Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Plot Clock in Picture Books

Week of August 7— What Rob Did On Summer Vacation—Conference Highlights
Tuesday, August 9—The Plot Clock in Picture Books

So I emailed Tammi Sauer and asked, “Do you use the Plot Clock when planning your books?” I asked the question because when I was analyzing picture books I found what to me seemed to be great examples of the Plot Clock in Mostly Monsterly and Chicken Dance.

“No,” Tammi told me. She’d never heard of the Plot Clock or used it. But she was intrigued. And so was I. How could these two books be such perfect examples of the Plot Clock since Tammi hadn’t used the clock to plan? Then I remembered what Joyce Sweeney and Jamie Morris said about the internal plot clock that everyone has. Tammi is a natural storyteller. She knows how to build suspense, she knows about rising action and falling action, she knows about the dark moment and the climax, and she knows about denouement and delivers endings to stories like nobody’s business.  (Let me add quickly that doesn’t mean Tammi doesn’t WORK to make her stories what they are. Get real. None of that great stuff happens by accident.)

Since I could see the Plot Clock represented in Tammi’s work¸ I decided to use Mostly Monsterly as my example of how the Plot Clock works. Even if Tammi didn’t intentionally use the Plot Clock, we can use this example and her stellar writing to improve our own writing. (NOTE: I’ll be referring to page numbers in Mostly Monsterly. So you can follow along, I’m counting the title page as page 1.)

Ordinary World—Bernadette’s Ordinary World is established on pages 2-5. We learn that she’s a little monster, but that she has a sweet side, too. This is the normal, ordinary world of Bernadette.

Inciting Incident—The Inciting Incident comes on page 5—“When it came time to go to school with the other monsters, Bernadette felt a teensy bit nervous . . .” School is about to begin and that is the incident that is about to change Bernadette’s world. We, the readers, already have a bit of an insight into the special world that is to come—Monster School.

Binding Point—Pages 6-7 are the Binding Point. But, as only a picture book could do, this part of the story is told with only an illustration. We see Bernadette standing with her suitcase in front of the gates of a v-e-r-y spooky looking school. Welcome Students is written on a less-than-inviting banner. We see the school bus roaring away. Bernadette is bound—maybe trapped! She’s going to Monster School and into this Special World—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. (Kudos to illustrator Scott Magoon for telling this part of the story so effectively.)

Special World—Beginning in Act 2 and through the end of the book, we are in the Special World of the book—Monster School.

Tests and Challenges Failed— Pages 8-17 make up Act 2. Bernadette tries and tries to fit into her classes—lurching techniques, growling skills, monster mayhem. But each time she fails when her nice, sweet side rears its ugly head. (Well, it’s ugly to a monster!)

Low Point—To me, the Low Point comes on page 19. Bernadette has tried her most successful nice technique—cupcakes. And the monsters reply with, “Gross!” They head off to play (pages 20-21) and poor Bernadette watches from the window. (Another effective illustration from Scott Magoon which tells more of the story.)

Change—Change comes on page 22 with this:
“Wait!” A toothy grin spread across her face. “That’s it!”

Tests and Challenges Passed—The Tests and Challenges Passed of Act 3 occur on one page. Bernadette goes right to work making cards. And this is the moment when she is integrating what she learned from her failures with who she really is in her monsterly heart.

Turning Point—The Turning Point which leads to that dark moment and points us to the Climax comes on pages 24-26. Bernadette has put the cards she made on the desks of her monster classmates. “Ew…Those cares are probably nice,” the monsters say, upping the dark moment and the suspense. Then we turn the page and see the cards Bernadette has created.

Climax—The Climax comes on pages 28-29 when the monsters love their nasty cards and Bernadette dares to ask, “Group hug?”

Denouement—Pages 30-33 are the Denouement. Yes, there’s a group hug and a gold star. Bernadette finds success at Monster School and success being Bernadette.

SPECIAL NOTES: When using the Plot Clock to plan (or to analyze) a picture book, remember that some scenes and even entire acts might be summed up in a page or two, or even a line, or even an illustration. But each of those aspects has to be present for the Plot Clock to be effective and for a story to give the reader a sense of satisfaction.

In the words of Jamie Morris—“Writing is an art, not a science.” Two writers might look at the same book and see the parts of the Plot Clock falling in different places. That’s ok. The important thing is that the elements are there and that they are making a complete, satisfying story.

A quick disclaimer, not every picture book is a narrative. Some are lovely poems, or counting books, or lyrical plays with words. The Plot Clock does not apply to these books. It is a tool for narrative writing.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Take the Plot Clock and apply it to one of your stories. See what aspects of your story need to be developed to achieve a feeling of completeness.
2. Use the Plot Clock to analyze Chicken Dance by Tammy Sauer and Dan Santat and you’ll find another great example of a complete, well-developed story.


Renee Taprell said...

Brilliant post Rob! I'm going to book mark it for later so I can take it all in.

Rob Sanders said...

Thanks, Renee!

Jamie said...

In the words of Jamie Morris, ROB SANDERS ROCKS!

Hugs to you--and big congrats,

Kaye Baillie said...

Thanks so much, Rob. I am always looking at picture books and what format they take and I try to analyse the structure. It seems there are so many different styles. I will enjoy looking at this method.

william said...
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