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Plotting a Children's Book
by Robyn Opie Parnell

In a previous article on writing for children, I explained the ideas behind some of my children's books. Over time, I've trained my brain to be on "alert" for ideas and I discover a lot more ideas than I have time to put pen to paper or fingers to laptop.

Not all ideas are equal.

Some ideas work well and become books. Some ideas fail to develop.

So how do we take an idea and develop it into a plot for a children's book? How do we work out what to write once we have the initial idea?

Here's a basic plot outline:

  • A main character is introduced.

  • The main character's problem is revealed.

  • Obstacles stand between the main character and their goal.

  • The main character reacts and new obstacles arise.

  • The main character reacts again and new obstacles arise. The tension is mounting.

  • All seems lost. But wait!

  • All is resolved as the story is brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

It's important to remember that a plot is supposed to help the writer and reader. Don't adhere too closely to the above plot outline if it hinders your writing.

Some writers prefer to work with a plot outline. Some writers don't give plot a thought until they've finished the first draft. Do what works for you.

Let's look at some important elements of plot in regards to writing for children.

The best plots come from characters. It's a character's personality, background and experiences that determine how he or she will react to certain situations, events or people.

As a writer, you can come up with an idea. Where your idea goes - the plot - depends on your characters. Every idea can go off in many directions. More on this in a minute.

A plot needs conflict or a problem to be interesting and entertaining. Sure, I can sit here and tell you the "plot" of my day. Ho hum! No one cares, other than me, and possibly my dogs.

However, if I go outside and find a lion in my backyard, you'd probably become interested in my day. My day has a conflict or problem. What am I going to do? How am I doing to solve this problem? Can I solve this problem? Or will I become lion lunch?

Okay, back to the character. Me. Imagine I've been abusing my dogs? Huh! They're asleep on my bed. Anyway, imagine that I'm abusive to animals. You'd probably be rooting for the lion, hoping that I get my just desserts. Or hoping that the lion gets its just desserts. Me!

Now imagine that I'm a little old lady who takes in poor orphaned children and cats. Er small, domestic cats. You'd probably be rooting for me (and my brood), hoping that the nasty lion goes away hungry.

The direction this plot takes depends on the main character - their personality, background and experiences. Animal abuser or little old lady with orphans? The animal abuser might feed her dogs to the lions then try to escape. The little old lady would probably feed herself to the lions to save the orphans - as a last resort.

Every character has motivation - a reason to be in the story. The main character has motivation that the reader cares about i.e. the little old lady saving herself and her poor orphans from being lion lunch.

Sometimes it's the motivation of other characters that become obstacles to the main character reaching his or her goal i.e. the next-door neighbour wants the old lady and orphans to move out and therefore tries to assist the lion. He probably put the lion there in the first place.

The best plots have tension. It's the tension that keeps a reader involved in a story, that keeps them turning the pages. Most of us have had the feeling "I need to know what happens next".

The little old lady is about to be eaten. No, she's not. Yes, she is. No, she's not.

The tension is building. The main character has a problem. He/she tries to fix the problem. But the problem gets worse. He/she tries to fix the problem. But the problem gets worse. He/she tries to fix the problem. Yay! They finally solve their problem.

As you can see, every scene in a plotted story follows logically from the previous one. Plot makes the scenes appear connected.

A picture book has simpler plots. The above illustration of a plot may not suit a picture book.

My plot "map" shows you how I started with a basic idea. "Tom is afraid of water" then took that idea off in many directions. The plot of this children's story comes from the character - Tom.

How Tom will react to being afraid of water depends on Tom's personality, background and experiences. Other characters can become part of his problem or obstacles to resolving the problem.

I thought about water and related topics. Then I asked myself questions.

I used my plot "map" to follow each of these ideas to see what could happen next. Hopefully, one of these possibilities will appeal to me and I'll choose that one to work on. I can use the plot "map" structure to outline the plot of my chosen idea.

Remember a plot is about a character with a problem. Make that problem BIG. And if your story begins to snooze, then give your character more problems.

My plot "map" is a visual of where an idea can go. As I mentioned earlier, one idea can go off in many directions. You may prefer to work with a list. This happens. Then this happens. Then this happens. You may prefer to work without a plot. Give your character obstacles, not yourself. Do what works for you.

CLICK HERE to download my plot "map"
(This is a PDF file - to download, right-click your mouse over the link and select "save target as" - then save the file to your preferred destination before opening!)


Copyright Robyn Opie Parnell. All Rights Reserved.

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