Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘plot’

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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E is for Enter the Plot

I instructed a first grade art class to draw the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, hoping to encourage lots of action pictures from the kids. Nearly every child began to draw portraits of the bears and their uninvited house guest. Getting the kids to understand that they were missing the action of the story took a lot of explanation and examples. Their picture books  missed the plot.

It just isn’t a story if nothing happens. As writers, we face the same dilemma. Describe everything you like. Hell, describe everything you hate. Use all those big words from the SAT list and all the interesting ones from A.Word.A.Day (thank you, Anu Garg – you are brilliant) to show all manner of items in your imaginary world. Be poetic, outlandish, edgy, surprising, harsh, dramatic, even melodramatic in those descriptions. But they aren’t enough. Something has to happen if it’s going to be a story. You have to paint more than portraits of your bears.

Story is plot, an ongoing sequence of events, whether a thrilling adventure or a series of subtle twists that impacts the main character. You have to make something happen and it’s better if lots of stuff happens. Sounds like writing practice for six-year-olds yet I’ve read any number of adult-writen WIP that tell excellent descriptions of all kinds of things but still have no plot. Nothing is happening. No one wants anything. Threats are absent. No one needs rescue. Nobody takes risks, goes anyplace dangerous, does something stupid, sets off a chain of perilous events, internally transforms because of life incidents. The bad guy makes a visual appearance, another description, but doesn’t interact with the main character. There are no stakes that anyone must overcome in order to stay alive.

Someone asks, “What’s your plot?” I reply, “It’s the story of Slick’s life.” I produce Slick’s diary, my own in slim disguise, because I’m certain all the things I’ve lived through are interesting enough to write a story about. I’m talking an adult here, a grownup proficient with a computer, journaling every morning, writing on a daily basis but not creating story. “First Slick (the disguised me) went here, and then he went there.” However busy I may be getting here and there, my daily activities do not comprise a story. There is no plot to my life as I function day to day. No plot, no story, no matter how invested I may be in my life.

Think of it this way: Slick, our protagonist, is an endearing character who wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship but is frankly too darned lazy to attain any skill. He dreams winning but does nothing to get to the podium. Sounds just like me. I have big dreams and the only thing getting in the way of achieving them is that I don’t go after my dreams in any active way. The story of my life, of Slick’s life, is not a story that anyone wants to read. It’s life minus plot.

To amp up our story we now we have Slick practicing sidewalk sliding on a regular basis, improving his skill at each workout.  What seemed like a long shot now appears to be a possible winning outcome. Along comes Knuckle, our antagonist, also yearning to win the sidewalk sliding trophy, and Knuckle is of course, bigger and faster. Aha, a competition. Still not a plot, but getting closer.

Knuckle concocts a method of breaking the sidewalk sections, creating an unslidable surface. Slick crashes and ends up with one short leg. Finally, enter the plot. We leave the boring realm of ordinary diary life and approach that of a fantastical, adventurous story, one that everyone in the world wants to read about. Slick, our potential hero, the nice kid with one short leg, wants to win the State Sidewalk Sliding Championship as does Knuckle, a born athlete but also a cheater.

Slick misses the bus to the competition because Knuckle got on first, (remember, Slick has a short leg) took the last seat, and locked the door. As Slick rushes to hitch a ride on the bus bumper, Knuckle tosses jelly beans out the window, making Slick fall on his personal bumper. Slick could eat the jelly beans and solve that problem but he’s deathly allergic to them. One bite of one bean and his legs, his all important and clever but uneven legs, his essential element of competition, will swell to watermelon size and become too mushy for him to stand, even lopsidedly, forget sliding. At every turn, Slick is halted in his objective as Knuckle’s subterfuges become increasingly more dangerous and difficult to overcome.

The story is no longer about me, because I don’t have Slick’s problems or nemesis, but it has become a story because there is now a plot. Problems must be resolved in a limited amount of time (the competition is tomorrow) with lots of crises thrown in front of Slick, making it unlikely he’ll succeed in bringing home the trophy. Until he finally does, against all odds and by his own clever prowess. Slick outwits Knuckle, competes fairly and wins, still with one leg too short, finally dumping Knuckle into the trash bin where old sidewalk sections go when they are too crumpled to slide on. The story no longer has any resemblance to my boring diary but no one wanted to read that anyway.

Plot, progressive actions, is only one part of story but it’s a critical part. It may evolve from a page of your diary, a chapter of history, or your crazy dreams, but it has to be an ongoing construction that forces your main character into confronting risk and taking action. Now let’s draw Papa Bear as he enters his house and slips on the rungs of his broken chair, strewn about the floor. Aha, the plot thickens.