Talking Books

The Essentials of Plot

I gave this talk at the Missouri Writers Guild conference in Kansas City in April 2006. It is a slimmer, sleeker, more usable version of "Aristotle, Austen, Plot and Pleasure," with more emphasis on action and a new conclusion. I recommend it for anyone seeking "Just the facts, ma'am," or those poor souls not familiar with or fond of Jane Austen.
The Aristotelian Plot Checklist and the plot-revision suggestions at the bottom of this page are still works in progress (indeed, my MWG audience will note I've revised the checklist in the week since they saw it); if you try them out, I'd be glad to hear if you find them useful, or if there's anything I ought to add or subtract.

        My name 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

o       Do any of you feel like this?

        I can understand that

o       After all, one definition of plot is “a small piece of land in a cemetery”

o       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 less scary

        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 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 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

o       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 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

        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; . . . 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:

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

        The catharsis is what I call the emotional point of your book—the emotion you’re hoping to create in the reader

o       Stephen King’s emotional point is terror

o       Danielle Steel’s emotional point is the vicarious pleasure we get through her characters’ glamorous lives and sweeping emotions

o       Most Newbery winners are going to make you cry

o       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:

o       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

o       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.

o       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 his side

        We will come back to this principle later.

o       Consistent

        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 story.

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

        So the most obvious way you show us your character’s moral purpose is through their actions or behavior

o       How many of you have read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?

o       The first two chapters of that book are a little master class in sucking a reader into a story

o       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”

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

o       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 . . .

o       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”

o       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?”

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 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

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 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.

o       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, 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

        This is CSI, murder mysteries, etc.

        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.”

o       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.

o       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 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

        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.

o       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

        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 person

o       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.

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

        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 flaws

o       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 being cheap.

        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

o       In Millicent, for example, Millicent loses a friend through her reserve and her valuing of the intellect over emotions

o       But then she Recognizes her error, through Emily’s intervention

o       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

o       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

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.


        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.

o       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

o       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

o       Remember:  “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 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 (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 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:  How you can tell things have changed

o       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

o       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


        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       This is a structure you can use not just on the level of a novel as a whole, but even in individual scenes

o       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.)

“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 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

o       In Harry 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.

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.


        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

o       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

o       And then you must, must, MUST resist the temptation to tell the reader everything you know about the character—especially those flaws

        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

o       Remember:  Plots require change.

o       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.

o       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.

o       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

o       So with every draft, you get to know more about your characters.

o       You tighten the plot and focus the emotion

o       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.




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