Keep your plotting on track from picture books to chapter books using at-a-glance diagrams.
Having settled into a groove with my picture book process I found myself venturing into unchartered territory with a chapter book project. The idea had been noodling around (with countless embarrassing ‘first’ drafts) for a few years but it’s always ended up back in the drawer with the book going nowhere and me feeling utterly out of my depth.
I’m used to working with less than a 500-word count and had no idea how to handle THOUSANDS of words—let alone think about plots, sub plots, chapters, multiple characters, cliff hangers and such. I needed to figure out how to break this project down so I didn’t feel like I was drowning.
“The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on that first one.”
That’s when I stumbled upon the spidergram—a diagram using a central circle with extenders connecting to an outer ring of circles that you fill out with goals and actionable tasks.
My first spidergrams were for a different topic to writing, but they worked so well in helping me see what needed to be done and the actions I needed to take to get to my goals, I thought that spidergrams might be a good way to help conquer the challenges of planning my chapter book, too, including a general ‘book overview’ to-do list.
As a result, not only do I have a better handle on a book consisting of multiple chapters with various moving parts without feeling overwhelmed, but I’ve also developed additional spidergrams to help with character development. They’ve even worked their way into my picture-book planning process.
For picture books, planning is simple. I work with a 32-page storyboard first and list keywords to map out where certain plot points need to happen. (Pssst … if you’ve taken classes with Sudipta before, you’ll be familiar with this method of breaking down your picture book!)
The storyboard gives me a rough page count for each section of the story—from opening to middle to ending. (Tip: the first few pages called front matter are allocated to title, copyright and dedication, leaving the story to start on pages 4-5.) The plan also includes:
- Establishing the main character, setting and conflict/goal
- Charting attempts/fails to solve/achieve the MC’s conflict/goal
- Building tension to the story climax/turning point
- Concluding with: an expected-unexpected ending; bringing the story full circle; adding a twist; or keeping an open ending for a sequel
With this grid, I can check for balance, flaws or other areas that need addressing—too much set up at the beginning, not enough pages to wrap it all up, and so forth. After I’ve got a handle on the structure, I develop a spidergram—working outwards from the center and clockwise from the top (front matter).
- Central circle = Overview of Project [book title & number of pages]
- First set of extended circles = pages/section [can be changed as story develops]
- Second set of extenders = keywords relating to major plot points in story line
- Additional extenders = notes/ideas/afterthoughts/alternative story directions
The spidergram shown above was for Cat Napped! A 32-page picture book for pre-K to Kindergartners told in less than 80 words. A large component of the story was told visually, but I still had to figure out how the story would unfold before getting into sketches. Planning in this way was crucial for me to stay on track with the plot.
For chapter books, the process is similar, but instead of using the 32-page grid for an overview of charting major plot points use a spidergram.
In the example above, see how the first ring of circles extending from the center refer to chapter numbers instead of page counts, sections or spreads. When all the basic keywords/notes are in place continue the breakdown in more detail using a separate spidergram for each chapter.
Seeing as there’s far more detail required in chapter books to picture books, opt to work on larger sheets of paper, or use a dry-erase board. Different colored highlighters can help cross-connect relationships, sub plots etc., or cut out circles and add to a push-pin board connecting with string. Be as creative as you like, go wild and have fun!
Using a spidergram as a visual breakdown and guide for your plotline can help you see where you’re going as you write … One. Step. At. A. Time.
Leeza Hernandez is a picture book illustrator-author who spends her creative time noodling around with story ideas and printmaking in her studio. She is Regional Advisor for New Jersey SCBWI and her latest illustrated book and third in the Homework series Eat Your U.S. History Homework (Charlesbridge) releases in October. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @leezaworks or visit her on the web at leezaworks.com
Leeza is giving away a signed copy of Cat Napped! with cat doodle, plus a DIY spidergram starter kit. Five runners up will each receive a mini spidergram starter kit too! If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Leeza’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.