Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 11, 2010

The Five Basic Plot Elements

Last month I decided to read A Wrinkle in Time.  After reading the book I mused over how much children’s literature had changed since Wrinkle won the Newbery Award in 1963.  I even wondered if the book would find a home if it was submitted today.  That made me think about the books I brought home from my parents house, when they passed away.  My father had bought all the books from a bookstore that was going out of business in the early 1930’s.  Many of the books were turn of the century novels and I could not find one book that would hold my attention.  I hadn’t thought about those stories for a long time, but after reading A Wrinkle in Time it helped me see how books have evolved.

Donald Maass said in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel, “In the long history of literature, the novel is a relatively recent development.  It rose during the Enlightenment, flowered during the Victorian times, and in most recent decades has shortened and grown more intimate in response to our fast pace of life and in reaction to the dehumanizing aspects of our times.  The novel today has downsized, grown more direct and has made character supreme.”

A Wrinkle in Time had all the five basic plot elements, so I have to think more about what dated the novel reading it 47 years later.  Maybe someone else might be able to share their thoughts about this with me. 

Here are five basic elements of writing a plot – the organization of your story. 

1.  A sympathetic character, grounded in knowledge of the character and enriched by personalizing details.

2. A problem arises – A conflict appears.  This is the magnet that keeps us reading and the discomfort that demands our attention.

3. Complications.  It must twist, turn, deepend and grow.  Remember easily solved problems are easily forgotten.  Complex conflicts stick in your mind and nag for attention.

4.  Climax.  Set the problems in motion, build them in rising step to a climax and you have a novel.  Remember if the plot is simple, the stakes must be high, the characters complex, the conflicts layered like a wedding cake.  If not reader incolvment will be low.

5.  Resolution. Our anxieties are relieved and in that moment we enjoy peace.

Have you read an old book lately?

Kathy


Responses

  1. Nice Post. I’m reading Charlotte’s Web!
    CB

    Like

    • Chris,

      You’ll have to let me know how that lives up to expectations.

      Kathy

      Like

      • It has exceeded my expectations. I never liked it much years ago, but it has been like a study guide for me. I like to write animal fiction. I have been reading bio. info. about White as well-very fascinating!
        CB

        Like

      • Chris,

        Better than the movie?

        Kathy

        Like

      • Kathy,
        Will have to watch the movie again (been awhile) before I answer that.
        CB

        Like

  2. Hey, Kathy 🙂
    You know, when I happened to come across the movie of “A Wrinkle in Time”, I was only engaged in the beginning of the story, and I’m sorry to say—I found it kind of “cheesy”.

    My curiosity was piqued, so I picked it up when I was at B&N to see what it was about the book that made it movie-worthy. Again, I enjoyed the beginning, then I lost interest. Obviously, a lot of people had a different experience, considering the status of the book, right? Is it taste?

    The same thing happened with “The Wizard of Oz”. I absolutely ADORE the movie; I find I can relate many things in my life and myself (I am SO much the Scarecrow, having lost my brain! lol) with it. For the same reason, I picked up the book a few years ago (purchased it for a buck at a library sale), and I had to pull my literary teeth to get through it. I absolutely HATED it!

    There are a lot of people who read the books as children and loved the Wizard of Oz series. I think that possibly, reading them as an adult, may affect how we take to the books. What do you think?
    Donna

    Like

    • Donna,

      I do think we read things differently as adults. I have re-read books that I loved as a kid and none of them hold the same appeal as it does as an adult. I wonder if it works in reverse? Maybe I should re-read some books I hated as a kid.

      Kathy

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      • You know, you may be right! I know that was true for me reading “The Great Gatsby”. I had to read it in high school (and I hated anything they MADE us read) and hated it. Then, in taking a little course on the old B&N University (I miss it SO much), I had to read it again. It’s not that it’s my favorite kind of story, but as a writer, I read his work and REALLY appreciated it as an adult.

        I think we can learn a lot about picture books especially, if we loved them as a child and didn’t “get it” as an adult. Can we tap into what it was that made the books so appealing as a child. I felt that way about “Are You My Mother?” I can’t tell you how much I loved it and read it as a young child, then reading it as an adult and writer—-I can’t figure out why it was SO appealing to me back then.
        Donna

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  3. Hi Kathy,
    I was an avid reader as a kid. My idea of the best story ever was Little Women. I don’t like action-only stories, and I don’t mind reading long, character-driven novels, but I’ve changed, too. Old books represent values from another time and I could not interest any of my children in them, though high-school forced them to read some of them. They and I like the full range of behaviors allowed in today’s stories, because they reflect the times in which we live. And we all appreciate the direct, non-flowery language.
    And, as we all know, the electronic age has changed what young people are willing to read. I guess that’s why we must ‘start in the middle.’
    Thanks, always, for all you do. Glad the conference was a roaring success.
    Pam B

    Like

    • Pam,

      Oh, I don’t want to read Little Women and take the chance of being disappointed.

      The conference was a roaring success, but I am still exhausted.

      Kathy

      Like

  4. I buy quite a few second hand books so I read a lot of sixties and seventies fantasy and sci-fi, inbetween contemporary authors. Amazingly they use adverbs at will and have all manner of dialogue tag other than said. But that isn’t what is currently in style.
    I think it is interesting to watch trends in writing and to think about how those trends came about. It probably won’t help us guess the next step on the journey but it is interesting nonetheless.

    Like

    • Cassandra,

      Oh, if we could only figure out the trends before they happen. I guess we should just continue to develop our craft to make things happen.

      Kathy

      Like

  5. I believe readers today lose interest quickly that is why I believe shorter novels, short stories and poetry will be the books of the future.

    Like

    • Mary,

      I think you are on to something.

      Kathy

      Like

  6. “A Wrinkle in Time”, when written, was actually a book ahead of its time when it was published because of the subject matter. It’s a permanent fixture in my children’s book bookcase. I picked up another one of Engle’s at the county library book sale to read soon. Indeed, these books do read very differently than what is being published now. It was a much quieter, simpler life back then without all the dazzle and demand of far too many digital distractions.
    When I go back and read these books, I try to bring myself back into that simpler time, but they don’t have the “grab” that novels do today. Great quote by Donald Maas – “dehumanizing times” – he hit that nail on the head!
    Great post.
    Jeanne

    Like

    • Jeanne,

      The digital age has changed everything.

      Kathy
      PS: Still exhausted from the conference and teeth.

      Like

      • Hey –

        One week after the conference I finally posted about it on my blog, part of the topic? Exhaustion!! (And of course, props to you and Laurie!)

        Hope you feel better with the teeth soon – they can really wreak havoc.
        Jeanne

        p.s. The Velveteen Rabbit – one of my all time faves – still holds up 200% in my estimation.

        Like

  7. Just coincidently, I was searching through MG novels on amazon today, and came across “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead. It takes place in 1979 and the MC is reading “A Wrinkle.” Here’s an author interview:
    http://www.amazon.com/When-You-Reach-Rebecca-Stead/dp/0385737424/ref=pd_ybh_5?pf_rd_p=280800601&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_t=1501&pf_rd_i=ybh&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=0GG7CFW3FAT0HF89R17F

    I’ve never read it (being a swinging NYC Single when the book came out). But it is tempting to go back and read old favorites. I remember liking “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” I should give it a try.

    Mary

    Like

    • Mary,

      Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of Scott Treimel’s and Laurie Wallmark’s favorite books. I have been wanting to read it.

      Kathy

      Like

  8. Yes, I’ve read some older books lately (some only a decade or two old) and they do a lot of things I’ve learned not to do, such as being preachy or didactic, and not “hooking” the reader in the beginning. The novel has definitely developed. Still I think the older ones still have merit.

    Like

    • Tricia,

      Oh, I do think they have merit. But I couldn’t tell whether the books that I tried to read that were over 100 years old do, since I couldn’t get through them.

      Kathy

      Like

  9. You’ve definitely posed an interesting question; classics still sell well, but if they didn’t have that “classic” status, would they sell in our market today? We’ll probably never know because no one writes that way anymore!

    I appreciate my childhood favorites so much more now that I’m older. I recently re-read The Secret Garden and Little Women. I liked them when I was young, but I loved them now that I’m older. Little Women is considered a children’s classic, but I think it could hold more appeal for mature readers (provided they understood it’s a far cry from Gossip Girl).

    Now I want to re-read A Wrinkle in Time; I did like it but I remember being a little put-off by all the scientific elements. I’m out of school now and math no longer haunts me, so I’m sure I’ll appreciate it more!

    Like

    • Laura,

      My father loved to re-read novels. He said it was like visiting an old friend, but I have at least 20 new books sitting on my nightstand that I want to read. I keep reading, but the stack never gets smaller. I am always buying books from author I meet and know – part because I want to read them and part, because I want to support them. So I don’t think I will have time to re-read anything for a while.

      Kathy

      K

      Like


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