Once in pre-GPS times, my mother and I took a road trip from Minnesota to Alabama. Aided only by maps, road signs, and my car compass, we arrived 1,000+ miles later without getting lost once. My family was astonished, which is not quite as insulting as it sounds given this fact: I am someone who, when you tell me to turn right, still has to look at my hands and think, “I write with my right hand, so that’s right.”
Enough said about our near-miraculous arrival in Alabama?
The problem was on our return trip, when my trusty car compass went wonky. Needless to say, when we eventually arrived back in Minnesota, I hurried to the dealership to get the compass fixed. In what has to go down as the strangest car repair in the history of car repairs, the mechanic drove, I rode shotgun, and we went to a nearby empty parking lot, where he proceeded to drive in tight circles as fast as he could, kind of like a NASCAR driver doing doughnuts to celebrate a win.
And somehow, it fixed my compass. A friend later tried to give me a scientific explanation that incorporated magnetic poles or some such, but never mind all that: all you need to know is that if your car compass is ever broken, you just have to head for the nearest parking lot and drive like a fourteen-year-old boy in a stolen car on an ice rink, and everything will turn out fine.
Having a step-by-step plan in place to accomplish a task, or a map to follow, often comes in handy. For young writers, I’ve found that one of the most helpful aids when they are struggling with plot is to apply the “rule of three.”
It works like this. You create a character, someone the reader wants to get to know. Place them in a predicament, or thwart their deepest desire, or send them off on a dangerous quest: in other words, introduce conflict to the story. The character makes a first attempt to resolve that conflict, and fails. The character plans a second attempt. Suspense is heightened because of the first failure; will the character be able to succeed this time around? In fact, no—the second attempt fails as well. So the character digs deep. He or she gathers all of his or her resources, pulling in allies, calling on unsuspected parts of him or herself—and for the third attempt, finally succeeds!
Basically, this is a formula that helps young writers learn how to map out a basic structure for a story. Once they’ve absorbed the process, you can then encourage them to embellish and expand on the formula in countless creative ways; there are many different approaches to spinning a plot.
But I’ve found that in those early stages, if you don’t provide a map to follow so that they can make forward progress, some young writers end up simply spinning in circles.