Epic Fantasy Epic Challenges: Tools for Planning Complex Stories Effectively
Fantasy tends to run the longest of any genre fiction—and for good reason. Not only do you need strong narrative, clear stakes, satisfying conflict, and tidy resolution…you also must deftly and gradually build an entire world. Nbd.
So where do you begin? How do you keep track of it all?
We won’t begin to go into the depths to which Tolkein went to create and track his worlds, languages, races, and so on. Even Patrick Rothfuss and J.K. Rowling were at a deficit when you consider the technology available today to help support your world-building, plotting, history, and so on.
There are loads of handy writing programs and techniques out there; what’s right for you will depend entirely on your approach to writing and your aesthetic and functional preferences. Here are a few of the tools I use when I’m writing my 100k+ standalone and series works of high fantasy.
Let’s start with the humble (yet addictive) notebook. Some writers like to use a different notebook for each project; others use dividers, sticky notes, or bookmarks to organize or flag key information. For those pantsing (writing without a fixed outline) or more organic writers, this can be an excellent way to connect ideas, discover patterns or themes, and ask yourself two important questions every step of the way: Why? and Then what happened?
For more tech-friendly methods, Trello allows you to keep checklists, pin images to cards, save notes, colour-label items (I’ve used these both to represent character POVs and stage-of-development for overall projects), and even share boards with collaborators.
Dabble Writer is a cloud-based writing software that includes a plotting function. It allows you to plan out each chapter (and each scene per chapter), assign it to a specific character arc or plot line, and pace them out comparatively through the project. They’re easy to shuffle, and can show when a plot line has been dropped or a character disappears for too long. If you don’t outline ahead of writing, you can still use it to great effect by trawling your completed rough draft to assign everything retroactively—a really useful way to give yourself some distance from the words on the page and see your book from a more distanced vantage point. When you’re done, you’ll have super-actionable sections to tackle in revisions.
Fictionary and Scrivener both allow you to dive even deeper into the outlining rabbit hole, but I recommend these only for those who are highly structured plotters, as they require a great deal of tagging and set-up in order to be of best use.
Finally, there’s the magic of brain dumps, handwritten diagrams, and Post-It note trees. If you have an artistic side or prefer the tangible and right-in-front-of-your-desk kinda tools, take the time to create something on a big A2 page or with a stack of multi-coloured stickies.
Stay tuned for Astra’s next instalment of “Epic Fantasy, Epic Challenges: How to write and revise complex stories effectively.”
As a queer author focused on inclusive worldbuilding, Astra Crompton seeks to write complex characters whose identities, sexualities, and motivations span across a nuanced spectrum. She's published short stories in anthologies including Blood Moon Rising and Anthology for a Green Planet, and for the tabletop RPG game Unity, as well as numerous self-published works. You can find her at www.astracrompton.com or on Twitter at @ulzaorith.
Editor, Writer & Founder of JEC. She's inspired, most often, to write about writing and how women (writers) can fix the world. She has a lot of opinions, actually.
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