Driving your Young Adult Novel’s Plot
This month I’m going to talk about craft–specifically, structuring the plot of your YA novel. Often when I’m instructing writing classes, I find that there’s some confusion about plotting. If I ask “What’s your book’s plot?” I get vague answers along the lines of “It’s about a girl who just wants to fit in and be popular” or “About a boy who wants to find himself and his place in the world.” When I press for more specifics, I might get something like “It’s about a girl trying to get over her mother’s suicide” or “A boy who discovers he has a psychic ability.”
Okay, that’s closer, but it’s still not a “plot.” A theme, maybe–but you need more than a theme to drive a plot. By “driving a plot,” I mean the vehicle which moves the story forward toward its resolution. With nothing to drive a plot, you’re left with a rambling mess of unrelated vignettes, not a compelling, page-turning story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Sometimes the vehicle used to drive the plot will be directly related to the theme–let’s use the girl trying to get over her mother’s suicide. What if her grandmother has planned a dedication ceremony of some sort–let’s say naming a playground in the woman’s name–and wants the protagonist to make a speech. You can structure the entire novel around the protagonist preparing her speech–maybe she’s too filled with anger at first, and refuses. Or maybe she wants to, but doesn’t have the strength to do so. Whatever the case, the plot revolves around the protagonist working toward making this speech (or *not* making it). Over the course of working toward this goal, readers will see the girl getting over her mother’s death and, hopefully, achieving some personal growth and/or understanding.
Other times, the vehicle used to drive the plot is completely unrelated. For instance, using the same girl trying to get over her mother’s suicide, let’s say she’s been preparing for a violin competition whereby the winner receives a college scholarship to a music program. The book’s plot can be structured around the protagonist working toward this goal–winning the competition and thus the scholarship–even though that’s not really what the book is about. The resolution will show her winning–or losing–the competition, but more importantly, readers will see how her coming to terms with her mother’s death affected that journey.
Now let’s look at the boy who discovers he has a psychic ability. That, in and of itself, isn’t a plot. Yes, the discovery of his abilities might be the inciting event that sets the plot in motion, but we need more to structure the story around. He needs a goal, something to drive the plot toward a resolution where he either achieves his goal, or doesn’t. Again, the vehicle doesn’t have to be directly related to the theme. It could be–say, for instance, that after discovering his ability, he decides to apply to a special school that fosters psychically gifted students, but only the most “talented” gain entrance. The entire plot will be focused on his journey toward that goal–learning to control his ability, strengthening it, proving his mettle. In the end, he will either gain admittance to the school, or not. Either way, he will have probably experienced some significant growth over the course of his journey, and learned a thing or two about himself and his ability.
Or, the vehicle can be unrelated to the discovery of his psychic gift. Let’s say his goal is to make the varsity basketball team. The plot will advance through his attempts at making the team, and will resolve with him either making it or not. But readers will realize that the book isn’t really “about” him making the team as much as it is about him coming to terms with his “gift” and learning to use/control/ignore/whatever it over the course of his attempts.
When beginning to plot out a story, figuring out the “vehicle” is key. And yet, it’s something that inexperienced authors don’t always grasp at first, especially with YA novels which often are character-driven stories where voice can be a more important element than the plot itself. Regardless, every novel needs structure and every protagonist needs a goal. And that goal? Needs something driving it.
Find that vehicle!