Plotting Short Fiction

Last month at MRA, I listened to Jacqueline Woodson speak about her writing process. It wasn’t the first time I heard her speak and I hope it won’t be my last. She is one of the writers I consider as my personal mentor. Not to be over-dramatic, but listening to her last month changed my writing life.

She said, “Plot happens.” Basically you toss some characters together, get them moving, figure out where they are hanging out, throw in conflict, and *voila* you have a plot.  Like all things Jacqueline Woodson, this concept seems almost magical. In reality it is mostly hard work and tenacity.

One thing I’ve learned about writing fiction is the importance of allowing the characters’ to have free will. I expected myself to be an in depth planner, but I’ve found when I allow the characters to lead the story is much better. Jacqueline Woodson’s words have become my mantra, Plot happens (if only I get out of the way and let it unfold).

Kim Jones invited me into her fourth grade class to lead a fiction unit. Much of the notebook work we engaged in was intended for students to get to know their characters and find unexpected gems in their free writing. However, not everyone is this kind of writer. Some fiction writers plan extensively. They plot and plot and plot. At the beginning I was like this. I wanted to make sure I got everything “right.” For me, I’ve found it stifling to work this way.

Still, as a teacher of young fiction writers, it’s necessary to teach what works for me and what might work for other writers. One thing that is in my mind as I write is a plot diagram. I’m thinking about the rising action and building tension. I’m considering the climax and I’m wondering about my resolution. If the writers in our intermediate and secondary classrooms don’t know about these elements, they are at a disadvantage.

Yesterday I introduced the story mountain to the fourth grade fiction writers. Here is the chart I used in the minilesson. We talked about the natural progression of stories.

Then I gave them this planning sheet (click the link for a PDF). I printed it in color that correlates with the chart so they could visually “see” the different parts of the story mountain. During the first 10 – 15 minutes of writing time, I asked students to give this planning a whirl. I think the most significant part was thinking about the character’s main issue and then how the character changes at the end. Plot happens between these two things.

About half of the writers in the room used the planning sheet and found it helpful. Another quarter flew through the plotting sheet, completely indifferent to it, and then started to write. The remaining quarter were stymied by the planning sheet. This is the nature of teaching a room full of unique writers. I asked them to give it a good faith effort, but in the end if it doesn’t work, they abandon it for something that is more useful.

A few notes:

  • Enemy Pie by D. Munson is one of the mentor texts in this classroom. Before the minilesson, I tabbed the different plot points, so kids could see how the diagram looks in a text.
  • This chart is on the elaborate end of the kinds of anchor charts I make. The story mountain and vocabulary for the different points of the plot is new learning. Everything else (like conflict and tension and character change) has been discussed previously in the unit. The blue note has become our mantra, so I added it BIG to the chart.
  • At the same time, it is rare that I give a planning sheet like this to students. Most planning happens in notebooks. I expect kids to be self-sufficient writers. That means they know how to plan without being dependent on a graphic organizer. Most kids will draft their short fiction story in 2 – 4 writing workshops. Then I’ll encourage them to draft another short fiction story. For these following stories, they will use their notebooks for planning. They can draw their own boxes (and even color them if needed) or use another planning technique. This planning sheet is a scaffold for them as they think about the different points in the plot in relation to the story mountain.  Generally in a genre unit of study, I expect students to have at least 2 different drafts before choosing one to publish.
  • Notice there isn’t a scene for exposition and resolution. If you look closely at the chart you will see the first box is mostly orange (rising action) with a little bit of green (exposition) on the bottom left corner. Most short stories begin in the midst of the problem. I want to encourage students to start their story in the midst of the problem too (and avoid the expected “character dump”). In the same manner, there is really only one scene needed after the climax. So I drew a brown box (falling action) with a little black (resolution). Mostly these two wrap around each other.