Good morning! Kim Oldenburgh, you won the drawing for Caroline Rose Starr’s book, MAY B. Please email me (kmessner at kate messner dot com) with your mailing address so she can send your book.
Today’s Mini-Lesson Monday features guest author Cynthia Lord, who is not only a Newbery Honor author (for RULES) but also a super-nice person and brilliant teacher, too. I have learned so much about writing just from reading Cindy’s blog.
Her debut novel, Rules, was a New York Times Bestseller and has received numerous awards, including a Newbery Honor and six state kids’ choice awards. A former elementary and middle-school teacher, Cynthia even spent a year teaching in a tiny school on a Maine island, the setting for her second novel, Touch Blue. She is also the author of a picture book series, Hot Rod Hamster, illustrated by Derek Anderson. She lives with her family in Maine. www.cynthialord.com. Cindy’s joining us at Teachers Write today and Wednesday to talk about plotting.
When I do school visits, I always meet kids who love to write. They come up to me, gripping their notebooks full of fabulous ideas. They have done impressive work imagining the characters and their world, but they often struggle with the plot. How do you set up a story, keep it going with steadily increasing tension, and pay it off for the reader?
To talk about plot, we must also talk about character, because they’re like two strands of a rope twisting around each other, strengthening both. One informs the other. So to help students understand story development, let’s start with a classic plot that has a character with a want or a goal.
With students as young as first grade, I use this simple formula:
What does your character want?
What makes it hard for him?
What will he do trying to get what he wants and deal with that obstacle?
And finally, does he get what he wants?
The first two (want and obstacle) are set up very early in a book, because they set the path of the plot. Here’s the first page of Hot Rod Hamster. The illustrator, Derek Anderson, created this wonderful sign.
Before we’ve even read a word of text, this picture sets the plot in motion. We have everything we need for a story to begin: a character (Hamster), a want (to enter and win a race), and an obstacle (he’s tiny).
We also know something about the climax–because that’s where we’ll discover if the character got what he wanted. So if Hamster wants to enter and win a race at the beginning of the story, the climax will be at the race where we find out if he won.
The rest of the story is what comes between: how the character tries to get what he wants and deal with his obstacles to that big, deciding moment.
For young students, that’s enough to begin. But for older students and adult writers, let’s expand that W.O.W. to include motive. So the character truly wants two things (or more, but they fall into these two categories): concrete and abstract.
Concrete: a concrete want is what the character wants outside himself. Here are a few examples:
•To earn enough money for something.
•To make the football team.
•To have a friend.
•To reach New York City.
•To win a contest.
•To learn to swim.
•To find a lost pet.
•To save his home.
•To solve a mystery.
Usually this can be answered with a “yes” or “no” at the climax. Either the character achieved this or he didn’t. So it must be big enough and challenging enough to last for the entire book. The reader will measure progress against the concrete want. It also sets the path of the story, defines the climax, and controls the pacing. Without a strong concrete want, the book will feel slow. Editors (and kids) will say things like: “I’m not sure what this story’s about.”
When I’m working with students, I show a slide with photos of kids doing actions or obviously involved in something (playing soccer, wearing a prom dress, dancing with a group on a stage, hugging a dog, etc). I ask students to choose a photo and tell me what that character might want.
Then I ask students to come up with another want for the same character. Sometimes I’ll even ask them to imagine the opposite want for the character (What if this girl doesn’t want to go to the prom? What might she want then?) and how that changes things and adds immediate conflict. Our first ideas aren’t always our most interesting ones, and by making kids look for more than one possibility right from the start, it encourages a revision mindset, more open to change.
Now that we’ve thought about what a character wants, the next question is why?
Abstract: an abstract want is what the character wants inside himself. It’s the reason why. Here are a few examples:
•To find their place in their family.
•To understand where they fit into their culture.
•To be accepted and valued for themselves.
•To belong or fit in.
•To feel loved.
Your character will make progress on this in the story, but it’s moving along a continuum, more than a yes or no. The abstract want began before the book started, gives depth to the character, motivates his decisions, shows his flaws and strengths, and makes the reader care about the character winning. Without a strong abstract want, the story will lack character development. Editors will say things like, “I didn’t really connect with the character.”
A strong story has both wants. Your character will want something outside himself for a reason inside. Here’s a classic plot set-up:
My character wants (concrete want) because (abstract want), but (obstacle) stands in his way.
Not every novel follows this format, but most do, and it does produce a strong, satisfying setup.
Ready to practice? Jody Feldman’s random word generator was so much fun that I found one for YA characters. http://selfpublishingteam.com/chargen/ya/ You can set limits or be surprised! As an example, I let the program choose everything.
· Age: 12-13 (8th Grade)
· Book worm.
· Cruel, Brilliant, Lucky
· Unique Trait: Is famous.
· Hair Color: Black
· Eye Color: Brown
· Body Type: Skinny
Looking at this, I asked myself, “How might a middle-school bookworm be famous?” I brainstormed three scenarios:
#1 Ethan writes fan-fiction, and he’s famous in that world, though he writes under a pen name so no one at school knows who he is.
#2 Ethan’s famous because his dad is a rock star who wrote a hit song about him when he was a baby, and the world knows him that way. “Oh, you’re Baby Ethan?!”
#3 Ethan’s famous in a school sense: He’s captain of his school’s Battle of the Books team. Last year his team went all the way to second place at the state championship.
I would encourage you to brainstorm a few to encourage a revision mindset in yourself. Then pick your favorite and create a plot statement.
(Character) wants (concrete want) because (abstract want), but (conflict) stands in the way.
Here’s mine: Ethan wants to win the Battle of the Books State Championship, because he longs to feel valued at home and school, but some reluctant-reader teammates stand in his way.
Fleshing that out to a summary:
Ethan wants to win the Battle of Books State Championship, because his younger brother has won many sports awards and Ethan wants his own chance to shine. As an eighth grader, this is his final year to compete, and last year, his team lost to Maplewood Middle School. The Maplewood captain goes to the same church as Ethan, so he sees him every week. Ethan’s been daydreaming about winning this year, but at the first meeting, his team’s faculty advisor brings some kids with her who aren’t strong readers. “This will be a great opportunity for them!” she says. Ethan knows he’ll never win with those kids on his team.
That has everything a plot needs to begin: a character, a concrete want that we’ll measure progress on (the championship), an abstract want that makes us care (wanting to feel valued and special for his own talents), and an obstacle (challenging teammates) to create tension.
Assignment: Create a character. If you don’t connect with the first character you receive, try again. Or use a character you’ve already created–though it might be easier to practice first with someone you aren’t as invested in.
In the comments, post a quick description of your character and your favorite plot statement or summary. If you get stuck or want help brainstorming, post as far as you get, and I’ll ask questions that’ll help you finish it. I’m excited to meet your characters and read your ideas!
(And on Wednesday, I’ll give tips on: starting your story, increasing tension, and paying it off).