Monday, November 7, 2016

Playing with Plot: Figuring out the Paths of Our Stories

After a few days spent really getting to know our characters, I knew my writers were ready for the next step in our realistic fiction unit: figuring out how their story might go.

I cannot place enough emphasis on how important and valuable it was to take the time to truly delve into our characters and their nuances, and I told my students as much. Truly knowing their characters means that they are in tune with their characters' motivations, and this is what will drive their plot. Determining the path of their story is easier because they know what their characters want.

During our mini lesson today, we took time to look at a few different plot arcs that go beyond the typical "plottercoaster," or story mountain that most students assume is the only way to plan a story.

One way, but not THE WAY.

The "Man in the Hole" plot:


The "Cinderella" plot:
I had them try to guess the plot based on my retelling. They got it quickly!

Showing students these different approaches was essential, because, as I've often found, the story mountain format doesn't always capture the nuances of really well-crafted stories. There is more than one way to plot a story! But all three of these approaches do agree on one point: good plots go up and down. They don't stay stagnant! The tension and the conflict is what makes the story worth reading.

Though there are many different ways to plot our stories, I emphasized that there are common ingredients that all stories contain.

Using Batman as an example, I quickly showed students how Batman's quest to bring peace to Gotham (in any iteration of his battles to do just that) follows the Somebody Wanted But So Then format.



Then, I engaged students in helping me plot out the arc of an excerpt from Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle, a shared text that we had used earlier in the year. While we discussed, I pointed out how Walls had intensified the conflict with her plot choices. As authors, making it too easy for our protagonist to achieve his/her goals doesn't make for compelling fiction!



Before sending my writers off to figure out one way their story might go, I reminded them of a few things:

  • It's okay to let your characters make bad choices! Our characters are our babies, so naturally, you want what's best for them, and it's tough to have them be idiots sometimes. But writers know that intensifying the conflict is what makes for good fiction, so sometimes, the bad choices must happen...
  • ...but in the midst of all of this trouble, there has to be a point. Don't let bad things happen to them without being purposeful about it--what's the bigger message? How do these bad things show motivation or theme? Planting the seed about theme during the plotting phase is essential. It helps writers think bigger when making decisions about how the story will go.
  • Sometimes, you might not know what's going to happen next. Plot your story scene by scene. I used the analogy of driving your car on a darkened highway--you can only see what your headlights illuminate. Writers sometimes plot by asking, "What happens first? Okay, what happens next? And then?"

I projected a screen with a couple of other "styles" of plotting that writers might like to try out today: storyboarding or experimenting with plots that show different choices the protagonist might make & what might happen because of these decisions.



With that, we were ready to plot! Everyone had the same goal today: figure out ONE way their story might go, using a plotting tool to help them do this work.

As I circled the room, I was happy to see a variety of techniques being used. I stopped to have a few conversations with students who seemed stuck. I found that the "headlights" technique worked for many of these students: asking "What happens first? And then? And then?" got them storytelling out loud. All that was left to do was commit it to paper.

For a few other students, I gave quick tips on how to intensify their problem through scenes in their plot. For these students, thinking of more than one way the problem might be intensified will prepare them for our work later in the week, when we push ourselves to come up with more potential paths for our stories.

At the end of class, students left my room, still chatting about plots, scenes and how their story ideas are progressing. Any time my students talk about their writing outside of my classroom is a sign to me that they care about their work. And that is what ensures that these stories are going to be ones that my students remember long after they leave 7th grade.

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