Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Mapping Your Plot

In my “Just Write for Kids” course, we spend quite a bit of time exploring different ways to develop plot.

We look at basic three-act storytelling structure:

Act 1 – Set-up/Intro to character(s) and problem

Act 2 – Problem escalates to crisis or turning point

Act 3 – Resolution/Character solves problem and/or learns something, grows or changes in process

Another great way to develop or measure your plot is against the following story structure, or plot sequence:

  • Something happens to someone
  • Which leads to their wanting/needing something, and/or making a goal
  • Which needs a plan of action
  • But forces try to stop the protagonist (obstacles occur)
  • Yet they move forward (because there is a lot at stake)
  • But then, there’s a crisis! Things get as bad as they can
  • And they learn an important lesson
  • Which helps them overcome the final obstacle
  • Thus satisfying the need created by something in the past.

Here’s an example of how this might work as measured against our recent picture book, The Very Fairy Princess:

  • Something happens to someone – Gerry learns she will be part of a new ballet, The Crystal Princess, at her ballet school
  • Which leads to their wanting/needing something, and/or making a goal – She wants to play the lead – the Crystal Princess!
  • Which needs a plan of action – she offers all the reasons why she is perfect for the part (already has the costume, accessories, is a natural etc.)
  • But forces try to stop the protagonist (obstacles occur) – she is cast as the Court Jester instead. Worse, she hates her costume, which makes her look like a boy.
  • Yet they move forward (because there is a lot at stake) – She really wants to be in the ballet, so she swallows her pride, and plays the jester. She also hides her crown under her jesters hat, so as to still be a fairy princess underneath.
  • But then, there’s a crisis! Things get as bad as they can – When it comes time to perform the ballet, everything that can go wrong, does… Gerry steps on Tiffany’s (who plays the Princess) toes, trips over her stick, and her crown slips out from under her hat. She is in serious danger of losing her ‘sparkle’ altogether. Then, Tiffany’s crown falls off and gets crushed – and the ballet mistress expects Gerry to give Tiffany HER crown!
  • And they learn an important lesson – Gerry realizes that a Crystal Princess REALLY needs to sparkle, and by lending her crown to Tiffany, her own sparkle comes rushing back.
  • Which helps them overcome the final obstacle – By saving the show, and the day, Gerry makes friends with Tiffany. She also gets to be seated in the front of the company photo, and to keep her jester’s stick and hat. Plus, her own crown feels ‘extra-sparkly’ when Tiffany gives it back.
  • Thus satisfying the need created by something in the past. – Gerry ends up being a star after all — in a different way than she imagined, but perhaps an even more satisfying one.

This tool can be used to develop an initial plot, or to assess one in progress as part of the self-editing process.  And, it can be as valuable for a chapter book or novel as it is for a picture book, since the basic principles of dramatic structure are the same.


9 Responses to “Mapping Your Plot”
  1. Joanna says:

    This is tremendously helpful, to take a book we know and run through the plot structure step by step, with us. Thank you. It makes me appreciate the strength of the new book even more also ;). I realize that I personally need to hear and read again and again how to develop a good plot. Each time some different slant sinks in or I spot another weakness in one of my manuscripts. Great post, Emma.

  2. Suzie says:

    Thank you so much for sharing such detail, Emma! This is exactly what I needed to get started on one of my writing goals for the year! Yay!

  3. Priscilla Rogers says:

    As I have begun to write, I find that following your guidelines is proving beneficial. Now I am going back to each story, and as I read it, I check for main characters, plot and crisis. So far the resolutions have been obvious. You have so many great suggestions, and I am learning from them. Thanks a million!!!

    Also, I am supplying my grandchildren with books and encouraging them to read. My children were familiar with all kinds of books, and I read to them daily. But, they have not carried through with reading to their children. So, that is my project. Books made a world of difference in my life.

  4. Beth says:

    This is such a helpful post, Emma! Working through The Very Fairy Princess Takes the Stage makes the outline we’ve studied make so much sense. Now to see how well I can apply it to my own writing. (Ah, there’s the rub…)

    @Priscilla — your project to get your grandchildren reading warms my heart. Have you read Emma’s “Raising Bookworms”? It’s an incredibly helpful book.

  5. Priscilla Rogers says:


    I don’t have the book but hope to order it soon. Grandchildren are so precious, and I know they are missing so much by not reading. My youngest granddaughter has a birthday coming up, so she will have one of the “Little Bo” books from me. I am an avid reader, and I would love for my grands to have the opportunity to learn to love books as I have. Thanks for your response.

  6. Beth says:

    Priscilla — all the best with both your ‘reading with the grands’, and your writing projects. Are you a member of Emma’s Children’s Book Hub? If not, I strongly urge you to join — it is a wonderful resource, and a supportive community. (I’m elizabethanne on the Hub.)

  7. Patricia says:

    Thank you so much Emma. This is really helpful. This has been the format I’ve used to map out my story idea. But, it takes on new meaning with your story. I really liked what you shared last night.

    Priscilla — I join Beth inviting you to think about joing the Hub, if you’re not already a member. We really are a very supportive community full of ideas and fun!

  8. Diane says:

    Thankyou Emma for reinforcing the plot structure for me and especially by using your book “The Very Fairy Princess Takes the Stage” in that way. That was tremendously helpful.

  9. Priscilla Rogers says:

    Writing is a challenge as I try to get the information into story form. I do have Emma’s book which is proving to be a help. Yes, I am now a member of the Hub, and I look forward to gaining as much as possible from it. This section is giving me much to think over as I create the character and plot.

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