Plot: n. the plan of a novel, play, etc.
“The main plot line is simple: Getting your character to the foot of the tree, getting him up the tree, and then figuring out how to get him down again.” –Jane Yolen
“Someone the reader likes overcomes increasingly difficult obstacles to reach an important goal.” — Unknown
“Somebody wants something, and it’s hard for them to get it.” –Todd Strasser
Especially for myths, legends, folktales and fantasy:
“The hero ventures forth from the ordinary world into a realm of wonders. There he is met by a supernatural guide who aids him as he confronts and defeats fabulous forces and returns a victor, able to bestow boons on his fellows.” — Joseph Campbell
Plots arise from the actions of characters. Susan Fletcher, author of
Dragon’s Milk and other children’s novels, says she usually starts with an existing situation that a character doesn’t like, then has the character set about changing that situation. Marion Dane Bauer, What’s Your Story?, pp. 38-62, outlines two basic plot types:
In “Type A,” scenes are presented in which:
a character is introduced who wants something;
obstacles come between the character and his or her goal, and he or she struggles to overcome them;
a climax is reached, and during this most important struggle with an obstacle, we see that the character will or will not reach the goal;
the effects of the climax are shown and the story ends.
(The movie E.T. is a good example of this a Type A plot.)
In “Type B,” scenes are presented in which:
a character is introduced who is out of step in some way;
forces enter the character’s life and attempt to change him or her, and the character struggles against them;
a climax is reached, in which we see that either the character will have to change or the forces will have to give up;
the effects of the struggle are shown and the story ends.
(Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol exemplifies a character in a Type B plot.)
In a third type of plot, which we can name “Type C,” scenes are presented in which:
a character is introduced who is faced with a difficult decision (often a moral decision);
the character struggles over the decision, experiencing a tug-of-war of feelings;
a climax is reached, in which the character makes the difficult decision;
the effects of the decision are shown and the story ends.
NOTE: It’s important that the main character’s problem, want or need be something worth fighting for. It must also be the sort of thing THIS character might logically need and want to fight for. (Example: a boy wants a dog because he is a lonely orphan being raised by a cold strict aunt, as opposed to a girl wanting a fancy poodle because she thinks they’re “cute.”)
Bauer notes that in many folktales, the main character often makes three attempts to solve his or her problem. (Indeed, Goldilocks checks out three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds. Threes upon threes!) While learning to plot a story, it may help children to think in terms of three attempts to solve a problem. The first two attempts will fail. The third attempt will finally succeed. (We all know the third time’s the charm!) For an example of a how the “magic of three” can work to create a story line see below.
(Warning: Use these plot types loosely. Trying to hold too tightly to any formula can end up making your writing mechanical and self-conscious.)
THE MAGIC OF THREE
A female chimp falls in love with an alligator. The problem is that the alligator isn’t in love with the chimp. Perhaps he doesn’t know she exists.
1. So first the chimp sneaks up and leaves a bouquet of flowers. The alligator, not knowing what flowers are for, eats them.
2. Next she decides that the poor alligator is hungry. So she brings bananas. The alligator tromps them into the mud.
3. Finally, she presents herself, declaring her love. And the alligator, seeing her at last, falls in love, too.
3. The chimp declares her love, and the alligator tries to eat her. So the chimp changes her mind. She goes to visit another chimp instead (probably one who had been courting her in the beginning of the story), carrying both flowers and bananas.
Source: What’s Your Story?
by Marion Dane Bauer
THE STORY PROBLEM
If a character has no problem to solve there is no point in writing about him or her. Your main character must want something that he/she can not easily get.
Three types of problems:
PURPOSE PROBLEM – The character has a goal and knows what he or she wants (the lead in the play, a bicycle, ballet lessons). The character must be willing to fight for it with tremendous drive and force.
SITUATION PROBLEM – The main character wants to change an existing situation, or a situation brought about at the beginning of the story. The change will take a great deal of struggle and effort. The situation might be caused by a move to a new school, a parent’s death, a serious accident, etc.)
DECISION PROBLEM – The main character must decide which way to go, often a moral decision is involved (decision to tell the truth, stand-up for something the character knows is right, etc.) The character should experience a tug-of-war in his/her feelings so that the decision is very hard to make, and is made, in the end, only because of the strengths with which you have endowed your hero or heroine. Your main character’s problem, want, or need must be something worth fighting for and must ALSO be the sort of thing THIS character might LOGICALLY need and want to fight for. (Example: A boy wants a dog because he is a lonely orphan being reared by a cold, strict aunt, as opposed to a girl wanting a fancy poodle because she thinks they’re “cute”.)
Some basic human motivators/needs: survival, love, power, achievement, the need to belong, security.
THEMES: the story’s lesson or message
State the theme in a way that suggests action – conflict. Basic story themes are not original – only the variations on the theme are. Collect themes from the stories you read.
Example: Jack and the Beanstalk theme: “Hard work and cleverness lead to success”
Here are some themes you can use in developing stories:
Understanding and helpfulness overcome suspicion and distrust and lead to friendship.
(Understanding and helpfulness suggest characters; suspicion and distrust suggests the problem; overcome, the conflict; lead to friendship, the resolution and happy ending.)
Honesty can triumph over dishonesty.
Through wit and courage, the small and weak can overcome the big and bad.
Determination and preparation can overcome fear (of swimming, spiders, speaking, etc.) and lead to success and/or personal satisfaction.
(This information is excerpted from Writing for Children & Teenagers by Lee Wyndham.)
Below is a pre-writing “form” I created so students can plot a story before they begin to write. It can also be used half-way through a story, or at the end of a first draft to help pinpoint weak points in a story’s plot. You may find it helpful to model the use of the plan by soliciting ideas from students for a group story before asking them to use the plan on their own.
1. Who is your main character? What one or two adjectives describe him/her best?
2. Who is/are your secondary character(s)? What adjectives describe him/them best.
3. Where does the story take place? (setting)
BEGINNING: What does your main character want? (Must be important. This sets up your story’s problem.)
MIDDLE: What does your character do to try to get what (s)he wants? (Try for at least two unsuccessful attempts that only make matters worse.)
ENDING: What does your character do to finally succeed ….or come to a decision to change his/her goal? (Try to end with hope.)
THEME: What does your main character learn by the end of your story? How does your main character grow and change?
From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams www.suzanne-williams.com