From a speech to the North Central Texas Chapter of the Society of Children¹s Book Writers and Illustrators Fourteenth Annual Conference, University of Dallas, Late 1997
By Don Whittington
Let¹s start with a definition: The plot is the overt reason for telling the story. (As opposed to theme, which is the covert reason.)
Plot is a simple thing. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, family objects, tragedy follows. Voila—Romeo and Juliet.
But this talk is about plotting, not plot, and that is another thing entirely.
Plot arises from the "what if" question: What if a pair of lovers could not marry because of a family quarrel?
Plotting is the answer. It says, "This does."
Note, please, that it does not say "this might". Plotting is not like life. It denies the element of chance. It brings order to God's cluttered, capricious universe. And it serves two aims: (a) to answer the "what if" question, and (b) to promote the theme.
Plot serves the story, but plotting serves the author. Plotting helps us arrange the elements of our story in such a way that we can: heighten reader involvement/pleasure control the story¹s tension level control the outcome of events and most importantly, control the story's pace By pace I mean the balance of tone and structure, scene and sequel, conflict and resolution. I believe pace to be the thing which separates a novelist from a short story writer. Pace is the heart of plotting. It is simply knowing when to tell what so as best to heighten drama.
Plotting is more important for those of us who write children¹s stories than for those who write for adults. I think I'm a good judge of this because I write for both. When people ask me the difference between writing for kids and writing for adults I usually say, "You don't have to write down for children." You laugh, but I stand by my comment.
When you write for adults you have all this down-time. Editors want you to dwell on subtle motivators to prove you're writing about important stuff, even though your basic story is all guns, breasts and blood. So you have a flashback to show how the antagonist was really a sweet child until that horrible day his mommy got after him with the barbecue tongs. And you have interior monologue to show how your studly hero is wracked by self doubt, inner demons, and all those other "issues" that make the reader feel better about his own life. And you have sex scenes so some producer in Hollywood gets another opportunity to make Sharon Stone undress. And somehow, through all this you still manage to tell your basic story which is, after all, only about kicking someone¹s behind for being a meany.
When you write for kids you just kick his behind and get it over with.
Kids want to know what¹s the story problem, and how are we going to solve it and what kind of neat stuff happens in the meantime. The bad guys got Lassie? Let's get her back. Mom¹s missing? Let¹s find her. No date for the sweetheart dance? Let's go snag one. Vampire in the fridge? Where's my stake?
Let' just make up an example.
Little Quigley sees a vampire in the refrigerator. At first he can¹t believe it. The thing's about four inches tall with a cape and the whole schmear. It lurks behind the mayonnaise jar, and whenever Quigley's dad fetches a beer it bites him on the wrist. Quigley figures at the rate his daddy drinks he'll never survive the fourth of July weekend. Quigley tries the next day to show the vampire to his little sister, Honoria, but hard as they search the fridge, she doesn't see it. (During the day, turns out, the vampire kips out in the butter tub, and they can't find him because they're watching their cholesterol.)
Honoria repeats Quigley's story to Mom and Dad who think it's all very funny. Quigley is mortified. No one believes him. What can he do?
That night, Quigley sneaks downstairs with a box of toothpicks. He's gonna drive a toothpick right through that mini-Drac's heart. He opens the door to the fridge and starts taking things out so the vampire can't hide. But even with the fridge empty, cornering the vampire is tough. He's a speedy little sucker, and he's got butter all over him… Quigley's so anxious to get him, he actually crawls up inside the refrigerator. The door closes behind him. The light goes out! Oh no, he's trapped in the dark and cold with a vampire high in saturated fats! And it's coming after him!
See the problem? The vampire's after Dad. What to do? Enlist an ally. That fails! So what to do? Spread the alarm. That fails! So what to do? Take action. That fails! And so on until you fill enough pages to call it something at which point your hero succeeds or dies a horrible, noble death.
If this all sounds formulaic and if that makes your little heart flutter with indignation that's too bad. It is formulaic for a very simple reason. The formula works.
It is what we call drama.
A friend of mine interviewed a writer out in California several years ago. This man had written six hundred some odd novels for various people under dozens of names. My friend asked him how the heck he could even think of a story any more. The writer said it was easy. Just invent two people he likes and then torment the hell out of them for three hundred pages.
Few novelists give any thought to formulas. I certainly don't. But if I want to analyze plotting, I have to think in those terms. My actual process is to think of my whole story and then write it down. Unconsciously, every time I write a novel I ask and answer these questions:
1- Who are my story people? Why these choices and not others? The Wizard of Oz would be a very different story if Ferris Bueller went there instead of Dorothy, don't you think?
2- What is my story problem? What is at stake, i.e., what are the consequences if the problem isn't solved?
3- What is the tone of my story? Is it consistent with and appropriate for the problem? If your problem is getting a date for the dance you won't use the same tone as you would if you're trying to save your brother from a flood. Then again, it might be funny if you did.
4- What are the obstacles to solving the problem? What are the consequences of surmounting these obstacles? Perhaps allies sacrifice themselves to aid you in your quest to save the world. Perhaps you hurt the feelings of a friend in your single minded pursuit of a date for the dance.
5- As the story proceeds, do the stakes go up? They don't have to, but it's nice when they do.
6- Do my hero's options narrow as the story proceeds?
7- Are the obstacles worthy of my hero's quest?
8- Does my climax have the appropriate emotional impact?
9- Have I introduced unanswered questions? Can I afford to ignore them?
10- Have I accounted for all the principle story people? Do I need to?
11- Do I want to show life after success (kids love this) or leave it implied?
12- Has my heroine changed or grown as a result of her experience?
I'm making this sound so cold and mechanical I fear I'm taking the heart out of it. I'm not saying you should contemplate each of these things all the time. For most writers, the story simply proceeds. Event follows event naturally to its appropriate climax and resolution.
But once written, these questions (and others that may occur to you) help work as keys to determine whether or not you've done your job well. When you're starting out it's all too common to write a story then read and say, Well, heck it looks fine to me! If you expect to sell what you write you must rise beyond that impulse and learn to see your own work objectively, find the things that are wrong and cut them mercilessly. You must infer the things that are needed yet missing and then add them.
That's so helpful, isn't it? All that talk and I never once told you how to think of all this plotting in the first place. And that's the real problem, isn't it? How the heck does anybody ever think of this stuff?
Well, to be honest, there is a point beyond which nobody can help you. Fact is, your friends, no matter how much they love you, are never going to write your story for you. And you wouldn't want them to. You just want to know how to get yourself kick-started.
Well, maybe there's a way.
I'll bet there are writers in this room right now who worry more about plotting than any other thing. You feel confident that you create interesting characters, but you worry that you aren't giving them enough to do, that your plot isn't involved enough, intricate enough. If you think about it a minute, you might see the answer to your problem.
Maybe you should quit trying to write so hard and learn to trust your characters a little more. If your characters are interesting, then plot must develop simply from their interaction with the world about them. That's why they're interesting! They're interesting because they don't react like everybody else, because their family situation is peculiar or harrowing, because they live somewhere really cool, because they have a water buffalo for a pet, because their acne spells out messages in Esperanto: whatever, it doesn't matter.
When a character is denied, confronted, challenged, or given a tremendous boon think hard about what that really means to your character and only to your character. Then think of the one thing your character would do in response, and let them do it. Before you know it, your story is rolling along, things are happening, hellzapoppin' and everyone is complimenting you on the richness of your plot.
They're complimenting you because the story logic rings true. It rings true because it arises naturally from character instead of some author struggling for some magical gimmick.
So good luck with your story-telling. And trust your characters. Follow them. See where they go. Remember, they are wiser than you are, and probably a lot more fun. That's why we want to read about them.
Don Whittington is the author of two novels for adults, and ten novels for children. His publishers are Avon, and Harper Collins. His latest novel is Magee's Blue #3, which is currently being shopped by his agent at William Morris. Visit Don's website at: http://www.flash.net/~doncopra/ or e mail him at [email protected]
Copyright 1997 by Don Whittington