How To Go Deeper When We Teach Plotting
I write novels, which gives me a plot-oriented perspective on teaching English language arts. I view plot development as a high art that integrates creativity and logic—which is a fine challenge that helps in other subjects too. When I teach a novel or short story, I like to highlight the plot with these activities.
Plot diagrams and other such tools are great for analyzing a plot. And the journalist’s classic questions are wonderful too: who does what, when, where, why, and how?
I also focus students on the rising action and what makes it rise: What events raise the stakes so high that the protagonist is all in?
Third, it’s interesting to have to compare the plot to common models. Is it a classic hero’s quest? Or is it better described by a plot diagram with exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution?
Fourth, I like to ask whether the plot has twists and turns, or is more straightforward. Are there any clever red herrings, twists, reveals, or other surprises?
But all these questions are analytical. I also like students to explore plotting as a creative endeavor by asking them the million-dollar question, what would YOU like this plot to be?
One way to engage their plot imagination is to ask them to come up with a new ending—or if they haven’t read the ending yet, to guess what it will be. And it’s fine to have them sketch out what happens rather than actually have to write the scene fully. I scribble quick sketches when I’m working on my own plots. I think all authors do.
For instance, I wrote this note early on in writing Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key: ‘What if Silent’s mother isn’t actually her mother, and her real mother had to hide their relationship to keep Silent safe? Then Silent discovers some clue—an old letter or photo? and begins to suspect the truth?’ I ended up running with the concept and finding that it gave a lot of energy to Silent’s story.
And, of course, the best way to explore plotting is to draft your own short story. I hope your students have time to do creative writing, curriculum constraints permitting.
I start with a concept for my plot, but I count on it evolving as I write. Clever plot twists don’t necessarily occur to you when you want them to. Try sending your kids home to think about their draft ending, and challenge them to come back another day to pump it up with more excitement, surprises, or twists. The experience of thinking up a plot, then evolving it into something even better, teaches principles of design and development that apply to every field, not just writing.
Sometimes it helps students think of plot ideas for a short story if you ask them to make a table with columns for the protagonist’s goals (1), barriers (2) and actions (3), and the antagonist’s reactions (4). This introduces psychological and interpersonal dynamics to the plotting process:
Plotting is a lot of fun! In fact, it’s arguably one of the main energizers of all great writing.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com, or free to teachers at www.websterpress.com. He has taught at UMass Amherst and North Start Center for Teens, and since moving to Vermont, The Grammar School and Compass School. His ELA curriculum materials are available in the Teacher’s Lounge of the Webster Press website.