by Augusta Scattergood
When I first started writing with a serious intent to make something of it, I had a post-it note stuck on my computer. On it I’d printed four capital letters:
P L O T. Under the P, I wrote PLAN and under the L and O, I wrote LOTS and OF. The T was for TENSION. I’m not sure where I first found that acronym, but I saw it every day, every time I turned on my computer to check email or search for a recipe. Or to try to write a story.
I read it as I laboriously slogged my way through my first mid-grade novel. And while that manuscript searches for a publisher, I continue to hunt for my elusive plots.
I’ve since learned that not just fiction needs a plot. All sorts of non-fiction writing needs beginnings, middles and endings, not to mention some of that all-important tension to make its story worth listening to.
I grew up in a family of storytellers. Often the most interesting parts of their tales were the people (characters) and the places (setting). My grandmother and her Canasta partners talked about parties and church and who they’d run into at the corner grocery. My father told us about his fishing buddies on Lake Beulah and the pre-dawn coffee drinking group from the Chat ‘n Chew, a colorful bunch if there ever was one. So my head is filled with funny places and even funnier, more interesting and cleverly named people. My dancing teacher was once a Rockette. The bishop who ate Sunday dinner with us always wore Weejuns under his cassock. My great aunt Dorothy, who hailed from Boston, ate butter on her rice and might as well have spoken a foreign language.
Since I’d never been much farther than my Mississippi hometown, Memphis to the dentist, my grandmother’s house or the Gulf Coast for summer vacations, their stories were exotic and fascinating.
But the sagas told round the dinner table that had us on the edge of our seats actually had a beginning, a middle, an end. Rising tension and conflict, in addition to those fascinating, funny characters. And those are the stories I remember. Like the time my dad, who was a small-town country doctor, was called to a friend’s house out by the highway for an emergency. The emergency was that they’d found an injured fawn on their property. Since our little town had no veterinarian, he hustled on out, brought the fawn into his clinic and set her broken leg.
Certainly, that fawn story qualifies as PLOT. Lots of tension: The baby deer’s mother close by, watching carefully, the life or death nerve-wracking ride into town in the back of a pickup truck. All worthy parts that made us sit on the edge of our Sunday dinner table seats till we heard the happy ending.
My stickie note disappeared in a recent move. I was particularly fond of my neat block printing and the faded turquoise blue of the paper, not to mention its well-worn edges that showed it lived on the desk of a real writer. But even without the reminder, the phrase lingers. Stories are not just about fascinating characters and interesting places, great dialog and description. Something needs to happen. Get those characters fighting. Plan Lots of Tension.
Augusta Scattergood blogs about writing, book reviewing, and children's books over at http://ascattergood.blogspot.com. Her childhood dining room table was in Cleveland, Mississippi. She and her post-it notes now reside in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Madison, N.J.