Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, or the lunar year. It seems like a nice opportunity to talk about my other job – the one where I am not primarily a writer, but a teacher – and how one helps the other.
In my day job, I teach English online, mainly (but not exclusively) to children in China. I love it. I am sure I learn more from my students than I can ever teach them and it is an honour to have a glimpse into their culture and their lives.
Last week I briefly mentioned how my work helps my writing and vice versa. The two definitely link well and my favourite classes are those which focus on reading, writing, and analysing story texts. My students generally love these classes too, and seeing stories through the eyes of a six-old child who is reading in their second language often gives me new insight into how I read and how I write.
Often, in class, we will make a ‘plot mountain‘ to help with our analysis. Here is an example from two of my favourite students. They are now seven and eight, but I’ve been teaching them for two years already. For their protection, I can’t share photos of the children themselves, but trust me, they are cute, cheeky and fun!
It’s probably easy to guess how my writing experience and training helps the children to analyse the story plot, and to identify key events, characters and settings, but how does teaching this help me?
A plot mountain is a useful tool in a writer’s toolkit. There are the same key elements to every story:
Characters are easy to identify – that’s anyone (person, animal, fantasy creature) who features in the story. The main character or protagonist is usually the person (or creature) around whom the story revolves. They will usually have a challenge to face; a problem to solve.
The setting is equally easy to identify (although, of course, it may change throughout the story). In our example story (Paris Adventure), you don’t need to do much reading to realise the main setting of the story is Paris. There are other settings, or sub-settings – this story begins in the children’s school, then they go home, then they go not only to Paris, but also back in time. Setting can incorporate both time and place.
Plot, or events, is how a story really becomes a story: A child in Paris is not a story. A man holding a torch is not a story. Something needs to HAPPEN to them. This is where plot mountains can not only help with reading, but also with writing. Because I use this tool almost daily in my teaching, I now almost subconsciously apply it to my writing at many different stages of the process.
A story without a plot mountain goes nowhere. It is boring to read, because nothing happens. Think about any story you ever read; any film you ever watched – a cartoon, even. Who is the story about? What problem do they face? Let’s consider a love story: even in a love story, there are obstacles – maybe the two main characters are physically far apart (Sleepless in Seattle, for example); maybe one is a vampire (Twilight, anyone?); maybe one is in another relationship/dimension/time, etc. Whatever their situation, there are definitely obstacles. Without obstacles, there is no story.
Here’s a challenge: jot down the title of the last book you read, film you watched, soap opera episode… Done that? (I bet you just did, if not physically, at least mentally. You have a story in your head now, don’t you?) Who’s the main character? (Or characters.) What do they want? What is in the way of them getting it?
All this is the ‘rising action’ – left hand side of my Plot Mountain.
Now. Something will happen to begin to change things. At some point in the story, the there will be a turning point. (Remember those road signs from last week?) This is the summit of ‘Plot Mountain’; the climax or turning point of the story. Once you hit this point, you are on your way to the resolution or end.
Let’s go back to my students:
My students sometimes identify an event or part of the plot as being crucial to the story that I would not have readily identified. My students often identify a different turning point than I do. Every story has at least one major turning point. In a good story, you will often also be able to identify a turning point for each chapter of the story. In the example above (Paris Adventure) the character in the story who represents M. Eiffel enters a torch into an exhibition. When the torch breaks, another character, Anneena, suggests he flips it over and together they create the Eiffel Tower. (Spoiler alert: this is probably NOT how the actual Tour d’Eiffel was invented, but who knows for sure?) Thus my two students both agreed that the torch breaking was the moment that the problem (the broken exhibit) would get solved and the story could descend towards its resolution.
Remember that list you were making? What was the turning point for your story? Tom Hanks’ character’s son getting on a plane? Bella becoming a vampire? Thingy in whatsit shooting the bad guy so he could save the girl? At what point did the problems become lesser and the story start to close? There will still be some problems (where to bury the body, what to do if Tom misses the plane, etc) but these are minor once the main turning point or decision has been made. With my more advanced students, we like to break the story up and make a plot mountain for many separate parts:
And because I do this as second nature now, and by seeing stories through the eyes of children, I can apply the same process to all parts of my own writing. It helps me to check each stage of my story: Does something happen? What? Why? How does that change the story for the protagaonist? For the other characters?
If I realise that if I can’t identify a ‘happening’ then I rewrite. If I can’t see a place in a section where the story is driven on, I rewrite. If I can’t see a way to solve a problem, I can make a plot mountain for the event, or character, or other characters to see how they approach the same event, or are changed by it. I wonder if you will think of the idea of a plot mountain next time you open a book, or watch something on TV now too…
By observing how my students find different ideas in the same stories, I become a better writer, and by applying the methods I teach, I also become not only a better teacher but also a better learner.
My students are on a well-deserved break this weekend, so I’ve a few days off from teaching too. I’m going to use this time to go and ‘plot mountain’ the next few chapters of my work-in-progress sequel to A Diet of Death. I’m also going to enjoy some Chinese food, and welcome the Year of the Ox. (It’s my year: I am an ox.)
To all my students, my Chinese colleagues and friends; to you: my readers, and to my friends and family, Happy New Year. Enjoy some celebrations, wherever you are.