Saturday, June 6, 2009

Craft Issue #6: Plot Points (Or, How to Twist Your Character)

In her craft book How To Write a Children’s Picture Book, Eve Heidi Bine-Stock creates a useful paradigm. It’s really not too different from the paradigm created by Syd Field for structuring the screenplay. She uses the term “plot twist” much the way Field uses the term “plot point.” What, exactly, do these authors mean, and how can children’s book writers use this information?

Bine-Stock defines the Plot Twist this way: “Something happens that serves as punctuation between Act I and Act II [and between Act II and Act III]. It is an action or event that spins the story off in a new direction. It is a turning point.” Field defines the Plot Point in nearly identical language: each plot point (there are 2, one at the end of each act) spins the action in a new direction.

Bine-Stock analyzes a large number of picture books using the storybook paradigm, and reveals how surprisingly similar (and symmetrical) they are in structure, and how important the plot twist/plot point is to that structure.

The idea of the plot twist/plot point is actually as old as Aristotle. At the end of each act in Aristotle’s paradigm, the character experiences a change in which his behavior leads to a reversal of values – for example, from positive to negative.

What does this mean for the children’s author? I think it’s most helpful to use a structured approach upon revision. Apply a 3-act structure to the first draft of your novel or picture book. Make sure that at the end of Act I the action of the story spins your character into a new, increasingly tense situation. In Where The Wild Things Are, Plot Twist 1 occurs when a forest grows in Max’s bedroom (positive to negative) and forces him to react (journey to the land of the Wild Things.) At the end of Act II another reversal spins your character into a new direction yet again. Plot Twist 2 in Where The Wild Things Are occurs when Max begins to miss home (negative to positive) and forces him to react (return home.)

Tension is the desired goal of any good writer. Plot twists serve to increase the tension, to, as it were, ratchet up the tension on your character.


Michelle said...

Great post, Janet - I am forever struggling with structure! I'll have to check out Bine-Stock's book, too. - Mikki

Janet Fox said...

Thanks, Mikki! Yes - she has a great template in her book. And she analyzes a bunch of PBs. Very interesting! (I struggle with structure, too...)

Glad your kitty is recovering. :)