Plotting is HARD.
I can do interesting characters all day long. Quirky, intriguing, charismatic, fresh – give me character any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Figuring out what those interesting characters will do to support a narrative worthy of a book? That’s HARD.
When something is hard, I try to break it down into smaller pieces and figure out how to make all those pieces work together in harmony. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me, but I find that I create a lot of formulas and protocols (you can find some examples of my tendency to go all science nerd on my literature here and here). So when it came to writing this post about plotting, I found myself thinking about a similar approach – this time in the form of a recipe.
You see, the cooking analogy is very apropos, as a strong plot is like a fine, gourmet meal – carefully crafted with only the finest materials. A chef blends ingredients and flavors expertly to create a delight for the senses. This is what we as authors must do with our plots.
A good chef knows that quality starting materials are essential for mouthwatering morsels – but that the real magic is not in the freshness of the ingredients but in the careful balancing of one perfectly against another. So today, we’ll talk about ingredients and balance
At a high level, you cook up a plot with about six main “ingredients,” so to speak: goals, obstacles, motivations, fears, stakes, and rewards. When I work with students on their manuscripts, to fine tune their plots I always ask these questions to understand the specifics of these ingredients:
Some of these ingredients come more easily than others. Typically, writers have a good grasp of the character’s goal and the obstacles, but haven’t always fully thought through the rest of the items. On the Exercise Sheet that accompanies this post, you can fill out the pie slices with these ingredients to plan out your plots more completely.
But as I said before, it isn’t just about the ingredients themselves – it is about the balance. My favorite chocolate pecan pie recipe uses the following ingredients for the filling:
Now, imagine if you gathered all these ingredients and mixed them together – using 1 cup of each. One full cup of eggs, one full cup of salt, one full cup of margarine, etc. IT WOULD BE DISGUSTING. Inedible. Unappetizing. But when you get the balance right:
Well, that filling tastes absolutely divine.
Finding the Balance in a Plot Pie
There is an overall balance to a good plot, but, in my opinion, certain pairings are more natural than others. In general, when I cook up a plot, I balance the goals against the obstacles, the motivations against the character’s fears, and the stakes against the reward.
Simply put, the bigger the item on one side of the scale, the bigger the one on the other side must be. If your character’s goal is huge like he wants to save the world, one of his obstacles can’t be a hangnail – because when all of humanity is at stake, he wouldn’t care about a hangnail. On the other hand, if your character has a smaller goal (like getting up the courage to go to the first day of school), a hangnail might be enough to put him into a tizzy – but giving him an obstacle like an alien invasion of the entire planet would be too much for him to overcome and create an illogical plot.
If the character is highly motivated to reach his goal, but he has no fears to hold him back, the narrative will feel too simple, the plot too easy. If the character wants to be the star of the school play because he is motivated by the rewards of fame, you can’t let him be at ease in front of audiences, with not a hint of stage fright, gorgeous and popular and the clear favorite.
Similarly, if the stakes are very high, the reward has to be proportional. If the character is risking his life in pursuit of the goal, you can’t just reward him with a new hat. But if all he risks is something as small as attempts to get over shyness, the reward can’t be being elevated to emperor of the land.
Balance is the key.
Turning up the Heat…and Burning the Pie
Since you have to keep things in proportion, if you up one ingredient, you may have to up another. If you give your character a bigger goal in the revision process, make sure the obstacles are made more difficult as well. If you raise the stakes of the story, make sure you make the reward all the more sweet. But be careful as you are doing this – sometimes authors get so wrapped up in turning up the heat that they keep upping everything…to the point of the ridiculous. Every story doesn’t need a murderer, or a nuclear explosion, or Jack Bauer (trust me, Jack Bauer is a terrible addition to a picture book!). Don’t feel like you have to max out every ingredient to be able to cook up a compelling plot (just as you wouldn’t set your oven to broil for everything you needed to cook). Your ingredients have to match the flavor of the story you are trying to tell.
One last point (before I belabor this cooking analogy to death): there are almost no good ingredients or bad ingredients when it comes to crafting your plot. “Surviving the monstrous Hampire” is not a better or worse goal than “running wild at bedtime.” “Getting a good night’s sleep before your wedding day” is not a better or worse reward than “being accepted by your dino-classmates.” “Because I’m lonely” is not a better or worse motivation than “because I’m hungry for a mango.” In the right context, each of those things can work in a book. Almost anything can work in a narrative as long as the goals are commensurate to the obstacles, the motivation is proportional to the fears, and the stakes are well-balanced against the rewards.
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Duck Duck Moose (a CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (a Junior Library Guild Selection), Orangutangled, and Chicks Run Wild. She in the founder of Kidlit Writing School and frequently speaks about the craft of writing at schools and conferences all around the world. You can learn more about her and her books on her website www.sudipta.com or at her blog www.NerdyChicksRule.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @SudiptaBQ. Like her on Facebook here.
Sudipta is giving away a free 5-week picture book writing course at Kidlit Writing School as a part of Kidlit Summer School. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win this course, 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 Sudipta’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
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