A few weeks ago I attended a plot master class with Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur A. Levine books, an imprint of Scholastic. Cheryl worked on many of the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter series, and continues to edit amazing books. She is one of the most dedicated editors I have met, and she has an analytical mind that can dissect a plot and really hone in on what needs to be fixed.
Cheryl’s fabulous book, Second Sight, is a wealth of information about different pieces in the craft of writing, and I highly recommend it for writers in any genre. It will make you a better writer.
Instead of just talking about the standard things we always talk about when we examine plot, like the rising tension, climax, etc., Cheryl talked more about the intricacies of plot and how to bring them out. Here are just a few of the insights I gleaned from Cheryl’s day long workshop:
A good plot should have three major points. First, there is the emotional plot involving the main character and how she changes over the course of the book. Second, there is the overall thematic point of the novel, what the events of the plot mean and how they enable the reader to understand a larger truth in the world. And third, there is the experiential plot, which is what you want the reader to experience, to feel as we read the book. So plot is more than just the events of the story, the impact they have on each other.
Some questions Cheryl asks about the emotional plot include: What is your character’s drive/desire/compulsion? What is the character in danger of losing of gaining because of this? This is also called stakes. The higher the stakes for a character, the more tension in the plot. Death is a big stake. But there are plenty of others. Love. Money. A future. A career. Lots of things can be at stake. This largely depends on the genre and the age of the reader. A book for young children might have stakes such as the loss of a friend, or the death of a pet. Those are big stakes for that age.
The stakes have to be something the reader understands. We need to know and experience why these stakes are important to that character.
If you want to increase the stakes, here are some strategies: Include more people. For example, if death is the stakes, then have more people in danger of dying. Time constraints. For example, the character must deactivate the bomb before it detonates. Competition. Someone else (the antagonist, often) wants the same thing. Doubling down. Whatever it is, double it. Dead people? Double the number. Time constraints? Cut it in half. You get the picture.
Three basic kinds of plot: Conflict, mystery, lack. There might be elements of more than one of these things in the overall plot. Different characters or subplots might have different kinds of plots. Whatever kind yours is, it should be consistent with the stakes and the genre. And appropriate to the thematic and emotional point of the book.
This is not even half of what we learned, but it’s plenty to keep me, and hopefully you, working on revisions for a good long while.
If you want to know more about Cheryl or follow her blog, go here.