Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne
Before reading this post it is a good idea to read, The 3 act plot structure for the short story, if you do not understand the 3 act plot structure. This plot structure works as equally well for novels as for short stories.
Writing fiction is a very personal and absorbing experience and therefore it is very difficult for a writer to stand back and look critically at their work. Yet, it is very easy to make any number of mistakes and to keep on making them. A plan gives us (and an editor) a bird’s eye view of our potential story and so acts as a great aid in helping to pinpoint weaknesses early one, particularly structural ones. In the long run, spotting problems this way will save time, energy and heartache. The more we get used to planning out our work, the sharper we become at discovering and correcting problems early.
How much to plan is up to the individual. I make a plan mainly to keep an eye on the plot arc: to make sure the stakes for the protagonist and the tension of the story are constantly rising (for both the short and the novel). I work out my main characters’ plot-related attitude here, too. This way I have the skeleton of my story in place, and that’s enough at this stage. With the skeleton properly structured, I do not have to be restructuring the whole story at some later date which can be quite aggravating and time consuming.
When planning your story, whether it’s a short or a novel, you can work on plot outline, scene outline, character, setting, POV (point of view) and tone. In this post, we are just going to discuss the plan with regards to plot outline.
Plot outline is about placing chapters (or just scenes in the short) in the right order and making sure that these chapters contain all the necessary rising plot points. Every chapter (and scene) must be fully plot related and help push the protagonist deeper into the problem of the story even as they seek to solve the problem. This way the tension keeps rising.
First, plan each chapter (or scene) briefly, just showing what its aim is in relation to the overall plot arc and which characters will be involved in it. Keep thinking of that bird’s eye view. Only later will we bother to pad out details for each individual chapter or scene. Once we have planned this basic plot arc, our bird’s eye view will show us clearly and simply what is in front of us. Our story is about deepening conflict and raising stakes for the protagonist and this means the tension must always be rising. As far as plot outline is concerned, this is all we need to see before us at this stage.
Let’s think how this plot arc of rising tension would appear on a simple graph. The horizontal axis at the bottom measures from the inciting incident to the climax. Rising tension is measured on the vertical axis on the left side of the graph. The line working across the graph from the inciting incident to the climax on the horizontal axis while also working with the rising tension axis represents our plot arc, which must always be climbing at a steady angle, and obviously represents a steady rise in tension throughout the story. We won’t see this rising plot arc any clearer than in our plan. If there is no rising tension in the story, the plot arc line would be perfectly horizontal between the inciting incident and the climax. If tension rose in the first act and then fell off during the second, our plot arc line would rise from the inciting incident to that part of Act 2 where the tension fell off. From that point on, the line would continue horizontal for the rest of the second act or until the tension picked up again. Thereupon, the graph line would start to rise again. Draw the graph and see for yourself.
Every time we draw up a plan for our plot structure, we can also draw this graph and see very clearly whether or not we have planned our plot arc with rising tension. This is really such a simple thing to do, and works equally well for any piece of fiction writing.
The following plan of my children’s short story Paddy’s Beard shows how to make quick and simple notes of each scene (chapters with a novel) with an eye on its place within the overall plot structure. The stakes are always rising for Paddy (by scene 6 he has lost not only his beard but the hair on his head) and the tension with it throughout each scene. Once we’ve done our simple plan like this, we can check our plot arc by drawing a simple line graph.
Scene 1. (Big action scene.) Set-up and inciting incident. Mr Scalppen starts at school, terrifies the class, tells them he hates hair, spots Paddy, pulls his beard, demands he gets rid of it.
Scene 2. (Small scene.) At home. Paddy licking his wounds. Mum really annoyed; going to ave it out with teacher.
Scene 3. (Biggish conflict scene.) Head’s study. Mum and Paddy have it out with Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen wins argument over the beard but lies to get his way. Mr Scalppen doesn’t admit to wanting the beard gone because he hates hair: he says, the beard makes Paddy stick out and not conforming this way will have the other children doing their own thing and then the dress code will be shot to pieces (important point here: Mr Scalppen’s lie comes back to haunt him in the last scene). Paddy must get rid of his beard before the new term.
Scene 4. (Small scene.) At home. We find out mum makes potions. Paddy had measles when young. Mum gave potion to help get rid of measles and beard started growing as she mixed potion too strong.
Scene 5. (Big action scene.) In classroom between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Ends in a draw.
Scene 6. (Smallish scene.) At home with mum. Lowest point for Paddy. Mr Scalppen has slipped something into his drink and made him go bald. Mum decides to fight fire with fire.
Scene 7. (Tiny scene.) In school. Paddy brings in lemonade mixed with hair-growing potion. Still a low point for Paddy as things don’t go according to plan. Teacher won’t drink lemonade but lets the class drink it. End of term.
Scene 8. (Big action scene.) Start of new term. Last scene and final showdown between Paddy and Mr Scalppen. Mr Scalppen’s lies from Scene 3 come back to haunt him as he has to try and deal with an unexpected twist related to Paddy’s mum’s potion. Paddy’s classmates now have beards as the teacher gave them the hair-growing lemonade to drink. Now Paddy is the odd one out – he has no beard. So the head insists it’s only right and proper that Paddy should grow a beard so as not to stick out from the others. That was Mr Scalppen’s whole point and why the head gave in and told Paddy to get rid of the beard in the first place. The teacher has been caught out. Unable to take all this hairiness a moment longer, he flees the classroom never to return.
The plan enables us to look at our plot outline from a bird’s eye view, which makes it easy to see whether or not we will have rising tension throughout the story. This is one of the most useful things for a writer or editor to see in the plan. Rising tension means that the story has plenty of developing conflict, the fuel of any story. Once our notes are done, we can also draw a simple line graph to show even clearer our rising plot arc, or lack of it.
The plan is just that, a plan. The story is organic, and we may make big or small changes along the way. Even a short story can throw up unexpected twists and turns in the plot. Nevertheless, it would be useful to incorporate these changes into our original plan, so we are able to check our rising plot arc is still in place.
This post is a slightly edited extract from chapter 11, the plan: a bird’s eye view from the book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader), by Jerry Dunne.
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