Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Basics of Plotting

One of the first questions a writer usually has is "How do I come up with a plot?" I would read stories, think that I could create something like that, and end up totally stumped about how to start.

Just what is a plot, anyway?

There are a lot of different answers to that question, depending on who you ask. I think every writer eventually comes up with his or her own definition of the term based on the kind of stories they write. For example, a novelist is going to have a different way of viewing plot than a picture book writer if for no other reason than novels are longer and more complex than picture books. That's part of the reason that discussions of "plot" seem so confusing. Everybody starts from a different place.

So bear in mind that what I'm going to say about plot in this post is based on the kind of stories I write -- action-adventure tales that are slightly longer than most easy readers.

It's an old truism that all stories have three parts -- a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think that's a good place to start simply because we can all agree on that. But -- pardon the pun -- if that were the whole story, the writing life would be a simple one.

Here's something else that's pretty common. Most of us can come up with a beginning or an end. It's the middle where we get bogged down. So I think the real question is "how do I decide what happens in the middle?"

When I started looking for an answer to that question I decided to look at short stories instead of novels. Since my books are shorter than most short stories, I figured I'd find more help there. I looked at flash fiction as well. Although most flash fiction focuses more on creating a mood than a plot, I found some useful stuff there too -- after all, flash fiction is about the length of most picture book and short easy reader texts. Mary Robinette Kowal's flash story Evil Robot Monkey (an adult flash story, not a kid's story) is a great example of just how much plot you can include in a short text.

I finally found my key to plotting in Ben Nyberg's book One Great Way to Write Short Stories (Writer's Digest Books 1988). Nyberg gave a simple explanation of short story plotting that fit right into the "beginning, middle, end" idea. Here's the diagram, followed by an explanation.

A normal day in the life of your character would start at point a (the beginning of the story) and finish at point b (the end of the story). It's a typical boring day. But stories shouldn't be boring. They should focus on an unusual day.

So somewhere in the middle of the day your character needs to make a decision. He makes decisions everyday, decisions that let the day proceed normally (and boringly) from a to b. But not today. Today he's faced with a decision at point c and he says, "I've had enough!" And instead of making the decision that would send him to his normal destination at b, he makes a decision that sends him to an entirely new end-of-day at point d. The story is about how decision c changed his day.

The middle in one of my plots is a decision. (The decision may come earlier or later during the story; the story determines the exact point.) The start of the day puts my character in a situation where he has to make a decision. There are a number of possible decisions he could make. Any decision that would result in "business as usual" gets thrown out of the story immediately. I pick a decision that will change his day from a normal one to an unusual one.

That decision may or may not be a big one. In a one-off story, the decision might completely change him. In a story that's part of a series, the decision will probably change his situation rather than him. (Readers like their series characters to be basically the same person from story to story.)

A couple of examples might help.
  • In Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, Harry's supposed to take a bath (a normal day). Instead, Harry decides he doesn't want a bath today so he runs away (unusual day). The story tells about what happens to Harry because of the decision he made.
  • In Evil Robot Monkey you can view the story as two decisions. Sly's decision not to put up with the kids today changes the course of his day. But you could also look at it as a story of Vern's decision. The way Vern chooses to deal with Sly's behavior has all sorts of consequences for both he and Sly. (Being an adult flash story, we only get hints of what might have happened at d.) This is a very sophisticated example, of course. The story is told from Sly's viewpoint but I think Vern's decision is more interesting -- an interesting choice by the author. Such a choice might be too advanced for an easy reader!
Hopefully this gives you some idea of how to plot a story. There are other ways to do it, but a decision-oriented approach works well for action-adventure stories.

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