Plots are my nemesis. I’m better known for my books’ strong, likable characters. But wait! The truth is that a good plot often develops from good characters. When you know your character well, you will discover your character’s passions, problems, and every day adventures. Follow your character. Exaggerate those passions, problems and adventures, and there you have it...plotting. (Below you see Scaredy Squirrel, whose main issue is worrying, and Olivia, whose passion is activity and problem is too much energy.)
Of course, plotting is more complicated than that, especially when writing a novel, which can take years. But at its base, a story...and a plot...can be as simple as a Facebook post.
If you go to my personal Facebook page (I invite you to become my friend.), you’ll see a post about my desire to climb a tree:
“There's a tree I've been wanting to climb at the public boat launch - it reaches right over the water. I wasn't sure there was enough steady ground to reach the limb and my husband would never let me try. But today he left for Washington D.C...ha, ha, ha. So on my bicycle ride, I turned in. No one around. I scrambled up the tree with little trouble, but on the way down my feet wouldn't quite reach the ground. So I trusted; never had my footing and slipped into a bed of vines. I pulled myself up unharmed only to see someone walking nonchalantly toward the boat launch. I suspect he'd seen the whole thing. ‘How are you?’ he asked. ‘Well, I'm fine, except I just fell out of a tree.’ In that calm Southern manner, he replied, ‘It's always nice to connect with nature.’”
I posted it as a funny event in my day, but the comments show that others considered it a short story in itself or fodder for a picture book. So, I returned to the post for further study. Yes, there’s a character. Me. There’s also an object of desire: the tree. The character goes after her desire and in doing so, things become a bit dangerous. She’s in trouble. She falls flat. But she picks herself up just as a secondary character provides the resolution that ties the story together, with an ending that’s a twist and also makes you think.
We have a character and we have a desire, which leads to the problem of how to get up and down that tree! Plot.
My upcoming Lost. Found. (November 2015 from Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t have a classic plot line. Other popular picture books, like The Quiet Book, don’t either. But almost all stories have an arc, like the rising of your chest as you take in a deep breath of air, then a slow exhaling as the story comes to a satisfying close. I think Lost. Found is somewhere in the middle, between a simple arc and a hair-raising plot.
Bear is the main character, but after he loses his new red scarf, he disappears for much of the story. The plot unfolds with a variety of characters fighting over the scarf, losing and finding it. Bear returns as “The Resolver” after the scarf has been torn apart by the characters fighting over it. Bear settles the problem in a patient, unselfish way, by leading, not coercing. The other characters then see the possibilities in making something whole again, in working and having fun together, and in coming together as a community.
That’s a fairly deep theme for a story made up of only two words, repeated over and over, making a total of only 18 words. But there’s more.
On another level, we can view Red Scarf as the main character. Out with his friend Bear on a wintry day, Red Scarf becomes lost, buffeted and bruised by the vagaries of life. In the mayhem that follows, he comes apart. In the spiritual realm, many teachers believe you must come apart to find your true self and in a way, when Red Scarf comes apart, he finds himself again as a friend who now binds others together in a new way.
Will most people see all these points as they read the book? Probably not. Even I didn’t see them as I wrote the story. But when you open yourself to a story and it comes to you as a gift, which is what Lost. Found. did, you simply write it down, then sculpt it until it feels “true” and fit to be sent out.
Story gifts from the universe are few and far between though. What do you do when you have a character but no problem, no plot? I have a few characters in my story basket now who are wandering about with no problem. Not a good thing for a book character.
In order to plot your story, you must ask your most important story questions. What is my story really about? What is the core of my story? If you’re not sure what your story is about, you must find out by asking questions about your story, about your character, and about yourself.
Join me next month to delve deeper into plot and the three-act structure most stories are based on, plus fun activities.
Marsha's currently working on the plot of a new phase of life and building a new home in Florida. Passion, problems, plot! An award-winning picture book author, Marsha's Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books course has helped published and aspiring writers to write stronger characters.Check it out here: http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/writing-character-driven-stories.html
8/17/2015 03:40:11 am
I think you should write an adult novel about the move. I think everything is there. I think it's like a coming of age story for older people. Once we have to face a new phase of our life sometimes we are adrift. I like the idea, I just might try my on version. But your version is so much more dramatic! And the tree story: It is perfect!
9/4/2015 06:07:38 am
Suzanne, I appreciate your thinking I'm capable of an adult novel, but I've already decided that I am only capable of up to a middle grade. Ha. At least I hope I am. I have started several, but the one in my mind now, I am determined to finish.
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