A Novel Idea: Constructing the Plot

The PLOT or storyline is a series of events in the order they happen for the reader. “Hook” your reader’s interest by giving them just enough information at first. They will read on because they need to know what will happen next. Tease them from time to time with another complication that must be dealt with or an unanswered question that is a necessary part of the puzzle. Pieces of the puzzle will include both events as they occur and flashbacks to the past.

As a new writer mapping out a plan for your story, it may help think back on memories that stand out in your own life. Use an event you have experienced yourself for the basis of your tale. This will give your story authenticity. Of course, you may change the time, setting, character names and ages, position, etc., to make it a work of fiction. Even as a fictional character, you may write as the narrator, exclusively from your point of view. If you choose to write in the third person and develop motives of other characters, you will need to *step back* from the limits of your own perspective and become empathetic. How would you feel if you were in their shoes, with their background experience? Why do they act as they do? What drives them?

Begin your story in the middle of a problem or impending problem. Craft the structure based on genre. The reader will identify most closely with the hero as they face an obstacle and seek to overcome it. The action rises and falls throughout the tale but the intensity should build to the climax of the story. At that point, the main character achieves their goal and all unresolved matters are satisfied. In the end, all the pieces should make sense, as the pieces of a puzzle coming together create a whole picture!

There are two ways I used to construct a story. One is outlining and the other is Plot Mapping. If a story is linear and the end is understood when the writer begins, an outline works well. You have your character facing a problem, the building difficulties, the moment of salvation and resolution. However, if you have an idea for a story and it’s characters but don’t know how it will end yet, you need to build a plot map. Have you ever watched a detective story where either the criminal or the cop has a bulletin board with photos and newspaper clippings on it, with threads connecting various parts to each other? This is a great way to get the big picture of all the back stories and how they fit together. As I’ve said in a past chapter, at first, keep it to three or four main characters as far as detail goes. But the plot at first can look a bit confusing to the reader, like pieces of tangled thread. As the story progresses, the threads need to connect and make sense. It the end all threads tie together in one conclusion. If you physically do this, with a storyboard, you can keep track of the threads you have yet to connect. This is one way you can think through the process of the unwinding tale as you write it.

One note of caution. Writers that begin a tale not knowing where it will take them often have to rewrite whole sections. JRR Tolkien did this when writing The Lord of the Rings. It is time-consuming! This may be daunting to a beginner, but it is a great exercise. Still, for someone just starting out with story writing, it will be easier to take the perspective of one of the main characters and narrate from your point of view. It will be easier to keep track of the plot and remain consistent, “keeping in character.”

A great way to practice plot development is to base it on a well-known story, such as a parable, fable, or other classic tales. Keep the characters and setting but change the starting point or the story the direction takes. You could also write from a different character’s viewpoint. This kind of parody has been successfully done in recent years in “Wicked,” a Broadway play. It is the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (from the Wizard of Oz), telling her own story.  Also, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, as Told by the Wolf” is a best-selling children’s story! Because these stories are loved and familiar, the new perspective lends itself well to humor.

After rewriting some well-known stories, you will have a better feel for how the plot unfolds. The longer the story is, the more complicated it can be. If you are writing a short story, you’ll want to limit the problems your hero has to one or two. Difficulties from without (a bad circumstance or impending danger) can be overcome at the same time as your hero faces inner flaws (such as insecurity or a bad temper) and rises above them! Struggle with them. Rejoice with them. The more you let the reader see their hero overcome character flaws that they wrestle with, the more your story will resonate. These are some of the “universal truths” I mentioned previously.

In Summary:

– Outline your story.
– Introduce the problem within the first page.
-Resolve the problem bit by bit, with some drawbacks along the way, to increase tension and keep the reader turning pages.
– Make the moment of salvation from their problem definitive and satisfying.
– End the story shortly after the pinnacle of victory by resolving all unanswered questions.

As you prepare to write it helps to read stories that delight you, and take note of how they develop their plot. What is the problem at the beginning? How did the writer “hook” your attention? How did they bring all the problems to a climax and save the main character? How are the loose ends tied up?

Be assured that while there are guidelines for writing an effective story, these are not hard and fast rules. Creative writing is called that for a reason. Just keep your audience in mind and be sure to bring them out of confusion to understanding by the end of the story. They will be coming back for more!

A Novel Idea – Genre

What Is Genre?
It’s a category.  In stories, they would be broken down into the type of story. Here are some examples:

1. Mystery – Something is out of place. A crime has been committed. A person is missing. A character or object suspiciously appears. Someone is not who they appear to be! Whatever the source of the mystery, it is a problem requiring detective work. The main character/hero/protagonist will be the detective and look for clues, interview suspects, and search until the answer is discovered.

To keep the sense of mystery, don’t tell the reader what is happening behind the scenes. Let them discover clues along with the main character. To keep your readers wondering and turning pages, use misdirection. Bring in something or someone who seems important but isn’t. Or someone who seems guiltier than they are! Your reader will sometimes guess correctly, sometimes be surprised, but they will be intrigued by the process. These false leads, or misdirection, are called “red herrings.” That term comes from when hunters would train dogs to follow a trail. They dragged herrings (fish) across the fox trail to teach hunting dogs not to be distracted by other interesting scents, but to keep pursuing the fox! Your reader doesn’t know which trail is the right one, so they are kept guessing!

Plot twists are a great tool for mystery writing. You were sure the story was going in a certain direction and suddenly, a new piece of information comes to light. What you suspected is proven to be impossible. Maybe your reader isn’t back to square one, but their curiosity is refueled! In the end, a good explanation of “who done it” finally comes out, and the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

You can go back to your draft and insert little clues that may help the detective, once you have figured out the end. Rewrites are as important as the first writing, and maybe more so! As you write your first draft, you are just thinking it through. Changes and modifications will bring your story together when you have all the pieces of the puzzle in front of you.

Don’t make your clues too obvious, or give too much information early on. To keep a mystery a page-turner, let every chapter bring a new question that must be answered. You will want to “map out” your plot in advance of writing the story. There are way too many details in a good mystery to try to keep them all in your head while you write. Because it’s important that all loose ends are neatly tied up by the conclusion, you’ll need to be able to see what threads you’ve left for the reader. Before your final copy goes to the presses, be sure there are no questions left unanswered.

2. The Narrative may relate a personal story or be told as a biography of a real or fictional character. This can be as simple as what happened on a walk home from the park, afternoon tea with Grandma, or an adventure. It can take place in a police station or courtroom, a living room or a hospital emergency room; anywhere. This genre has many subcategories.

a. One is a “Coming-of-Age” story, where the protagonist goes from childhood to maturity through life experiences and lessons. It often involves overcoming a weakness from within that is reflected in a change in their character. Overcoming may take the form of learning to be compassionate to others, bravery in the face of fear, or finding that through hard work they can achieve what seemed impossible. There may be external victories but the key achievements in a coming-of-age book are the ones that happen in the heart of the main character.

b. Fables often have animals playing the part of humans. These are usually quite short and have a point that is obvious.  Aesop is famous for these! Rudyard Kipling also used this method in his Just-So-Stories.

c. Parables use an illustration from life, even of inanimate objects, to teach a meaningful lesson. Jesus used these story-illustrations frequently, in the Bible. One example is the Prodigal Son. The young son didn’t want to submit to his father but wished to make his own way in the world. He left home with his inheritance and lived a wild life, wasting all his money. He ended up homeless and starving before coming to his senses. When the prodigal returned to his father to beg forgiveness he was welcomed home with open arms! This parable shows how we often make foolish choices, but that God, our Father is always waiting for our return, willing to forgive us.

d. Allegories are stories that can be interpreted to find a hidden meaning. Examples of allegory are: “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan which is an allegory of the Christian’s journey to salvation, and “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis.

e. Satire is a type of allegory, but according to the dictionary, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity, vices, or show corruption in government. An example of satire in literature is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Animal Farm by George Orwell.

f.  Parody is another subgroup of the narrative genre that could be allegorical or a fable. Parody takes something that was already written and changes the story around for comedic effect. An example of this would be Shakespeare’s supposed version of The Three Little Pigs, as told by comedian, John Branyan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxoUUbMii7Q

3. Historical Fiction. While it could be argued that this is also a kind of narrative, it requires much more research to do. You will need to understand the times you write about. Your characters will need to act in accordance with the culture and speak as they would have in that time and place. Clothing, speech, and custom need to be consistent unless you have time travelers involved. Until you have familiarized yourself with the time, place of your story, and customs of that era, you probably shouldn’t write a piece of historical fiction.

4. Science Fiction and Fantasy can also be a mystery, coming of age story, romance, or action-adventure tale. Because Science Fiction or Fantasy go beyond reality, into different times and worlds, it is all the more important to create an emotional bond and common ideals with the characters. If the personalities of the main characters are too foreign, the story will not be relatable. If the players in your tale have personalities or issues that your reader can identify with, your audience will be able to suspend their disbelief at the peculiar circumstances and surroundings. Just remember to be consistent. As they say in theater, “keep in character.” The difficulty in these genres is creating a believable alternate world. It may involve studying science and technology or other ancient cultures and languages for inspiration. JRR Tolkien, who created entire worlds and new languages, was an expert in ancient language. In order to prepare for such writing, begin by reading books of the same genre to get a feel for what is needed. It is important not to copy someone else’s world too closely, so take notes of new ideas you come up with while reading. You can practice by writing shorter scenes and illustrating them. As you “see” your world unfold you can add more detail in the rewrite and add chapters.

In each of these, stories that create an impact and resonate with the audience contain universal truths. Hidden in the best stories, these gems are not expressed blatantly. The reader comes to realize these things, as if on their own. Allowing the reader to find the truth for themselves without preaching to them, has a greater impact. Universal truths will be evident in the plot and conclusion of the story. Look for themes that many can identify with. Examples are: Pain of rejection, hope, loss, desire to win and tenacity, overcoming, love returned and love unrequited, curiosity and fear – getting yourself in too deep and wondering how you’ll get yourself out again. Write from what you know and have experienced. It’s okay to weep over your writing or get angry at the characters as they play out. Laugh along with them, too! As Hemingway said, “Write one true thing.”

My Top Picks of Free or Cheap Web-Sources for Elementary-Middle Schoolers.

We try to buy the best resources for the least money we can. But even the best curriculum may not give clear enough instruction for the student (or parent) to be able to master the material. I’m a visual learner, myself. Often I need an illustration of the problem worked out in front of me with a clear explanation of the instructor is doing what they are doing! It is also helpful to let someone else take on the time-consuming drill. Here’s a short-list of my favorite go-to online resources that are free or very inexpensive!

1http://www.mathantics.com  The videos are also available on Youtube, but the website has exercises and additional worksheets for a small fee. All videos on the site are free. The worksheets are well worth the small investment, though!

2. Kahn Academy has free instruction, and not only in math! They also have an introductory course in computer programming in JavaScript as well as other subjects. We use this as a supplement often, but it can also be the curriculum!   https://www.khanacademy.org/ 

3. For Spelling and Vocabulary (grades K-8th)  http://gradespelling.com/spelling-vocabulary-word-lists/  
This has lists, definitions,  games, review and tests and costs nothing!

4.  Free literature, biographies, and books about nature and history available at www.mainlesson.com.  Search the bar on the left by author, title, or genre to find the selection of free materials. You may also choose to purchase “Gateway to the Classics” which opens more options, but some of those may also be viewed for free. Here is an example of one we are using this year, on American History:  http://www.gatewaytotheclassics.com/samples/display.php?author=evans&book=america&story=_contents

Here is another sample of a book available on “Gateway to the Classics” which may be accessed as a sample.    http://www.gatewaytotheclassics.com/samples/display.php?author=burgess&book=bird&story=_contents

5.  Printable worksheets for free!!! Pick your grade and your subject. Instruction is also available.  https://www.education.com/worksheets/

Worksheets specifically for music – http://www.abcteach.com/directory/theme-units-music-8843-2-2

Printables for handwriting:  http://www.abcteach.com/directory/subjects-handwriting-20-2-1 

Handwriting Bible verses:  http://heartofwisdom.com/blog/free-handwriting-bible-verses

For reading comprehension and more!  http://www.k12reader.com/subject/reading-skills/  

6.  Grammar for 5th grade and above – review and practice.  This is pretty comprehensive!   https://www.englishgrammar101.com/ 

Another resource for Grammar, organized by topic! Click on a highlighted number for the lesson with answers.   http://www.dailygrammar.com/glossary.html

7.  Writing style and structure, available here!  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/ 

8. Geography:   http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/USA_Geography/USA_Caps_L_1024.html  This link is to learn States and Capitals of the USA, but in the heading, you can pick any country or topic related to geography.
Also, http://geology.com/world/world-map.shtml  will give you clear maps of any part of the world.

9. Latin Charts:  http://classicalsubjects.com/resources/basiclatincharts_color.pdf  

Vocabulary from Henley 1      https://www.memrise.com/course/198250/henle-first-year-latin/    (Just click on the lessons, you don’t need to “join.”  Save the bookmark!
Also, Vocabulary from Henley 2:

10.  Bible – audio.  Choose the version you have, and listen while you read along. This will help your children absorb more of what they read because they won’t be stumbling over words. You can also open the text in another window if you want to read online.  https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/audio/ 

11. Science:
I have recently found this interactive series of lessons in science. It is perfect for teaching several grade levels at once. The kids love it!!!   https://mysteryscience.com

12. History:
This resource includes more than history, but their library of collected videos (free) is a great addition to any textbook!  https://brookdalehouse.com/ 

Next time, I will post my Top Ten Picks for Educational Youtube Channels!

What are your favorite educational sites? Post in the comments below!