Elements of Plot

June 21, 2011

Writers’ Group with Cheryl Klein

The Elements of Plot

Double post week!!!! Yes, dear readers, you’re getting TWO entries this week, and they’re each exactly HALF as good as a normal one. Woohoo!


One of the best things about WiCM events is the diversity of interest of WiCM members. On any given night I’m likely to encounter perspectives stemming from a variety of roles in media. But there’s some value to an event with a consolidated focus. This is where the WiCM Writers’ Group comes in. Once a month the call goes out for a group of writers—accomplished and aspiring—to assemble to learn something about the craft.

This week we went to plot school with Cheryl Klein. Cheryl is a senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic). She’s also the author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults.

Summoning her expertise, Cheryl presented an exhaustive lesson on plot construction. She started with the very basic question of why we bother to plot, why we bother to create art at all. Cheryl explained that we tell stories to create emotion. Then she told us how it’s done.

This book is about a boy who discovers he’s a wizard – spoiler alert!!

Cheryl broke story down into small units and used famous plots to drive the information home. I appreciated the examples, though I missed plenty while covering my ears when she cited Harry Potter (I’m reading the series now and desperately avoiding my plot-spoiling nine-year-old nephew).

This event was jam-packed with information. But above the details, an author should always focus on the three overarching points:

1. The emotional point: the key emotional transformation of your protagonist. What internal changes will your protagonist experience?

2. The thematic point: the larger truth that’s new to the reader. What questions is your book asking? Or you might have a point to convey.

3. The experiential point – what kind of overall emotional experience do you want your reader to have by reading your book?

Along the way, Cheryl gave us plenty of useful tips. She spoke about how readers judge characters in relation to other characters. She asserted that a good writer doesn’t protect her protagonist but rather throws all sorts of awful circumstances at her to refine her character. She also demonstrated how a character’s motivation could change from acting for herself to acting for a larger community.

Cheryl broke plot down into tiny, learnable pieces. It was a lot to take in, and writing with all of these lessons in mind struck me as a very scientific, almost mechanical process. But fortunately, Cheryl assured us, most writers have long internalized many of these lessons and follow many of these guidelines naturally.

Simply put, this was a very useful, informative evening. Cheryl really knew her stuff, and I think we all gained from the advice of such an experienced editor. For those of you who want to delve deeper, check out Cheryl’s book.

Until next time,