Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Under-developed Plot

Week of July 22, 2012—Common Problems in Picture Book Manuscripts
Tuesday, July 24—Under-developed Plot

Even if a picture book writer has a problem/conflict that anchors the story, there’s still a giant hurdle to face. And it’s a four-letter word . . . P-L-O-T!

You could describe plot like this:

1.                 u The story begins with a character in his/her normal life.
v A problem presents itself, and the character decides to/needs to/has to solve it.
w The character tries and tries and tries to solve the problem, but things get worse and worse and worse.
x Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, they do.
y When all hope is lost, the problem is solved—life returns to normal (or a new normal).
z And, AHHHHHHH, we have a feeling of satisfaction as the story wraps up.

Most readers (and probably most authors—even successful ones) don’t know all that much about plot. They’re like you and me. But most readers (and most authors) KNOW if a story sounds right, or feels right. We are coded in our DNA for stories. It started around the camp fire as our earliest ancestors told stories. We feel that a good story should put us on the edge of our seat, or make us laugh, or cause us to cry. We intrinsically know that the main character’s situation is going to get worse before it gets better. We want to root for that main character and see him or her succeed.

Even my three-year-old great niece knows when a story doesn’t work. She puts the book down. Or she interrupts the reader with a request to do something else. The reader or listener—even a three-year old—without knowing it, wants and needs the elements of plot to be present so the story feels right to them.

So what are the biggest plot problems picture book writers seem to have?

The Problem
The Result
Not escalating the problem by making things worse and worse for the main character
Readers’ empathy for and relationship with the main character can’t form properly, or fully
Not letting the main character try and fail
Readers may not be able to relate to the main character, since in real life people try and fail all the time. Again, empathy for the character may not grow and develop
Not making us feel that all hope is lost
Readers may not be prepared for the ending, or may feel the ending comes too soon because they have not been “set up”  enough for the “good” part of the story
Not letting the main character solve his/her own problem
Readers may feel that the main character—usually a child—is unable or incapable of doing things for himself/herself which makes the character less appealing or relatable. This may also give readers a false impression of the world—that someone else is responsible for solving their problems or will always come to their rescue
Not finally letting the main character find success in a way that is appropriate or fitting for the character
Readers may never actually feel satisfied with the story, or invest in extending their imagination to believe in the character and trust his/her story
Not providing a denouement—the “Ahhhhhhh” moment
Readers may never get that warm, fuzzy feeling, laugh-aloud moment, or tear-jerking reaction from the story, and thus may not fall in love with the story, or want to read it again

I don’t think plot has to be as hard to tackle as we often make it out to be. We just need tools to help us. The need for tools is what caused people to develop Three-Act Structure, Freytag’s Pyramid, and The Plot Clock. Because I’m a visual person and a teacher, I often organize things in a visual way. (Or perhaps I do this because I’m from Missouri—the Show Me State!) That need for something visual led me to create a couple of graphic organizers for picture book planning.

Though I’ve featured these graphic organizers on Picture This! in other posts, this seems an appropriate time to share them again. The Picture Book Graphic Organizer will help you outline a picture book from start to finish.

The second resource, Steps to Growing Trouble, is specifically focused on making us think of growing the problem/tension in a story.

It’s Your Turn:
u Examine the plot in one of your manuscripts. How is it holding up? What plot elements are strongest in the piece? Where are the weak spots? How can you correct the problems you see?
v Use one of the graphic organizers to plan a story you’ve been thinking about.


Joanna said...

Thanks Rob. Needed this reminder today and have just added in more escalation and tension to the plot of my present MS!

Rob Sanders said...

Glad the post was of help, Joanna! So glad you're following along!

Lauri Meyers said...

Great post! Plot is my struggle. I have too many manuscripts were things happen - but things don't HAPPEN.