Writing Mini-Lessons: Plotting with Tools, Part 2


“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life,
working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike
against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”

~ Leigh Brackett

As readers and writers, you have an understanding of the basic structure of most fictional narratives.  Usually the main character has wants or needs, and something gets in the way of the character attaining these, so the character encounters trouble—a problem, a dilemma.  Then after encountering the problem, the character has to deal with that dilemma in some way, thus giving movement to the story.  Generally, the problem intensifies—or comes to a climax—before getting resolved, with the character experiencing multiple challenges along the way, or the problem is resolved in a different way than was anticipated by the character.  The story has an arc; it doesn’t just plod from one equally-weighted event to another in a flat, stagnant way, but rather, each scene builds on the one before it.

Today, we will read Rachel Vail’s fictional narrative, “Thirteen and a Half.”  Let’s think about how the events of the story fit together, and what the story’s shape is.  If we were to record the main events of the story as an arc, it might look like this:

thirteen and a half story arc2

When Rachel Vail wrote this story, she probably knew that it would be about two children having a disastrous play date, but when she began writing the story, she may not have known exactly what would happen on every page, and she probably imagined multiple directions the piece might take, plotting and planning until the story’s truth emerged.

In your writing today, you will work in partners to experiment with story arcs and other plotting tools.  You may use any of the plotting tools/graphic organizers you’ve been given, or better yet, create your own.

To demonstrate the myriad possibilities every kernel of a story holds, every partnership will work to create at least two different plotlines for the first scene of the Esmerelda story we discussed earlier in our fictional narrative study.  What we know about Esmerelda is that she desperately wants to fit in with the popular kids, her friend Tillie isn’t liked or respected by those kids, and Esmerelda isn’t sure just how far she will go to be a part of the cool crew.

Work together to build multiple plotlines, imagining the different directions the story could take.  Use a story arc if it helps you remember the shape a plot should take, but if a list, a timeline, a storyboard, or something else works more effectively, use that.  By the end of today’s session, please have two distinct plots planned, utilizing an apparent plotting tool, aiming to intensify the story’s main problem.

Remember, the shape of a story, where it starts and where it ends, says a lot about what matters to the author.  If the story is about the importance of fitting in—or how much it really doesn’t matter as long as you’re true to yourself—then it makes sense to have the beginning of the story with the character grappling with fitting in, and the last scene showing some sort of reference, perhaps even a scene explicitly illustrating how the character now feels about fitting in.  If the story is in part about growing up, learning to fly, it might begin and end with scenes that include that.

While you are plotting your stories and revising your plots, stop and ask yourself:  What is this piece really about?  What is the truth in what I am trying to say in this fictional piece?  How can the shape of my story—where it stops, where it ends, maybe even the peak of the arc—showcase the truth of what I am saying?