Hello friends! Welcome to the second installment of blog posts on writing craft: Lower Middle Grade fiction!
Last month, we covered the main qualities and elements of Lower MG as a subcategory of middle grade. You can check out that post HERE. This month, we’re diving into plot beats and how those beats rearrange inside the lower middle grade structure.
When we talk about plot beats, we are not referring to a “fill-in-the-blank” formula for storytelling. What we’re talking about instead is the underlying skeleton within most full-length narratives. You know how regardless of content, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end? Plot beats work in much the same way. Whether or not authors consciously follow these beats, their stories often hit the same notes in the action as their characters work to overcome obstacles, reach their goals, and change internally in the process.
Unfortunately, I am not an author who can naturally weave these beats into my writing without trying. I have to try. I have to try really hard. Because of this, I’ve done a lot of study on the subject, and the most successful beat skeleton I use combines the beats specified in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Dan Wells’ 7 Point Story Structure.
Here are those beats all listed together:
· Set-up: The main character’s normal world.
· Theme stated: The lesson the main character needs to ultimately learn by the story’s end.
· Catalyst: The big change that sets things in motion.
· Debate: The internal or external conflict questioning the main character’s role in the events incited by the catalyst.
· Break into Act 2: The main character’s irreversible decision to move forward.
· Fun & Games: The main character thrown into action and reaction/ the promise of the premise.
· Pinch #1: The first big problem or hiccup in the main character’s trajectory.
· Midpoint: The point halfway through the story where a change occurs that alters events as well as the main character’s perspective.
· Bad guys close in: The antagonizing forces become more apparent and likely.
· Pinch #2: The second big problem that presses the main character into a corner.
· All is lost: The main character becomes tangled in failed plans and caught by their antagonistic forces.
· Dark night of the soul: The main character self-examines how their failure to learn their internal lesson has led to the present external circumstances.
· Resolution: The main character changes internally and triumphs over their external circumstances in the form that best suits the overall theme of the story.
Knowing these beats is highly important when it comes to sitting down to plan out or pen a full-length manuscript. Equally important is knowing where these beats typically occur in the narrative to keep the audience engaged throughout.
Here is the typical placement of said beats:
· Set-up 0-10%
· Theme stated 5%
· Catalyst 10-12%
· Debate 12-20%
· Break into Act 2 20-25%
· Fun & Games 25-50%
· Pinch #1 33-27%
· Midpoint 50%
· Bad guys close in 50-75%
· Pinch #2 62-66%
· All is lost 75%
· Dark night of the soul 80%
· Climax 88%
· Resolution 90-100%
Now, there are many other plotting-based writers out there who prefer other skeleton breakdowns of narrative action. This is just the skeleton I most prefer when outlining and drafting. I’ve drafted at least five middle grade manuscripts using this structure, and in general the placement and order of the beats fall naturally in the story I want to tell.
However, that is not the case with the Daredevils series.
As a lower middle grade narrative, one thing I quickly realized when drafting was that I needed to both alter the tone of some of these beats, as well as allow for additional wiggle room in where they fall.
For instance, rather than place beats at specific percentage points in the manuscript, I use the chapter structure of the Daredevils series to guide me. You will find, once you have Books 1, 2, and 3 in your possession, that all three have exactly eighteen chapters. This was done on purpose, to help keep me structured and consistent in writing the series.
Whenever I sit down to outline and/or draft a new Daredevils book, I break up the beats into chapter sections. I know that the first four chapters must accomplish the following: firmly establish the main character’s perspective, introduce the main character’s home life and family dynamics, hint at a problem the main character is facing, and allow the main character to come up with a goal to overcome said problem.
I use other chapters as milestones in the writing process. Chapter five often depicts the main character making an irreversible decision to resolve their problem. Chapter six usually presents another problem, or pinch point, for the main character to overcome.
Because there are an even number of chapters, I am always mindful about the action shifting in chapter nine, or sometimes chapter ten.
I try to back my main character into a corner and have them hit rock bottom by the end of chapter fourteen. Chapter fifteen is more of a rallying chapter than a “dark night of the soul,” because the main character gets help with their internal self-examination from their friends. By chapter sixteen, they have their resolution and are ready to rock and roll, this time on the same page as their teammates.
One important aspect of the series for me is that the main character never fully accomplishes their initial goal (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s true.) I like bittersweet endings, where the main character watches one goal fade away, and another goal or accomplishment take its place. I often enact this by giving the main character a false loss in chapter seventeen, and then the alternate triumph in chapter eighteen.
Here’s a summary of how those beats shift around in the Daredevils series:
· Chapter 1: Set-up (main character interacting with their teammates, establishing dynamics)
· Chapter 2: Catalyst (introduction of problem, or hint of a problem brewing)
· Chapter 3: Theme/ Debate (family introduction, main character mulls over problem)
· Chapter 4: Theme/ Debate (family introduction, main character mulls over problem)
· Chapter 5: Break into Act 2 (main character comes up with a solid plan to address problem)
· Chapter 6: Pinch point #1 (main character encounters first major problem with their plan)
· Chapter 7: Fun & Games (main character reacts and acts to overcome pinch point and resolve initial problem)
· Chapter 8: Fun & Games (main character reacts and acts to overcome pinch point and resolve initial problem)
· Chapter 9: Midpoint (a big change happens in the story that forces the main character to majorly adjust their plan)
· Chapter 10: Midpoint (a big change happens in the story that forces the main character to majorly adjust their plan)
· Chapter 11: Bad guys close in Things get worse (the main character’s plan still isn’t working, and they’re not flexible/ courageous enough to switch plans)
· Chapter 12: Bad guys close in Things get worse (the main character’s plan still isn’t working, and they’re not flexible/ courageous enough to switch plans)
· Chapter 13: Bad guys close in Things get worse (the main character’s plan still isn’t working, and they’re not flexible/ courageous enough to switch plans)
· Chapter 14: All is Lost (main character is caught, or backed into a corner with seemingly no way out but to fail/get in trouble/ lose their goal)
· Chapter 15: Dark Night of the Soul Rally Time (main character’s teammates gather around them to help come up with a final resolution)
· Chapter 16: Resolution Part 1 (team enacts final plan all together)
· Chapter 17: Climax Theme learned the hard way (main character makes their way out of the corner, but adjusts their original goal based on the lesson they’ve learned)
· Chapter 18: Resolution Part 2 (main character is surprised by another accomplishment taking the original goal’s place, and now appreciates the alternative accomplishment thanks to the lesson they’ve learned)
If you’re a writer reading this all over, you might be thinking “Yeah, I am never going to plan out my stories to that degree. The magic is zapped right out of it!” And that’s absolutely fine! I get it! Planning out a manuscript to this level of detail might seem less like a creative endeavor and more like solving a math equation. But for me, this structure allows me to relax into the writing.
I think of plot beats like bumpers in bowling. Hear me out on this one, because I realize only little kids are supposed to use bumpers. But come on, bowling with bumpers is so much more fun! You can plan out different angles of releasing the ball. You get to have fun with the speed that you roll it, which hand you use, if you do a little dance move beforehand, and all the while you know that one way or another, some pins will get knocked down. That’s how plot beats work for me. I still get to play around with the dynamics of the characters, of their specific decisions, of the fallout those decisions lead to, etc. But thanks to having my story beats in place, I can let go of the fear of a complete failure or “gutter ball” of a draft. I get to experiment with what works best and have fun in the process.
For next month’s post, I will be diving into main plots, subplots, and side characters or ensemble casts in lower middle grade fiction. Please join me back here! And if you’re enjoying this behind-the-scenes look at the Daredevils series, then you might want to consider signing up for my monthly newsletter, which always has behind the scenes peeks into the series and my work.