Engineering an Organic Clockwork

So you want to write a story with a lot going on under the hood, from characters’ goals and frustrations to greater challenges of society. These varied pressures can create a desirably layered narrative. They can also explode into a scattershot mess – or intimidate you into fearing the rigors of development.

With some thought and planning, you can sort out all these ideas and get them to play well together. The resultant depth and dimension is well worth the effort.

Sketch a Foundation

Brainstorm a load of material to get a strong sense of what your story will involve and where you want it to go. Begin with established ideas – characters to work with, events to take place, themes to explore, planned thrusts of conflict or resolution. You might imagine an interlocking web of subplots in one fell swoop. Or you might need to brainstorm developments to follow from these known quantities, or to set them up later on.

If you don’t know your starting conditions, figure those out before getting deep ahead. Still, feel free to jot down any future thoughts you might have. Even if you have to recombobulate or discard them later on, they’re better than no inspiration at all.

You might find yourself thinking further ahead in some regards than others. Again, write that all out as you see it. You can sort and pace it later.

How much material is enough to begin with? It depends on how much of the whole story you need to see before you can start making sense of it. Some people like to rough out the entire thing at high level. I prefer incremental development with an overall vision of tone and ending in mind. I alternate between sketching far ahead and filling in immediate detail as a foundation for those eventual specifics. A solid start also hones my sense of scope and focus, showing how much content I’ll need and how to distribute it.

Brainstorming Points to Consider

In brainstorming, your goal is to hash out story events and the ecosystem that produces them. Depending on your narrative, different types of dynamics can have varying degrees of importance. They can also change over time or in response to other development.

These considerations aren’t as overwhelming as they might look on paper. They will build on each other to give you a strong inherent sense of your story’s world.

Character Dynamics

The values, desires, frustrations, and other such mindsets behind characters and their relationships – what goes on in everyone’s head and how it might drive them to act.

The following questions can get you started. You will likely think up more of your own.

  • What do characters want? In general? From a given situation? From specific others?
  • When characters interact, work together, and otherwise occupy the same space, what do they think of each other? Why?
  • For those who get along – how do they differ? Philosophically, as in personal values or ideals? Procedurally, as in what actions to take toward a goal?
  • What common ground might be found among characters who don’t like each other or otherwise fundamentally disagree? A shared goal? A more personal similarity?
  • Emotional investment, or lack thereof. If a character likes their job, living arrangements, relationship status, or whatnot – what specifically makes them content? If they are dissatisfied, what itch isn’t being scratched?
System Dynamics

Overarching tides affecting characters’ mentalities and story events: laws and their enforcement, economic climate, pressures such as prejudice and poverty – or the advantaged flipside thereof. These can pertain to society in general or the culture of specific institutions like universities, corporations, or religious organizations.

System dynamics can run the gamut from basic plausibility checks to major thematic focus, perhaps to the extent of featuring a setting as a character of its own. If your narrative heavily depends on the vagaries of an unfamiliar system – whether real world or speculative – research or worldbuild enough of its structure to support your brainstorming. “Enough” depends on the breadth and depth you require. Start with the knowledge gaps directly relevant to your story, and seek out more context as needed.


Things That Happen and spur reaction and further action. Events can arise from characters’ actions and mindsets, or from influences like system dynamics or other actions offscreen.

Events vary in magnitude. Some radically alter the situation in one stroke – a new job, a layoff, an arrest, a murder. Smaller events can add up to long-term change, such as acquaintances becoming close friends over a series of amicable interactions. They can set up a game changer, as in the case of negotiations leading to a business deal. They can show an overall state of affairs, such as neighbors constantly bickering over petty matters.

Stuck on specifics, or not sure they fit? Consider events in terms of their overall purpose, such as an undefined financial crisis to push a business near bankruptcy. The detail can come later to tie the event into other subplots or themes.

Themes, Tone, and Everything Else

The broad and pervasive contributors to your story’s overall effect. Issues to highlight, questions to address, hypotheticals to explore, moods of subplots or the whole shebang – whether hopeful or despondent or serious or absurd or any functional combination of such qualities.

If you know any of these ahead of time, use them to guide your brainstorming. They can also evolve during development. For instance, themes can arise from a narrative in addition to shaping it.

Find Your Focus

Time to play Rorschach with the ink you just scattered.

You should now have a comprehensive sketch of the tensions affecting your characters and how they can develop over the course of the story. You may have roughed out some plot arcs, or have a few in mind that drove your brainstorming. Your next step is to decide your focus – which of these conflicts will drive the narrative.

Say a character is working long hours at a struggling company and becoming estranged from their immediate family. Do you balance work and family challenges onscreen? Focus on business drama? Background the work issues in favor of family, perhaps including the spouse’s personal narrative? It depends – on the dramatic and entertainment potential of each challenge, on the subjects you wish to feature, on the story you want to tell.

Plot Your Points

From here, identify your critical developments. Perhaps there is a central plot or focus that may also be fed by other subplots. Perhaps you have some character arcs in mind. For these must-haves, consider the following:

  • What events must occur to drive these developments?
  • What else is required for setup?

This should help you determine the bones of your narrative, which you can organize as desired. You might use a particular brand of plot structure or beat sheet. Or you might prefer to arrange the pieces in a more organic sense. I gravitate toward atomic, linear plotting – series of events within a limited time frame, time jump, updated status quo and corresponding set of challenges. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end. As long as the overall trajectories feel proper, the screen time is balanced, and the characters get some triumphs and stress relief along the way, it works for me.