Thursday, July 23, 2009

Plot Patterns in Children's Books

In my ever expanding collection of books on writing I have one that I purchased solely for a checklist in the Appendix. It's out of print now. Jane Fitz-Randolph's How To Write For Children & Young Adults: A Handbook Revised Edition was originally published in1969, then again in 1980 & 1989.

I happened upon said checklist on some obscure website. Thus began an adventure to track down its original source to get permission to reproduce the checklist. After accomplishing that (achieving my goal), I tucked the book safely away on my "writing" shelf.

Recently I plucked it from it's hideaway and leafed through it. That checklist isn't the only good information between its covers.

Fitz-Randolph says there are five - and only five - plot patterns for children's books then introduces them like this:

(1) The Incident Story is the simplest plot pattern, but not the easiest according to the author. It is brief (less than 1000 words) and written for very young children. There are two types of Incident Stories--the Incident-Excursion and the Incident-Adventure. In the first, the MC enters a familiar place or situation. In the second, the MC enters new, unfamiliar places or situations.

(2) The Story of Purpose Achieved is about an MC with a well-defined purpose at the very beginning. He struggles but eventually accomplishes this purpose through his own efforts, courage, strength, or ingenuity. Sounds like "The Hero's Journey" to me.

(3) The Story of Wish Fulfillment is about an MC with a strong wish or desire that appears to be impossible to attain. She may or may not try to attain it. But, through the course of the story her actions (not intended to attain the wish) make her wish a reality. These unintentional actions are usually thoughtful, kind, or heroic.

(4) The Story of Misunderstanding, Discovery, and Reversal in which the MC misunderstands something about life, a motive, a situation or action, maybe even about himself. He goes through the beginning and middle of the story basing decisions and actions on this misunderstanding. In the end he discovers FOR HIMSELF that he is wrong and reverses his actions or attitudes,and thus the consequences change. I think this is the clearest example of the principle that the MC MUST experience change or growth in children's stories.

(5) The Story of Decision is most often written for young adults according to Fitz-Randolf. The MC is faced with a moral dilemma or decision. The moral choice will bring unpleasant results and the immoral choice will make life much easier, it seems. The young adult struggles with the dilemma but eventually makes the right choice. Fitz-Randolf says it turns out to be the better decision. But, I believe, that YAs published in recent years sometimes leave the MC in the dark about that,and let the reader decide whether or not it was the better choice. Also, recent YAs sometimes have the MC make the wrong choice and suffer the consequences of it.

It's interesting to read an older book about writing basics,and see how certain options or preferences for elements of story have changed.

The author challenges us to analyze various children's books for their plot patterns. So, I pulled some random books off my shelves to try the exercise myself.

Because of Winn-Dixie (Kate DiCamillo)--hmmmm--Wish Fulfillment

Lyddie (Katherine Paterson)--Decision. Another example of changes in children's literature. This is not a YA but an MG, a category that, I believe, didn't even exist 30 years ago.

Nory Ryan's Song (Patricia Reilly Giff-one of my favorite authors)--Purpose Achieved. I think!

The Secret School (Avi)--Purpose Achieved. Definitely.

Pelts and Promises (Nancy Lohr)---This one's a little trickier. The boys face a moral dilemma, then they must accomplish a goal in order to follow through on their moral decision, AND a wish is inadvertently fulfilled through the MC's efforts to follow through on the decision. Seems Nancy Lohr has woven quite a complex little tale here. I'm going to go with--Decision.

Songbird (also by Nancy Lohr)--Wish Fulfillment.

Now, why don't you try this exercise? I figure it can only help me to be mindful of what plot pattern I choose consciously or unconsciously for my next ms. How about posting a few of your choices in the comments?

Thanks, faithful followers. Have a wonderful weekend.


Tee Brown said...

Insightful post, Jean.


Amy Tate said...

Great post! I'll definitely use that checklist.

Kim Kasch said...

Great info. Thanks for sharing.