Sparked by Words

P is for Plotting a Story

The Kid in the second row had already proven adept at reading books, especially children’s classics like Heidi and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. When her teacher explained that students would be required to read books at home and write book reports, she didn’t worry at all. No groaning, no pouting, no kicking her legs out the bottom of her desk and pooching her lips over her chin like some of the other kids. Reading was her escape, her life on a kinder planet, and writing fell in as a natural side kick. What threw the Kid for a loop was the next requirement: every month, students would select a different category of book, and that first book in September was to be a mystery.

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See, the Kid identified every book as a mystery. She never saw the next pitfall until Heidi or Tom fell into it, she never knew the ending till she got to the last page and read the final words. She was a perfect reader, entranced by each moment and always surprised as if she’d unwrapped an extraordinary gift. Books were a mystery, each and every one of them. So what did Miss O’Rourke mean by the need to choose a mystery book? It would be many years before the Kid understood her teacher had tried to make the first month’s selection an easy one. Every kid in the class liked Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, the classic kids’ mystery books. All twenty-nine of the other kids got it right that first month, having chosen The Secret of the Old Clock or The Tower Treasure. The Kid chose Black Beauty, a touching story about a horse but not a mystery. Several months of the wrong kinds of books chosen for whatever the category, and Miss O’Rourke finally coaxed the Kid by offering a list of appropriate suggestions. Reading had never been the problem – figuring out what comprised a certain kind of book had.

The Kid liked to write stories almost as much as reading them. Her confusion over genre choices took a bite out of her original work in similar fashion. Being told her entire young life not to talk, she’d become phenomenally gifted at silent observation. It translated into mastery at describing people and things. She wrote floridly about New Jersey’s yellow sky, and the prickly blueberry brambles along a lake in the Catskills. She captured the syrupy, exploding bite of a soda pop, and the silky touch of a bunny’s fur. Problem was, her writing resembled the character descriptions in a book report – no action followed. What happened while she sipped her cola and petted the bunny? Well, the Kid didn’t know either. She hadn’t yet figured out a plot for any of her childish stories. Uncertain about genre, unfamiliar with plot construction, her early stories ended before anything happened.

Years of writing and reading and classes, the Kid finally started writing about escapades that happened to the characters into her stories. They caught nasty people who stole what wasn’t theirs, got lost on the way to the beach, participated in canoe races, and struggled to find ways to overcome all obstacles. Nothing exciting, but the loose idea of story arc had taken hold, and the Kid infused her later writing with plots. She wrote her Tammy or Benjamin into a problem situation, usually weak and unimaginative, and then wrote them out of it, usually too conveniently and quickly to be exciting.

How did she figure it out? She continued to read, but finally with a critical eye toward what went on in published stories. The orphan Heidi, kidnapped from her beloved grandfather’s home in the mountains and sent to the city where she serves as a companion to a girl in a wheelchair, longs to return to the Alps until she’s ill with yearning, and eventually goes home. Tom, also an orphan, raised by his aunt, and mischievous as an untrained puppy, tries to live as independently as possible and gets himself into a variety of scrapes and scares before recommending that his good friend Huckleberry Finn, about as independent as a kid can be, allow himself to be adopted. There are lessons here about family and community, fairness and justice, and the Kid decided that a moral lesson wasn’t a bad interjection to a good story. Stories had beginnings, endings, problems in between, a sense of right and wrong, and the logic to connect everything before The End planted its finality on the last page.

The Kid became an adult and wrote three novels, (not yet published) struggled with character development, story arc, moral conundrums, and tantalizing conclusions. She continues to read, now with attention to how professional writers master the individual parts of story. If you would like a few of her adult recommendations, try these, all of which exhibit enticing and complex plots with surprise endings: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins; Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield; and her all time favorite, To Kill A Mockingbird by the late Harper Lee. She’s loved these so much that she’s read each at least twice.

Miss O’Rourke wanted to nurture avid readers out of her class of thirty young students. For one student at least, she also helped birth a writer. So the Kid grew up and she still thinks every book is a mystery, just maybe not the traditional there’s-a-dead-body-in-the-hallway-and-I-have-no-idea-who-killed-him variety. She has absolutely no idea how to write that kind of story. But she loves to write tales in other genres, with clever plots.

 

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Comments on: "P is for Plotting a Story" (25)

  1. Well said. How often does that happen–that someone redefines a subject in their image–but without the happy ending?

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    • Thank you, Jacqui, though I was truly confused for many years and wasn’t trying to redefine anything. I think I always had a different way of looking at things, but maybe that’s less different than might be expected. School has a way of gathering marbles rolling all over the place into one chute.

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  2. You’re correct and I hadn’t really stopped to think about the truth behind each book ultimately being a mystery. And to think I have been a professed “non mystery reader” for years. This young lady reminds me of myself. Charming prose, Shari. I enjoy reading your words.

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  3. Such a lovely chronicling of the birth and growth of a writer. Loved it.

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  4. Isn’t it amazing how some teachers leave a mark on us. Teaching a child to love reading is probably the greatest gift anyone can give. It opens the mind to the universe.

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    • You are absolutely right, Andrew. Reading leads to exploring beyond our boundaries and imagining possibilities in exotic endeavors. It’s said that the most effective way of helping a child to be successful is to read to them and then encourage them to read to themselves. The teacher I’ve written about (Miss O’Rourke was not her real name but was a real teacher) always believed in me and encouraged me to be my best. This was at a time that I lacked confidence so much it was painful. I wish our culture supported teachers as they should be. We should value them more than athletes and entertainers.

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  5. I read a great deal as I child, too–I think that’s something many authors have in common. I LOVED Black Beauty (and animal stories generally), and I agree that all stories have an element of mystery. I’ve considered trying to write a cozy one, just to hone my skills in this area.

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    • That would be fun, Cathleen. I just beta-read a cozy for a member of our critique group (she’s reading one of my stories) and found it so much more engaging than the blood, guts, gore, and violence of the typical murder mystery. I can’t write a murder mystery at all, have no idea how to be that clever and suspenseful, so a tip of my hat to those who do.

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  6. Great post Shari. Made me stop and think. Perhaps all of human-life is a murder mystery and God is the author. We never know what will kill us . . . even when it’s by our own hand.

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    • Thanks, Judy. You gave me something to think about. Now we’re way beyond taking about books, we’re into Life 101. But that’s where great books take us.
      God is ineffable. We are not supposed to know.

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  7. I love the optimistic naivete of the Kid – every book is a mystery. Makes reading so much more enjoyable, pity we have to lose that!

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    • Thank you, Beautiful, for saying that. All kids start out naive, or perhaps open to the world in the most accepting way. I took a bit longer than most to get my skeptic on. (Some think I’m still back there.) Kids live in a fantasy world unable to recognize reality from what they imagine, partly because their experiences are (usually) so few. Taking it away too early can cause a lot of damage. It’s why kids believe in Santa Claus and magic far past the age when we figure they should know The Truth. Many artists and inventors of all stripes and preferences try to get back to that innocence. That’s a good thing, but I’d love to preserve a child’s original innocence longer. I should get off my bandwagon about now. Thank you for reading my article.

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