Talking Books

Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure

I gave this talk at the Northern California SCBWI conference at Asilomar in February 2006. The inspiration for it was my SCBWI interview with Lori Polydoros, conducted over the phone and e-mail in October and November 2005:  We were talking about plot, and I realized a lot of what I had to say on the subject was SOA—Straight Out of Aristotle—and everything I’d learned in Connie Walker and Owen Jenkins’s Jane Austen course at college. So my mom mailed me my class notes, I reread the Poetics and wrote out all my favorite quotations, and over time (including three happy concentrated hours on the plane to California) this jelled into the form you see here.


I had a great time writing this, but it is not the most usable discourse on plot in the world, so if you're looking for actual concrete writing advice, you might prefer The Essentials of Plot, which incorporates most of the same ideas in slimmed-down form and without all the Jane Austen references. But if you love Jane Austen, I hope you enjoy this.


Also, if you’re interested in thinking about these ideas further, check out these web links:


·        My name is Cheryl Klein

·        Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic

·        This talk is titled Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure:  What a Dead Greek Philosopher and a Classic English Novelist Can Teach Us about Writing for Children

·        And I know those seem like fairly odd things to jumble together

·        So I’m going to tell you a story that’s both an explanation and a rationale

·        When I was thirteen years old, my great-aunt Dessie gave me a set of Great Books—capital G, capital B Great Books

o       A set she’d received from Reader’s Digest at some point

o       Wuthering Heights, The Red Badge of Courage, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

·        There were eight of them, I think, and I loved them for their fine leather bindings, their cloth-covered cases, their heavy paper

·        But I didn’t touch them until one night months later, when I went into my parents’ room, knelt down by the shelf where they were kept (because they were far too fine to be trusted to me), and started looking through them

·        Each one contained a pamphlet with a short synopsis and a biography of the author

·        And one of these synopses mentioned “Romance”

·        I was thirteen years old, deeply awkward, there was zero romance in my life

·        “Oh,” I thought. “I’ll read that one.”

·        So I started that one. And it was interesting. All these girls who wanted to get married. They went to balls, and the mother was kind of dumb, but the main character, Elizabeth, was funny, and there was this guy named Darcy who was awful but handsome and rich

·        Still I wasn’t hooked or anything

·        Until about a week later, when Elizabeth was stuck at her cousin’s house with the horrible Darcy. And then:

·        “After a silence of several minutes he came toward her in an agitated manner, and thus began, ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’”

·        I gasped out loud. I couldn’t believe it. Where had that come from? And Darcy and Elizabeth proceeded to have this knock-down drag-out fight about why he loved her, and everything he’d done to her and her family, and whether they deserved it

·        And I finished the entire rest of the book that night. I remember it very clearly:  Lying out on our back deck, a sofa pillow underneath my head, the sun setting, my sister watching TV inside, and oh goodness, Elizabeth was wrong about him, and oh my, she’s going to visit his estate, and oh no there he is, how embarrassing—I gasped again—and finally having to come in because I couldn’t read in the dark.

·        And oh lovely, the happy ending.

·        And after that night, when I was thirteen years old, I loved Jane Austen.

o       Three years later, when I was looking at colleges, I was flipping through course catalogs and saw one college offered a whole class in Jane Austen.

o       I went to that college.

o       Never think books can’t change lives.

o       (P.S. for Web readers:  My senior picture. It took me years to perfect those bangs, thank you very much. J )

·        So yes, I went to that college, Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota

·        And I was an English major, and my junior year, I took the course in Jane Austen.

·        It was taught using materials that had been created by a legendary crotchety old professor named Owen Jenkins

o       The kind of professor rumored to have dipped a student’s whole paper in red ink, or cutting another paper into the shape of an F

o       But he was a genius, and his students adored him.

·        And what Owen taught me about Austen, Aristotle, plot, and why we read, I’m about to tell you.


·        Before I begin, though, I want to make one thing clear: Everything I’m about to say is for your second draft.

·        If you’re writing your book, thinking “Oh boy, here’s the big Recognition scene!” or “Reversal! I need Reversal!”, you’re likely going to knock yourself out of your characters’ heads, and your story is going to feel stiff and programmatic

·        The difference between Story and Plot is that the story is what happens; plot is the structure of what happens.

·        Your job in the first draft is to write the story, get the events down, find out who these people are and what they do.

·        Your job in the second draft is to craft the plot:  to make who they are and what they do structured right, balanced right, to make it mean something

·        So while you can certainly keep a few plot principles in the back of your mind as you’re writing that first draft, you should follow your characters, not these points.


·        Jane Austen is actually the perfect example of the difference between story and plot

·        What most people know about Austen is that her stories are about women who want to find husbands. They dance pretty dances. They wear pretty dresses. They talk a lot and drink tea. And then they get married.

·        And this is all true.

·        But her plots are about something else:  They’re about women who make mistakes and take action based on those mistakes. Then they realize those mistakes, and they must come to terms with the consequences.

o       They get married in the end, but it’s more as a reward for the knowledge they gain through the mistakes than the reward in and of itself.

·        And this plot structure, it turns out, is straight out of Aristotle.


·        In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle created a treatise called the Poetics, or On Poetry. about the structure and practice of Greek drama

o       One of the first major works of literary criticism in world history that we know of

·        And when I studied it as a junior in college, I was bowled over by the fact that two thousand, four hundred years ago, someone had identified all the major principles of drama that we still use today.

·        Aristotle focuses on stage tragedy in the Poetics, but the principles can be applied to almost any form of narrative art

o       Including middle-grade and YA novels and picture books

·        And he offers a definition of tragedy that I’m going to use here to discuss the qualities of good narrative art in general:

·        “Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude; in embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play; represented by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”

·        I will come back to this definition throughout the talk; I’m also going to skip around in it for my own purposes.

·        And right now I want to think about what Aristotle says is the purpose of tragedy, at the very end of the definition:

o       “Accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions”

·        “Catharsis” is a Greek term that means “purgation or purification of the emotions through art”

·        And according to Aristotle, it was meant to lead to renewal and restoration

o       You’d identify so closely with the main character, all the terror she was experiencing in her situation, all the pity you had for him

o       That when the drama was over, those feelings were purged right out of you

o       Leading to a renewed sense of appreciation for living and for the possibilities of the world

·        But catharsis can be achieved through emotions other than pity and terror

o       Wonder, admiration, a good hard laugh

·        When I was thirteen years old, reading Pride and Prejudice, I laughed, I gasped, I adored Mr. Darcy. And I was so happy when at last Elizabeth agreed to marry him.

o       I gained a new appreciation of the way people could make mistakes, and change and grow from them

o       So I changed and grew from reading Jane Austen;

·        And this, Aristotle says, is exactly what drama should accomplish.


·        So what makes good narrative art, according to Aristotle?

·        First, he says, it’s written well:  “In embellished speech, with each of its elements used separately in the various parts of the play”

·        Greek drama alternated spoken verse by actors with songs sung by a chorus

o       The speeches by the characters advanced the action; the songs commented on it.

·        And I’m going to interpret this “each of its elements” as saying your artistic form should follow your function: You shouldn’t use the chorus where speeches would be more appropriate, or vice versa

·        For children’s books—suppose you want to write a touching story about a child who has lost his beloved grandfather

·        The function of this—your intended catharsis, or what I call your “emotional point”—is to make the reader feel first sad and then comforted, yes? To achieve a catharsis of grief and relief.

·        So if you decided to put this story in bouncy rhyming text, you’re probably going to undercut that emotion:

So then, you see, my dear old Pops,

He closed his eyes and died,

I felt his crumpled hand grow cold

And I cried and cried and cried.

·        Do you feel appropriately saddened by this? Not so much.

·        Or perhaps you’re writing a novel where your main character is a class-A snob and you intend to take her down a peg. You don’t want to write that novel in first person from the snob’s point of view, because that makes the reader identify with her because she’s the narrator, our entrée into this fictional world;

o       and if that happens, nine times out of ten*, the reader will not take pleasure in having their viewpoint character humiliated.

o       [* But that tenth time can be really interesting if you do it right—if you play the audience’s sympathy with the first-person narrator off against the unlikeability, even reprehensibility, of that narrator’s actions. Think Lolita, where Nabokov forces the reader to identify with a pedophile, or Millicent Min, where Millicent means well but has the social skills of a baby rhino, or Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, where the narrator is a date rapist . . . ]

·        So if you’re on your second draft and you have your story, take a step back and think about the feeling you’re going for here. Then make sure your artistic form is serving it, not hampering it.


·        The next part of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:  “Represented by people acting and not by narration”

·        There are two principles here that can be applied to your plot.

·        First, people acting

o       Plot, or rather story, always begins with character

o       Who these people are, what they need and what they want

o       Now, when you’re creating a main character, Aristotle laid forth four qualities of a dramatic protagonist that I think hold true for children’s books:

§        Good

·        By this he meant morally good:  Given a choice between, say, feeding themselves and feeding their families, they will always feed their families, because that’s the right moral choice

·        What this does is establish sympathy:  You want to be on the right side with him, so you take an interest in him—and that’s the really important thing here, capturing the reader’s interest in this person

·        But I think a good protagonist in modern fiction is one who’s interesting, likeable, even if they do morally evil things. Think Humbert Humbert, or Artemis Fowl.

·        In fact, then, the conflict between their likeability and their repugnant deeds makes them more interesting to read about

·        So your main character doesn’t have to be morally good, but s/he does have to be interest-worthy

§        Aristotle said a main character should be “Appropriate”

·        By this he meant realistic:  Believable according to the bounds of the psychology and world the author has established.

·        Suppose you’ve created a character who’s a financial genius:  Nine years old, but she’s already amassed $500,000 playing the stock market.

·        Is this realistic? Not on the surface. But I will believe it if you give me the right background:

o       Her parents or guardians taught her mathematical and financial principles at an early age

o       They’re a family that values money and achievement more than, say, the arts or nature or athletics, and would thus allow a young girl to spend her time on NASDAQ and sponsor her pursuits

o       She was raised to be confident and unafraid to take risks, or she’s preternaturally lucky and everything she touches turns to gold.

o       If any one of those traits were missing, she would be a much harder character to believe.

§        Aristotle’s third trait:  Life-like

·        Imperfect; flawed. Aristotle says “Fear is aroused by the misfortune of a man like ourselves . . . a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.”

·        We will come back to this principle later.

§        Consistent

·        The character will not change in the middle of the novel from a shrinking violet to a know-it-all queen bee

o       Unless, of course, that change is your plot.

o       So how do we see these traits displayed in your characters?

o       Aristotle says “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids”

o       Behavior can reveal this kind of moral purpose

§        In Pride and Prejudice, the story begins when Darcy insults Elizabeth at a ball, calling her “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

·        He, apparently, chooses to avoid women who aren’t perfectly gorgeous—his moral purpose of associating only with the best

·        Elizabeth chooses to respond by making fun of him—her moral purpose of always enjoying a good joke, even if it’s at her own expense.

·        And this is so different from Darcy it intrigues him, and they’re off to the races

o       Character can also be shown through voice

I have been accused of being anal retentive, an overachiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things. My disposition probably has a lot to do with the fact that I am technically a genius. Unfortunately, this label seems to precede me wherever I go.

·        This is from Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee—one of my favorite voices ever. Millicent uses these long, complex sentences and an excessively formal tone, but she isn’t being pretentious; she genuinely means every word she says. You get her whole character, her moral purpose, from those few short lines, and even though Millicent tells us she’s a genius, the way she tells us actually shows us it’s true.

·        So coming back to the definition of tragedy, we’ve covered “represented by people acting.” Part Two of that: “and not by narration”

o       This would be that same “show not tell” principle writ 2400 years ago

o       Aristotle believed firmly, and Jane Austen did too, that the characters’ actions should move the plot forward

§        Not the writer telling us what the characters were thinking and feeling, and not the writer inventing incidents or disasters to spur the action

§        But rather an unbroken chain of the characters’ actions and reactions following to their logical emotional conclusions

·        Thanks to Darcy’s insult, Elizabeth interprets every one of his words and actions in the worst possible light

·        And of course that means she turns him down when he proposes—that gasp moment for me.

·        But she has been blinded to his very real good qualities by her prejudice against him

·        And when she learns of her error, she regrets it. We’ll come back to this moment too.

o       Aristotle says “As far as possible, the poet should bring his plots to completion with gestures”—that is, external action

§        In fact, he could be speaking to you picture-book writers out there, as gestures can be illustrated far more easily than any internal pondering

·        So you have your characters established, and they’re doing all the acting—you’re not contriving any of it.

·        Now you have a story, and with that, a plot.


·        You remember the definition of tragedy we used earlier:  “A representation of a serious, complete action”

·        Aristotle goes on to define this kind of action, in the absolute broadest terms possible, as the “Change from good fortune to bad, or bad fortune to good”

o       And that means simply that things are different at the end than they are at the beginning

·        If you’re revising your work, this is a good basic question to start with:  “How are things different for my characters at the end of the story?”

o       The change can be big and external

§        They’ve moved to a new home, they’ve gained a new group of friends, they’ve defeated the evil Dark Lord and saved the world forever

o       The change can be subtle and internal

§        They’ve come to understand why their father left the family, they’ve developed the courage to talk to their crush

o       But there must be some change.

§        If your character isn’t going anywhere, if all the circumstances are the same, you’ve just wasted the reader’s time.

§        Now, there are adult books where nothing really changes—in fact, that can be the author’s point

§        But narrative children’s books, I’m going to say, have to show change, have to show growth, to be at all worthwhile.

§        Our audience is experiencing nothing but change and growth, and our books provide models—both good and bad—for how those changes happen

·        There is a lovely quote from Richard Peck:  “A young adult novel ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life left to be lived.”

·        At the end of your book, your main character should be better equipped to live the rest of that life, because of the change and journey they’ve gone through in the course of the book.

·        And that’s what you set out to achieve with your plot


·        So the changes could be big and external, or subtle and internal

·        And these types of changes form the two main kinds of plot in your book

o       Action plot:  The external action or conflict; what physically changes for your characters in the course of the book

o       Emotional plot:  The internal action; or, the moral and emotional development of your characters as a result of the external action

·        We’re going to consider each of these in turn.


·        Action plots usually follow one of three formulae:

o       Conflict—one character versus another character, or one character versus herself

§        Aristotle says that the best kind of conflicts are within friendly relations—brother against brother, son against father, mother against son

§        After all, he points out, “if one enemy commits an evil action against another, there is nothing pitiable, except in the suffering itself.”

§        Now there are many more conflicts than family conflicts in the world

§        But I think Aristotle was right that the most interesting conflicts involve personal relationships—because they directly engage the emotions we feel most deeply

§        John Gardner says, “Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another.”

·        I love this quote, and this concept. Moral dilemma:  Where a character has to choose between two people he loves; or between two values (honesty vs. loyalty); or between what is right and what is easy, to quote Harry Potter; or between who s/he is and fitting in with the group

·        Then the character takes action based upon those choices, and that’s how the plot moves forward.

o       The moral dilemma in Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth’s choice between her prejudice against Darcy and her fondness for her own cleverness versus the truth about him.

§        (She chooses wrongly, for the record.)

§        So, whatever your conflict is—in a Conflict action plot, the action is complete only when the conflict comes to some kind of resolution.

·        The characters become friends. Or kill each other. Or get married. Or grow up. Or, if you’re in a Greek tragedy, everyone dies.

o       It’s often useful when you’re revising to sit back and think “Okay, what’s my conflict, and how is that being resolved?”

o       But not every book has an easily defined conflict like “man versus nature,” or “man versus himself,” or all the other stock conflicts we learned in ninth-grade English

o       So there’s another action-plot formula that I call Lack—a story where a character needs something to be complete and live a full life

§        It could be friends, as with Millicent above.

§        It could be money or a home:  Think Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt or Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

§        In Jane Austen, the heroines need husbands.

·        Partly for their financial protection, yes:  If they don’t marry, they’ll be poor and stuck with their awful relatives for the rest of their lives

·        But more for their emotional completion:  They will never become the women they are capable of being if they don’t marry the right man

§        Whatever it is, in a Lack story, the character’s quest to fulfill that need forms the overall action plot.

o       And the third great action-plot formula is Mystery—a form of Lack where what the characters need is a piece of information

§        Aristotle called the moment where the character receives this information the “Recognition”:  a change from ignorance to knowledge

§        In Pride and Prejudice—are you sick of this yet?—

·        Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s proposal

·        Learns of the error she made regarding his character

·        And recognizes her blindness, her prejudice, and her resulting stupidity

·        You remember when I mentioned Aristotle’s fondness for flawed characters? That’s so this moment can happen: If the characters don’t have flaws, they can’t recognize them, and come to a greater self-knowledge, as Elizabeth does here

§        And this new self-knowledge touches off a change in fortune for her—what Aristotle called a Reversal.

·        So we have Conflict, Lack, and Mystery

·        Most action plots will end up weaving these three elements together.

o       The Harry Potter series is a masterful combination of Conflict and Mystery:  The overarching plot of the series is a conflict, Harry vs. Voldemort, but the driving plot of each book is a piece of information Harry must discover:  Who wants the Sorcerer’s Stone? Who put his name in the Goblet of Fire?

o       Plus Harry Lacks a home and family until he goes to Hogwarts—and then his desire to keep them sets the stakes for the conflict.


·        Which leads me right back to that definition of tragedy:  “a serious complete action that has magnitude”

o       Magnitude. This means the conflict, the mystery, or the lack, and the change when any of these elements are resolved, need to be big enough to mean something in the world of the story

o       In other words, there are stakes:  Something that can be gained or lost in the conflict—something that matters.

o       In fantasy novels, the world will usually come to an end.

§        Whether this matters depends entirely on how much the author has been able to interest the reader in the world and the characters and adjust the reader to their values

o       It’s actually the same with Jane Austen, where modern readers often think “Oh. Women trying to get married.” Not a big deal, right?

§        Actually, it’s an enormous deal. If Elizabeth Bennet never got married, she would lose her home after her father died. She would have to consign herself to the care of a relative, who probably wouldn’t want her, and she would be poor and unhappy for most of her life.

§        And if you love Elizabeth Bennet the character—and how can you not?—this would be sad. So her story has stakes.


·        But even if an Action plot has magnitude and contains all these formula here—Conflict, Mystery, and Lack—

·        Aristotle says it still ought to represent a single dramatic action and have unity.

·        Basically this means there ought to be one central Action plot that drives the book, and when it’s over, your book will be over.

o       This is especially absolutely the case with picture books:  Once you resolve your plot, you’re done.

·        But in a novel, you’ll usually want more than one Action plot.

o       You’ve got some wonderfully complex characters here—even if they’re battling Dark Lords, they’ll probably find time for romance or fighting with their sisters or figuring out what that creepy old man next door is up to

o       And these are your subplots.

o       Every major relationship in a novel has the potential to be a subplot

§        It doesn’t have to be, but if the relationship has conflict or mystery, it can be.

§        And this is a good thing, because it reflects the real richness and fullness of your characters’ lives

·        When I read a novel manuscript that has only one plot, or development in only one relationship, I have to say I usually find it a little anemic—I think, “There should be more going on in the protagonist’s life than just this.”


·        So what’s giving your multiple Action plots unity, then?

·        The answer is the emotional plot of your main character—how the character changes internally through what he’s experiencing in all the different parts of his life.

o       Or, in a picture book, how the underlying emotional conflict at the beginning is acknowledged and resolved by the end.

o       Think of Where the Wild Things Are—perhaps the world’s most perfect picture book

§        Max’s problem emotionally at the beginning is that he’s angry, a Wild Thing, partly because of his lack of power and the humiliation of being sent to his room

§        So he goes to the land of the Wild Things, where he’s acknowledged as what?—A King, the one with all the power.

·        He has a space to let out all those Wild Thing emotions until he’s done.

§        And then he can go home, where his supper was waiting—“And it was still hot.”

·        I can never decide if that or “ ‘Have a carrot,’ said his mother,” is the most perfect last line of a picture book ever.

·        In any case, both lines do the same thing:  Offer reassurance and love while still respecting the child’s independence and intelligence

o       And that is the very best kind of emotional plot to have, in a picture book or a novel:  One that taps into the emotional concerns of children or young adults and acknowledges them as important, offering recognition and validation of what they feel.

·        And even offering models for how to deal with those feelings—or not to deal with those feelings—and come out alive.

o       Emotional plots have magnitude as well, something that can be gained or lost if this part of the story doesn’t happen

§        If Elizabeth had accepted Darcy’s first proposal, or if she never learned of his real worth, she would never have come to the knowledge of her own mistakes.

§        And she would have been thereby less worthy of having a working romantic relationship, and less capable of succeeding in one, because she still would have been blind and prejudiced


·        So that pretty much covers action plots and emotional plots.

·        Books with lots of action plot but no emotional plots, or obvious emotional plots, often get called “flat” or “noisy”—sure, stuff is happening, and the explosions are cool, but it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. Think any Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

·        Books with lots of emotional plot but little action plot often get called “quiet” or “subtle”—for instance Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins, which just won the Newbery. And there’s a lovely book called The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley that I’ll read from later.

·        There are readers and editors for both kinds of books


·        But the books I love the best are books that balance the two plots and weave them together beautifully.

·        What Aristotle called a “complex plot”: an action plot fed by an emotional plot and vice versa.

o       Where the Wild Things Are, Because of Winn-Dixie—many wonderful books

·        One particular variant of the complex plot deserves recognition

o       I spoke earlier about Elizabeth Bennet’s Recognition of her own flaws, and how this led to a Reversal in her fortunes

o       This was Aristotle’s favorite kind of plot because it’s so extremely emotionally effective

§        The audience identifies with Elizabeth and even participates in her mistakes, like thinking Darcy’s a jerk

·        But then we suffer with her in the Recognition of those mistakes, and we grow with her as she acts to correct them—catharsis and moral development in one neat package

o       This is the Oedipus story. It’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma. It’s A Christmas Carol and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s any story where the character’s internal examination of herself and subsequent behavior make a difference in the plot.


·        So I’ve talked a lot here about various kinds of plots and conflicts, but not so much about the thing most commonly associated with the word “plot”

·        That is, the actual dramatic structure of your novel.

·        Going back to that definition of tragedy:  “A serious, complete action”

o       “Complete” is an important word here for both types of plot

o       Most plots follow a dramatic structure known as Freytag’s triangle (see link for diagram)

 §        Exposition:  Establishing the characters, who they are and what they want or lack

§        Rising action:  The characters interacting with one another, coming in conflict with one another

§        Climax:  The point at which all of these different wants intersect and are resolved

§        Falling action:  what happened afterward; what did it all mean?

§        Resolution:  The end

o       Note that even non-character-driven stories can use this structure

§        Suppose you’re writing a repetitive picture book where different fairy-tale characters come and knock on your door—so the story is driven by its pattern rather than its characters

§        But the characters are, in order, the Big Bad Wolf, Goldilocks, Cinderella, the Giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Chicken Little

§        How would you feel seeing each of these characters appear in turn?

·        The big bad wolf—scary!

·        Cinderella—oh, nice

·        Goldilocks—eh

·        The Giant—really scary!

·        Chicken Little—he’s scared of everything, big deal

§        So the readers’ emotional level keeps going up and down—there’s no consistent emotional arc in response to these characters

§        Better to reorder them so they build in emotion:

·        Cinderella, Chicken Little, Goldilocks, Big Bad Wolf, Giant

o       Novels likewise should have that same triangular emotional arc—as incidents and information accumulate, our concern for the characters and their situation mounts up likewise.

o       That John Gardner quote again:  “Real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another.”


o       In passing, I’d like to note that every scene in a novel has an emotional arc too, and should play out to its logical emotional conclusion the same as the novel does

·        This is a mistake I see a lot of beginning writers make:  They think “Okay, the essential piece of action-plot information has been planted here, on to something else”; or “Oh, this chapter is getting too long, I better end it here”—and so they cut off a scene without bringing it to an emotional conclusion.

·        I’m going to read you an example of a good scene from the book I mentioned earlier, The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley. Cedar is a twelve-year-old girl who’s training to be an acrobat, and Kite is a boy who’s training with her. Caramella is her best friend.


When I got home from training with Kite at his house, Caramella wanted to hear everything. I know Caramella is my friend, because when we talk it makes me feel that what I saw and felt and said in any kind of situation means something.

“Was Kite pleased that you wanted to keep training?”

“I dunno. He didn’t say. You know what he’s like, he doesn’t say how he feels.”

“Well, couldn’t you tell?” (It becomes a girl’s job to read a boy’s unexpressed feelings in other ways. Girls get good at looking for signs.)

“No. Maybe.”

“Did you get that funny feeling?” (The funny feeling is when you like someone and your tummy goes all empty and pounding and words bury down blunt inside and suddenly erupt out your mouth all wrong, like a spew, so you go red in the face, because it matters a great deal that you make a good impression.)

“At first I did, but after a while I felt normal.”

“So, you’ve got a crush on him, haven’t you?”

“He put his hand on my shoulder,” I said, faintly sidestepping the question, because I wanted to draw it out, make it last, like eating an ice cream slowly.

“You have got a crush. I can tell.” She folded her arms triumphantly, as if she’d just won a game of Fish.


o       Now this scene is doing a couple different things

·        It’s offering all these lovely observations on boys and girls and funny feelings

·        It’s reinforcing the closeness of Cedar and Caramella’s relationship, that they have this special language between them

·        And most importantly, it’s getting Cedar to admit she has a crush on Kite—the first time it’s been articulated in the book

·        Suppose the scene had ended after “I felt normal,” with Cedar saying “Oh, I have to go, my mother’s calling.” Or with even less resolution than that—“After that we had sandwiches.”

·        We would have still gotten the observations and a sense of the girls’ closeness, but the scene wouldn’t have moved the action forward

·        And without that tiny little climax to the scene itself, it would have felt flat and unsatisfying.


·        Emotional plots end when the character has grown and changed, and you’ve gotten the character where he or she needs to be emotionally.

·        And their plot structure will usually parallel that of the action plot structure—the moment of greatest emotional feeling and resolution will be at the climax of the action plot

o       If we’re calling the emotional plot of P&P Elizabeth’s recognition of her own mistakes, it’s not a strictly perfect Freytag’s triangle, as her recognition happens halfway through, not at the climax as it should.

o       But the rest of the book gives her an opportunity to redeem her earlier errors, which she does

o       And she’s rewarded by getting to marry Darcy

o       Who, for the record, has undergone a similar transformation over the course of the novel

o       And the emotional point? Perfect happiness


·        Freytag’s triangle:  You can see this structure everywhere. It’s Aristotle’s Greek tragedies. It’s all six Jane Austen novels. It’s in all six Harry Potters. It’s mystery novels, romance novels, every pop song ever written, U2, Stevie Wonder.

·        And the reason for that is, again, catharsis:  all the emotion building up through your interest in the characters and their actions, exploding at the climax, leaving you drained but renewed.


·        Aristotle thought that tragedy was the greatest form of drama:  It released those grand noble emotions of pity and terror, cleansing the soul, unlike comedy, which appealed more to the body and was low and base.

o       You will note that the Newbery committee usually agrees with Aristotle

§        They honor books with humor, but only rarely a book whose point is humor

o       And yet you can find as much emotion in Pride and Prejudice as Moby Dick—in Captain Underpants as Kira-Kira

§        They provoke very different emotions, certainly, but they’re both emotions that come into kids’ lives—laughter and grief

·        Indeed we need books—and I want to publish books—that reflect the whole range of a child or teenager’s emotional experiences, and take us through those experiences with them.


·        For I called this “Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure,” didn’t I?

·        And in the end what matters most is not whether you follow Freytag’s Triangle to the letter,

o       or even whether you use it at all

·        But that the book give pleasure

·        The pleasure of discovering new worlds, new people, new stories, rendered beautifully, completely, rightly

·        The pleasure for us readers of seeing our own emotional experiences reproduced in a book, and knowing we are not alone

·        The pleasure of catharsis:  Opening ourselves to feeling of whatever kind, and seeing the world new because of it.

·        When I was thirteen years old, Pride and Prejudice gave me that pleasure, and changed my life forever after

·        And I’m still that reader, still looking for stories that make me gasp and thrill and read long past dark

·        And if you have a book like that that you’d like to share with me—it would be my pleasure.



All material (c) 2005-2008 by Cheryl Klein. Questions, comments, and conversation welcomed at chavela_que at yahoo dot com.