Story Magic – how to conjure it up

Story Magic in Gladiator
Story magic in Gladiator

Story magic is conjured through the spell of structure.

Structure shapes narrative events by regulating the flow of information through a series of well-placed twists and turns, counterbalancing suspense with surprise, lighter moments with darker ones, while simultaneously showcasing character.

But how closely must one focus on the nuts and bolts of structure while engaged in the process of writing itself? Surely it’s difficult to be creative while entertaining such distractions?

“Seeking to conjure story magic without a wand is a hit and miss affair. You could have it in you, but you probably don’t.”

The point is that the magic of the story is forged inside the cauldron of structure. So, while it may seem that scenes flow spontaneously from our brains, for most of us, such scenes, spring from a deep knowledge of the craft. We should study story structure at every opportunity.

We all have different ways of accessing this knowledge. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘inciting incident’ and ‘first turning point’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to range over past exemplars to glean how other writers have navigated similar terrain.

A screenplay such as Gladiator did not spring fully formed from the minds of Ridley Scott, David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson. The story was inspired by Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book, Those About to Die. The film script itself was first written by Franzoni, but was bought by DreamWorks, and Ridley Scott was signed on to direct the film. Its solid structure, a collective effort, is so deeply embedded in the story that it remains largely invisible to the audience—no doubt one of the contributing factors of the film’s success.

I have previously noted that my own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence—a lack of rhythm, which tells me I may have missed a structural beat, that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my imagination, I often jut out an elbow, or thrust out a hip as I try to predict changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance, a kind of free flowing stream that bestows shape through bends, turns—through changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth—that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not break the spell.


Story magic is conjured through a deep awareness of story structure. Structure shapes the tale but remains invisible to readers and audiences.

One thought on “Story Magic – how to conjure it up

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    Never under estimate that a narrative structure is character driven . I am not ashamed to admit that I found myself lost when I first attempted to read George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Having not watched a single episode of the series I felt obligated to read the books first to better understand how this story became a global phenomenon. After successfully finishing the book with my second attempt I can make the following conclusion : Story magic is all about conflict and the relationship of good and evil. It’s not a paint by numbers receipt where you add ingredients and watch something grow. For the narrative to truly be compelling one must recognize that ALL characters believe themselves to be right and others to be wrong. It’s a case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where all characters are capable of unspeakable deeps to obtain what they want. Emperor Commodus knows that his father does not love him which makes it easy for him to kill him. His sister knows that he is a psychopath however she plays devils advocate because she knows that if Commodus is dead Rome will fall in to chaos. She recognizes that keeping her crazy brother alive will serve the greater good even if it means keeping her father’s murderer alive while at the same time risking the life of her only child ( who is likely to be Commodus next victim once his sister has produced him an heir of pure blood) .

    In short : For a story to truly be magical absolutely anything needs to be able to happen at any given moment to any major or minor character.


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