Monday, January 17, 2011

Plot and Story Arc

Building A Story: Plots, Characters, and Settings—Oh, My!
Monday, January 17—Plot and Story Arc

Sometimes I feel like I slept through the days in school when we talked about plot. I only remember talking about plot as we read and examined the classics. In high school, college, and graduate school my writing was academic except for a creative writing course in high school that focused on journaling and free-verse poetry. In my kiddie lit class in college we were given an assignment to make picture book, but most of the emphasis was on actually putting the book together (we bound our own books, including sewing the pages together). I worked for a publishing company for 15 years, but we dealt with non-fiction materials, plot was not an issue to us—the facts were the facts.

When I moved to Florida and started teaching creative writing to elementary children you would think I would have studied plot. But plot is not part of the curriculum we are trained to teach. When I started attending picture book conferences (boot camps, SCBWI state events, and so on), was when I first started to really learn about plot. I quickly realized that I had some innate ability to develop plot. I wasn’t a master of plot, but I had the ability to grow a story from beginning to end. I’ve had to put conscious effort into plot, however. I don’t want to rely on happenstance when I’m writing. When it comes to plot, I want to understand what I’m doing, to be able to analyze what others are doing in their writing, and to speak a common language with other writers.

One of the most common ways to think of picture book story plot is to think of a character who has a problem which he/she tries to resolve but the situation continues to get worse and worse with each attempt to solve the problem. Finally, when the situation is at its worst, the problem is solved and the story resolves. Below is a page-by-page description how this works in a picture book. (NOTE: I have received this information at several conferences. No one has ever taken credit for creating it, however.)

Page 1:          Half Title Page

Pages 2-3:    Full Title Page

Page 4:          Dedication

Page 5:          Introduce Main Character, Setting, Problem, Point of View, Voice

Pages 6-7:    Deepen Awareness of Problem and Character

Pages 8-9:    Main Character’s First Attempt to Solve Problem

Pages 10-11:           Result

Pages 12-13:           Things Get Worse!

Pages 14-15:           Main Character’s Second Attempt to Solve Problem

Pages 16-17:           Result

Page 18-19:             Things Get Worse!

Pages 20-21:           Main Character’s Third Attempt to Solve Problem

Pages 22-23:           Result

Pages 24-25             Black Moment: Things Are at Their Worst!

Pages 26-27             Main Character Understands (Inner Climax)

Pages 28-29             Main Character Acts (Outer Climax)

Pages 30-31             Solution Works!

Page 32:                    End with a Surprise or Twist

No one will expect every single part of your story to fall at the exact page numbers listed above. Writing is not that formulaic. The process of developing the story does follow this process, however.

Tammi Sauer is a wonderful picture book writer whose books include Chicken Dance (one of my personal favorites), Mostly Monsterly, and Mr. Duck Means Business. Tammi led a session a picture book session at the SCBWI Florida mid-year meeting in 2010. She talked about developing the picture book story in an arc. This a helpful approach for visual learners like me. Here’s how Tammi presented story arc:

It’s Your Turn!
1.     Look through picture books and identify the story structure/plot/arc. Write down the problem, attempts to solve the problem, failures, and the final resolution.
2.     Now look back at one of your stories and identify the arc (or lack there of! J). Begin to “plot out” how you will improve your plot!


seeSANDIEsing said...

What a helpful writing guide. It reinforces us from sliding all over the place when writing the first draft or putting our ideas together. Thanks for sharing.


Jamie Donahoe said...

Thanks for presenting this information in such a concise way - very helpful!