Workshop Notes: Old Books Smell Weird (a.k.a. Plot and Elements of Story)

“Old books smell weird.” The child stated, his face screwed into a distasteful expression as he put the book back on the table.

We were in the middle of our “Five Senses” activity, which opened with observations about the bookstore hosting our workshop. It must have been a strange sight, the small group of adults and children alike, sitting at a table with their eyes closed, but it was effective. As the children began to notice things they had not noticed before– the sound of quiet discussions, someone laughing, the blocky thud of a board game being replaced on the shelf– they began to get excited. Their voices became charged as they described what they heard, and they started building upon eachother’s additions until they had woven a beautifully detailed picture of the room in which we sat. Even when we moved on to other senses, describing the bookshelves and noting the difference in how new and old books smell, you could see the lights of inspiration flashing behind their eyes.

It was one of my favourite moments of our first session.


The workshop began earlier that morning, with brief introductions around the table. I had asked them to share their name and their favourite kind of story: fantasy, adventure, post-apocalypse, horror, mystery, magical realism…it was a good mix that led to brief discussions about genre before getting into the meat of the session: Plot and the Elements of Story. Just like with books, our D&D adventures use these same building blocks of storytelling.

Using Tolkein’s The Hobbit as an example, we talked through the basic construction of a plot:

Introduction: This is the introduction to the characters and the world. In The Hobbit, this is where we meet Bilbo, the Shire, Gandalf, and eventually the whole gang of dwarves.

In DnD, this is the early formation of your party, when the wayward adventurers are brought together in the classic “Inn Scene”.

During this portion, we had a fun conversation about “Quest Givers”. In many stories and games, there is the archetypal guide— a character with the years of experience to give them unnatural wisdom or arcane knowledge to propel the younger hero to their fate. Comically, this type of character often seems to be old, bearded men (cheers, Gandalf).


Rising Action: This is where the “big bad”, or the rumor of an evil entity, is often introduced. The protagonists then embark on their journey, facing a series of challenges that will ultimately help them prepare and grow in strength before the final battle! Bilbo and his companions fought a multitude of foes and challenges (tolls, spiders, Gollum, etc.) before reaching Smaug.

In D&D, the Rising Action segment of a plot is an excellent way to level your party, build upon character development/backstory, and have them discover cool magical items to help them along their journey.

Climax: The peak of action! This could be the killing of Smaug, the final showdown between the protagonist and his or her arch-nemesis, or an epic battle between the forces of good or evil.

My favorite examples of the Climax in a D&D campaign are those that provide some sort of closure or confrontation as part of the exploration of a character’s backstory.

Falling Action: What happens after the final battle? There could be smaller conflicts, changes in the status quo, rumors of another evil on the horizon, etc. In The Hobbit, the retrieval of treasure is interrupted by another battle when goblins and wargs attack, ultimately being defeated by the heroes. This last section helps to solidify our protagonists’ status as heroes of the land.

Ultimately, although this section can include additional conflict, Falling Action begins the gradual winding down to the resolution of the story.

For your D&D game, think about these questions: What happens once a character finally defeats their arch-nemesis who had wronged them so long ago? Do they tie up loose ends? Find a new goal or challenge to motivate them? Or perhaps it is time for that character to retire and clear the path for a new hero 🙂

Resolution: This is the end of the story. Once the final battle or culminating challenge has been met, the protagonist returns to some level of “normalcy”, but having learned something new about the world or themselves. When Bilbo’s adventure comes to a close he returns to the Shire, forever changed by his experience.

Your characters, after one plot comes to a close, should have grown into something more than they were before. Then, you can begin the next plotline and continue the epic saga!


You can think of the Plot as the recipe for a cake, which makes these next Elements of Story the ingredients for the cake:

  • Action: What are your characters doing?
  • Dialogue: What are they saying?
  • Inner Monologue: What are they thinking?
  • Description: What are they seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling?
  • Narrative: What happens next?

You use these “ingredients” to give life to your story and help move the plot along.

One of the biggest discussion points from the day harkened to a problem any DM is very familiar with:

“What happens if your characters stray from the plot?”

When you’re writing a homebrew adventure, you most likely have a primary plot that you are using as the story framework. You need to know where you’re going if you want to create the right hooks for your party, right? You could have a wonderfully engaging plot, with all the right hooks, NPCs, and baddies to keep your players following the breadcrumbs you’ve oh-so-carefully scattered…but remember, unlike the characters in a written story, your D&D players have an impact on what happens. It’s always a good idea to have a few possible plotlines prepared while you’re worldbuilding (which is a whole series of posts by itself), and be ready to exercise your improv skills. You can use these secondary story threads to get them back on track, or to present a smaller-scale side-quest to fulfill your party’s urge to explore until they’re ready to return to the main plot.

When you do find yourself in an unexpected story thread, remember that using your descriptions, even when presented on-the-fly, can maintain the immersion of the game. Sometimes they can even hide the fact that you might be making it up as you go along…Just throw some suspicious and musty old tomes on a shelf and the characters will spend hours trying to figure out what they are while you sort out new breadcrumb trails for them 😛


This is an on-going project in which I work with children and their parents, to help them develop storytelling and DM skills so they can run adventures at home. These workshops (and the notes I share here) will continue to evolve as we grow and expand.

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