is Cheryl Klein
· Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic
· And this talk is called “The Essentials of Plot”
· Often when I go to writers’ conferences, writers will tell me they have no problems creating characters, but
they’re scared of plot
Do any of you feel like this?
· I can understand that
After all, one definition of plot is “a
small piece of land in a cemetery”
And I think it casts a lot of people back to
high school and testing and outlines and all that pressure
· But the truth is, if you can create a believable character that comes to life in the reader’s mind, you can
create a plot
· So we’re going to try to demystify that process today, break it down to the essentials, and make it a little
· To start with, how many of you are scared of story? Did you know there’s a difference between the two?
· The difference between Story and Plot is that the story is what happens; plot is the structure of what happens.
· And you should never worry about plot until your second draft
· Your job in the first draft is to write the STORY, get the events down, find out who these people are and what they
· 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 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
· 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.
· My favorite example of the difference between story and plot lies in the work of one of my favorite writers: Jane Austen
Any Austen fans here?
· 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
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
One of the first major works of literary criticism
in world history that we know of
· Aristotle focuses on stage tragedy in the Poetics, but the principles can be applied to almost any form of narrative
Including middle-grade and YA novels and picture
· 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; .
. . 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.
· Right now I want to think about what Aristotle says is the purpose of tragedy, at the very end of the definition:
“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
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
That when the drama was over, those feelings
were purged right out of you
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
Wonder, admiration, a good hard laugh
· The catharsis is what I call the emotional point of your book—the emotion you’re hoping to create in the
Stephen King’s emotional point is terror
Danielle Steel’s emotional point is the
vicarious pleasure we get through her characters’ glamorous lives and sweeping emotions
Most Newbery winners are going to make you
And in most great literature, the emotional
point is the richness and complexity of many emotions
§ Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Michael Chabon, J. K. Rowling—all of them are so expert at
combining humor and grief and pain and joy that their books reflect the real complexity of human life
§ And indeed lift you (or at least me) to a new appreciation of the world
we live in and a new understanding of its possibilities
§ (And I include Rowling in that list with absolute sincerity, by the way)
· So where does catharsis begin? With character.
· You can’t achieve an emotional effect through your fiction unless the reader is involved with the characters
· Aristotle laid forth four qualities of a dramatic protagonist that I think hold true for children’s books:
§ 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:
· Her parents or guardians taught her mathematical and financial principles at an early age
· 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
· She was raised to be confident and unafraid to take risks, or she’s
preternaturally lucky and everything she touches turns to gold.
· 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.”
§ Again, the sympathy: Because he’s not a superhero, you can be on
§ We will come back to this principle later.
§ The character will not change in the middle of the novel from a shrinking violet to a know-it-all queen bee
· Unless, of course, that change is your plot.
· Once you have characters who are interesting, appropriate, lifelike, and consistent, you must make them do things—your
· Aristotle says “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or
· So the most obvious way you show us your character’s moral purpose is through their actions or behavior
How many of you have read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?
The first two chapters of that book are a little
master class in sucking a reader into a story
And part of the way it does that is through
showing us its characters’ actions through their behavior
§ In Chapter Two, when they go to the zoo, Dudley Dursley pounds on the glass of the boa constrictor cage
§ He whines at his father, who
§ And then he gets bored and wanders away
§ You have just seen Dudley act directly
§ And J. K. Rowling doesn’t have to tell you he’s a spoiled brat because his actions make that obvious
§ Contrast that to Harry, who sympathizes with the snake, listens to it, and eventually sets it free
· But 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.” There’s
another clause to that phrase: “and not by narration”
This would be that same “show not tell”
principle writ 2400 years ago
Aristotle believed firmly that the characters’
actions should not only show us who they are, but 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
§ In Millicent Min, at the beginning of the novel, Millicent has never had a real friend
· Either people have tried to be friends with her so they could use her for her brains
· Or they just can’t understand her high intelligence—at least that’s what she thinks
· So when she meets a new girl in town named Emily who wants to be her friend, Millicent lies to her and says she’s
just a regular kid
· Until Emily finds out . . .
We will come back to this moment too
· 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 defines dramatic action, in the absolute broadest terms possible, as the “Change from good fortune
to bad, or bad fortune to good”
And that means simply that things are different
at the end than they are at the beginning
· If you’re on your second draft and moving beyond story to plot, this is a good basic question to start with: “How are things different for my characters at the end of the story?”
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
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
But there must be some change.
§ If your character isn’t going anywhere, if all the circumstances are the same at the end of the book, 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
The external action or conflict; what physically changes for your characters in the course of the book
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:
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 and have the most moral complexity
§ 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.
The moral dilemma in Millicent Min, Girl Genius, is Millicent’s choice between the truth and her desire to have friends
§ (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,
It’s often useful when you’re revising
to sit back and think “Okay, what’s my conflict, and how is that being resolved?”
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
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.
And the third great action-plot formula is
Mystery—a form of Lack where what the characters need is a piece of information
§ This is CSI, murder mysteries, etc.
· So we have Conflict, Lack, and Mystery
· Most action plots will end up weaving these three elements together.
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?
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”
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
In other words, there are stakes: Something that can be gained or lost in the conflict—something that matters.
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
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
· 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.
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.
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
And these are your subplots.
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.”
At the same time, if a subplot is showing us
something we already know about the character, or the same thing another subplot is demonstrating as well—you should
consider cutting it
§ The goal is to have every subplot contribute something unique that adds up to the main plot
· 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.
Suppose you’ve written a spy novel. The
defeating-the-spies plot might challenge your main character’s courage. The romantic subplot could show him his vulnerability.
The friendship subplot might force him to choose between loyalty to his friend and to his country. And your emotional plot
would be the sum of these developments in the character.
· Or, in a picture book, how the underlying emotional conflict at the beginning is acknowledged and resolved by the
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
· 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
· 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.
Emotional plots have magnitude as well, something
that can be gained or lost if this part of the story doesn’t happen
§ In Millicent Min, Girl Genius, Millicent’s friend Emily eventually
finds out Millicent has been lying to her all this time. They fight, and they don’t speak for a while afterwards
§ Finally Millicent decides to apologize—because, she says, she didn’t realize Emily wouldn’t be able
to understand her high intelligence
§ But Emily points out her real mistake was lying—not trusting Emily and their friendship to hold true even in
the face of that intelligence
§ She is absolutely right. And this realization makes Millicent more capable of having more honest and meaningful emotional
relationships going forward—not just with Emily, but with her parents, with her fellow high school students, with everyone
· A good measure of emotional stakes: The novel should dramatize a turning
point in the protagonist’s life—an event (and its consequences) without which this character would be a different
Is this true of your WIP?
· 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.
the Wild Things Are, Because of Winn-Dixie—many
· One particular variant of the complex plot deserves recognition
· You remember that we said one of the qualities of a dramatic protagonist is that he needs to be life-like, to have
This flaw could be a tendency to always believe
she’s right. Or to be in love with her own cleverness. Or a refusal to recognize his father’s instability. Or
· Aristotle believed that this flaw should drive the action, until the protagonist was forced to recognize his mistake
by the enormous horrible consequences of the result—what he called the Recognition.
· And this leads to a change in the character’s circumstances—what’s known as the Reversal
for example, Millicent loses a friend through her reserve and her valuing of the intellect over emotions
But then she Recognizes her error, through
And when they reconnect, it’s a Reversal
in circumstance that leads to her happiness again
· This was Aristotle’s favorite kind of plot because it’s so
extremely emotionally effective
The audience identifies with the protagonist
and even participates in her mistakes
§ 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
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.
· And that also points up one principle I want to reinforce: the “represented
by people acting”
· Your main character’s actions need to drive this plot. Or to put it more starkly: He needs to do things.
Whether it’s making mistakes, or running
away, or lying, or reaching out to a potential friend, or deciding to investigate that new teacher who seems a little suspicious
Taking charge of his own destiny, however big
or small that action may be
§ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Harry fights Voldemort
§ Because of Winn-Dixie: Opal brings people
together through her dog
· If your character is only reacting to the problems other people or Acts of God create for him, he will probably come
off as a bit passive, and the novel as a whole will feel likewise
· Action is always attractive—it creates conflict and therefore interest
“Happy families are all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in their own way.”
· 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
“Complete” is an important word
here for both types of plot
Most plots follow a dramatic structure known
as Freytag’s triangle (click on the link for a diagram, which will open in a new window):
§ Exposition: Establishing the characters, who they are and what they want
§ 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
§ Falling action: what happened afterward; what did it all mean?
§ Resolution: The end: How
you can tell things have changed
You will note that basically what’s happening
here is that the author is orchestrating the emotion
§ So the more you come to care about these characters, the deeper you get involved with their lives and tangled up in
their stories, till it all explodes at the climax—the moment of greatest tension—and you’re brought back
to peace with the resolution
Even non-character-driven stories can use this
§ 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
· 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
This is a structure you can use not just on
the level of a novel as a whole, but even in individual scenes
Bringing them to their logical emotional conclusions
· 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 its having an emotional point
· 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.)
“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.
have got a crush. I can tell.” She folded her arms triumphantly, as if she’d just won a game of Fish.
Now this scene is doing a couple different
· 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
· And most importantly for the plot, 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
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the emotional plot crests at the exact moment when Harry creates a Patronus to fight
off Dementors—something he hasn’t been able to do the entire book, and can achieve now because he recognizes his
father in himself
· 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, most 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.
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
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
· 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.
· So this talk was “The Essentials of Plot,” yes?
· I’ve laid out what I see as all of the elements of plot—now I’m going to tell you what to do to
build a good plot, and then how to revise to strengthen your plot.
· One, start with character
Once you have a character, think about not
just what his virtues and flaws are, what his name is, where he grew up, but the reasons behind all of those things
§ His parents named him Charles Burton Hammer III because his father was Charles Burton Hammer II and his grandfather
Charles Burton Hammer I and the family values tradition. That’s going to influence how Charles Hammer III behaves, yes?
§ So it creates a context for your character and adds more nuances to their behavior
And then you must, must, MUST resist the temptation to tell the reader everything you know about the character—especially those
§ Writers can sometimes get so delighted with their psychological insights that they can’t resist sharing in the
very first chapter: Charles was an uptight little prig.
§ This is telling, and it flattens your characters
· That can be okay if they’re meant to be caricatures: Think the
Dursleys, or Roald Dahl
· But if you’re going for something more complex than that—and particularly if you want people to sympathize
with your character, or your character’s flaw is going to drive the action—be careful you don’t give the
game away from the beginning
· Two, find the characters and conflicts that will force your character to change and grow
Remember: Plots require change.
The science-fiction novelist Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books are huge fun, says she thinks of the absolute worst possible thing she can do to her characters, and does it to them.
The same for the wonderful Patrick O’Brian.
Think about what your character loves, hates, needs, wants, and fears
Then take one of the loves away. Have the hate or the fear move in next
door. See how your character reacts, and go from there.
· Three, follow those conflicts and characters to their logical emotional conclusions, on both a scene-by-scene and
a novel level
· And four, revise.
Once you have a first draft, run that plot checklist on it
§ Do things change?
§ Do you have both action and emotional plots?
§ What are the stakes? Are they big enough to mean something to the reader?
§ Is your main character contributing to the action, or better still driving it?
§ Does every one of your subplots contribute to the main Action Plot or Emotional Plot?
§ Does your work have the emotional arc you intended (even if it’s not Freytag’s triangle)?
§ Do you feel yourself stretching at all to answer these questions? Are any of the answers unsatisfactory to you?
· If either answer is “yes” . . . you know what you need to do
So with every draft, you get to know more about
You tighten the plot and focus the emotion
Your novel becomes more of what it could be,
just as your characters become more of who they can be in the book
· And then hopefully, you all find your happy endings.