By Faran Fagen
If you read my last post, you learned about Ready Chapter 1, a year-long, interconnected workshop series that meets you where you are at as you write your middle grade novel.
In March’s class, agent and author Joyce Sweeney, along with moderator Fred Koehler, discussed Character Development with an emphasis on the Plot Clock. The Plot Clock is a great tool for planning out any piece of fiction—including middle grade books—and is also a powerful way of determining what is missing is a story once you’ve completed your first draft. Just by looking for each component of the Plot Clock you can easily see where a hole is in your plot, where you’ve spent too much time or not enough, and how to add more dramatic tension to your writing.
The Plot Clock is often used by writers to develop the plot of the stories, to see where a story might need more oomph, and to find places to add suspense.
One of the main questions Sweeney addressed in the Ready Chapter 1 March session was, how does the main character (MC) change from the beginning of the story to the end? The plot centers around the main character’s arc.
What does the Main Character (MC) need to change? Are they too shy? Too aggressive? What are they fighting against? How do they resist change? How do they overcome the obstacles you, the author, place in their path and how does it shape them?
One thing Sweeney said was that story telling is a part of human nature and we all have an internal plot clock. Sometimes we read a story, hear a story told, watch a movie or television show and it just doesn’t feel right, but we can’t say why. Our internal plot clocks tell us that something is amiss. We don’t want our readers to get this “amiss” feeling. This is where the plot clock comes in handy.
The Plot Clock is a circle divided into four equal quadrants making up four acts. Some acts might be longer than others, but the clock works best when the book balances all fourth quadrants in length and substance.
The picture below shows a plot clock with the four acts. Sweeney actually wrote and published a short book in 2019 called Plotting your novel with the Plot Clock that goes into much more detail. This book helped me immensely with my MG The Save, which is being shopped around by my agent.
Ordinary World—The story begins in what is normal for the main character. Are they a star athlete in a troubled family with a sick parent? A young girl in Kansas who yet to realize “there’s no place like home”. You can’t care about what will happen later in a story or see the ramifications of it, if you don’t know what the status quo is for the main character.
Inciting Incident—Somewhere in ACT 1 (or even multiple times in ACT 1), something happens that shakes up the norm. The apple-cart of the plot is turned over or, at least, upset in some way. The Inciting Incident gives a clue to the reader what the Special World the character is entering will be like (even though the character may or may not realize it himself/herself).
Binding Point—The Binding point is where the character does something that causes him to be bound to the Special World. He has bitten the forbidden fruit, climbed onto the pirate ship, followed the rabbit into the woods, shook hands with the devil. And that turns what was the normal, ordinary world on its ear.
Special World—After the Binding Point, the MC enters into a Special World. That doesn’t mean he/she is transported to the past in a Delorean, but now the character is dealing with the problem of the story. The Special World could be a psychological state, a problem, a challenge, a recognition, an experience, and it could even be a magical place. “It is the place where the character goes to do all the work of the story.”
Tests and Challenges Failed—During this act the character tries to deal with his/her problem and fails—over and over and over. Usually the situation is growing worse and worse and worse.
Low Point—Often in ACT 2 the situation gets worse and worse and worse ending with the Low Point. The Low Point is usually the worst thing the MC is dreading comes to pass. And then leads to the Change in the MC.
Change—The main character comes to realization that he/she needs to change and gets a clue that the old strategies he/she was using aren’t working. The main character makes a Change and moves out of “all is lost” and into ACT 3.
Tests and Challenges Passed—ACT 3 mirrors ACT 2. However, the main character begins to figure out what will work and may even get cocky with success. But as the main character is getting stronger, the antagonist is getting stronger, too.
Turning Point—The Turning Point comes at the end of ACT 3. It’s something unexpected that shocks the reader (“Luke, I am your father”) and makes the character move towards the climax.
The time period between the Turning Point and the Climax of the story is the darkest of all for the main character. This time leads to the Climax.
Climax—This is the battle to end all battles and answers the dramatic question of the story. The Climax may also resolve other sub-plots. The Climax may take as much or as little of ACT 4 as needed.
Denouement—This is where the story resolves and is often the ah-h-h-h-h moment of a story. In the original Star Wars, it’s where Princess Leia puts the medals on Luke and Han. In Return of the Jedi, the party with the Ewoks. You get it.
The Plot Clock is a lot (hence the need for an entire book on it) but’s super helpful. You should give it a shot and plot your book with it.
Ready Chapter 1 has more plotting action next month. The April 1 class features “High Impact Plotting” with award-winning author Janice Hardy. Visit www.readychapter1.com. Happy plotting!