Story creation and planning: Drawing on your support cast

Background of an ancient city with the words: Drawing on your Support CastLonger stories tend to include more characters than shorter stories, creating more complexity, but more opportunities as well.

For a novel there’s a minimum number of characters you’re likely to need. These are:

  • your protagonist
  • your antagonist
  • what’s known as an ‘influence’ or ‘relationship’ or ‘insight’ character. This is the person who ‘helps’ your protagonist see some truth about themselves and opens their way to the story’s resolution.

In a novel, other than your core three characters, you could expect at least a few more ancillary characters, giving you a well of potential conflicts and story-lines. This potential is derived from things like:

  • personalities
  • cultures
  • character histories
  • secrets
  • needs
  • wants
  • desires, etc.

When you’re creating a support cast it helps to think in terms of conflict – what drives characters and what that means to each other and the protagonist.

People holding hands and singing hymns don’t generally make for riveting reading until you mix in some drama, and drama is derived from conflict. If a character doesn’t bring conflict to the story they’re not paying their way, so consider getting rid of them.

For example, in the hand-holding hymn-singing scenario I just mentioned, everything is perfect… zzzz… until one of the singers keels over, foaming at the mouth from an exotic poison.

Interested now?

  • Who did it?
  • Why?
  • (and more importantly) Who’s next?

Consider the same concept in terms of our own cast of characters. Rose:

  • wakes up to discover she’s now a dryad, but thinks that’s just grand and so does everyone she tells (lots of hugs and kisses)
  • wonders off into the woods to be one with the trees
  • has the full support of everyone she knows.
  • The end… Riveting, right? Not.

Line art of a woman with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.Alternatively. Rose:

  • must come to terms with what she’s become (internal conflict)
  • needs to save herself and her daughter from the bad guy who wants to use and destroy her (interpersonal conflict)
  • has to save the dryad world (including herself) and possibly the extended magical world from enslavement and annihilation (external conflict and story threat)

Far more dramatic. To do all that though, she might need help.

Rose Thorn’s possible relationships (at the beginning of the story) could include:

  • Family (parents, siblings, daughter)
  • Friends (social)
  • Husband, ex-husband
  • Lover, ex-lovers
  • Work/business associates
  • Police (perhaps one specific officer investigating her case who just won’t let it go?)
  • A medical person who attended to her when she ‘returned’
  • The dryad who made her what she’s becoming
  • Christian Godson himself? (former lover and apparent friend? betrayer?)
  • The people Christian hates. Let’s call them the druids – a very secretive and powerful organisation of long-lived people.

It’s a simple question of asking who from the above list would bring the most conflict to the story on all kinds of levels.

  • How are her friends going to react to her change?
  • Who’s going to support her and who’s going to reject her?
  • Who’s going to turn on or betray her?
  • Who thinks they can take advantage of Rose’s situation?
  • Who already knows about the situation (druids? Christian?)?
  • Is the police officer or medic interested enough to pursue the issue – do they cause complications for Rose or her daughter Hope? Etc.

Line drawings of about 20 people in a circleChristian Godson’s possible relationships:

  • The dryad who ‘made’ Rose
  • His henchmen?
  • The group of long-lived relatives who kicked him out of the club and who he now wants to destroy
  • Friends?
  • Lovers?
  • Business associates?
  • Druids?
  • Corrupt police?
  • People he’s blackmailing?
  • Rose herself?


  • Who does Christian know and how will they be involved?
  • Can he blackmail the cop to ‘not’ investigate?
  • Can he buy off the medic (or kill them)?
  • How many henchmen does he have, if any?
  • What has he promised them?
  • Does he have a best friend or a jealous lover?
  • What are his long-lost relatives doing about the situation?
  • Is someone looking to take advantage of him and his longevity?

By asking these sorts of questions story possibilities begin to appear. Who else might be involved? How can we use these characters to provide setbacks for Rose and/or Christian? How can they be used to hurt Rose or frustrate Christian?

What about Rose’s daughter, Hope? Who does she know that could become involved in this story? What could they possibly bring to the situation? How can they influence Hope’s choices?

So ask lots of questions.

Story planning and creation: Making it epic

Story Planning and Creation: making it epicWriting the first book in a series is potentially far more difficult than writing the sequels because it needs more up-front development. As well as telling a great story, you have to:

  • introduce an immersive story world (ie, do all the world building)
  • set up the sequels without being obvious about it.

Turning to successful examples is a great way of seeing complex introductions done simply.

Take Dune for example – it’s epic, contained, stands alone and sets up an entire story universe, all within the first book of the series.

Star Wars and The Matrix do the same things, with the added complication of having to tell their stories visually and in an extremely short timeframe.

The first story in any epic series needs to do similar things in most circumstances, and the more epic the conclusion, the better.

In short, your protagonist needs to discover their worth and use it to defeat a stand-alone story threat which would otherwise have a ‘very big and bad’ impact on the bigger story world.

The more epic the threat and the more spectacular the response in defeating it, and the greater the impact your story is likely to have on your readers.

 To put it into a simple template:

  • [XYZ Character]
  • is forced to grow into [their Special Power/Knowledge/Skill] and
  • use it to defeat [An Obvious and Well-demonstrated Threat].

While it appears simple, the simple concepts are often the hardest to pull off.

There are formulas for all kinds of stories, but if you’re going epic, imitate the best. The best keep it simple.

So let’s apply this simple template to our dryad story.

[Rose Thorn] is forced to accept [she’s changing into a dryad] in order to defeat Christian Godson who [intends to kill all dryads and thereby wipe out a secret society of long-lived people].

The threat isn’t world-shaking unless you’re a dryad or part of the secret society, but it fits the template well enough

To make it world-shaking, we need to apply world-shaking consequences to the possible demise of the dryads. For example, if the dryads are wiped out, all plant-life on Earth will be wiped out too. Now that’s got possibilities and far-reaching consequences.

Let’s consider other genres. For a romance, the basic formula is:

  • boy meets girl (or any such combination of lovers you like)
  • boy romances girl
  • boy loses girl
  • boy gets girl.

As a template sentence, it would go something like: [XYZ character] must fight for [the love of their life] or [lose them forever].

Like the template for epic stories, it’s very simple.

For a murder mystery, the basic formula goes:

  • someone commits a murder
  • the protagonist investigates
  • the protagonist has setbacks (red herrings, false victories, etc)
  • the protagonist solves the crime.

Why don’t you take a crack at writing this formula into a story template? Keep it simple and don’t fall into the trap of over-complicating the storyline. Too many moves kill a good story.

How would the template for your story look like if you applied the same concepts?

Story planning and creation: Rules for your world

Story Planning and Creation: Rules for your worldGoogle ‘Road Runner rules’ and you’ll pull up dozens of sources showcasing Chuck Jones’ rules for the Road Runner cartoon. They’re brilliant.

They succinctly set the scene for the story universe in which the Road Runner cartoon takes place, as well as all the conflict between the Road Runner and the Coyote. They are:

  • Rule 1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “Beep, beep!”
  • Rule 2. No outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of ACME products.
  • Rule 3. The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic.
  • Rule 4. No dialogue ever, except “Beep, beep”.
  • Rule 5. The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.
  • Rule 6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters – the southwest American desert.
  • Rule 7. All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the ACME Corporation.
  • Rule 8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
  • Rule 9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

There’s a slightly amended version with a couple of extra rules and tweaks, but I prefer the original.

But what does that mean for your story?

As the God of your own story universe, you can come up with any number of rules for any aspect of your story want to, but be cautious; developing rules can become a form of procrastination or they grow far too unwieldy to be useful.

Think of rules as story drivers and sources of conflict, not merely world-building elements.

Take something familiar and consider its rules

In a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the rules might look something like:

  • Slayers are girls. Always.
  • When a slayer dies, another rises in her place.
  • You can kill a vampire with a wooden stake through the heart, with fire, or by beheading it.
  • The Hellmouth spawns and attracts all sorts of demonic creatures, not just vampires.
  • Magic always comes with a cost.
  • Wherever possible, mix comedy with horror.

If you’re a huge fan of the show, you could probably add a few more. The point is, you want to keep your rules broad yet simple.

Why not pick a show, a movie or a book you’re familiar with, and try and figure out its basic rules?

The dryad novel

In the case of our developing novel, we could come up with specific rules for dryads, magic, longevity, immortality, the supernatural world, transformations, mundane perceptions, computer workstations, AI, vehicle emissions, shoes, handbags, etc., and before you know it we’d have the equivalent of a library’s worth of manuals covering every conceivable element and eventuality in the story (but no story because we’d be constantly developing the rules – see the previous comment about procrastination).

For the more detailed information about a story world it helps to maintain a story bible to keep track of ‘rules’ and other elements you create in your story, but that’s a separate matter. We’re not talking about a story bible today.

For now, we’re talking about the foundation rules for your story world, not elements of the story.

As with the Road Runner rules or my Buffy exercise, five to ten rules should be more than enough for most novels.

Beyond offering guidance, these rules must show your story’s conflicts and pressure points.

So let’s create some rules for this story universe.

  1. Magic is scarce on Earth; there is never enough to go around (a pressure point & source of conflict).
  2. Magical creatures need magic to survive, just as humans need air, water and food to survive (another pressure point & source of conflict).
  3. Magic can be stored, stolen, transformed, used and reused by magical creatures and natural processes, but like any form of energy it degrades with time and use (a potential source of conflict).
  4. Humans cannot sense or use magic directly, although they are Earth’s major source of it and can be affected by it (humans are a resource to magical creatures = potential conflict).
  5. Humans can become magical creatures, but magical creatures can never become human again (a potential source of conflict).

That will do for this story.

Hopefully you’ll have noticed I didn’t try to use the rules to explain anything in the story (such as why and how humans are the world’s major source of magic but have no access to it), and I didn’t try to explain the rules either – they’re simply a statement of fact. I know how it all works, but it’s not important to explain it here.

The broader story universe

If we wanted to take into consideration the broader story universe of which this novel is simply a small part of, we’d overlay the first five rules with five more:

  1. Gods are real and constantly fighting among themselves for the control of new universes.
  2. It’s possible, though difficult, to travel between universes.
  3. Time moves relative to the universe you’re in, and even that’s not constant.
  4. Supernatural perceptions and abilities can be attained through magic and/or the influence of Gods.
  5. The past cannot be changed, though with foresight the future can be manipulated and the appearance of history altered.

That’s ten rules for this story universe, though only five will have any real effect in this novel.

As well as try and figure out the rules for a show/book/movie you’re familiar with, why not create five to ten rules for your own story universe? What are they? Do they help?

As always, please share this post if you found it helpful.

Story planning and creation: Discover your theme

Story planning and creation: ThemeIt’s time to start thinking about theme.


Story themes are tricky beasts to corner, but integral to character choices and how the story unfolds and resolves.

Without a strong theme your story is just a series of escalating events which will soon be forgotten.

While we don’t have to pin a theme down right away, it helps to be open to any hidden gems we may have buried in our planning (or later, writing) phase.

Those gems will unify our story and give it meaning.

So what exactly is a story’s theme?

Most writers struggle with the concept, usually citing things like ‘love’, ‘hope,’ ‘loneliness,’ ‘loss,’ etc.

The problem is, while single words are often thematic, they’re not themselves a theme. They’re only expressions of a theme.

So how would you define a theme? Your theme is a statement or a question. Your story is its playground.

For example, your theme might be: “You can never truly be yourself around your family.” Your story would then debate that statement, with everything that goes on in the story contributing to the final answer.

And that’s where the power of a theme comes into play; it’s what gives your story real-life meaning and keeps readers thinking about it long after they’ve read it, even if they don’t have a clue what the theme actually is.

It’s probably the most understated, least understood, yet most powerful part of any story.

Take the song Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin (I love the Ugly Kid Joe version). Look it up on YouTube, Google the lyrics, buy it or stream it – whatever, but check out the lyrics and the question of theme should become clearer.

Cats in the Cradle is a story of regret – but regret is only an expression of the theme. Family features strongly, but family isn’t the theme either. Another expression. The story is about both those things, but it’s much more. Cats in the Cradle is a cautionary tale of missed opportunities and poor choices, and so a statement of theme would include those things.

In your own stories, your theme should influence everything your characters say and do, but don’t force a theme if you don’t already have one. Once the story’s drafted you can figure out the theme and if necessary go back and align story elements to it.

At the planning stage it’s simply about pointing the story in one possible direction; a question or statement you think you may want to explore. If the story’s not going where you want or expect, keep an eye out for a more compelling theme. It’ll appear naturally, so don’t try to force it.

Possible themes for this our dryad story run along the lines of:

  • Eternal youth is a curse, not a blessing.
  • Broken relationships can never be completely healed.
  • What’s truly important can never be stolen.
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • You must be true to who you are.

The theme we need to find is the one our protagonist carries. (For an ensemble cast the character most closely aligning with the theme represents your protagonist.)

What will this story’s theme eventually be? It’s not clear yet, but hopefully it’ll come out in the planning.

If you were to write a statement of theme for the song Cats in the Cradle, what would it be?

Story planning and creation – developing the protagonist’s story

Text over a line drawing of a city - Story planning and creation: Developing the protagonists storyFollowing on from the previous posts where I’ve been outlining a new novel, we now know a little about the story world and its conflicts. It’s a world where:

  • the supernatural intersects with the mundane
  • a woman is in trouble because of her new youth.

So what do we know about the protagonist, Rose Thorn, and her situation?

  • She wakes up with no memory of what’s happened to her.
  • She’s much younger than she was.
  • Time has passed – several months.
  • She has a daughter called Hope, and Hope’s going to be used against Rose by the antagonist.
  • Depending on your definition of what it is to be human, Rose no longer is. She’s transforming into a dryad. I think a ticking clock might be useful here.

We don’t really know much more about Rose at this stage, so let’s focus on fleshing her out a bit.

What she knows

Rose has to realise she’s ‘different’ very early on in the story, but can’t remember what happened too soon. It’s a question that will be answered as the story progresses.

All she knows initially is that she had a normal life until she woke up youthful again after going missing for several months. As her foggy memories return they will be balanced with the physical changes she’s going to have to rely on to survive.

She quickly learns someone is after her, and because of that her daughter is at risk. This needs to become clear during the first quarter of the story to develop the story’s main conflicts and threat.

Story drivers

Her lack of knowledge creates story drivers. She needs to figure out:

  • how she was gifted or cursed by a dryad
  • what becoming a dryad means
  • why this happened to her. Red herrings (or real scenarios) could be:
    • something she did (is what happened to her some form of payback, or a gift for some favour/help she gave)?
    • something she found/stole – a Magic McGuffin which turns her into a dryad?
    • wrong place – wrong time (bad luck)?
    • she escaped some supernatural attack and this was the result?
  • did the dryad have her own motivations?
    • does the dryad have a secret?
    • is the dryad playing her own game?
  • how can she use her ‘gift/curse’ to help herself and her daughter.

What happened to her can either be directly related to the antagonist (ie, Christian inadvertently caused it, for instance), or totally unrelated. Either way, it draws her into conflict with him as she has something he wants.

What does she know about Christian Godson, the antagonist?

She doesn’t know who’s after her or why (initially), though she eventually discovers Christian wants to use her gift and has the means to take it from her. The main things I need to figure out here are:

  • How exactly will Christian gain from this?
    • Just a long life, or something more?
    • How is this furthering his goals and hurting his enemies?
  • How will her ‘gift’ affect Christian?
    • Will it make him instantly younger?
    • Does it take time to work?
    • Will it cure any illnesses he has?
    • Does he have minions he can share it with?
  • What does he need to do to attain it?
    • If he catches her, can she be forced to just ‘hand it over’?
    • Does he need to do something drastic to extract it?
  • Could Christian be someone she trusts (plot twist?)?

How will the secret of her youth hurt Rose (emotionally)?

There must always be consequences/effects.

  • Does she go into denial?
  • Is she determined to find a cure and return to being human?
  • Does it affect her in other ways?
  • What will be the effects on her family?

How can she use her new knowledge about what happened to her advantage?

  • We can’t drop her secret into the story and give it no impact, or fail to provide her with any means of taking advantage of it.
  • It’s essential that it be part of the story’s resolution to produce a satisfying ending.
    • How can she use this change to defeat or destroy the protagonist?

A line drawing of a woman - head and sholdersWho can possibly help her?

She needs both allies and people she cares about. As well as help her, these ‘extras’ can also be used against her (they can be threatened, hurt, or killed, for example). Possibilities include:

  • Someone associated with Christian (an untrustworthy ally who plans to double-cross him (or her)).
  • Her best friend (I assume she has one).
  • Family/daughter.
  • A third party who knows about her gift/curse but is content to let her keep it
    • Why would they do this?
    • Christian’s enemies?
  • Someone who’s been through what she’s going through – the person (dryad) Christian really wants to get his hands on?
  • More than one of the above?

I don’t know that I want a mentor for Rose in this novel – it’s not a coming-of-age story, though it has similarities. I think it needs to be more of a ‘finding yourself’ or ‘figuring out what’s most important to you’ story, which implies signposts rather than a guide.

Lets put everything we know into a timeline

The beginning:

  • Christian (and friends?) seeks the fountain of Rose’s youth, and has for generations.
    • For him, it’s a temporary thing, requiring ‘top-ups’ at regular intervals to stay young.
    • Perhaps it has a law of diminishing returns – every time he ‘uses’ it the effects don’t last as long, requiring more and more.
  • Rose is transformed (is she left for dead and saved by a dryad/forced to change by a desperate dryad?).
    • She wakes up alone, in the woods, with no memory of what happened.
      • She has to claw her way out of a shallow grave
  • Rose discovers she’s youthful again
    • perhaps after being taken to hospital/a police station
    • some sort of test shows she’s the same person, despite appearances.
    • How does this affect her? How does she react? (does she go through the seven stages of grief over the course of the novel? – I might need to do a little research for this)
    • How do her family react?
      • her parents/siblings reject her
      • her daughter accepts the truth, and can therefore be better used to hurt Rose.
  • Rose tries to lead police to the place she woke, but can’t find it. No one can. This casts doubt on her story.
    • The dryad who transformed Rose is either gone or dead and all evidence of what happened to her removed.
  • Her family reject her – despite the evidence – they don’t believe she’s the same person.

The middle:

  • The supernatural world intrudes (don’t know how yet, but it needs to play a part)
    • Her nature is changing – that is the intrusion on her normal world
    • She resists what’s happening to her, though she’s forced more and more to rely on those changes to get by.
    • Possibly someone from her new world also intrudes at this point (another dryad? Someone from Christian’s line – distant relative he has issues with)?
  • She discovers someone is after her – they want her secret/gift.
  • Her family is threatened: not too serious yet.
  • She’s increasingly caught between worlds, with the supernatural world a huge temptation
    • The supernatural world offers safety and a way out of the mess, but it comes at a cost: her family remains in danger, keeping her from accepting.

The end:

  • Christian goes directly after her family (Hope) and tries and force her hand.
  • She must accept what happened to her in order to save her daughter, herself, and the bigger threat to the supernatural world.

That’s it in very broad strokes, with a lot of detail yet to fill.

How do you think it’s shaping up so far?

Story planning and creation: Names

Story planning and creation: NamesI find searching for the right name for a character, place or anything else I’ve created in a story about as much fun as seasickness.

Running through options to find the right name for an important character can suck up a lot of time, but the right name can add a whole new dimension to a story.

I used to choose names based on the ‘get it chosen ASAP and get on with the story’ approach, usually choosing anything serviceable at the time.

That usually meant taking the first name I liked.

If something better struck me after the choice was made all well and good, but I’d often accept anything that got me past the hurdle, whereas a little thought could have delivered something infinitely better.

Recently I took an unanticipated lesson from Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, Angle, Firefly and more, when I realised a lot of the names he gave his characters have a deeper meaning, usually in tune with their part in the story.

Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance:

  • Buffy. The protagonist’s name is pure irony. What kickass vampire slayer would be seen in public with a name like Buffy? It perfectly reflects the show’s tone.
  • Angel. The perfect guy who turns into the perfect bad guy during his first moment of pure happiness. Another healthy dose of irony.
  • Dawn. Buffy’s new sister. A new Dawn (because Dawn didn’t actually exist prior to her appearance in season 5). Theme-wise, wow.
  • Faith. The vampire slayer who has no faith. (Whedon really loves his irony, doesn’t he?)

Following on from that logic, I’ve found it helps to choose names that fit the story and add another level of value.

Based on what we know about the protagonist from the previous posts, we need a name that suits her situation, and for that we need to revisit (and perhaps add a little more information about) her origins:

  • She wakes up alone and dirty in the woods and is forced to dig her way out of a shallow grave.
  • She has no memory of what happened to her.
  • Memories of her life beforehand are vague.
  • All she really remembers is her name, though other memories slowly return.

And here comes the ‘secret’ I’ve been holding onto so far – a dryad changed her; brought her into the team, so to speak. I’m not entirely sure what the dryad’s motivations are yet, but that’s another question.

What I do know is that it was the dryad who gave her her new name. So what would a dryad call a woman who’s just been turned into another dryad?

A line drawing of a rose on a stem with petalsAfter a bit of consideration, I’ve decided to go with Rose Thorn. Why? Because:

  • First name: Rose. It works for her newfound youth and her growing and sensuous ability to lure people to her.
  • Second name: Thorn. It hints at the hidden danger she represents despite her beauty; her unrevealed dangerous side.
  • It’s fun and unusual, but not unpronounceable or totally off the chart. Rose and Thorn are also real names, though you’d probably feel sorry for someone with both. Considering her recent origins, it fits well.
  • It sounds dryadish… I hope.

As mentioned, there’s a little bit of fun to be had in her name as well. Can you imagine being asked by some cop or medic what your name is?

Repeat your best Bond voice: “Thorn. Rose Thorn.”

They’d think it was a joke. And then there’s the fact she was born with another name she doesn’t feel is hers anymore, yet the people she loves and who love her still hold onto it (a name to figure out later.)

Another major character is her daughter. Hope would be a good name for her. Hope wants her mother back the way she was before the she disappeared. Hope may be a little too obvious or ‘on the nose’, but we’ll run with it for now.

And then there’s the antagonist, someone who seeks the fountain of youth.

A little research shows that Methuselah lived to be almost a thousand years old and he’s mentioned in several religions. That means there’s some pre-existing mythology surrounding him that we can lean on.

Perhaps that’s all we need at this point – the myth of a man who lived for nearly a thousand years, a man who had at least one child, Lamech. Lamech lived to be almost eight hundred years old himself, and was said to be Noah’s father (as in Noah’s Arc). A noble line, indeed.

Yet where does our antagonist fit into all this? Is he Methuselah? Lamech? Noah? Someone else entirely, but descended from the same family?

I don’t want to get too far into the myth/legend/religious history, so let’s go with the same family, but merely related.

He’s a bad apple in an otherwise distinguished group, someone who once had access to the fountain of youth but lost it, and now must take it by force to get what he wants.

Considering he’s the antagonist, let’s make him someone with no regard for anyone but himself. He’s a man who would do anything to get revenge on the people who made him an outcast, including destroying the very thing that gives them (and himself) their long lives.

That seems like pretty good motivation to me.

A sketch of a man leaning against a wall.For a name, something ironic would work here – the complete opposite of what he is.

How about Christian Godson? Outcast. Murderer. Would-be king. It also ties to the mythology surrounding his ancestry.

I like it.

And there we have it, the three most important characters in this story: Rose, Christian and Hope, with the added bonus of some strong character motivation backed up with a little ‘real life’ history.

Do you think they work for this story? How do you choose or create the names in your own stories?

Story planning and creation – stories within worlds

Text over a line drawing of an ancient city: Story Planning and Creation - Stories Within WorldsMention ‘worldbuilding’ and writers start talking about like places, races, creatures, politics, religion, culture, magic systems, etc. While they’re all very important elements of worldbuilding, I want you to think broader. Much broader.

When Prophecy of Power: Prey (formerly Transcendence of Power: Genesis) was accepted for publication, I wanted a four-book deal.

The publisher at the time (Satalyte) was happy to go with that.

My agent, however, suggested it was the wrong move.


If the first book flopped I’d be stuck writing three useless sequels. I interpreted that as ‘years of my writing career which could be better utilised’.

I went with my agent’s advice, although there are arguments for and against (but that’s another blog post).

So rather than write three sequels I wrote four brand new novels, and here’s where the topic of worldbuilding kicks in.

I set each of these standalone novels within the broader Noramgaell Saga story universe – the same story universe as Prophecy of Power: Prey.

Why? Three reasons:

  1. It makes commercial sense. Although they are standalone stories, they share the same backdrop and therefore (distantly, or sometimes closely) tie in into each other. If readers like one story, the familiarity may lead them to the others without any need to have read sequels or prequels.
  2. It makes logical sense. Although I write fantasy I’m not primarily a worldbuilder, so it avoids duplicating effort in a process I’m not a huge fan of.
  3. It saves time. Wordbuilding takes up considerable time which could be better utilized for stories rather than writing story backdrops.

Reusing your worldbuilding is similar to writing a series of standalone books with a single protagonist (such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for example). Same story universe, different stories. A whole lot of advantages.

Now take that concept and think far more broadly. Apply it to all of your story universe, not just the world surrounding a single protagonist. This then becomes more like the hugely successful Marvel cinematic universe.

A line drawing of hands holding a globe.A horror/fantasy short story I wrote called Wyvern’s Blood was my first foray into this concept, and it happened long before I understood there was a concept.

Wyvern’s Blood now forms the groundwork for two separate storylines (the purple and green sections in the circles diagram on this page), all of it within the broader Noramgaell Saga.

In a similar vein, I created a loose history between two races including a war that lasted a millennia, but I didn’t know much about that war. All I knew was which side had won. Around the same time I had an idea for a star-crossed lovers story where an immortal girl from another universe falls in love with a human boy.

Tying these ideas together created a whole new storyline set twenty thousand years before the Noramgaell Saga’s conclusion, and it too is partially built on the foundations I created for Wyvern’s Blood.

Putting it into practice

A diagram of how all my novels interrelate
How my novels interrelate – coloured-in means the first in a series or standalone, bevelled means it’s been written, and coloured outlines designate which storyline the novel belongs to. The smaller squares are short stories.
When I come up with a story idea now, one of the first things I do is figure out if it fits into an existing story universe I’ve already created. Of course many don’t, particularly high-concept stories, but when they do I try to take advantage of what I already have.

The circle diagram on this page represents where stories fit into the Noramgaell Saga story universe. Purple and green represent two separate storylines set here on Earth, in the present. The blue, red and yellow circles represent storylines set in the future on another world in a parallel universe.

And so here I am, beginning to plot a new novel based on a single image – a woman waking up alone in the woods with no memory of what happened to her.

It could fit almost anywhere in the Noramgaell Saga story universe, but as I know what happened to her (something I haven’t revealed yet), there are several places it would work better than others. Therefore I’m setting it here on Earth.

I know a lot of writers are working on their first novel and story world and may not think this concept is for them. While you can apply it at any point, it actually works best at the start of the worldbuilding process.

Here’s why. If you were creating a new world, how many stories could you set in:

  • a hospital
  • a police station
  • a war
  • anywhere in human history
  • another planet
  • another universe?

Just take a look at television and you’ll find the answer – lots. Hundreds. Thousands. More. Layering the groundwork at the start could save you massive headaches later on.

Consider it another way; human history alone is the catalyst for millions of stories, and that’s just one possible story universe you could explore. It’s also free and doesn’t take any effort beyond research.

If you’re not currently in the thick of worldbuilding, pick something you’ve already created and consider the possibilities it represents. Start with unexplored conflicts you already know about and then move into into history, culture, character beliefs, politics – whatever floats your boat.

That’s the true power of worldbuilding – the ability to extract endless stories from a single story universe and its history.

When you’re thinking about worldbuilding, I strongly suggest you think of story possibilities from the outset, not just detail.

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Story planning and creation – conflict and threat

An organge line-drawing background of an ancient city with the words: Story Planning and Creation: Conflict and ThreatFollowing on from the last post about creating your story’s premise, I thought I’d continue the thread and go through what my next steps (ideally) would be in planning this particular story.

While the premise I came up with is in the ball park of what I’m happy with, it needs… more. I’m not sure what ‘more’ is at this stage, but that’s part of what I need to figure out.

If you Google ‘questions to ask before writing a book’ or ‘questions to ask when planning a book’ you’ll get a tonne of responses with some pretty nifty ideas to consider.

They might include:

  • Who’s your story about?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • What does your protagonist want?
  • Who’s your audience?
  • How are you going to surprise your readers?
  • What are you promising your readers? etc.

They’re big, broad, generic questions, and worth considering, but they’re largely taken care of by the story premise or questions that require a premise before you can answer them.

If you missed the previous post, I’d recommend reading it first so you know how I arrived at my story premise. The premise I came up with was: A missing woman who reappears as a teenager tries to protect her grown children when they’re hunted for the secret of her youth.

It’s a little bit of a mouthful and not as tight or specific as I’d like. Generally, it doesn’t suggest enough about story world or protagonist, but there’s plenty of time to refine it. It’s not something you want to get too hung up on.

For now, well ask some questions that might make that clearer while developing the story at the same time.

Let’s revise what we already know

I kept the previous iterations of the premise because they contain some gems. Let’s pull out what we can, remembering that this is largely brainstorming – there are no right or wrong answers, and it doesn’t matter if ideas conflict at this stage.

Ideas we’ve covered:

  • She wakes up in the woods
  • time has passed – decades perhaps – yet she hasn’t aged
  • or – only a little time has passed (days, weeks, months?), but she’s decades younger. I’m leaning toward this option for two main reasons:
    • it makes the story more immediate and contemporary rather than a missing persons case
    • it’s a little more original. Missing persons who come back from the dead (sometimes after centuries) have had a bit of a run on television lately.
  • When she disappears, she’s:
    • a young woman (new mother? – doesn’t really work with my preferred option above, but it’s worth noting)
    • an experienced mother (kids are perhaps 8-10ish)
    • a career woman who probably doesn’t have as much time for her kids as she’d like (maybe in her forty’s with kids who have already grown up or are in their late teens).
  • She and society struggle with the fact she’s younger now.
  • Her family totally disbelieve her story
    • she’s shunned/on her own?
  • She tries and fails (at least initially) to reconnect with her extended family (mother, father, siblings?)
  • She tries to reconnect with her immediate family (teenage daughter, husband, other children?)
  • Someone/something/some organisation (antagonist) is trying to discover her secret and/or steal her gift
    • is the antagonist supernatural, or mundane?
  • She is forced to protect her family
    • her child/children are actively being hunted so they can be used against her with the intent to force her hand and reveal the secret of her ‘eternal youth’ or hand over whatever power she’s been invested with
    • if she’s got more than one child, does that mean the others are considered expendable by the antagonist?

Some of that’s very usable and not bad for no extra effort.

What we need to figure out now are the big issues: the story drivers. Knowing these will help with the detail.

Story driver 1: Conflict

A cartoon of a person being punched in the face with the word 'punch' highlightedMy definition: Conflict is immediate – it’s happening now, and it can be broken into three categories: internal, external, and interpersonal.

The obvious sources of conflict are:

  • She doesn’t know what happened to her (internal conflict).
  • The people she cares about don’t believe her (interpersonal conflict).
  • The antagonist does believe her and wants to take advantage of her (external conflict).
  • Her family is in danger because of whatever made her different (external conflict).
  • The antagonist wants whatever she has (external conflict).

That’s probably more than enough conflict at this stage, so let’s consider the bigger picture.

Story driver 2: Threat

A cartoon of a person about to use a slingshotMy definition: Threat is the potential for conflict, and usually has big consequences.

The main threat needs to stem from the story’s premise. In this case: she has something the antagonist wants. That alone isn’t enough. If there were no consequences, she could simply hand it over, right? For this to work, she can’t afford to lose it or let the antagonist have it.

The question here is: What would happen if the antagonist did get it? This is the source of the story’s main threat.

Consider the potential consequences if she loses it for:

  1. Herself:
    1. Will she die?
    2. If she survives but reverts to normal, will she lose the power to save her family/world etc? (the only answer is ‘yes’ if we take this path, which would mean she has to get it back or find another way.)
  2. Her family:
    1. Will they be harmed/killed if she resists?
    2. Are they likely to suffer more (long term) if she gives in?
  3. The mundane (normal) world:
    1. Something bad. For now, let’s go with the obvious and say the antagonist is a power-mad world-domination type and the consequences are dire. Bit of a cliché, but it’ll do for now. Think big and change it if something better arises.
    2. Nothing at all. This isn’t the mundane world’s fight.
  4. The supernatural world:
    1. Will it be destroyed forever? Again, bit of a cliché, but the higher the stakes the better. We can peg it back later if necessary.
    2. The antagonist gets to rule forever (as they’ll be immortal and therefore unstoppable?).
      1. To do either of these we’d need to tie the protagonist to the supernatural world very strongly – give her something far bigger than herself to care about.

Considering the info above, I’m leaning toward developing the main threats to her family and the supernatural world, and leaving threats to the mundane world alone, otherwise it gets too complicated: too many moves. I’d like to see it played out in the mundane world for contrast however: the supernatural world intruding into the mundane. Considering I write fantasy, having the main threat directed at the normal world doesn’t provide as much fun (or impact).

So now we’ve considered some of the major issues we can start making choices and building something of a working document/outline. We know the premise and have some good ideas for the main conflicts and big threats.

Plot-wise, it’s lacking a little in originality, but we can compensate in the world-building, characterisation and delivery (or come up with something more original as we develop the story). I don’t want to stray too far from reader expectations though.

Have you considered your story’s main conflicts and threats? What are they?

Story planning and creation – finding your story premise

the words Story Planning and Creation over a drawing of ancient architectureA few years ago I developed a method for distilling a novel-length story into a premise or elevator pitch. It’s quite simple and effective, yet difficult to pull off and it can take quite a while to get right, even with practice.

After experimenting with it, I found it’s much easier to do the exercise before you write a novel than after, as you don’t have to try and figure out what doesn’t go in and you won’t get frustrated by the problems it may highlight.

As well as define your story, your premise needs to imply genre and tone while providing an idea about who the protagonist is without actually naming them.

One more point – you have to be able to see a whole story in your premise.

To create your story premise in a single sentence, you need to know four things:

  • who the story’s about
  • what they want
  • who or what’s standing in their way
  • the story’s hook (usually found in the irony).

Unless you’ve already written the story you probably don’t know those things. A bigger problem is that if you’ve written the story and still don’t know those things, you’ve got a major issue that’ll take some serious editing/restructuring to iron out.

So the best time to figure out your story’s premise (elevator pitch, logline, whatever you wish to call it) is before you write it. You can always change the premise later if you come up with better ideas, but its a signpost at the very least, and if you get stuck while writing at least you’ve got something to guide you.

So how do you apply this when you’ve got nothing to start with?

Obviously you have to start with something – an image, character, situation, whatever. A kernel of some kind.

Now try to figure out the answers to those questions above. If you can’t, start with what you have. The answers will probably come to you.

A drawing of a medieval woman in the forestToday I decided to create a premise about a woman who wakes up alone in the woods (covered in dirt, scared, and with no memory of what had happened or where she’d been). It was little more than an image. I only knew two things about her (which I made up on the spot):

  1. As I write speculative fiction, I decided she needed something from the fantasy realm, so she quickly finds out she’s been missing for a long time. I wasn’t sure if she’d been gone a years, decades or centuries, but it had to be a significant amount of time.
  2. She’s younger now than she went missing. Much younger – physically. A teenager perhaps.

That’s all I had to work with.

The following premise statements show how I worked through ideas until I had something reasonably tight and strong.

  1. A young woman wakes up in the woods only to find she’s been missing for years, yet she hasn’t aged. (20 words)
    This is a starting point, and lacks quite a few things like conflict and the protagonists desires. It’s a statement about where the story starts and therefore doesn’t work as a premise because it doesn’t give me any idea as to what it’s about or where it might go.
  2. A young woman who wakes up a decade after disappearing struggles with the fact she hasn’t aged as she tries to reconnect with her disbelieving family. (26 words)
    This one is a bit convoluted, though at least it introduces some conflict and gives a hint about where the story might go, but its not nearly enough. There’s only a little bit of conflict implied, and that’s mostly internal.
  3. A young woman who hasn’t aged tries to reconnect with her disbelieving family a decade after disappearing. (17 words)
    This is clearer and implies genre, but its not where it needs to be. The implied conflict still isn’t very strong and it leaves out the disappearing part.
  4. A young woman who returns youthful after going missing for more than a decade tries to reconnect with her disbelieving daughter while dark forces try to discover her secret. (30 words)
    Even though it’s a little more detailed, it’s getting convoluted – you almost need a deep breath to get though it. I think it’s on the right track now though.
  5. A woman who returns as a teenager after going missing more than a decade ago tries to reconnect with her disbelieving daughter while dark forces close in. (27 words)
    Who are the dark forces? Why are they closing in? At least the first part is getting stronger, though still convoluted.
  6. A mother who returns as a teenager after going missing for more than a decade tries to reconnect with and protect her disbelieving daughter while enemies try to discover her secret. (31 words)
    Not really an improvement on the previous version, and ‘enemies’ is just a tad too vague.
  7. A mother who returns as a teenager a decade after disappearing tries to reconnect with and protect her disbelieving daughter while enemies try to discover her secret. (27 words)
    No real improvement, though it’s a bit shorter.
  8. When a career woman disappears and returns youthful a decade later, she tries to reconnect with her disbelieving teenage daughter while being hunted for her secret. (26 words)
    So she’s a career-woman now? Okay, that tells me a bit more about the woman. The conflict is getting more personal as well and the story shaping up a little clearer, but it’s still not very sharp. Also, if you need a comma to ensure it makes sense, rethink it.
  9. A career woman who disappears and returns youthful a decade later tries to reconnect with her disbelieving teenage daughter while being hunted for her secret. (26 words)
    I’m still a fair distance from being happy with it.
  10. A career woman who disappears and returns a decade younger is forced to protect her daughter while being hunted for the secret of her youth. (25 words)
    I think this is getting closer – its sharper, clearer, implies plenty of conflict and reads fairly well.  Even if I keep all the information I’ve got in some of the above versions, there’s no need to state it here. The irony’s stronger now too: discovering the fountain of youth might just kill her.
  11. A missing woman who reappears as a teenager tries to protect her grown children when they’re hunted for the secret of her youth. (23 words)
    I’m liking where this is going now. It’s clear, straightforward, concise and flows really well.

I might play with family members (should I have just the daughter or half a dozen children? Is the husband still in the picture? What about her extended family and friends – do they rate a mention here [probably not]?), but I think I’ve got to the heart of it now, and the hook is solid.

Hopefully you can see the path where the last iteration gets it closer to a tightly focused story with a single story problem. That’s all that matters here. Leave your subplots and excess characters in the ‘extras’ pile. They’ll find their place in the story eventually, just not here.

A close-up line drawing of a woman's faceWhat I’ve produced isn’t perfect by a long way, but I can see a whole story in it now when I couldn’t before, and it’s one which I might be interested in writing.

The next question for me is: “Will I continue planning it out and perhaps even write it?”


This was an exercise, but I think the idea has promise. Considering I’m one of the world’s worst planners (in the sense that planning’s the last thing I want to do when it comes to writing, so I either procrastinate or find ways not to), I might work though the concept here, start to finish, and see where it goes.

Or I might just wait for NaNoWriMo and belt it out based on the premise alone.

Please try writing your own premise and let me know if this method of distilling your story into a single sentence works for you.

The next post in the series: Conflict and Threat.

Using critiques to improve your writing

Using critiques to improve your writingI’ve probably mentioned I’m participating in a novel critique group this year.

Every month someone in the group puts their novel up for critique, and the rest of us pull it apart with a view to improvement.

It’s all about critical analysis, but its the passion you need to look for – what people love or… really don’t love.

Unfortunately, every comment that’s not adoration stings a little.

In fact, the more effort someone’s put into a book, the bigger the sting they’ll feel.

Still, feedback’s just feedback – impressions based on what other people would do if it were theirs, and that’s the attitude you need to take into it.

The problem is, it’s easy to get lost in the detail or take things personally. It is your baby, after all.

Once you get over the initial disbelief that everyone else doesn’t love it as much as you do (believe it or not that happens occasionally), you’ll begin to discover some value in what’s said.

Hopefully you’ll see lots of value.

Even so, all of it will all be given with bias due to personal tastes and perspectives, so take a step back and ask yourself a few questions about where you want to take your story and what you want to achieve with it.

If you can do that, you’ll be in a better position to assess the responses.

There are a lot of specific questions you could ask yourself, but only one that’s important at this stage:

“What impression did my story make?”

Seriously. Everything hinges off that question. Specifics can wait.

How people react after reading your novel is the truest test of its worth.

If your critiquers didn’t like it, consider that a reasonable parallel with your intended readers. Translation: poor sales.

You’ll need to weigh their reactions against what you know about the individual critiquers of course, particularly if they’re not in your target audience.

For example, romance writers may not appreciate your military SF novel,  but they may know more about developing characters that readers will care about than you do.

In that regard, the greatest thing you can do (from a commercial perspective) is impress readers from other genres.

Everyone’s perspective is valuable, particularly if you concentrate on emotional responses instead of critical analysis.

If you give your novel to ten people and none of them love your story, then it’s probably not working  as well as you need it to.

On the flip side, if they’re emailing you for weeks and months afterward with ideas or are demanding to read the sequel, then you know something’s resonated with them.

That’s the magic you’re looking for!

That’s what sells books, and that’s what you need.

Whatever else you do, keep the things that people love and try to figure out why those things resonated with them (if it’s not obvious).

Conversely, consider ways of improving everything they didn’t like – their critical responses will help with this.

You may even come to the conclusion that some of the things you love have to go or be completely reworked.

A good knowledge of story structure and getting readers to care about what happens to your characters helps here.

How you use the knowledge is the hard part, but it can only come after you assess their reactions.

Write another novel if you need more time to gain perspective. It can only help.

Things I wish I knew about worldbuilding when I started writing

Things I wish I knew about worldbuilding when I started writing.Here we are for another collaborative blog post, this time on worldbuilding!

Worldbuilding’s a personal weakness of mine – I tend to write stories first and then go back and enrich the world. That, of course, changes the story and the characters and everything else, requiring further rewrites.

My own lesson is: “If you love a world you’ve created then reuse it; setting subsequent stories there will save you a lot of time.”

That is just one simple piece of advice I’d give to my younger self. There’s probably hundreds more I could impart. Here’s some more great tips from wiser and smarter people:

“Treat your real world locale like another character.” Penny Ruggaber

“You don’t need it to make sense. It just has to be internally consistent.” Hisui X

“Tools, philosophy, folklore, and spirituality. And don’t forget the little touches, like minor superstitions, and foods. Even if you don’t use them, they will inform the way you write and add richness.” Robyn McIntyre

“Make sure you create some kind of map to know where everything is. The last thing you want to do is send your characters north when the city is actually south.” Chris Mentzer

“1st check. Do YOU believe your world could exist, if you don’t, no one else will.” JW Arlock

“Don’t throw capitals at me every couple of pages.  You remember what they mean because you wrote the book.  I’m not likely to remember all those Circles of Pollyanna and Three Faces of Musili.Stanley Morris

“Always make sure your reader knows whether your story is centered in the northern or southern hemisphere. For instance, a reader in north America would get confused if your character heads south and the temperature got colder.” Roland Boykin

You don’t need to do as much thinking or research as you think you need to do before beginning.Mark Mercieca

“I’m a sucker for worlds in weird shapes. Flat worlds are awesome (I mean, who doesn’t like the ability to literally sail off the edge of the world?)” Joseph Stoll

“Just don’t forget that when worldbuilding, whether it’s in this world or another, every subculture has its own favoured art, music and symbols, as well as ideology. Hone those, as well as the history of the place.” Zena Shapter

“Don’t set the “World Map” in stone too early on–let it solidify around your story. I drew mine out and named every mountain range, forest and town years before the story had fully come together, and my uncle surprised me with an artist’s elegant, framed illustration of it. It’s been sitting in my closet for years, and would require a monster glob of white out to be updated.” Charles Murray

“Don’t forget that food, clothing, shelter, and all the other goodies come from resources, both local and imported. Knowing those plants, animals, minerals, water, etc., can go a long way to showing your characters living in the world instead of living on it.” Gerri Lynn Baxter

“World building is by far one of the most magical moments that take form before putting pen to paper; an ever-evolving beast that grows with every step. Without it the story would be a shadow, but add too much and the damage can be catastrophic. The intertwining link between the two plays out like a lover’s embrace, and when done well creates a world of delight.” Chantelle Griffin

“To bring the world alive, it’s not just the social and geopolitical aspects you need, its economics and how alien topographies might affect the story.” Mark Mercieca

“Creative boundaries set by your world can be great creative starting points.” Rik Lagarto

“A world needs to have it’s own myths, religion, heroes, villains… these kind of stories should come out naturally in the narrative and it can make your book stand firmly in a reader’s mind.” Vanessa MacLellan

Check out some of the other posts in the Things I Wish I Knew About series: Author PromotionPoint Of View Critiquing, Dealing With Rejection, Editing Your Own Work, Short Stories, Creating Characters, Story Development, and Writing.

Questions for beta readers and critiquers

Old writing tools, old books and a tableHave you ever given your stories to critiquers or beta readers in the hopes of getting some good feedback?

If you’re like me, you’ll find that sometimes the feedback’s great – very specific, very detailed, and very useful.

Other times you’re lucky if you get anything useful at all.

Giving critiquers a specific set of questions will help you get better feedback.

Here’s a list you might want to use.


  • What do you think works well?
  • What do you think could be done better?
  • Am I providing enough information/backstory in this book?
  • Am I giving away too much information?
  • Does the it fit the ABCXYZ genre?
  • What would you say are the story’s main strengths?
  • Did it leave you thinking about:
    • The characters
    • The Story
    • The World
    • What might happen next?
  • Anything else?


  • Did you care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them?
  • Who was your favourite character?
    • Why?
  • Who was your least favourite character?
    • Why?
  • Are there any characters you didn’t care about enough to be interested in what happens to them?
    • Why?
  • Could any of the characters be developed better?
    • How?
  • Did the characters’ motivations work for the story?
  • Are the characters distinct enough from each other?
  • Were the characters three dimensional?
  • Were the characters’ relationships clear?
    • Were they convincing?
    • Were they satisfying?
    • Were they believable?
  • Anything else?

Story and Structure

  • Was the story structure about right?
  • What could be done to improve the story’s structure, if anything?
  • Did anything stand out as being ‘out of place’?
  • Was anything confusing?
  • Was the beginning intriguing enough to keep you reading?
  • Was the ending satisfying enough?
  • Did the overall plot work?
  • Anything else?


  • Does anything about the world feel ‘out of place’?
  • Is anything missing?
  • Did you get drawn into this world?
  • Was anything about the world unclear?
  • Anything else?

Conflict and Threat

  • Is there enough conflict between the characters?
  • Is there enough conflict external to the characters?
  • Is there enough internal conflict (doubts, fears etc)?
  • Is the overall threat to the characters/world/character goals strong enough?
  • Does the conflict create enough tension?
  • Anything else?


  • What would you say the main theme is?
  • What other themes stood out?
  • What other theme(s) could be worked in or better developed?
    • Why?
  • What theme(s) failed to hit the mark?
    • Why?


  • Is there too much exposition? Not enough?
  • Is there too much description? Not enough?
  • Did you want to skip over any sections?
  • Is the pacing about right?
    • Too fast?
    • Too slow?
  • Do the various story threads connect well enough?
  • Anything else?


  • Are there any consistent grammar or punctuation problems?
  • Are there any repetitive phrases or words that stand out in a bad way?
  • Any other bad habits?
  • Were there enough highs and lows in the story?
  • Was the action balanced with enough calm moments?

What other questions do you like to ask you beta readers and critique group?

You can find more posts on writing in the The Craft.

Conflux Writers Day April 2014

Conflux BannerJust a brief post to let everyone know I’ll be doing two presentations at the Conflux Writers Day on Saturday April 5, which is a prelude to the Aurealis Awards that night.

The inaugural Conflux Writers Day will take place at University House, Australian National University, Canberra.

The theme is ‘The Writers Journey’, which will be covered by four sub-themes – Writing Skills, Writing Processes, Submission and Publication and Building a Career.

My first presentation, Presenting Your Blog Posts for Maximum Impact will focus on:

  • text layout
  • readability
  • images and other features
  • how to keep people on your site for longer
  • accessibility issues and what to avoid.

My second presentation, The Elements of Novels, will feature information about:

  • balancing the beginning, middle and end
  • purpose of theme
  • how to distil a novel into a single, sharp, meaningful sentence
  • the three essential characters every novel needs (and how they work together).

In all, there will be a total of twenty sessions, plus an additional four plenary sessions by:

  • Joanne Anderton
  • Kaaron Warren
  • Ian McHugh
  • Keri Arthur

It will be well worth your time if you’re able to come.

Further information:

You might like to check out my Novel Structure Diagram which forms part of The Elements of Novels presentation.

The High Concept

What’s your story’s High Concept?

A man atop a cliffI run a regular Novel Writers Group at the ACT Writers Centre, usually spearheaded by a topic of the month.

This month it was The High Concept.

It’s worth devoting some time to it and figuring out.

During the discussion, the High Concept quite often got confused with Theme and Plot, probably because it’s tied into both.

Phillip Berrie, a member of the group, recently wrote a wonderful novella called The Changeling Detective.

Right there in the title is the basis of the story’s High Concept – a detective who can alter his appearance.

There’s a heck of a lot more going on in the book than that, and the overall series might have a different High Concept compared to the individual book, but as a stand-alone that’s what’s at the heart of it.

Break it down

What happens in the story is Plot, and this will influence the High Concept.

So will the story’s higher meaning – its Theme.

Both Plot and Theme hang off High Concept, not the other way around.

The Changeling Detective centres around a character who can change his appearance – short and simple. Everything’s tied into that. In this case, it’s an origin story – which further influences the High Concept.

Try explaining your High Concept to someone who doesn’t know the story

Practice with something familiar:

  • A family has been lost in space and is trying to find a way home. (Lost in Space)
  • Factions of a galactic empire fight for control of a rare mind and body-altering drug. (Dune)
  • Gods are manipulating people and events to try and win control of a universe. (Prophecy of Power: Quarry. Okay, that’s mine. Couldn’t resist)

The High Concept is your sales pitch, your Big Idea.

It doesn’t encompass your story – it’s the basis for it.

How do you find your own High Concept?

Look to the title.

You may not find it there (Dune, for example, doesn’t encompass it, though the Spice comes from the planet Dune and the story is set there – but the sequels come closer: Children of Dune, Chapter House Dune, etc).

Star Wars, Lost in Space, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – all give you insights into the story’s High Concept.

Consider you’re telling your best friend about a story you’ve just read. What do you say?

Imagine a bunch of robots are trying to destroy their makers, and:  

  • The survivors flee their homeworld looking for a safe haven… Battlestar Galactica.
  • A cyborg is sent back in time to end human resistance before it begins… Terminator.
  • A man has the power to manipulate programmed reality… The Matrix.

Find the basis of your High Concept and expand on it in a single sentence.

Anyone can write a story about a secret agent with a licence to kill, but there’s only one James Bond. That particular High Concept has spawned countless books, movies, games and rip-offs.

To find your own, you’ll need to add a little uniqueness.

Start with the word ‘imagine’ and then lay it out.

What’s mine? Imagine… The Gods are manipulating people and events in order to gain control of an entire universe. The premise of the story? A princess is being hunted by assassins because of a prophecy she wants no part in. They’re tied together – but certainly not the same.

What’s your High Concept? Let me know in the comments.

Maer Wilson – Methods to My Madness: Guest Post

Today I have Maer Wilson here to talk about her writing process, a subject I find endlessly fascinating. Her first novel, Relics, is set to be released by Crescent Moon Press on May 1.

Photo of Maer WilsonSo, you want to know about the process I use to write? The methods to my personal writing madness?

You do realise that going into the mind of a writer can be a dangerous thing, right? I mean, I could tell you stories! No, no, not about me, but about my friends.

Me? I’m actually fairly normal. Sorta, kinda. In a writerly sort of way.

My writing space is at my desk on my pc.

That sounds pretty tame, right? And it is; except that my pc is a gaming computer and set up for ultimate comfort. Yes, that means a footstool under the desk and cushions on my executive chair. Anyway, you get the idea.

I read how friends are writing at lunch on their laptops and such and I envy them a little bit. The most I could write on my laptop is notes.

I need to be at my desk, kicked back with feet up as I type away.

Sometimes I don’t type at all, but use Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate my novel. About a third of Book Two was dictated. Most often, though, I type, as long as my arm and hand will cooperate.

Music is usually on. Not songs. I don’t’ want to start typing lyrics or anything, but film and gaming soundtracks are great background music. Especially the more epic soundtracks help me stay pumped and crank out the words.

When I’m in writing mode, I write fast.

– The first draft for my first novel (97,000 words) was written in five weeks. –

I wrote a few notes, but mostly I just let the characters take over and the story went places I never thought it would.

Book Two took about nine weeks this past summer, but those were broken up into two stints, one during Camp NaNoWriMo in August.

I have a general idea where my book is going to go, but I’m not always sure how it will get there.

Book Two took an unexpected and (hopefully) awesome turn toward the end.

Major confession time – my entire series has gone places I never expected. I thought I was writing some Urban Fantasy mysteries. Turns out it is a much larger story than that.

I keep a cast list of characters, with ages, relationships, names and years.

Since Book One covers about fifteen years and the series is growing, I need to track some things. That list also has the odd note in it here and there. Lines I want a character to say, something that I want to incorporate. That sort of thing. But there are no outlines and few details.

As the series has progressed, I’ve become more sure what happens in each book. Mostly.

Going into Book Three now, I again know where it’s supposed to be going. Not that there’s any guarantee it won’t take another turn and end up somewhere I hadn’t expected.

My characters can be unruly, fun and surprising, which I love.

They each take on their own lives and I let them tell me their stories. Which is fine with me!

Crescent Moon Press "Coming Soon" image.Besides, if I don’t tell their stories, they hammer and yammer inside my head until I let them out. But that’s perfectly normal, right? See? Like I said before: I’m pretty normal.

After a successful career being other people, and later teaching others the many tricks of that trade, Maer Wilson has decided to be herself for a while. Turns out she’s a writer. She’s always loved stories, especially fantasy, mystery and sci fi. She has a dragon-themed room in her home, but sadly no dragons in the back yard. When she’s not writing, Maer plays online video games, teaches college and reads. She lives in the high desert of Southern Nevada with her two dogs, a chihuahua and a poodle. Relics is her first novel and will be released by Crescent Moon Press on May 1, 2013. You can visit her website at


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