Posted by: nancyisanders | October 4, 2013

Highlights: Develop the Plot and Structure

In a piece of fiction, the plot is the structure that moves the action from Point A to Point B. Action and tension and angst build up toward the climax or end of the story.

In nonfiction, there is still a bit of structure that is necessary to build a compelling article. And in today’s market where creative nonfiction is hot, you can add a certain amount of “plot” to your manuscript to help build emotion and tension and action even in a small way.

First of all, let’s define “creative nonfiction.” You’ll find all sorts of definitions floating around on the internet and in writing circles, so I’ll share from my own experience in working with various publishers as I write creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction is a manuscript that it 100% true, just like regular nonfiction. All the facts are true. However, fiction techniques are used to present the facts.

For example, dialogue is used in creative nonfiction. But you can’t make up dialogue. You use actual quotes from your subject’s autobiographies or speeches or interviews to incorporate dialogue. Remember. It has to be 100% true.

Sensory details can be added. This is another fiction technique. For example, when I wrote the book, Frederick Douglass for Kids, I knew he escaped to New York City in the fall on a train. So I created a scene where he steps out of the train, hears the train whistle and the screech of the breaks, and feels the chill in the fall air. I know all these things would have actually happened to him since he was there doing that at that time of year. It’s all 100% true.

So as I got ready to start writing my nonfiction article that I want to submit to Highlights, I pulled out my Basic Plot Worksheet A. I use this worksheet to plot magazine stories and magazine articles as well as some books.

You can download and print out this worksheet by visiting my site, Writing According to Humphrey and Friends. Scroll down the page to CHARTS AND WORKSHEETS TO GET ORGANIZED FOR SUCCESS and click on the “Basic Plot Worksheet A.”

Here’s how to fill this out:

* Fill in the stats in the left column. If you don’t yet have a title for your article, just write down a keyword. I wrote down the name of my subject since I’m writing a biography.
-Write your name as the Author.
-Write Highlights as the Publisher.
-Write 2013 Highlights as the Copyright since they purchase all rights.
-Write 4-7 as the Target Age unless you’re writing a shorter piece for younger readers.
-Write 700-800 as the word count.
-Add any notes you want to add.

*Now let’s look at the plot chart.

My target article (the mentor text I am studying from the published magazine) was divided into four sections. That made it super easy since most stories are divided into four main sections:
1st half of the Middle
2nd half of the Middle

If your target article is divided into four sections, just plug those in, too, like I did.

For example, the first section of my target article was all about my person’s claim to fame.

So on my chart in the “Beginning” column under “How does the story start?” I wrote down my main idea, which is a very narrow topic about my subject.

In my target article, the second section was about the subject’s youth, so mine will be too.

On the line for “Change 1:” I wrote: “Tell about Youth.”

Then under the “1st Half of the Middle” column, I wrote down one example. Then I had to stop and do some research to add 3 examples or anecdotes I want to write about here to tell how as a child he overcame obstacles that would have hindered his claim to fame.

The third section in my target article told several anecdotes about how he started to get famous, so on my line for “Change 2:” I wrote the important incident that he first took on his road to fame.

This “middle line of the Middle” of the story or article is the turning point of the plot. It’s the place something important happens in fiction that moves the character toward the finish line with no turning back.

To incorporate this fiction technique, I want to be sure this is the point I introduce the turning point in my subject’s life as well. I want this to be the turning point of my nonfiction article. So this is where I’ll tell how he did something that changed his life and moved him significantly on his way toward fame, no turning back. (Note that he’s not quite yet REALLY famous yet. He just made a significant step toward becoming famous.)

See if you can do the same with your article at this point.

Next, for the “2nd Half of the Middle,” I listed one example I could thing of and then I dug around in my reference books to find 3 examples or anecdotes that I want to include here that show my subject getting famous.

For Section 4 in my target article, it tells several anecdotes of what he did while he was famous. I want to do the same.

So on the line for “Change 3:” I wrote the single incident that launched him to be “superstar” in history. Then in the column for “How does the story end” I list 3 examples of things he did when he was famous.

My final paragraph in my target article ended very inspirational with an interesting list of this person’a famous accomplishments, so I plan to end the same.

This exercise will go quickly for you if you already have researched your topic and already have the basic facts in your head. If you haven’t yet researched your topic, don’t despair! Just take your time and enjoy the process of filling out this form. Take time to dig around and research your topic until you have the information you need to fill out each part of the chart.

When you’re done with the worksheet, make a file folder for it and label it “Plot Worksheet” so you can keep it in one handy place in your file pocket of folders.

This worksheet will really pay off at the end. Your writing will be tight and to the point. It will help you not get writer’s block because you will already have a roadmap to follow when you sit down to write. Plus, you’re incorporating some fiction techniques into your article simply by giving it a plot structure. This will help take it from just a list of facts to a compelling true story about your topic.

And that’s a good hook for editors as well as young readers, too!


  1. Thanks for sharing your nice worksheet, Nancy! I usually sketch this stuff in my notebook, but yours looks much nicer!

    • You’re welcome, Tina! It was a fun worksheet to design. I use it all the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: