Here’s something to always keep in mind, no matter if you’re writing picture books or full-blown novels: each plot point in your novel should change the course of events in a permanent way. If you have a lot of plot points where the effect isn’t crystal clear, no decision is made, no characters change, and the trajectory of your story seems to bob along rather than follow a very direct line, your plot points are not absolute enough. In plots like this, your characters could likely revert to exactly who they were at the beginning of the book if they wanted to. That’s a problematic novel, to me. Anchor the forward momentum of your story along plot turning points that divide your tale into a clear “before” and “after” with no going back. This will also help you work on the all-important elements of stakes and tension.
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This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.
I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.
Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:
And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.
Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.
One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.
I’ve been seeing a lot of picture book manuscripts that are what I’ll call Flight of Imagination. A kid is either dreaming or out playing and the plot of the book deals with them having an adventure based largely in their imagination. An example would be something like:
Johnny headed out into his backyard…
…only it turned into a swamp full of menacing alligators!
And this continues for the duration of the manuscript, until Johnny is safe and snug at last, back in the real world.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this type of story. In fact, my brilliant client Bethanie Murguia makes great use of a child’s active imagination in her upcoming picture book ZOE GETS READY, out from Scholastic in a few weeks. But one child’s imagination and the fruits of it can’t be the entire picture book. Imagination is a sales hook and a universal element for picture books, but it shouldn’t be the only one.
Most of the stories I see have great whimsy–Johnny’s backyard may turn first into a swamp, then into an ancient Egyptian tomb, then into a spaceship–but that’s almost a problem. They tend to be too specific. One kid’s imagination played out. A character who, other than his big imagination, is not well-defined. And they tend to invite clichés in terms of illustration because you’re practically forcing your art talent to illustrate the imagined scenes as if they were illustrating the contents of thought bubbles, which is a tired old trope.
This is basically how I like to explain my problem with these stories: Other people’s dreams are not interesting. Imagine your best friend calling you up one morning and telling you about this crazy, whimsical dream she had. It’s full of crazy adventures and really specific fantastical creatures and it is a thrill ride…for her. I find my own dreams interesting, but that’s because they’re specific to me. I am not nearly as captivated by a purely imaginative thrill ride through another person’s subconscious. If that’s all there is, then I’m less likely to be interested.
Now, it’s not like you can’t have a story that centers around a child’s journey through a land of imagination. We’d lose brilliant books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE if that were the case. But there need to be other layers in play, and an actual story within the imagined landscape, not just an episodic barrage of images or crazy adventures. Characters need to be fleshed out. A plot needs to be in motion, with sequential events that go from conflict to climax. Other themes and universal childhood experiences need to be embedded within the manuscript.
For this reason, Flight of Imagination picture books are a tougher row to hoe than most. Just like A Day in the Life picture books, that follow a kid from morning to bedtime and showcase the family, pets, and favorite toys. Neither has an inherent plot and, in this market, that’s a losing proposition. Look at your story objectively and see if it suffers from this colorful–but nonetheless problematic–issue.
ETA: Wendy’s comment, below, is particularly astute. And a lot more succinct than this blog post. Go read that instead!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good character obstacle lately. What kinds of things should your character butt up against in the pursuit of their objective? What kinds of things make for less-than-stellar hurdles to jump over? Well, if your reader is meant to be emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey to the climax of the story, they will need to struggle. A lot. They will need to pursue a very important goal and get shot down as often as possible. In fact, the only time they should really succeed is during the climactic action of the novel (or picture book, though obviously goals, obstacles, and attempts at achieving the objective are appropriately scaled down, and the failures aren’t as catastrophic).
Whether your obstacles are smaller frustrations or major roadblocks, some things just don’t work. One is the internal obstacle of “I can’t.” “Can’t” is a four-letter word in fiction, when uttered by both character and writer. When a character says “I can’t,” my first instinct is to ask, “Why not?” Sometimes it’s valid. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman, Meggy’s legs are maimed. When she says she can’t go up stairs, I believe her. Or if your worldbuilding dictates that characters can’t fly, it’s good that you’re keeping it consistent. But when a character flat-out refuses to do something, there must be a real reason behind it (like a fear of heights precluding them from climbing the Eiffel Tower that has been established in the book for a long time as crucially important), or the obstacle will feel flimsy. It’s one thing for a character to say they can’t. Writers often stop there. But if the reader is to understand their position, there should be real motivation there, or it’s a nonstarter.
On a side note, it really irks me on a logical level when writers say “can’t.” This often happens when I give them food for thought during a critique and they have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, that would take too much revision and I simply can’t.” Why not? You are making everything up. If the way you’ve made something up precludes you from trying something new, simply dream your way out of the old rules and come up with another framework. “Can’t” has no place in fiction. (I often hear it for what it most likely is: “Don’t wanna.”)
Another flimsy character obstacle is one that depends entirely on another character’s will. This is often a true non-starter. If your plot is riding on your character borrowing their big brother’s car, and they ask their brother, and the brother says, “No,” well…you’re SOL, aren’t you? You’re at an impasse. There should always be other avenues to reach the objective, other actions your character can play, etc. Plus, it’s frustrating to read a situation when the other character’s refusal seems arbitrary. Just like with “can’t,” if I feel like they could easily change their minds, then I’m not buying that it’s a real obstacle.
So just like your characters, objectives, and motivations, your obstacles should be more dynamic.
This is something that I’ve started saying at each conference I attend. For those of you who’ve heard it in person or during a critique, I apologize for being redundant. But listen to it anyway because it’s important:
I believe that all writing is a balance of action and information.
Imagine scales in your head. On one end is action: what keeps plot driving forward and teaches us about character as our fictional people advance through the present moments of the story. On the other end is information: what gives us context about the fictional world and also fleshes out the characters we’ve created with need-to-know tidbits that exist outside the present moment.
Both are necessary. Both need to be in balance so that a story can continue. The biggest place where this matters is in a novel’s beginning. Imagine you are trying to read a dystopian that’s in a completely other world–you open the book and it’s strange, you don’t know much about it. Worse, your main character has been whacked in the head before the start of the story and is just groggily waking up. She doesn’t remember who she is or where she is. When she does come to, she realizes she’s in an underground maze, being chased by…something. Whatever it is, it has sharp teeth, it reeks of death, and it’s after her. She doesn’t have anything to defend herself with, so she must start running.
We open immediately to action. It’s great. There’s danger, the stakes are high, her life hangs in the balance. But is this a compelling beginning for fiction? I’d argue that it isn’t, really. Because we have action, but that’s all we have. We don’t know anything about this world in which people get clubbed on the head and maze monsters seem to be just a regular part of life. We don’t know anything about this character because she’s recently suffered a head injury and doesn’t know enough to tell us herself. The stakes here are high, yes, but generic “life and death” versus specific. Since we don’t know the world or the character, we don’t know exactly what’s at risk (other than some random broad’s life) or why we should care. This beginning has too much action and not enough information so it fails to ground the reader and provide a foothold for us to access the story.
On the other end of the scale is information. It’s great to have because, once we know stuff (and, ideally, we pick it up through showing, not telling), we care. It’s not enough to know that there are millions of children starving in the world. Those charity commercials tug at our heartstrings because they show us one child, tell us one story, and they make the problem concrete enough and specific enough that we start to care. But you can go overboard on information, too. Let’s say I open another book. It’s a character who is sitting in their room the night before the first day of school, thinking about his crappy life. He has no friends, his parents are too strict (and definitely uncool) and his sister is a brat. He looks over at his closet, where he’s hidden his skateboard — it causes him even more pain that he hurt his knee over the summer and hasn’t been able to get to the skate park, further alienating himself. He looks around at his clothes, hoping they’re cool enough, and at the rock posters on the walls, grumbling that his favorite bands never come through to tour in his small, miserable town. He thinks for a while about how much he loves his dog, and maybe about the girl that he has a crush on that he’s never spoken to.
What’s wrong with this picture? Let me ask you, instead: What has happened so far? Nothing. A kid is sitting and thinking. It’s a completely static beginning with no action. Sure, we learn a lot about his life, but it is all telling, no showing. We care less about the girl he loves because we’ve never seen her reject him in scene. We know he is upset about skateboarding but we are not emotionally invested until we see him limp out of the half-pipe after a failed trick. And do we really need to know about the family pet or the sister right now? I’m guessing not.
You have all this great information in your head about your character or your world, but you can never dump it all on your reader (an “info-dump”) at once, especially at the beginning. Information must emerge organically, usually in the context of action. When we meet the dream girl, it’s okay to have him think about how long he’s been in love with her. That’s information. But then, Home Skillet must march on over there and get his heart crushed. That’s action. Like this, the two work very well together. Too much of either one, and your pacing gets all off, characterization starts to feel flat, and your reader’s emotional investment in the story starts to drag.
This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of your work, either. The balance of action and information is something you must always be vigilant about. I love this additional way of thinking about the fiction craft and I hope you do, too.
by Ingrid Sundberg, current VCFA student
We can all agree that Aristotle is the granddaddy of plot. Aristotle’s goal-oriented or action plot is nothing new to shout about. In fact, at this very moment, we are all busy giving our protagonists goals (like saving their families from flesh eating zombies), building up obstacles of increasing intensity, crafting the perfect climax, an emotional resolution, eating zombie brains, blah, blah, blah…yes we’ve heard it before. When we talk about plot, 99% of the time it’s going to be Aristotle’s action plot that we’re referring to.
But is this the only plot available?
In my own writing, I’ve often found myself trying to pound my round-shaped story into this square-shaped Aristotelian idea of plot. I’ve done this because it’s the only type of plot anyone talks about. However, I had an Ah-ha! moment at my first Vermont College of Fine Arts residency last January (an intense 10-day lecture and learning extravaganza). During a group discussion with visiting author M.T. Anderson, he challenged concepts of plot and encouraged us to discover what works for our own writing and to not simply accept what others have said on the subject. This inspired me to start collecting alternative plot structures – and guess what – there are lots of them!
The following is a short list of some of the alternative plots I’ve come across. Of course, this is only a small sample:
The Repeated Action Plot
This plot follows a character who repeats an action multiple times until he or she “gets it right.” The classic movie example of this plot is the Billy Murray film Groundhog Day. We also see this plot structure in Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel BEFORE I FALL, where the protagonist repeats a crucial day of her life multiple times.
The Daisy Chain Plot
There is no central protagonist in a Daisy Chain Plot. Instead the plot follows a chain of characters or an object as it’s passed from one character to the next. Each character’s story is told in whole, but their story is short and often self-contained. Examples of this type of plot include the films The Red Violin, Twenty Bucks, and Slacker. Even though Jay Asher’s THIRTEEN REASONS WHY follows a single protagonist there is an element of the Daisy Chain Plot in the device that brings out the chain of characters in the story.
The Ensemble Plot
This plot concerns a variety of protagonists where no character is more dominant than another. The plot explores multiple voices, consciousnesses, and takes place within a single location. Character storylines can interweave or be independent. This often becomes a portrait of a place rather than a portrait of a person with a particular goal. Film examples include: The Big Chill, Crash, and Dazed and Confused. JUMPED by Newberry Winner, Rita Williams-Garcia is a great example of the Ensemble Plot in a young adult book.
The Emotional Plot
This plot is similar to the Aristotelian action plot, but all of the “action” is internal rather than external. This plot explores the moral or emotional development of a character and much of the story is told through the characters thoughts rather than their actions. Sometimes an emotional plot will follow or mirror an action plot as well, but some don’t have an action plot at all.
There are plenty of plots out there to choose from, not to mention structures (but that’s a whole different blog post). Remember, there is merit to Aristotle’s goal-oriented plot and many agents and editors are looking for that type of plot in a novel. However, one must be true to the story he or she is telling and be purposeful and honest in that telling. If you’re struggling with plot, you may find an alternative form of plot is just the ticket you’ve been searching for.
Ingrid Sundberg will graduate from the Vermont College of Fine art in January 2013. She also has an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University, and a BFA in Illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art. She likes to look at storytelling from all angles – artistic, cinematic, or word by word – and loves how VCFA has helped her to integrate these various points of view. Ingrid writes young adult novels, picture books, screenplays, and illustrates for children’s magazines. She is very active in the Kidlit community and blogs about writing craft on her blog Ingrid’s Notes.
It’s time to get back to business with a craft-related post. I’ve been reading some manuscripts where the writers lapse into what I always call “play-by-play narration.” It’s the narrative equivalent of a chronological grocery list of events:
First we did this. Then we did that. He did this, and then he did that. After that, we did this. And then, that. A little bit later, we went and did such and such.
As a writer, it’s not just your job to transcribe what you imagine happens in a character’s day and think that you have yourself a plot. That’s not how it works. A large part of narration and storytelling is acting as a curator of the story. You’re supposed to maximize what’s important and minimize what’s not and keep directing your reader’s attention from paragraph to paragraph and page to page. When you’re filling up your pages with play-by-play narration, you’re giving us dull descriptions of nonessential events, like:
Anna went into the kitchen. She opened up the refrigerator and got out some mayonnaise, some mustard, and a head of lettuce from the crisper. The tomatoes and white bread were already on the counter. She got out two slices of bread and put them on a dinner plate, then spread one slice with the mayonnaise, the other with the mustard. Halfway through making her sandwich, she realized she’s forgotten the cheese and sliced deli meat in the fridge. Huffing to herself and blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she turned on a heel and headed back to get the rest of her fixins.
Or, you know, you could just say, “Anna made a sandwich” and then move on to describing the actions that actually matter to your plot. If it’s not important, it doesn’t need to be described in such painstaking detail. You only have about 300 pages to work with in the average novel. Don’t waste any time detailing the mundane. If you need your characters to do something inconsequential, just sum it up in compressed narration, as I did in the first sentence of this paragraph.
How do writers get stuck in this pattern? I think there’s a tendency, when you don’t know better, to take the reader through a character’s day from dawn (probably why so many manuscripts start with a character waking up) to dusk. Why? Because that’s the pattern we’ve followed every day of our lives. Our days go this familiar route, so we send our characters through the same paces. This is a trap, and it makes for deadly dull reading. Break your characters out of play-by-play narration and get them moving on to the next plot point in your story. We don’t really care how Anna makes her sandwich. In fact, we don’t really need to read about her eating at all. The same goes with her bathroom routine, her shower, her picking out clothes, her driving to school, etc.
If you feel like you may be guilty of giving your readers the “play-by-play,” ask yourself about the actions you’re describing. Are they absolutely essential information for your reader? Do they factor into your plot? If not, maybe cut those passages and refocus on action that does move the story forward.
Dana wrote to me a few weeks ago to ask about chapters and scenes:
I would love to hear your take on chapter breaks, long chapters, very short chapters, chapters that start seconds after the previous one ends, chapters that start months later, etc. In a related question, I would also love to have you weigh in on scenes, and how they differ from, but are related to, chapters.
Chapters and scenes can sometimes be related, or the can be completely different. Sometimes, writers who use short chapters have their chapters represent, basically, a scene and some transitional material before and after to string the reader through the plot. Writers who write longer chapters can sometimes go for five or more scenes before giving the reader a chapter break. This, of course, also depends on the length of your scenes. If you have a few short school scenes where your character sees and interacts with people in the halls or in class, you can probably make those into once chapter. If you’re giving readers a climactic battle scene near the end of the book where everything comes together, I’d let that be the only big scene in that chapter.
I can’t give you a definitive answer to this question. Not only is it your choice how you want to structure your story, it also depends on the length of your scenes, the genre you’re writing in, the age audience you’re targeting (younger and reluctant readers do better with shorter chapters), and the overall pacing of your big story arc but also of the section of the novel that you’re working on at that moment.
You ask about transitions, too. If the timing of your story and the passage of time between chapters makes sense, then it’s okay to skip over months between chapters. As long as you ground the reader once you begin the new chapter — so the reader knows exactly how much time has passed and when/where the reader is — you should be fine. But again, as long as it makes sense to the story and to your storytelling style. I, personally, would never leave my characters in limbo for months between chapters, but that’s because most of my stories are set in pretty small chunks of time — a few days to a few weeks — and so there’s not a lot of time to gloss over. Again, it all comes down to the scope of your story and how you’re telling it.
The best thing about this question, in my opinion, is that it shows that chapters and scenes need to be crafted and constructed carefully, just like everything else. Chapter length, pacing, timing, content, and all that other stuff is part of the decisions you must make as a writer, and, ideally, you will have good reasons for each choice.
Here’s a thought that I’ve been meaning to post about for a while. A lot of people pitch stories to me where they outline a situation and think that implies a plot. For example:
My character is living with her father after his parents’ nasty divorce. Meanwhile, his mother has run off on a meth binge.
Mine is a coming-of-age story where my main character is gay/Mexican/bulimic/diagnosed with cancer.
That’s all fine and good, but both of these pitches present me with a situation. A broken household. Something about the character that makes them different from their peers. But none of these things are a plot. My next question is always, “And…?”
Your character is gay aaaaaand…? What happens? What’s next? Your character has divorced parents aaaaand…? Where does the plot come in? What else?
A meaty situation or a controversial issue do not a fully fleshed-out manuscript make. It’s not enough. Lots of the most successful “issue books” or books where the character is in a bad situation keep these things in their back pockets but then evolve and build upon these issues or situations with a very rigorous plot.
For example, you can’t just write a book about a character in a broken home and have that be the extent of the story. That’s too spare. You can, however, write a book about a character in a broken home who runs away to find his meth-addicted mother, brings her back, rehabilitates her, then mourns her when she relapses, overdoses and dies. That’s a plot. You can’t just have a book where a character is gay and wanders around talking about how hard it is to be gay. You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend, and now has to decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move. (You CAN have a gay character who is in love with her best friend, a friend who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Your character must now decide whether to help her best friend heal or to make a move before the upcoming prom, because she hears the ex is trying to make a comeback.) That’s a plot.
Keep this in mind when you’re thinking about your book. In today’s market, where editors like to see layers upon layers of conflict, having just a situation in your story, not a plot, isn’t enough. It’s a very important distinction.
ETA: Peter, in the comments, argued that my second example was, indeed, situation, not plot. He’s right. I’ve changed it in parentheses above, so you can see the first version, and then the more plot-like version. Good catch!
All good things, as they say, must come to an end (except revision, muah hahahaha!). Even though it doesn’t seem like it now, your WIP is no exception. Endings can be tricky. As we’ve recently discovered in my plot post, they’re part of a dramatic arc and a character’s emotional journey. Ideally, they return the character to an emotional point similar to where they were at the beginning of the story or to a slightly worse or better one. (The character has, of course, changed over the course, it’s just that they’re in a similar place in their arc.)
If you’ve structured your story well and woven in enough internal (with self) and external (with others/world) conflicts for the character, the ending should be fairly easy to write. That’s why, for some, this post will seem like a cop out. But there are others of you out there who may be struggling and wondering why your particular plot is proving so tricky to wrap up.
There are several things involved with a successful ending. One, as mentioned before, is emotional closure. How does the character feel with this ending? Do they return to a new normal? Or are they still way off-balance? A character left with too much discord is unsettling. Another is pacing and timing. Does your ending come too quickly after the climax of the story? Does it drag on too long after the climactic action has finished? In most stories, the climax happens about 1/5th or 1/6th of the way from the end and then things wrap up fairly soon. If you saw my diagram in the plot post, you’d notice that the distance between points 3 and 4 is rather small.
Another consideration is how cleanly things come together. Part of this will stem from the “core emotional experience” you want your reader to walk away with. Is your book a place where you’ve created a fair and right and optimistic word? Or do you want to leave off on a pessimistic or unresolved note? Is your ending of the big-fireworks-silhouetted-against-the-sky variety or the quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type? Both work, so do many things in-between. I would just make sure the ending matches the tone and voice of your story. Endings, for many reasons, put pressure on people and sometimes force them away from what they’ve established throughout a manuscript. If you’re feeling stressed by your ending, make sure what you’re doing feelings characteristic to the piece you’ve already written. It’s usually trying to do something that resolves too cleanly or not at all or otherwise doesn’t fit your characters or story that’s causing problems.
One problem I frequently see is an ending that gives the reader too little resolution. And I don’t mean a quiet-yet-meaningful-moment-type ending. Those are very effective when done well. I’m talking about manuscripts I’ve finished where I’ve felt the distinct urge to check for more pages hidden somewhere past the last one. The ending feels so rushed and unfinished that I simply can’t believe the author has chosen to end at that point. This is often the case when a writer is leaving their story open for the possibility of a series. However, as I discussed in an earlier post about series, it’s always best to resolve the first story and make sure it stands alone, even if you’ve plotted out Book 2 through Book 22.
Endings are a delicate balance. Make sure yours comes at an appropriate time, isn’t too rushed or too drawn out, and matches the emotional, thematic, character and story tone that you’ve already established. I hear that many writers struggle with endings but, as I already said, I think that might be a symptom of something amiss in the greater manuscript. If you’ve got a story with a dramatic and emotional arc and you’ve chosen the right plot and characters, the end of that winning combination should be one of the easiest things to write. If you’re struggling, maybe go back to the middle and see if the problem isn’t hiding there.