Teachers Write 8/8 More on Plotting (and Q & A Wednesday!)

Guest author Cynthia Lord is back today with Part 2 of her mini-lesson on plot!  Part 1 is here, in case you need to get caught up.

Plotting: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Beginnings. Now that you have imagined your characters and set up your plot, what is the ideal place to begin?  You can think of it as the day things change. But some stories have more than one moment of change. Which one gives your story the fastest start? 

 Let’s go back to our plot sentences from Monday. Here’s mine:

 Ethan wants to win the Battle of the Books State Championship, because he wants to feel valued at home and school, but a group of reluctant readers on his team stand in his way.

 In my story, when would that whole statement show up?  It would be at the first meeting when the teacher arrives with those reluctant readers in tow. That’s the moment when we have both wants and the obstacle together, setting the path of the story. If I can get that moment into the first chapter, that’s the fastest start.

But as a reader, we want to care about Ethan before those new kids walk through the door (so we don’t empathize with them, instead of Ethan), so I would back up from that moment a little to connect the reader with Ethan, and end the first chapter with those new kids arriving.   

Maybe I would begin with Ethan setting up the room with the new books for this year and excited for another chance to win.  As his team comes in, he talks about last year’s defeat and we see a glimpse of him feeling vulnerable about that loss and why it’s so important to him that they win this year.  So readers will care about Ethan and invest in his desire to win first. And then the teacher arrives with the new kids. That would produce a strong, fast start. 

Sometimes writers spend a few chapters setting up characters and settings, but that makes for a slower start, because we’re waiting for that concrete want and obstacle to tell us what the story is about. Find a way to tell us about the characters and their world as the story is moving forward.

Middles:  There is a Danish proverb:  Bad is never good until worse happens.  That quote is the key to middle plotting. 

The main part of your story will show your character trying to get what he wants and deal with his obstacles.  But the tension has to go UP in the story, not down.  So things can’t get better; they have to get more complicated.  One difficulty will compound another, and that increases tension. That’s what makes the pages fly by. 

In real life, it would be lovely if Ethan took those new kids under his wing and helped them to become better readers.  But our real-life goals are not our goals in fiction.  In real life, we don’t want conflict. We want everyone to be kind and forgiving and patient with each other. But in fiction, that makes for a boring story. 

So in my story, Ethan can’t decide to help the new kids and have that be successful. He could try that, but it has to backfire or fail, because if it succeeded, things would be improving for Ethan and tension would go down. As the writer, you can’t satisfy the main character (or the reader) in the middle.

Ethan will probably have to make some mistakes or bad choices. As a writer you have to create a balance where your character can make those mistakes without becoming unlikable to the reader. Maybe the new kids don’t like being on his team. So Ethan thinks he’ll do them a favor and show the teacher they can’t do it. He assigns them the hardest books first. Now, how can that create a new problem for Ethan?

Here are two hints that my editor gave me that have helped me tremendously with middle plotting: 

 In every chapter, something important should change for the main character, ideally through his own actions

 I often create a simple chapter chart for my books. Here’s one I made while I was working on my novel, Touch Blue.


It keeps track of which characters are present (or mentioned) in the chapter, the main threads of the story, and the last column asks “What changes for the main character?” and “Who causes that change?” 

Something should change for the main character in every chapter. If not, the chapter isn’t making progress on the plot, and that slows your pacing. 

 Then ask yourself, who causes the change?  If it’s not main character, is there a way that he can play a role in causing it to happen (even if he doesn’t mean to)?  If the main character isn’t causing the changes, the story is happening TO him, not because of him.  That makes for a weaker plot and a weaker main character.

 Here are a few ways main characters increase tension and make things more complicated for themselves.

 Lies or doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Agrees to keep a secret.

Refuses help.

Tries to protect someone else.

Trusts someone who shouldn’t be trusted.

Blames someone innocent.

Overhears something not meant for him.

Blurts out something to the wrong person.

Agrees to do something he can’t do.

Gets hurt or sick


These will often come from your character’s flaws.

 Every important secondary character has two jobs:  to show us another side of the main character and to increase tension

 If they don’t do both things, they really don’t need to be in the story or they should have a small role.  Again, it comes down to pacing. Having characters who take up space but don’t further the story in terms of character development and plot will deaden your pace.   

Make your characters earn their place.  How do we see a side of Ethan with his brother that’s different than the one he shows his friends? And how does his brother help create conflict and increase the tension?  In revision I look at every secondary character and ask those questions. 

 Ends:  At the end of the book, a reader wants to feel satisfied.  The reader is a partner in the book, not a passive observer.  So the ending needs to feel worth the time and the work the reader has invested.

 At the climax we find out if the character got what he wanted. Was his goal met? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes no. But if it’s no, there’s often a twist so the reader isn’t simply sad at the end. Maybe the character got something else?  Maybe he decided the cost wasn’t worth the price?

 Most main characters will change over the course of a novel and what they wanted at the start isn’t exactly what they want at the end.  Anything can work, as long as it feels earned to the reader. But the concrete want must be addressed at the climax, because that is what the reader is waiting for.  If you don’t address it “on-screen” in fully developed scenes, readers will feel cheated. Also, be sure there is more than one likely possibility at the climax so your story isn’t predictable.  

Most novels will leave some open-ended-ness with the abstract want. If you answer that too fully, it can feel pat or preachy.  So at the climax, the main character will act in a way he couldn’t have done in Chapter One, because he has made some progress. And after the climax, there’s often a scene or chapter where we witness him acting with that new understanding and growth. But he’s only taken a step; he’s not all the way there. 

In a novel, it’s the glimpse of the unwalked journey ahead that keeps the reader thinking about the book and the character.  If you wrap it all up and tie it with a huge bow, there’s nothing for the reader to keep thinking about. Satisfy the reader with the concrete want and leave some openness with the abstract want, and that will give us an ending and a story to remember.


Many thanks to Cynthia for sharing this two-part post on plot!

It’s also Q and A Wednesday today, so Cynthia will be around to answer questions, along with additional guest authors Amy Guglielmo and Erin Dealey. They’ve promised to be around to respond to your questions today, so please visit their websites & check out their books!


35 Replies on “Teachers Write 8/8 More on Plotting (and Q & A Wednesday!)

  1. Cindy, thank you for not only telling us what to do, but HOW (with excellent specifics). Did you ever consider writing a book about writing for children?

  2. Thank you, Donna. One of the hard things about writing is there’s always so much more to learn–and I feel like I have a lot more to learn myself. I suspect I will always feel that way, no matter how many books I publish. But those small bits of advice about middles have really given me good things to focus on.

    Personally, I learn well with examples. So I always love when a teacher not only tells me what to do, but models it for me. My editors have often been hesitant to do that, because they don’t want to tell me what to do. But I know I will choose my own idea, and an example shows me what kind of change and how big a change to make.

    Is it nice to be home again from your big adventure of being the Author in Residence at the Thurber House?

    1. Cindy,

      Agreed! Examples are incredibly useful, and then we writers put our unique spin on them.

      I feel like I’m always learning and re-learning. Sometimes we’re not ready to really learn a particular thing . . . until we are.

      The Thurber House was a very unique experience. So glad to work with all those young writers and meet so many wonderful people. And it was lovely to return home to my family.

      All best,

    1. Hi Erin! Are there any questions you ask yourself as you’re working that you want to share? I always find it inspiring to know what other authors are thinking about and asking themselves as they work.

      1. Questions I ask myself as I work on this YA revision:
        1. How do people do this? : ) Seriously, life keeps intervening when I work on a novel. When I work on a picture book, it takes me 5 minutes and I’m back in the manuscript. YA–yeesh! Some of my friends keep chapters on index cards, and others just have amazing memories. (I think mine is crammed with faces of all of my decades of students, most of whose names I can remember even at the grocery store!) How do you do it, Cindy?

        2. What is your writing “schedule” like? Are you the kind who gets up at 4am (If so, I hate you. Or I would by 2pm if I tried that–haha.) or writes until the kids come home? Or goes to a coffee shop (I get distracted.) . Please spill. (Not the coffee…)

        I’m sure I’ll think of more. : )

  3. I know this has probably been brought up in the past, but I am curious about your writer’s notebooks. I am working to figure out what the requirements will be in my classroom and I want to get students started keeping notebooks. How do you structure your notebooks? Do you keep more than one at a time? How long are your entries or do you just scribble the beginnings of ideas? Any ideas I could get would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Andrea,
      I carry a small journal around with me and then I have another one at home that sometimes sneaks in my bag when I travel. I also have a spiral notebook that I take to conferences for notes that ends up having ideas and scribbles in it. I’ve been thinking about how I used journals and writers’ notebooks when I taught full time (high school and then middle school), and I bet I would have driven my teacher crazy if i were in my class–haha. As I evolved as a writer, I began grading writers’ notebooks more on participation points rather than content. If some kids “couldn’t think of anything to write” about a prompt, or during free write, I “let them” (haha–my sneaky way of putting new words in their mouths and pens..) copy poems out of selected anthologies I kept on hand. Everything from Haiku to Billy Collins and Maya Angelou. Sometimes—with permission–I let them write out the words to their current favorite song–“clean, legal, and appropriate” was always the rule! Eventually those kids found things to write about too. The participation points were given for writing during the allotted time and not disturbing those who were really into it.

      I also draw or doodle–even though I’m not an illustrator (yet…?) . It seems to unlock the other side of my brain. I just came home from an SCBWI (writers & illustrators) conference in LA where Tony Diterlizzi (Spiderwick Chronicles) said he never did a book report until his teacher let him sketch a moment in the book he’d read. Who knows? You might have an author/illustrator in your class…

      Hope this helps! Happy Back-to-school! (and no, that is not an oxymoron to me…)

    2. Andrea, that’s a great question, and one that I wrestled with when I taught middle and high school. I love Erin’s philosophy of the “participation,” because, when I used that, it seemed to free up the students to write what they wanted (and I used the same “caveats” Erin did). Keeping “word bank lists” also seemed to be a good method — lists of verbs, phrases, ideas, and then the “Green Book” idea, which I found in the English Journal, and which I mentioned in the first week of this wonderful Teachers Write, really operated as an incredible validation for “gems” of writing in notebooks. Giving students the idea that even just one sentence could gleam and shine so much that it could be copied into a permanent “Green Book” in the classroom, for other students to read and admire in years to come, was a breakthrough in my classroom — thanks to the genius who wrote that tip in the English Journal. Kids seemed more excited, sometimes, to get a sentence or a paragraph starred for the Green Book than they were for the grade on the total piece. Have fun with your kids’ writer’s notebooks! Aloha!

  4. OK I have a question for all of you who are busy putting your rooms together, revising lesson plans, and taking that last vacation before Teacher Meetings begin. (Sorry…)

    Kate has been so amazing (and generous & inspirational) to set up this forum and gather us all together, I thought it might be cool for you to each write one thing you will take away from TeachersWrite! and use this year–for YOURSELF as well as your students.

    Tag–you’re it!

    1. The things that stick with me from being involved in the wonderful summer of TeachersWrite (at the present moment, I’m sure more will come to mind later, but these are what is on the tip of my brain!):

      You don’t have to write straight through on your story, you can leave parts, skip ahead and come back later.

      Write as fast as you can and get to the end before the critical voices come through. You can always go back and revise.

      You don’t have to constantly think about character when the plot starts to really happen. Hopefully, the characters have been introduced in the beginning so let the plot take over for a while.

      Write every day, even if it is only 15 minutes a day!

      Don’t spill everything out right at the beginning of a story. Let readers get to know the character before getting into the plot. Let them empathize with character first so they care.

      Have more than one story going. Sometimes when you write on one story and get stuck, you can go to the other(s). Something that you figure out in one story might help the other stories.

      Don’t use “suddenly”!!

      And…last but not least, writers are so generous! At least those that have taken part in TeachersWrite!!

      Ok, that’s my list for now. I am so thankful to be involved in this great writing camp. Thanks to all!

        1. Haha–no one is grading you, Diane. : )

          These are terrific! Post them on your wall–or near the coffee–or in the teacher’s room… (muahaha…)

          Happy writing and teaching!

    2. I am overwhelmed, but in a good way 🙂 This is the first school year that I am looking forward to going back and beginning my writing instruction. One thing I will take away from Teachers Write is the importance of modeling and sharing my writing with students. I have enjoyed reading examples of writing pieces from guest authors and participants and have learned a lot. I never shared my personal writing with my students (blogs) only the writing pieces I created for instruction. Being surrounded by writers was pressure for me to start writing more consistently! So what I will take away from this experience is the importance of fostering and encouraging a writing community. Thank you Kate and all of the guest authors 🙂 I am really excited about developing my writing and my students writing this upcoming year!

      1. Excellent! Writing alongside them is a real eye-opener for them and you. Very humbling as well , I might add. Your students will appreciate you struggling and succeeding with them!
        Have a wonderful year,

  5. Erin-
    Awe. I will take awe with me as I begin this school year. Awe for the generosity of authors who have mentored, coached, and cheered us on during camp. Awe for the amazing diversity, creativity, and bravery of all writers who shared and participated. Awe for my good fortune of stumbling into this word nerd camp and awe for the gracious welcome I received on each visit. I will use awe to inspire my writing and my students’ writings. What a tremendous gift! Thank you for asking.

    1. Fabulous Mary!
      Make sure you tell your kids we all have days that are AWful and others that are AWEsome. As the awe-inspiring author Gary Schmidt told us at SCBWI recently, (besides “Yesterday’s work always stinks.” haha ) : “Love the world…Love words…Love what words can do…”
      Have a great year!

  6. Wow, what great action here! I am home from a long day of giving a writing workshop three times. Thanks to this wonderful Teachers Write Camp, I was fully prepared to inspire other teachers. I feel I have gained courage! Courage to put my words on a page. Courage to pay attention to other writers without criticizing my own. Courage to read aloud at the “Pool Party.” Courage to keep up the hard work of being a writer.
    Thanks, Cynthia, for this wonderful mini-lesson which feels like anything but mini. It is huge. But I am encouraged to continue writing and possibly start something new from my YA character generator. Who knows? The possibilities are endless!

  7. Your lessons on developing plot are awesome! I have the hardest time getting my fourth graders to understand plot, of course I didn’t explain it anyway close to how you do! lol Thanks to your lessons I can walk stuudents through it more clearly. I’m also excited to practice it in my own writing. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Von! I’m so delighted that you found them helpful! In my experience, fourth graders do really well with the W.O.W formula. They always have such enthusiasm and great ideas and they get really excited to have a plan to help them put those great ideas to use.

  8. This 2-part mini lesson was so helpful to me. I wasn’t able to see the chapter chart very well, though. Cynthia, do you have a link to this chart that you’d be willing to share? I tried zooming in to see it better, but lost resolution so the words weren’t clear. I also love seeing examples from other writers, and ideas like your chapter chart are wonderful to help me find my own way. Also, I liked the advice on secondary characters and how they push the main character forward through his/her conflicts. After reading that, I immediately thought of two secondary characters that would be interesting for the plot I generated in part 1 of your mini-lesson. I can imagine two friends of Eli’s, one a basketball teammate who doesn’t know that Eli hates basketball, and one a pottery classmate chosen to go on the trip to Florence who can’t understand why Eli says he doesn’t want to go. She would provide romantic possibilities as well as potential healing from the death of Eli’s middle school girlfriend (the coach’s daughter). I haven’t written YA before, but now I can see the possibilities with the help of your plotting mini lesson….many thanks! And thanks to Kate and all the guest authors; this writing camp has been a huge commitment of your time and will continue to provide an invaluable resource that I will keep referring to again and again. As many people have already said, I am bowled over by how giving writers are about sharing their techniques to help each other become better writers.

    1. Hi Melanie, that sounds wonderful! I like where you’re going with this! Adding a girl into the art side of the story, gives such possibilities for her to draw out (no pun intended!) Eli and make him face some things he’d probably rather not think about. And she would bring up a lot of guilt for him, I would think. And art is such a wonderful medium to deal with strong emotions. So she would definitely show us another side of him and add conflict. Well done!

      I enlarged my chapter chart on my blog for you: http://cynthialord.livejournal.com/796859.html For each book, it looks a little different depending on where I am in the process of revising.

      For my new one book that I’m working on now, I have a chart that asks me to list the characters (so I can see if it’s been too long since we saw a particular character), the day the chapter takes place, one column for each important thread in the story, where the chapter takes place, and what changes for the main character. I also have a column for my new book that asks who causes the change, and that’s really good to include.

      I use lots of different tools to keep track of things, including calendars and I think I have kept the Post-It company in business 🙂

      1. Thanks for enlarging the chapter chart – what a great planning tool. I just checked out Touch Blue and can’t wait to read it. But first, must do some writing… 🙂

  9. Cynthia, you have given me just what I need for making each chapter. shine. Thank you. This advice – especially what needs to happen to the main character – will serve me well! BTW, RULES is one of the BEST. BOOKS. EVER.

  10. I have been a major lurker this summer, but I so appreciate all of the great tips, mini-lessons, quick-write ideas, and writing that has been shared this summer. My big take away is that I must write (duh!) and although most of my writing this summer has been for tow courses I have been taking, I have also started a reflective blog. Quite a move for me. I have also started my first ever writer’s notebook and I notice I am more aware of characters and stories around me. Thanks to all of you, but especially Kate!

  11. I’ve seen posts or taken workshops on plotting before, but I really enjoyed how you laid beginning, middle and end so clearly. Will certainly will apply them to my WIPs. Like those plot sentences for starters. Very useful. Thanks.