Recently I was sitting in on a picture book critique workshop, listening and reading along as a writer read from her work-in-progress, a story with no clear plot structure. I’d read many such meandering stories over the years as a writing teacher of children, until it occurred to me that the same simple strategy that my literature students use to summarize chapter and book plots could be used as a pre-writing task for storyboarding the main plot points in writing. What a difference! Using this method with my writing students has resulted in clearer plots and tighter stories that are much more satisfying to read.
While there certainly are more sophisticated and refined plotting techniques for writers of picture books to utilize, I find the following scaffold can quickly determine whether a story has a narrative structure.
Ready for this ‘handy’ trick? Open your hand and put out your thumb, then each subsequent finger for each bullet point.
- Someone: Your main character
- Wanted: What does your character want? This can be explicit or implicit and must carry though from story’s beginning to end.
- But: What is the problem/obstruction that keeps your character from getting what he/she wants?
- So: What does your character do to overcome the problem?
- Then: The resolution. Does your character achieve what he/she wanted?
Someone wanted, but, so, then. A simple frame, but it’s enough to hang a story on. Try using it as a storyboard when planning your picture book or next chapter. Or use it as a diagnostic tool after you’ve written, to see whether your story has essential plot points. I’ve even introduced the frame as a discussion device in my book group, which has provoked some lively debates as we hammer out just what exactly our book was really about.
Simple, quick, and always handy, this tool is just an arm’s length away!
[This post was originally published at The Rhubarb Writers Group blog, July 2014]