Monday, April 1, 2013

Picture Book Workshop #9: Plot

Plot.  Aurgh - plot!

Before I write anything on plot, know this; neither my agent or my editor have ever said to me, "Julie, you rock at plot!"

In fact, my agent has pointed out that I kind of suck at it.  I have books on it - just plot - and I have improved.  But it's hard, people.  Writing a story is easy.  Writing a good story with a solid plot is very, very difficult.  I am constantly trying to improve.  So what I tell you here will be easy to understand, difficult to execute, and I don't necessarily think I'm going to be able to help you through it.

(That was super optimistic, yeah?)

Ideally, in picture books, a good plot will take you through a story to a logical, satisfying ending, via unexpected way.

That's the goal.

You know what story I LOVE for plot-talk, Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann.

Officer Buckle is big on safety.  He goes to the elementary school to give tips on safety but he's kinda boring so no one pays attention and they have accidents.  When Gloria, a new police dog arrives, things change.  When Officer Buckle gives his safety speech to the school, Gloria stands in back of his and acts out the consequences (unbeknownst to Officer Buckle.)  The kids think Gloria is fabulous and they pay attention and don't have any accidents.  But when Officer Buckle realizes that Gloria has been showboating behind his back, he is embarrassed,  (He thought the children were cheering for him.)  and hurt.  (He feels as though Gloria is making fun of him.)  So he refuses to go out with Gloria and give safety tips.  Gloria goes by herself, but with no partner, she just sits on the stage and the school has the biggest accident ever.  In the end, Officer Buckle realizes that when he works with Gloria as a team, they are effective in keeping children safe and the final safety tip in the book is, "Always stick with your buddy!"

The main character wants people to hear his safety tips and be safe.  So, logically, the book has to go there to have a satisfying ending - safety.  But who would have thought it would get there by pairing up a cop and a dog as a Abbott and Costello comedy act that only work when they are together.  That's the "unexpected way."

Another great story is Basho and the Fox by Tim Myers, beautifully illustrated by Oki S. Han.

Basho is a famous Japanese poet.  (And I mean he really was.  Basho is non-fictional.  The story is totally fictional as it has talking foxes.  It would be like Edgar Allen Poe and the Kick-Boxing Cat.  Fictionalized real person.)  Basho has chosen a life of solitude so that he can gel with nature and focus on the art of poetry.  Basho has few pleasures, but one of them is eating the ripe cherries off the cherry tree.  Oops.  A Fox strolls up and says that the foxes own the cherry tree and Basho cannot eat them.  In their conversation, Basho reveals that he is a poet and the fox challenges him to a poetry contest.  Basho has three chances to blow the foxes away with a truly great poem.  If he can do it, the foxes will surrender the cherry tree.  If he cannot, no more cherries for you, Mr. Basho.

Logically, Basho will have to win the poetry contest and the cherries for there to be a satisfying ending.
I mean, if he somehow loses to the fox, how can that be cool?  (Sometimes, you can have a story where a character meets an internal goal and therefore no longer needs to meet the external goal - and that works fine.  The example that's coming to mind is the movie CARS, where Lightning McQueen could win the final race but stops to help another car cross the finish line.  He wins a moral victory if not a material one.  That wouldn't apply in this story b/c Basho is internally correct.  He's not greedy, cruel, sad, whiney, selfish, insecure, or anything that he needs to work on as a character.  In Basho and the Fox the goal is purely external.  So he must achieve the goal in order for the story to be satisfying.)

And he does.  He wins the contest on the third try and impresses the foxes and they surrender the cherries.

HOW he does it is what I LOVE about this book.  I just ADORE it.

OK .... so ....  the first poem is about the scent of plums at sunrise.  (And these are all haiku poems FYI.)  The fox is like, "Yeah, OK.  It's alright but it's not great."  Basho is a little surprised that the fox wasn't more impressed.  He decides to work more diligently - really push himself.  The next time they meet, Basho recites a famous haiku about a frog jumping in a pond.  The fox is still unimpressed and it sends Basho into a spiral of self-doubt.  He starts to wonder if he is a great poet.  Finally on the evening of the last challenge, Basho really questions which poem he should read.  He's second guessing every artistic decision.  He is inspired on the spot and recites a poem about a fox's tail.

The fox is amazed!  He wants to hear it again!  It's the most marvelous poem ever!


Because it was about a fox.

You see, the fox isn't a fabulous judge of poetry - he's totally vain!

Basho won the contest in a different way than I had expected.  He didn't win because of his hard work or great poetry.  He won because of the subject matter.

In the end, because Basho is a cool guy, they all share the cherries.  Which is also good, because there are plenty of cherries - no reason not to share.  Everybody wins!

Now everybody go out and write an awesome plot!  Go on.  What are you waiting for?




Mirka Breen said...

For me plotting is easier than character development. But then, every story has a different "initial conception."
Fun to read this today, when I have the characters, but am struggling with the plot.

Becky said...

Thanks for the great post, Julie! I am a fan of Matsuo Basho and will have to check out that PB--it sounds amazing.

Lucia Sasaki said...

Hi Julie, thanks a lot for your workshop! I learn a lot reading your installments.
When I attended storytellling workshops I learnt about repetition stories for little children and I remember that stories with repetition and a surprising or unexpected ends were the favorites.
I didn't know about these books you refered, but I know a little about Basho and haiku. It is a pleasant reading.

Julie_c said...

Hi Mirka - good luck with your plot problem! I'm sure you've figured it out after a few nights sleep. Sometimes I get breakthrough ideas in the shower.
Hi Becky - do check out Basho and the Fox. It's so good! Thanks for posting.
Hi Lucia - always good to hear from you. Repetition is a fabulous thing in picture books. I should do a post on that some day. :)

Damon Dean said...

Great post Julie. I have trouble with plot as well, bat these points help me see the value of the unexpected in plot. Thanks.