For some writers, the thought of outlining the plot of their story sounds like a joy-killer. They’d rather take their idea or feeling and see what happens as they write. Others might say they don’t need a plot at all, like a friend suggested in a story she called, ”The Still Bunny.” I prefer to plot first before I write and here’s why.
I like to know where I’m headed in a story, beginning with the ending. Maybe it’s my Aquarian nature, but I feel more comfortable seeing the big picture before I get down into the writing weeds. I like mapping out a path to follow, even if I decide later on as I’m writing the story to take a different direction.
Plotting provides a dramatic structure for your story. Readers expect it and so do publishers. Children’s book editor Justin Chanda mentioned at the recent 2014 Spring SCBWI Conference that editors look for “narrative movement that forces you to turn the page.” Plotting helps you think about the problems, events, and character motivations that will hook your reader and keep them interested in your story.
In Write Away, one of my favorite books on the writing craft, mystery writer Elizabeth George defines plot as “what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of your characters.” Whether you are writing a children’s picture book or a novel for adults, the same basic story structure applies: the plot presents a problem or situation for the main character in the beginning of the story that gets worse in the middle before the main character resolves it at the end. Whether your story is action-oriented or character-driven, plotting helps you plan the important scenes that ensure a dramatic build to your story.
In my chapter book, Lootas Little Wave Eater, a wild Alaskan sea otter is orphaned soon after birth when her mother is accidentally struck and killed by a fishing boat. I knew that the story would end with Lootas being adopted by the adult sea otters at the Seattle Aquarium where she still lives today. I also knew that in the beginning, Lootas could not swim or feed herself and had to rely on humans to act as surrogate parents. In my outline of the story arc, I thought of three problems or hurdles she faced that were critical in her development and the important scenes that showed her progress or setbacks. Once I had my story structure outline, I could focus on the writing and live in the moment with Lootas and the Aquarium staff through her rescue and hand-raising to finding her own way of being accepted by her new sea otter family.
The next time the muse strikes with a brilliant idea for a story, try asking yourself a few questions about plot: what is the story problem, what does my main character want, and how might the story end? Laying down those bread crumbs first just might save you from getting lost in the woods later.