Archive for November, 2012


The Bumpy Road of Plot

copyright 2012 by Sherry Garland

A few months ago I decided to read all the winners of the Newbery medal (and honor medal), National Book Award and Printz Award starting with the year 2000.  After reading several novels, I noticed a definite change in the writing styles from the 1980s and 1990s. First, I would say that about 75% of the newer novels I’ve read so far do not have an “obvious” plot. They are more of a string of events, small vignettes tied together by common characters. Multiple viewpoints are more common than before. First person dominates the YA field and some of the middle grade field. Lastly, present tense is rearing its ugly head.

Many of the books I read have interesting characters and beautiful language, but I love plot. I like stories that intertwine characters and events, the kinds of books where you have to pay close attention because something that happened in chapter one will affect something later on. I want my brain to be challenged, to have to think, to put together a puzzle. Frankly, I have fallen asleep several times trying to read some of the above mentioned award winners. I find myself being lulled into a state of just reading to get through the chapter so I can stop reading. A book with plot does not put you to sleep; it makes you want to stay up all night reading.  Plot moves the story forward and creates curiosity in the reader by making him wonder what is going to happen next.

Plot is how you go about telling your story. Many reference books have been written to explain plots; some of them state that there are a limited number of plots and that no matter what you write, it will fall into one of those categories. Some of the most common plots for MG & YA are journey (quest), survival, romance, coming of age, underdog triumphs, and whodunit.

Think of plot as a long ribbon of highway down which the reader will travel. Which is more interesting, a road that is flat and straight as far as the eye can see, or one that curves, goes around scary bends, over mountains and down valleys and crosses rivers? If you want to captivate your readers, take them on the bumpy road, give them a plot full of highs and lows, victories and defeats, surprises and suspense.

You can do this by using this simple formula: character + goal + obstacle + climax + resolution. Start by creating a believable character with both good and bad traits. Give that character a major goal (there will be smaller goals in each chapter, some won, some lost, but the major goal is always in the back of the hero’s mind), throw obstacles in the hero’s way (conflict) to prevent him from obtaining that goal too easily, have a final climax where the hero overcomes the biggest obstacle of all and has an epiphany, then calm the reader down with the final resolution. Of course, there are dozens of nuances and complications. The above is a very simplified, bare-bones formula.

Here are some reference books I found useful: Thirty-six Dramatic Situations by George Polti; 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias; and How to Write Plots That Sell by F. A. Rockwell.


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