Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Recipe for a Nerdy Chick Plot Pie and GIVEAWAY

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.

QuadraticFormulaWhen 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.

t wrecksYou 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:

plot pie table

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:

pecan pie no amts

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:

pecan pie w amts

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.

hampireSimply 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

DDM coverSince 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.

orangutangled coverOne 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.

Now…start cooking!

IMG_1445Sudipta 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 or at her blog 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.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.


296 comments on “Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Recipe for a Nerdy Chick Plot Pie and GIVEAWAY

  1. brook gideon says:

    LOL to the Jack Bauer line. thanks for the great info!


  2. I can’t wait to check my manuscript to weigh its ingredients and make sure they’re balanced- thanks for the ideas


  3. Kim Chaffee says:

    I love your point about everything is proportion because if we added everything equally it would be awful! Thanks for the great post!


  4. jodelle55 says:

    This was a great post about plotting. I really like how you distilled all your advice down to the included chart.


  5. jodelle55 says:

    Great post on plotting. I really loved how you distilled all your advice down to the plotting chart for us.


  6. I have no clue who Jack Bauer is, but that’s probably a good thing. Brilliant cooking analogy! I’m wondering how quadratic equations fit into the picture. Maybe the question should be: Is your parabola half empty or half full? And how does its orientation affect the recipe?


  7. Wendy Knight says:

    Cooking. The one thing I’m worse at than plotting 😉 Love the analogy, though! Makes perfect sense.


  8. Rita Zobayan says:

    My hubby is the one who usually cooks. Still, I guess I’ll keep giving it and writing a go.


  9. Nothing but the best from the one and only Sudipta! The six “main ingredients” of goals, obstacles, motivation, fears, stakes and rewards are outstanding questions to support plot. You are appreciated.
    ~Suzy Leopold


  10. Jacqui H. says:

    I think you are very right about easily knowing the goals and obstacles…the other points are something I need to dig deeper into in my writing. Thank you!


  11. Such great info here. Also, pick me! Would love to take your course.


  12. sharon giltrow says:

    Thank you Sudipta for the cooking analogy it has give me a clear and concise guide to cooking up a PB 🙂


  13. pathaap says:

    Lots of helpful info, Sudipta. Thanks!


  14. Great blog! Thank you for sharing.


  15. Hi Sudipta!

    What a wonderful “birthday” present I gave myself when I read your wonderful post! Unfortunately the original comment I typed out didn’t actually post like I thought it did so I’ve probably missed out on the drawing but still have the lesson…;~)

    Take care,

    Donna L Martin


  16. I especially liked your description of balance. Very helpful, plus very entertaining. 🙂 Thanks!


  17. Ellen Sirianni says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing.


  18. MaDonna says:

    Can’t wait to use the plot pie on my novel. I’m really enjoying this class, it’s only day 2 and I feel like my notebook is overflowing with notes already. Thanks so much!


  19. Flower says:

    Thanks for the recipe!


  20. McCourt says:

    Such great info. Loved the cooking analogy. Thanks for entering me in the drawing.


  21. My gosh, it’s so simple, and yet, I haven’t been plotting this way. Now I want to go list all of my character’s goals, obstacles, and rewards on a spreadsheet to see if they’re proportioned correctly!


  22. Bobi says:

    Reading the summer school posts is like enjoying a wonderful meal. Winning the pb course would be a fabulous dessert.


  23. Mandy Yates says:

    Brilliant post. Love the analogy!


  24. Awesome post! The pie sounds amazing!


  25. You rock… But now I want pie.


  26. writersideup says:

    Classic Sudipta fare! How delicious! Scrumptious! Scrumpdillyicious! Seriously—great stuff, Sudipta. The analogy is cooked to perfection! Thanks! 😀


  27. What a wonderful gift for one lucky winner and a great cooking analogy for all.


  28. Zainab says:

    You do an amazing job of showing how easy it is to write a picture book (I wish). Thanks for your tips. They really help.


  29. Cindy C. says:

    Thanks Sudipta. I love the cooking analogy and the focus of this year’s Kidlit Summer School. Plot is my weakest writing skill…hope to learn tons!


  30. Janet Smart says:

    Great post. You make it sound so simple. And, thanks for the opportunity to win the wonderful prize.


  31. anniebailey7 says:

    I agree. Plotting is hard. But for me so are characters. It’s all hard! Great post, and that pie recipe looks delish!


  32. SevenAcreSky says:

    Balance, proportion….I’ve never been consciously aware of these important factors before. Thanks, wow what eye opening ideas.


  33. Leah Heilman Schanke says:

    Cooking is one my favorite things to do. I especially love baking. The analogy worked wonders for me!


  34. As a cook, this made a lot of sense to me. I feel like I understand the components and the idea of balance a little better now. Thanks!


  35. I loved your cooking analogy. Great info. Thanks!!!


  36. Excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with the kidlit community!


  37. Thanks for the concept of balance. So helpful.


  38. ritaborg says:

    don’t usually eat chicken, but love to try this one


  39. joypainter says:

    Thanks for this delicious post of info. I am now hungry to write a new PB, and I have a hankering to bake a chocolate pecan pie!


  40. Susan Cabael says:

    Love the ideas of balance between the goal/motivation/stakes and obstacles/fears/rewards. Plus, the pie recipe sounds YUM!


  41. Debbie Vilardi says:

    I love the extended metaphor and the structure of your post. Life is about balance. And writing is about life, or lives of the character(s). Balance is a must to keep it real.


  42. Dawn says:

    Fun post. Putting my ingredients in order so that I can start cooking!


  43. kpbock says:

    Fabulous advice, as always, Sudipta!


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