I write middle grade and young adult novels. My next book, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill actually comes out on Tuesday! The one thing that they all have in common is mysteries – they aren’t necessarily a mystery per se, but each has a mystery at its heart. And I do this for the very reason that plotting is difficult for me. I’ve been a school and public librarian, and I’m going to be going back to Simmons to pursue doctoral work in library science with a focus on children’s literature. I live in Maine with my husband, my two kids, a cat, and, as of this week, a whole lot of bees.
We are going to start today with the importance of getting the story down. We will move on to elements of plot. Then onto a wide variety of tools you can use to organize and outline your work in progress once you have written that first draft. In doing so, we will do activities using your own work, and also thought experiments using a mentor text.
A mentor text, for those not familiar with the term, is basically another text – in our case, a book – that is used to teach a writing skill. So what I want each of you to do is think of the kind of writing you do, or the kind of project you are working on, and come up with a mentor text for yourself.
5 minutes, ask for help from those around you.
Okay, so let’s get started. Look at the lady on the right. So calm. So beatific. She thoughtfully writes while consulting her perfect outline. Her hair is neat and tidy and she has a lovely scarf. A plotter for sure. But woe our poor pantser. So stressed. Nothing to write. How can she possibly do it? Well, I imagine most of you here are actually the so-called pantsers, and you know that, while it can be terrifying, it’s not quite so bad. I actually hate the terms “Pantser”. It always makes me think of people running around without their pants on. Or maybe even pulling each other’s pants off. Even more so, is its origin: “Seat of your pants.” I don’t write by the seat of my pants. I’m not making it up on the fly. I have given it some thought, you know. At any rate, if you are feeling like you are somehow lesser, or if not outlining in advance gives you anxiety, I’d like to turn to some experts to offer you some support.
This is from the chapter in Bird by Bird entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” In it, Lamott explains the importance of letting yourself write a first draft that is, well, shitty. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty rough drafts.” She goes on to say, and I think this is really important for the purposes of our discussion today, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Just write. Don’t question yourself. Don’t reel yourself in. Follow the side paths. Write it down. More from Lamott, “A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.”
Lockhart takes a similar approach to Lamott saying you need to write stupid idea after stupid idea in order to lead to something better. She agrees that you need to write the stupid version, and then fix it.
“I don’t outline my books. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t know the answer because I find that would be very boring if … it’s necessary to outline a book if you’re doing something in nonfiction or biography, but in fiction there are very few authors who can outline. It’s just deadly to write to an outline and know what’s going to happen next. You have to give your characters the freedom to tell you what’s happening. To start growing and interacting with each other and really leading you along in the plot.” She wrote 50 pages to get a contract and “I didn’t know what was happening. I knew there was a problem with the will.” Second draft “Still rough, but at least I have my plot all there.”
So that is step one. You get a draft down on paper. You can write it long hand. You can type it. You can enter it into your phone. Just get it down. I sometimes call these quick and dirty drafts or skeleton drafts. Some scenes are pretty well developed, but others are little more than dialogue with simple tags. I know I will have to go back and put in more details. This another side lesson: when I was going through the undergraduate writing program at Columbia, so many of the instructors said, “Just throw everything in. Write as much as you can. You can cut it later.” But that’s not the way I write. I write a scant structure, and then layer on details and content. I certainly do cut, but it’s as much about building as cutting, and for years I thought I was doing it wrong. There is no wrong way.
I write with Scrivener, and, at the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I can’t imagine not doing so. Because it lets you see what you have. This is a cork board. My cork board is sad. I don’t color code and never remember to write what stage of drafting scenes are in, but that’s okay. On the left you see my chapters. I don’t tend to write descriptions for these unless they are place holders. On the right are all the scenes in one chapter. These I do describe.
But before we can do that, we need to take a step back. What is plot? Merriam-Webster Definition.
Aristotle wrote extensively about plot in Poetics. Talking of tragedies he said, “A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.” http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.2.2.html By extension, then, in a comedy the fortunes change from bad to good. What’s important for our purposes, though, is that there be a change. Your characters and circumstances cannot be the same at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Plot is change.
It’s important to know that there is a distinction between story and plot. This distinction is tricky. E.M. Forester. “A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – ’The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. But ‘the king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.”
Editor Cheryl Klein makes the comparison this way: “The story of the book is what happens in the book, the basic events. The plot of the book is the deep structure of those events which give the action shape and meaning.” (p. 222) Cheryl Klein worked on the Harry Potter books, and I am going to refer to her more later on, but she has an excellent book called Second Sight, which I think is a must read for children’s authors. Since she did work on Harry Potter, that’s where many of her examples come from, so I’m going to read what she says about Harry Potter in terms of plot and story: “In Harry Potter, the story is about an orphaned boy, who is an outcast even in his own family, being chosen to go to a magical school, where he makes friends, takes classes in magic, learns to play Quidditch, discovers that an evil overlord wants to kill him, and has his first encounter with the overlord. The plot is about a boy who is unloved and abused, basically, finding a place where he can be respected and have emotional support and discovering a larger challenge that threatens this new place of stability.”
So, once you know your story, which you will know once you’ve written you first draft, it’s time to think about how you want to plot it. It could be linear, but the causation needs to be there – it needs to be clear. Or you could play with nonlinear structure. In order to start thinking about the structure of your plot, we’re going to look at the elements of plot.
This is the standard diagram of plot. Now I am sure some of you are shuddering, and maybe even wondering if it’s too late to switch workshops. The thought of our beautiful, precious, unique stories fitting on a diagram like this is a little heart breaking. I think maybe my repeated viewings of Dead Poet’s Society have made me especially wary of trying to pin down stories. But, this diagram becomes quite useful. You don’t need to be a slave to it, but you need to know it.
What’s important to remember is that it doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetric like this. Many, but not all MG and YA novels have a brief exposition and longer rising action than falling action. Each genre might be different, too. Like fantasy might have a lot of exposition because you are building the world. An action novel might have hard and fast rising action, but it’s important that it does, in fact, rise. But each novel should have each of these elements.
Lowry tells you right from the beginning that this important event is coming up: the day each child is given their assignment. So, when it happens, and it’s different than expected – Jonas doesn’t get a typical job – that’s when things start to change. It’s also important to note that there is another change. Jonas’s father, a caregiver, is allowed to bring home a struggling new child, Gabriel, something that has not been allowed. Then the Giver and Jonas start making a plan for him to leave, which will give the memories back to the people, and so we think we know what the climax will be. Then Lowry throws a curveball: Gabriel is going to be released. So, he escapes with Gabriel, and is faced with a bleak landscape. At the end, he sleds down the hill with Gabriel. I saw Lowry speak and she said she thought the ending was clear, but was asked repeatedly, “What happened to Gabriel?” and so she did end up writing sequels. To me, I thought the ending was clear, too – that they had died, but evidently that wasn’t the case.
Now we’re going to dig a little bit deeper into the two types of plot. The action plot is how the character’s circumstances change, whereas the emotional plot is the changes within the character, frequently brought on by the action. Since Cheryl Klein worked on the Harry Potter books, she expertly uses them as an example: “Harry Potter is plucked from obscurity and hardship, taught he has a great history and destiny, sent off to wizard school, where he becomes a hero.” That’s the action plot. The emotional plot: “…Once Harry is there, he makes friends, and finds new courage within himself.” p. 223
Action plots, according to Klein, typically follow one of three formulas. So conflict is fairly straight forward: you have one character in opposition to another, and one character in opposition to herself.
You can think of the action plot as driven by wants, but the emotional plot is driven by needs. Thus, it’s important to know what your character needs. In The Water Castle, my main character of Ephraim wants to save his father. Mallory wants her family back together. Will wants a life outside of his father’s negative influence. What they all need is a community. This does not mean that your character should know what he or she needs, and it certainly shouldn’t be stated, but you need to know.
Action plot and emotional plot do not have to be perfectly balanced, but you do need to have both. The Hunger Games is a book that is very high on action plot. Katniss is definitely in conflict. But what drives the plot is her need to save her family. Without it, you would have no tie to this girl or concern for her plight. In contrast, Katherine Hannigan’s Ida. B and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and Possible Save the World is this completely voice and character driven novel about a happily homeschooled girl who needs to go back to public school when her mom gets cancer. Now you can see right in that lengthy subtitle that she is trying to avoid disaster. The disaster is not about her mother’s illness, that is part of the emotional plot, but rather the fact that her parents need to sell part of their land to pay for her mother’s treatments, and she hatches a plan to make the land unsellable. That’s the action plot. And it’s not the biggest plot, but it’s enough to carry the book. I’ll say that as a writer, I love to come up with characters and situations, but moving the action plot forward for me is difficult. I’ve written a number of mysteries – or books with mysteries – because that helps me to up my action plot. The characters are working toward a discovery or a solution, and that sustains my emotional plots.
The story is that Georges moves into a new apartment and meets a boy, Safer, who claims the neighbor is a killer, and they decide to find him out. He is outcasts at school – the target of bully Dallas. His mother is always at the hospital where she works. The Action plot is spying on Mr. X The Emotional plot is missing his mother (lack)
What Stead does so well in this book is tie the action and emotional plot. As the action plot ramps up, so does the emotional plot, sometimes with the plot points lining up exactly. It is the action plot that drives us forward, but the twist in the emotional plot is what resonates.
Liar & Spy also demonstrates the effective use of “meanwhile” – the other things going on in the book. In this case, at school they are studying taste, which they call “The Science Unit of Destiny” because if you are a low taster you are destined either for true love with your fellow low taster, or tragic death. Georges has a low tastebud count, which is another reason for Dallas to target him. This shifts the purpose of the taste test – if you are a low taster, you are a dork -- and ups the stakes.
In the description for this presentation I said we would be going over tools for outlining after drafting. Really, the outline is just one tool that I am going to share that helps you to see what you have to work with and what work you need to do. With the outlines, the first thing you need to do is create an outline of your book as it is. You need a chapter by chapter and maybe even a scene by scene accounting of what you have.
Luckily, there are programs like Scrivener will create an outline for you. For this to work, you need to write a brief description of each scene, or at least give each scene a very telling title. To just view the outline in Scrivener, you go to View and choose outline. You can change what you see and you can print from here.
The other thing you can do is export the Outline as a CSV file, which you can then open up in Excel or other spreadsheet program. You go to File then Export, then Outliner contents as a CSV.
When you do that, you can go through and add some columns or details. So here are opened it up in Excel. I added some cells at the top to put in the Emotional Plot and the Action Plot. Then I added columns for Characters, Plots (threads), and Timing so I could see how much time had passed. The CSV included word count and I kept those so I could see how that was balanced as well. By adding in those details, especially Characters and Plots, I could see if certain people or threads disappeared for too long, or were dominating too many of the scenes.
And then I could write notes to myself to follow as I went through revisions, such as combining scenes. This one is especially challenging – and I’m still working on it now – because I decided to invent a strict structure to use. The protagonist’s grandmother is a poet, while she is a mathematician. So, thinking about numbers and the formal structure of poetry, I wanted each chapter to be made up of 5 numbered scenes.
Another way to approach your outline is to print it out and go through and color code it. Then I go through and color-code it. For me, I do this by story thread. You can see here I underlined what the main thread addressed was, but then added dots if a secondary thread made its way in. This allows me to see if I am spending too much time in one area of my overall story. I can also read through and see if the action is progressing nicely, if things flow logically.
Because I am a very tactile person, though, I also do this by hand. I go through the manuscript and write down each scene. This forces me to think about each scene a bit more. Then I cover the outline with notes for my revision. This one came after several revisions, so I knew the story quite well at that point, but it still helped me to distill it and have it a manageable stack of pages.
Each chapter has notes about what’s going on, and what needs to be done to it. Then I was able to go back and make notes about scenes or chapters that needed to be added into the story in order for the plot to work. I could also do notes as I was revising. Some of the notes I wrote to myself, “Need break before meeting Samuel.” That was a plotting and a pacing issue – I was introducing too much at once. I needed to get the exposition set before I could introduce a new character. Or, to a chapter that was originally about Hazel meeting with her friend Mr. Wall and chatting about life and such, I added a brief interaction – “Over hear Mr. Logan say something Asks Mr. Wall – he says you shouldn’t believe everything Mrs. Logan said.” Then, in the next chapter, “So, when she goes to the library, she’s primed for the newspaper.” So what I realized was that the idea that there are Communists in her town – the main driver of the story – was being dropped a little too unceremoniously. I needed to build up to it.
These cards belong to Lynda Mullaly Hunt. As she writes, she creates a notecard for each scene. When she finishes a draft, she codes all of the scenes in terms of character.
Then she spreads them all out. This lets her see the shape of the novel, and where there are gaps that she needs to fix. It also lets her look at the balance of “screen time” for the characters. She can make sure no one is on the page too much or too little.
This is for a middle grade novel that is coming out next year. There were a number of key events in the book, such as a spelling bee and Valentine’s Day (which I actually wanted to avoid), and so I decided to lay out each scene onto a calendar. I started doing this by hand, but had to keep changing it so much that I found an online version. If you Google editable calendars, you’ll find a bunch, but I’ll link to the one I found at the end. I didn’t set out to do this as a way of outlining or figuring out my plot, but more because I wanted to be able to say things like, “We only have two weeks until the spelling bee!” But doing so, I was able to see how my story was flowing over time. You can see that I did do some crossing out and moving things, and that’s because I knew that the events at the end were happening too closely together in time. So this can be a great way to outline or plot your story in terms of time.
So this is going back to Freytag’s Pyramid. So far all of the outlines I’ve shown you have been text-based and linear, but using this graph of the plot can be very useful.
So how we’re going to do this is I’m going to give you 15-20 minutes to do this. This would also be a good time to run to the bathroom if you need to. Then you are going to get into small groups and share your plots. The idea is that you can help each other to figure out any problems or questions.
Remember our steps? Step 1 was to get a draft down. Step 2 was to get a handle on what you have. That’s what we’ve been talking about. Then Step 3 is to use that newfound knowledge to revise.
Example from The Water Castle – I gave a draft of The Water Castle to a son’s friend to read. He said, “Tell Meg it gets boring around here. There needs to be more action.” And I realized he was right. I looked at my outline, and my rising action wasn’t rising. A few exciting things had happened – like Ephraim following a buzzing sound and then seeing a bright blue flash, but since then there had been a lot of introspection. This was necessary, but I needed to break it up and add something exciting. I wanted some sort of big physical act, but I also wanted it to drive the story and the relationships between the characters forward. So I came up with the idea of the class visiting a Van de Graaf built by a boy, Will, who hasn’t been too friendly to Ephraim since his arrival. Accidentally, Ephraim is electrocuted. So there’s this big moment, but it also means that Ephraim is upset because he’s embarrassed and no one is too concerned that he got hurt. And Will is upset because he knows everyone thinks he did it on purpose. That would obviously be something I added. Something I cut in the Water Castle was a lot of rumination about the water – the legend, what it could be, what it wasn’t. As I said, as I wrote, I wasn’t entirely sure what the story of the water was, and that was clear on the page. My characters were playing out my working through the issue. I trimmed those to make the ideas clearer and more direct.
Which leads us to our door prize.
What’s my Plot?
WHAT’S MY PLOT
OUTLINING AFTER DRAFTING BY MEGAN FRAZER BLAKEMORE
PLOT VS. STORY
“The king died and
then the queen
The structure of what happens.
“The king died, and then the
queen died of grief.”
EDITOR CHERYL KLEIN ON PLOT
Basic events vs. deep structure
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: STORY AND PLOT
Think of your mentor text.
What is the story?
What is the plot?
ACTIVITY: STATE YOUR STORY
In your notebook or on your handout, take a
moment to write down the STORY of your book.
Remember, this is what happens in the book, boiled
Max misbehaves. Max is sent to his room. He travels
to an island full of wild animals. They dance and play.
He travels home. He eats dinner.
THE GIVER BY LOIS LOWRY
What is the story of The Giver?
THE PLOT OF THE GIVER
THE PLOT OF THE GIVER
Exposition: A future world which values sameness.
Inciting Incident: Jonas chosen to be Receiver (Gabriel at home.)
Rising Action: Jonas learning of history, difference.
Climax: Learns what Release is.
Falling Action: Really doubts this world, plans to leave.
Resolution: Escapes with Gabriel
Denouement: Struggles then sleds to freedom, maybe.
THE GIVER DIAGRAMMED
The future world
Assigning of jobs.
The Giver shows
Jonas the truth
Travelling to elsewhere.
STRETCH BREAK & ACTIVITY
Jot down the
of your story.
ACTION/EMOTIONAL PLOT TIED
Inciting incident: Joining the Spy Club and learning about Mr. X
Rising action: tracking Mr. X. Messages with Mom and lying to Dad.
Climax: Georges figures out the truth about Mr. X, followed
immediately by him admitting the truth about his mother.
Falling action: Blu Team nontasters, goes to see Mom
Denouement: Candy starts school (vision of an ok future)
“The taste is still in my mouth. I know
what it is. It’s the taste of pretending.
It’s the taste of lying. It’s the taste of a
game that’s over.”
CASE IN POINT: RISING ACTION IN THE WATER CASTLE
Once you complete a draft of a WIP, try a full
outline and see how that helps you move into
The Westing Game Manuscript with Ellen Raskin’s commentary at the
Cooperative Children’s Book Center (University of Wisconsin):
Editable Calendar from the Peaceful Mom:
Klein, Cheryl B. Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising &
Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. Brooklyn: Asterisk
Stay in touch!
Megan Frazer Blakemore
@meganbfrazer on Twitter