Friday, December 31, 2010

Plotting and Structure

Over the last few weeks, I've been pondering plotting and structure. In November, I went to the annual Prairie Writers' Day, hosted by the Illinois SCBWI chapter. One of the speakers discussed the importance of looking at your book--whatever length--in terms of its plot and structure. She used this classic diagram to help describe how structure works in an effective story.

I've read some great books over the years on this very topic, including my favorite (modestly titled): How to Write a Children's Picture Book by Eve Heidi Bine-Stock. In this book, Bine-Stock describes the necessity of looking at pacing and the "beats" a repeated phrase or refrain can lend to a book. She does so by examining classic picture books, like The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Bill Martin Jr.'s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and shows how they work effectively through their structure.

For example, each story is expressed in what she calls acts, like in the acts of a play. A "three-act book" would work in this way:

Act 1 - Introduce character and conflict
Act 2 - Show developing conflict, leading to its ultimate climax
Act 3 - Quick denoument, resolving the conflict

The great thing is that any story can easily fit into this format. Even a saga like Tolkein's Lord of the Rings could be broken down in this way:

Act 1: Introduction of Frodo, the ring, the conflict--the great need to destroy it
Act 2: The journey of getting to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, rising to the climax of its destruction
Act 3: The restoration of Middle Earth, the coronation of the king, the departure of Frodo

Of course, in this trilogy, Act 2 comprises most of the text, with mini stories (with beginnings, middles, and endings) throughout the rising action. For example, their journey through the Mines of Moria is a mini story, within the larger plot of the book.

All of this is in the back of my mind because I am currently working on a project with a very short word count, which would be a young picture book. I imagine this targeting the 2-4 year old range. The stories focus on a toddler who begins to learn how to solve his own problems. What is so much fun for me is to see how short they can be, while still preserving that natural story arc. I'm striving for no more than 400 words total, and telling three little stories in which each one has its own beginning, middle, and ending, with the character figuring out how to solve his own problems. It's been a fun and challenging project, which is almost ready for submission.

1 comment:

  1. What an intriguing challenge, Julie, writing in such a confined structure, but letting it take wing in its own way. It is reminiscent, for me, of the challenge I've found in hymn writing, in which one must express one's thoughts in a limited number of verses (no one wants to sing ten or more verses!) in a set rhyme and meter.

    I like the three-act concept for plot structure very much, and try to apply it to my own writing. I'm just trying to imagine applying it to a project such as yours. That would take incredible skill and precision -- I wish you well! (and I look forward to hearing when it's published!)