Tuesday, October 30, 2012

NaNoWriMo Young Writers: Plot Structure

Yesterday, I talked about how we just might eliminate the word-count goal for my nine year old in favor of simply writing the first draft of a (mostly) complete story.  To do this, you first have to ask yourself, "What makes a complete story?"  That leads us to today's crash course in plot structure and how to use plot structure goals to complete a first draft in a month.

Most great stories have a similar structure, beyond simply a beginning, middle, and end.  Most follow what is known as a Three-Act Structure.  It is used most often with films and plays, but novelists can also benefit from studying how it works.  Of course, not all stories follow this structure, nor do they need to, but it helps to start with this.  I resisted for a while, but I realized later that when you start with a basic spine, your story can really blossom as you find creative ways to twist that spine and make it your own.  I know plenty of people who don't plan anything and simply begin a narrative with no idea where they're headed (they're called pantsers, by the way, as in "flying by the seat of their pants"), and this is a perfectly acceptable way of doing things.  But.  You must keep in mind that this way of drafting will absolutely lead to major rewrites later.  I did not say edits.  I said rewrites.  Lots of painful ones.  (Trust me.  Pain.)  It can be a tough, discouraging process for new writers especially.  But, like I said, perfectly acceptable.

Even if your child is fine with rewrites and edits, they can still use some basic knowledge of structure when they go back to rewrite their story later.  Now.  On to those three acts and some examples of how thinking about them ahead of time can make your writing easier.

Act I
We meet the hero/heroine in their ordinary life, and they receive some sort of challenge or call to action.    It ends with a turning point, when the main character steps into a special world or embarks on their quest, and their life changes somehow.  Examples of this first turning point include Luke leaving behind his burning home to train with his new buddy Ben, Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Dorothy being whisked away to Oz by that tornado, or Harry taking the train to Hogwarts.

Act II, part 1
The hero/heroine embarks on their journey, they meet new companions, they train and plan, and the villain tests them.  The midpoint of the story is another turning point, when something doesn't go as expected.  The wizard tells Dorothy and her new friends that they must defeat the witch, or Matilda discovers that she has special powers.  Your main character must usually change gears and come up with a new plan at this point.

Act II, part 2

After the midpoint, step on the gas!  More tests, more planning.  Usually, there is some sort of Dark Moment, near the end of Act II, that is also known as the All Is Lost Moment.  Dorothy is taken prisoner and Obi-Wan dies.  Usually, some sort of critical information is revealed.  Act II ends with another turning point in which the main character must come up with a new plan and prepare to "storm the castle."

The climax of the story is your big, final battle.  Not all stories involve physical fighting, but they still have some sort of major conflict or battle near the end.  Matilda tricks the Trunchbull, Luke and his buddies destroy the Death Star, Dorothy melts the witch, and Harry faces off with Voldemort.

It works.  I promise.  Take a moment and think about some of your other favorite stories (books or movies).  Most follow this structure to a certain degree.  When I work on a story, I don't plan out all of these turning points ahead of time.  I have an index card system where I post colored index cards on a bulletin board.  As I come up with ideas for theses turning points I write them in.  I don't force myself to follow this structure completely, but if I get stuck and don't know what to write next, it gives me something to think about and write towards.

My cards with the typical story arc drawn in.
Cards are color-coded for the different acts.

A close-up look at some plot cards.
I can write details on these as I move forward.

A more linear setup.  I add index cards for
additional scenes as I begin writing the story.

Now think about getting that done in a month.  Challenge your child (and/or yourself) to finish writing the first half of their story (through Act II, part 1) by November 15th.  Keep in mind that Acts I and III are shorter, so they should take less than a week each.  Act II is the bulk of the story, and both parts will probably take over two weeks to write.  Consider printing a blank calendar and penciling in goals for completing each act.  These are not hard deadlines, but merely a tool for keeping on track of where your child will want to be in order to complete their story in the thirty day time frame.

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the ride!

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