The Plot Thickens
“Plot, as a rule, is the bugaboo of every beginner. The word seems to imply the need of some very special knack, some highly developed skill. All the other elements of writing appear easy to learn, but an ogre of grimmest mien guards the mysterious gateway to plotting. And right before that entrance a good many writers put down their pens and flee.” – Phyllis A Whitney
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about plotting lately. I’m preparing to teach an advanced children’s writing workshop at Arcadia University this summer and I want to include a fair amount on plotting. I agree with Phyllis Whitney that it is indeed the “bugaboo of every beginner.”
Whitney lived to the ripe old age of 104 and was still having books published at 97. I’m giving away my age when I say her novels were familiar friends to me when I was growing up. She wrote romantic mysteries, young adult novels, and children’s mysteries. Her pinnacle of success came in 1988 when she received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Can there be a better expert on plot than the mystery writer?
In reading what Whitney had to say about plot in her classic Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1975), I ran across her words of wisdom on the subject and they still hold up. She encourages writers not to be defeated by plot, cautioning that though it requires concentrated thinking, the trick can be learned. I especially like her formula because it relies heavily on the subconscious and readers of this blog know that I’m a big believer in the power of that. Here’s my take on Whitney’s method for using the subconscious to plot:
- Have a clock at hand. You may need to start with just 5 minutes of intense concentration.
- Get comfortable. Whitney advises stretching out full length on the sofa.
- Close your eyes and try to erase everything else from your mind. Think black, even whispering the word out loud
- Then, as Whitney says, “turn on the film and start watching your story people act out a scene.”
This can get you started and when you run into a plot problem, you can again make use of the subconscious. Think hard on the issue and pose a question to yourself. Let the problem go. Then bring the plot problem out later and look for the answer. It might just come to you when you’re next drafting.
After a while, this gets easier and you don’t need the sofa, but who wants to give up that part? I too much enjoy the image of myself lying prone during my writing days, formulating my intricate plots. What could be better than simply letting the film roll?
After all, plotting is nothing more than planning and I advise my students that they can’t go far wrong in using the classic three-act structure. In Act I – roughly the first quarter of the novel – introduce all the major players, the setting, and most of all, the story problem. In children’s/YA fiction, especially, that problem should be evident right away. By the end of Act 1 there must be a significant scene that shows there is no turning back.
Act II should constitute roughly half of the novel. It is the territory of the antagonist. Here the character’s relationships are fleshed out and explored. Complications are introduced. The energy can actually decline from that critical scene at the end of Act I but then it slowly builds to a crisis. Richard Peck calls the middle the “tent pole” and it often contains a set piece as in a play.
In Act III the energy builds to a climax. Things must appear very grim for the protagonist and he or she must make the climax happen. The plot resolution is relatively quick but it must satisfy and pull together the loose ends. Your protagonist must be changed forever and embark on a new beginning.
This “formula” is especially workable for writing for the young, an act that can actually keep the writer young herself – a happy thought. As Phyllis Whitney said in an interview with The New York Times when she was 79, “I always told myself that when I get old I’ll reread all my books, but I never seem to get old.” Now there’s a formula for the fountain of youth!