Amy Fellner Dominy: Let Your Character Create Plot and GIVEAWAY

amy d1Plotting a book is one of those things that many writers struggle with—including me.  As much as we might want to dive in to a book and just write, one of the first things we’ve got to do is plot, right? That’s our job.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if we could leave the plotting to someone else and create better stories in the process?

Well, that’s what I’m going to suggest here, along with a different way of thinking about plot. Here’s the basic idea:

Plot doesn’t come from the mind of the author. Plot comes from the character.

 At its most basic, what is plot? Plot is action. Plot is action taken by a character. Now, why does a character act? Well, for the same reason you and I do in our daily lives. We want something. Or, we have a problem that must be solved. So:

Character + Problem/Goal = Plot (Action)

Which brings me to my snake story. One day, I was home with my son (who was about 15 at the time), when suddenly he screamed. There was a snake on the stairs. (Apparently they can come in through air vents.)

We both leapt into action.

Which meant more screaming.

As it turns out, he and I are both unreasonably afraid of snakes—even this one that wasn’t poisonous.

Being the rational Mom, I called animal control, Googled snake sites and posted a “HELP!” message on Facebook. No luck.

            At the same time, my son, always ready to dive into action, retrieved “weapons” from his room. A baseball bat. A trashcan. He got a broom and a dust pan but as soon as the snake squirmed, we screamed again and leapt back. Finally, he called a friend. Ten minutes later, a girl came over. She calmly picked up the snake and carried it out back. End of story.

But I often think about that snake because it’s such a vivid example of how differently each of us reacts when confronted with a new situation.

How we act/react is what creates story.And what we do is based on who we are

It works the same in a book.

            One of my favorite books on craft is by Stephen King. This is one of my favorite excerpts:

king“I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I love this way of thinking about story like a situation. Putting your characters in some sort of predicament and then watching them try to work themselves free.

I think the danger of creating a plot and then plugging in the characters is you can end up with a story that isn’t believable. It’s like the girl in the horror movie who goes into a dark basement with a serial killer on the loose. Who does that? Every time I put down a book unfinished, it’s because the characters are doing things that the author wants them to do—not the things they would actually do.

Now, here’s where the hard work comes in. (You didn’t think you were getting off easy, did you?) You, as the author, have three very important jobs.

  1. In order to force your character into action, you must give them problems—bad ones.
  2. You must create high stakes for failure so the reader cares if they succeed or not.
  3. You have to flesh out your character so well that you know what they would do next. Because they have strengths and flaws and fears and dreams that motivate their actions—the same way that ours do.

amy dIs your character acting within reason and with a reason?

Here’s an exercise I often turn to when I’m not sure what should happen next. It also comes in handy when I’m starting a new project.  At the top of a page, write out the predicament your character finds himself/herself in. Then, write down five to ten things that your character might do. Here’s an example of how this turned out for me in my latest book, A Matter of Heart.

PREDICAMENT: Abby’s heart falls out of rhythm and she faints after competing in a swim meet.

  1. She hides it.
  2. She decides it’s electrolyte imbalance and vows to drink more Gatorade
  3. She tells her coach like she knows she’s supposed to.
  4. She asks her dad to call 911.
  5. She pulls herself from the next race; decides to rest a few days.
  6. She’s happy—fainting means she’s putting out maximum effort.
  7. She wonders if she’s pregnant.
  8. She uses it to get sympathy from her boyfriend.

So, some of those are ridiculous. (Abby has never had sex so number 7 is pretty far-fetched.) But the exercise got me thinking about Abby and exactly what type of person she is. Also, it helped me focus on what Abby wants. (Remember, characters are motivated by what they need/desire.)  Abby’s only goal is to keep swimming. Knowing that, the only possible action for Abby is to hide it if possible and if not, blame the fainting on electrolytes. And keep swimming.

Of course, there’s Abby’s mom. Abby’s mom also has one goal. And that’s to keep Abby from swimming until she’s checked out. It’s a little bit like Dominos—one falls and that pushes the next one and the next one.

Now, as the author, you will have to jump back in with more obstacles on occasion. If your character is succeeding, then what else can you throw at them? Which is why creating a worthy villain will make your job that much easier.

Give it a try and see if it works for you. Choose any predicament at any point in the book.  If you’re feeling brave, post it here in the comments! I’d love to see what you come up with.

Amy DominyAmy Fellner Dominy is the author of  OyMG (2011) a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens, and Audition & Subtraction (2012) a Bank Street’s “Best Children’s Books of the Year.”  A former advertising copywriter, Amy earned an MFA in playwriting in 2004.  Her plays for adults and children have been staged across the country. Amy lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. You can find her at http://www.amydominy.com.

Amy is giving away a copy of A MATTER OF HEART. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. This prize cannot be shipped internationally. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Amy’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.

Kami Kinard: Plotting Daze: Planning Your Plots with Calendars and GIVEAWAY

We’ve received a ton of good advice so far about how to make things happen in your manuscripts! By now, you must be thinking about your character’s motivations and what they have at stake.

So today I want to concentrate on the WHEN of plotting — the passage of time.

If things happen out of order in a plot – at the wrong time – the plot won’t work.  The hero can’t vanquish the villain on the first page, we all know that. But it’s important that other events happen in the right order too.

You’re probably all familiar with this very basic plot chart. The one where the plot is like a mountain your character has to struggle to climb (only to topple from the pinnacle later).

Rising Action 1 - typed

You’ll notice the main character’s climb – the rising action – takes up the most space on the chart. This will happen in your book too. And it’s often where plots start to unravel. So let’s talk about rising action.

Rising action in a novel is like rising dough in bread baking. It takes time. If you don’t allow enough time for your dough to rise, it will fall flat. The same is true of your plot.

I had this issue with my current work in progress (WIP). For this book, I wanted the action to occur within thirty days. I wrote it that way, revised it, and sent it out to my critique partners. I was thrilled to find they really liked it!

But then they suggested we have a Skype conversation to talk about some “plotting issues.”  Whaaaaaaat?

Some of the action was happening too fast. The plot also had a few holes. Hmmmm. It seems I’d let a major character AND a major event fall through the cracks. In other words, I had been so excited about helping my character climb the plot mountain, that I hadn’t given my rising action enough time to rise. At that point the plot chart for my WIP was looking something like this:

Rising Action 2

boy projectI immediately knew which plotting tool I’d use to fix the problem: a blank calendar. I used blank calendars to help plot both The Boy Problem and The Boy Project. It was extremely helpful to be able to see at a glance how my main characters, Tabbi and Kara, were moving through those novels. Using calendars made it easy to ensure that weekend events, due dates for science projects, and interactions with other characters happened in the right order and at the right times.

I had also used this tool to plot my WIP to begin with, the one I was having trouble with now. But at first I’d started with a thirty day calendar. After the critique process, it was clear that I needed to stretch out the rising action. I needed to add more time to my plot.

For a project like this, a large desk calendar is indispensable. The larger sized squares make them a perfect canvas for post-it notes. When I was re-ordering pieces of my plot, I could easily mix around the sequence of events with post-it notes. Some events had to take place on certain days. These couldn’t be moved. I had more flexibility with others.  So I moved the conclusion further down the calendar, then stretched out the existing events, while adding a few more in order to fill in those holes my critique group pointed out. Below you can see the before and after calendars used for this project. I don’t know how I could have written, or revised, the manuscript without them!

Calendar - reduced, not readableWhen we start writing our books, we usually have a good idea of how to begin. And not long after that, we are able to see how our stories might end. But the rising action…. that’s the tough part. It’s hard to make our characters take all of the time they need when they could be reveling in the glories of our fantastic conclusions! Still, it’s important to give them time. Using a calendar as a plotting device is one one way to make sure you do that.

the boy problemTips:

  • You can employ this technique whether your story spans a year, a month, a week, or just a few hours. Using the table making function in Microsoft Word, create a calendar-scaled table, or a chart to accommodate any other unit of time.
  • Use different colored markers to indicate subplots so that you can see at a glance. This will make it easy to realize when you drop a thread.
  • Mark your calendar with symbols or initials to represent secondary characters. This way, you can keep track of  how often your main character interacts with them.

Head Shots from Carpe Diem 015Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous periodicals for children and adults. A former public educator, Kami remains dedicated to teaching and often leads writing workshops at conferences and in schools. You can visit her at  www.kamikinard.com or atwww.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta.

Kami is giving away a TWENTY PAGE manuscript critique with a follow-up phone call or Skype session. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this prize, 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 Kami’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.