the entire universe. The key is that the conflict has to relate to and threaten the most important things to your characters. Work out your characters’ first goals and the rising and falling action that stands between them and what they want using the ‘Character’ and ‘Core Plot’ parts of Now Novel’s story outlining tool.
2. Create engaging characters with opposing goals
Your readers need to care what happens to your characters, and in order to make your readers care, you need to first engage them. Many writers feel that they need to write characters who are likable, and this is certainly the best way to guarantee reader identification.
However, characters we don’t relate to all the time (or even don’t relate to any of the time) are often equally intriguing. You can still make the reader care about a character by making them interesting and engaging in some way.
One way to make characters engaging is to give them opposing goals, views and other features. Rebel Timmy (the character profile example above) might have a mom who is a moralizing prude, and a dad who’s laid back and doesn’t believe in disciplining his kids. This triangle could create an interesting, tense character dynamic between the three. What’s more, different readers will identify more with different characters in this family setup.
The key here is that characters’ personalities and approaches to conflict can differ and create disagreements, even fireworks.
3. Keep raising the stakes
For narrative suspense and tension, your protagonist needs to try and fail a number of times. Or, if they succeed in reaching their goal at first try, adverse possible consequences need to lurk in the background. For example, Timmy might arrive at the party, having snuck out undetected, and notice his phone buzzing away with worried and/or angry texts. This small sign tells us he isn’t completely off the hook.
There are a number of ways to structure your novel to ensure that you have points of rising conflict throughout.
One way is to keep the rule of threes in mind. The rule of threes simply states that there should be two unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem before the third successful one. When you brainstorm rising and falling plot points using the ‘Core Plot’ section of our outlining tool, try create two falling plot points (situations that take your character further from where they want to be) to one event where their situation improves.
A step of the ‘Core Plot’ section in Now Novel’s outlining dashboard
This is less a hard-and-fast rule than a reminder that success is often hard-won. The interesting and exciting type of success, that is.
The key to how to build tension and suspense in a scene or story is to let it ebb and flow:
4. Allow tension to ebb and flow
You may be tempted to keep a constant stream of exciting things happening in order to ensure that the interest of your readers never flags. Yet this will in fact have the opposite effect.
Not only do you need quiet periods to build things like character, but if it’s all tension, all the time, your readers will simply get worn out.
It’s important to pace your suspense, and while the big moments may grow until you reach the climax at the end of the book, along the way, there should be smaller moments of tension and ease, too.
5. Keep making the reader ask questions
How do you keep readers engaged in the quieter moments of your story, when it isn’t all nail-biting action and hair’s-breadth escapes? One way is by creating good characters, who are interesting even when not in a state of emergency.
You also do so by ensuring that you are always raising interesting questions that your readers will want the answers to. Try to raise new questions at the ends of chapters in particular, so that you create a sense of forward propulsion to the next event (and the next).
6. Create internal and external conflict
Tension is most interesting and varied when it arises both from forces outside of the character and those within. External conflict is conflict such as a fistfight between two adversaries, or a character’s fight for survival on a bitterly cold mountain pass (a ‘character versus environment’ conflict). Internal conflict refers to characters’ inner struggles. The difficult choices they grapple with, and the flaws, vulnerabilities or weaknesses that get in their way.
In some cases, the two types of tension may reflect one another; a character who struggles with a terror of public speaking may face an external conflict that brings that internal tension to the fore (for example, a sudden requirement that they give a major public talk).
7. Create secondary sources of tension
Often, we juggle multiple tensions and challenges at once. The protagonist of your romantic novel may not only be dealing with unrequited love but also with her dying parent or a challenge at work. Your FBI agent protagonist may be experiencing tension with her husband.
Think about your own life and the lives of everyone you know. Who has to juggle many balls in the air right now? What are the individual challenges? We all deal with conflict and tension from multiple sources, and your characters should be no different.
8. Make the story unfold in a shorter space of time
In a popular TV series like 24 or a tense thriller by Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn, characters are constrained by a time limit. A classic, Agatha Christie -like mystery novel set-up, in which a murder occurs at a country house over a weekend, is a good example of this.
This approach is not suitable for every story, but if you can narrow the story you are telling to a short time-frame, and keep events concrete, clear and fast-paced, requiring urgent resolution, this will aid tension.