Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Critical Plot Elements by Genre: Fantasy

As promised, I've finally had the chance to apply the critical plot elements structure to genre. Today I'll outline Fantasy. If you work in another genre and would like to see some ideas about that, let me know and I'll do a follow up post.

All the critical plot elements posts can be found as a list of links in order here. If you aren't familiar with them, it's worth a quick read-through before considering the genre applications.

So here we go!


Beginnings #1 - Writing the Rule Book (World Building) - occurs simultaneously with the following elements:

Nola is a Changeling. But she's poor in magic and heart. She's shunned by most of the other Changelings and rarely uses magic because she's embarrassed by how weak it is.

During the opening pages she's shown walking through a forest with tools at her belt that imply a medieval-type environment (little or no technology). The language she uses is also peppered with 'old school' words and phrasing.  Throughout the book, every building we see is made of stone, wood and thatch.

Nola tells the reader her magic is slow and small compared to most of her peers. She's forced to use her human form much more often than them, and do tasks manually, rather than changing form to suit whichever tasks she's doing. She's an outcast. But she finds solace in her unusually strong connection with the Guides - sometimes she can even hear them from her home!

When faced with the inciting incident, Nola reveals she can only change into an animal that is close by, which limits her options for obvious reasons and will become important later in the book.

When the inciting incident has passed, she spends some time considering who can help her (the other Changelings and any Guides who might be visiting), and who they will be working against (the Razors - a group of pure-human sorcerers and their spiritual animal advisors). Details of the ongoing battle between these two groups are often dropped in throughout the first fifty pages, but small details will be revealed later.

Beginnings #2 - The Inciting Incident

During her walk in the forest Nola is disturbed by the silence. As a changeling her hearing is very sharp. But she's having trouble hearing any animals at all - until the sound of horse-hooves ahead. Knowing that only humans and Razors ride horses and a Changeling is unlikely to become one for this reason, she locates an animal with some difficult and changes into the drowzy squirrel she has identified, hides in the underbrush.

A group of four Razor's ride past, clearly trying to stay out of sight and quietly discussing something that sounds like an attack on the Changeling commune. They discuss the effectiveness of the spell they used to put all the nearby animals to sleep and whether the Changelings will notice before it's too late.

Beginnings #3 - The Plot Mirror

Convinced that the Razors are about to kill everyone she cares about, Nola returns to her natural form (which is human in appearance) and uses what little magic she has to put them to sleep so she can run ahead and warn everyone.

But the Razors catch and block her magic, sending it back to her. They think she's dead, so ride on. Nola sinks into unconsciousness aware that she's just failed in saving everyone she cares about.

Beginnings #4 - End of the Beginning - The Decision to Fight

Nola wakes in the evening very frightened. She runs home and discovers her entire village destroyed. Her mother is dead and the Changeling she was betrothed to has disappeared. Only a few Changelings escaped the carnage and they are packing what little supplies they can find and heading for The Mountain. They tell Nola to leave or stay, they don't care. But they're going and taking their magic with them.

Nola is livid they have given up so easily. Using the little bit of magic she has, she binds herself to a vow to find the Razors who are responsible, defeat them and bring home the Changeling children they've abducted.

Middles #1 - Schematics

Nola gathers what provisions she can find and sets off after the Razors. During the walk she considers the situation, what she knows of the war between the Changelings and the Razors and what she will do about it:

She decides the Razors are probably trying to get to the Guides, whose magic far outstrips the Razor's. That means they'll have caught those young Changelings to torture them into teaching the Changeling magic. If a Razor demonstrate Changeling magic, they'll be accepted as a Changeling by the Guides. Then the Guides will share their secrets. The Changelings will lose all protection since the Razors will be able to identify a Changeling in animal form. 

She'll have to either save the young Changelings or reach the Guides and raise the alarm before they give up their secrets to the Razors by accident.

Soon she realizes she'll never catch them on foot and finds a young bird, just waking from the spell the Razors put on all the animals. She turns into a bird and flies until she locates the Razors.

Middles #2 - Raising the Stakes

Nola follows the Razors overhead for days, catching snippets of their conversation. She learns they have ten Changeling children tied up in the carts their horses are pulling, and they have arrangements to meet a Guide in the Great Valley.

One night Nola turns into a possum and perches in the tree over their camp. The Changeling children are brought out and tortured. One of them is killed. Nola realizes the Razors have brought so many because they know it will take several deaths to scare the others into sharing their magic.

Middles #3 - Catastrophe and the Missing Link

Nola turns into a mouse and sneaks onto one of the carts while the Razors are sleeping. She's going to eat through the children's bindings and lead them out of the camp.

But one of the children wakes while she's working on the bindings of another. He's delirious and paranoid and thinks Nola is a trick. He wakes the entire camp and throws a spell at Nola to force her back to her human appearance.

The Razors witness the spell. it's a breakthrough for them and the first piece of magic they've gleaned. They also find Nola with the children and bind her too. As an adult, she has the ability to call the Guides. They tell her they'll keep her alive to do that - unless she tries to free the children again. Then they'll kill her in front of the children. If she escapes, they will kill the children one by one until she returns.

With a Changeling's heart for the value of life, Nola will not do anything to risk the deaths of others. She complies.

Middles #4 - The Almost Lull

Nola spends several days talking to the Changeling children, keeping their spirits up, and considering their options. She devises a plan to delay actually calling the Guides and gives the children signals for the Guides when they do eventually appear, by teaching the children certain words which will alarm the Guides. This risk is that the Guides will help one of the Razors before she or the Children have the chance to get the message through to them.

Every evening the children are removed from the carts and Nola is taken to the campfire to call the Guides. Nola explains that it can take days to reach them, but she undertakes the 'ritual' every night. Secretly she's trying to send the Guides a message, but her magic is so weak, she's afraid they'll misunderstand and come to her to clarify her needs.

Every night she goes back to the cart and sometimes the children don't all return. Nola is sickened by the destruction. She determines that if she can't get the children away, she will at least find a way to minimise their suffering.

Endings #1 - Crisis

On the fifth night when the children are taken from the cart, Nola is worried the Razors will stop believing her delaying tactics. The one who's been torturing the kids threatens her. He is able to change now, so they don't need the children anymore. If Nola wants any of them alive, she'll connect with the Guides.

Nola tells the Razors there's a cleansing ritual she can do, which might help her successfully call the Guides. She's removed from the cart at the same time as the children and taken to the apocathary's tent to get the things she needs.

The apocathary is an old woman - simply human, not a Razor. She tells the Razors to leave Nola with her and guard the tent from the outside, that no man should witness a female cleansing ritual. The guards station themselves at the four sides of the tent.

Nola starts making up a complex combination of herbs and spiritual essences, and the old woman plays along, muttering about the uses of each and how powerful this magic must be. In truth, Nola is creating a tincture for the Children - something to numb their senses. She'll give it to them the next night, so that if things go wrong, they won't feel the pain or stress of the events.

But though she waits hours and hears a lot of noise and screaming, etc. The children are never returned to the cart. Nola isn't told what has happened, she doesn't know if they're dead, or just being kept from her.

Should she continue with her original plan? Or, if the children are dead, should she sacrifice herself to keep the rest of the Changelings and the Guides safe?

Nola is convinced the Razors have killed all the children. But if the children are dead, there is nothing to stop Nola from killing herself to save the Guides and thwart the Razors.

In the early morning hours, just as she's decided to go ahead with the new plan, one of the Razors pulls her out of the cart. The old apocathery is there, insisting that one of the herbs was old and bad. Nola's magic won't work if she relies on the ritual she did the previous evening. At first Nola is too depressed to take her seriously, but the old woman makes it clear to her that she's got a plan. So Nola plays along and returns to the tent with the guards.

Inside the apocathery's tent one of the children is huddled in a corner. The woman casually mentions the children have been spread around the camp to stop them from planning or working together to warn the Guides. Nola is very relieved and thanks the old woman. She gives the child enough of the tincture to send him to sleep, makes more with the 'good' herbs, then returns to her cart.

Endings #2 - Climax

The following evening, Nola is instructed this is her last chance to call the Guides. If she isn't successful, the children will be killed one by one until she is.  The children are gathered, each held at knifepoint by a guard.

Nola begins a 'dance' which takes her around the circle. She administers the tincture to each child, along with a word for each one - the word they're to use with the Guides if they have the chance.

Then Nola begins the actual magic to call the Guides. She tries to add a flavor to it - something to warn the Guides - but she can't be sure they'll understand. The connection is weak because of Nola's stress. The Guides answer her though and the entire camp hears their voices rise out of the fire "We come!"

Then the flames on the bonfire flare and a spiritual being leaps out of the flames, calling Nola's name.

Nola comes forward, trying to give the Guide an indication something is wrong. but it's odd that one of them has come alone, and so quickly.

She introduces herself and the Guide calls himself Baen. Baen greets Nola, then turns to the Razors. One of the Razors - the one who has been torturing the Children - steps forward and turns himself into dog. His magic is rough and Nola can see the holes in it - it's hard for the Razor to keep the form - but the Guide is delighted and tells the Razor he will be entered into the books.

He's about to give the Razor the spell to call the Guides when Nola realizes he hasn't spoken to the children, hasn't gone through any of the rituals. He isn't a real Guide. So what is he?

The Razors are entranced by the Guide, giddy that they're being given magic. They forget the children and Nola and gather around Baen. Nola creeps closer to the fire and sends a very tiny spell to the Guides, an alarm, asking for their help and to identify Baen.

The voices whisper back that they've heard her cry. Her magic is old, but strong. She's to gather the children away from the Razors.

Nola brings all the children together in a huddle - difficult because they're sedated - then watches Baen draw in the Razors.

At the last possible moment, one of the Razors gets suspicious and a fight ensues. The Guides haven't shown up yet, and the Razors are coming after Nola.

She turns into an eagle and strikes at their eyes. She turns into a hyena and bites their legs. She turns into a horse and kicks at them.

The children try to flee, but their legs are heavy because of the drugs and Nola watches as first one, then the other is captured. She can't save them all because they're spread too far, and Baen has been taken down by the Razors.

At the last minute, with three of the children about to be killed, she reverts to her human form, calls the Guides with an alarm that sounds across the land. There is a rumble, then animals burst into the camp, all attacking the Razors. Guides jump from the fire and defend the children.

Nola grabs the Razor that has been torturing the children, grasps his face and says "Take my magic, coward!" She turns into a cougar her fingers clawing down his cheeks as she changes. But he stabs her with a knife before she can finish him off and she loses consciousness.

Endings #3 - Ribbons & Bows (Resolution)

Nola wakes on a swaying bed. A Guide Female leans over her, ministering to her. The Guide explains that many of the children were lost, but more were saved - because of Nola's bravery and her magic. Nola insists that her magic is weak and she shoudl have been able to save more of them, but the Guide explains she's an old heart. She has been trying to use the new magic, when her's is an old tongue.

The Guide teaches Nola how to tap into her true strengths. She is assigned as the wise-woman for the new village the Guides are starting up, close the Great Valley. Nola's old home is deserted, but the other changelings will be found and told what happened.

When the new stories are written, Nola's name will become synonymous with bravery and strength.

That's it folks! Now, obviously that's a pretty rough plot, but you see the point. Each plot-point is simply applied to the world and characters you've created.

Your Turn: If you have any questions about the plot points, ask them in the comments. Or if there's another genre you'd like me to explore, let me know!


  1. I love this! Have you done Science Fiction yet? I might have to print this out and apply it. I have yet to write the fantasy novel I have planned, but i do have a lot of the first step, all the rules and boundries figured out. Thanks for this. It is fascinating and so very helpful!!! Especially for people doing NaNoWriMo this month!


  2. Thanks Aubrie, I'm glad it's helpful. No, I haven't done science-fiction yet. That's not a genre I read a lot, but I can give it a shot.

    I'll keep you posted :)

  3. I want to read this book! It sounds awesome. I'd love to see this applied to contemporary realistic YA.