Plotting is an interesting thing.  Every time I read a new book, I find an author that handles plotting slightly differently.  But, I think most books have a few common elements.

1. A story question (Sometimes a layered story question)

2. An interesting cast of characters/setting/ romance to interest the reader while you’re setting up the story question.

3. Movement.

I say movement instead of action because in a book like SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, there are very few scenes that could actually be termed action.  However, this book does move.

Ms. Anderson introduces the story question in SPEAK within the first page of the book.  Melinda is getting on the bus for the first day of high school and none of her friends are speaking to her.  Someone throws trash at her.  Obviously, this is a girl who used to have friends but is now ostracised by the entire class.  So, you’re motivated to keep reading because of the question why.  This is a question that isn’t answered until page 27.

In the meantime, we meet Melinda’s teachers.  The coach who also teaches and intimidates everyone but the athletes.  The hyper-motivated art teacher.  The Spanish teacher who refuses to speak any English in her class.  Through Melinda’s dry humor (which I will try to cover more when I look at writing style next post) these minor characters take on life.  It’s interesting enough to keep you reading. Plus, her first days of school are punctuated with bullying antics, continually reminding you that she isn’t just friendless; people are openly hostile to her.

Then, on page 27 Ms. Anderson uncovers one layer of the story question.  If you read the Amazon review, this plot element is revealed, so I’m going to give just this little bit away.  Melinda called the police at a party where there was underage drinking going on.  She got a lot of people in trouble.  But, by now the author has introduced Melinda to us so well, and she is such a likable character, that it’s impossible to believe that she would just do this to her friends for no reason.  And so, we get to the next layer of the story question: What really happened at that party?

Ms. Anderson really makes you wait for it.  You get hints and clues.  You’re pretty sure you’ve figures out the answer to the question but if you’re anything like me, you’re not going to stop reading until you know for sure.  And that answer doesn’t come until page 133.  While you wait, you see Melinda buckling under the pressure of being the class punching bag.  She’s skipping school.  There are meetings with guidance councilors and in school suspensions.  Ms. Anderson has created a character that you like–and more importantly–that you can identify with, so you’re invested in what’s happening to her.

And, finally, the last third of the book, the story question becomes: How will Melinda overcome this situation? and perhaps even more so Will Melinda find her voice?

Powerful stuff.

Let me just say, this story would never work if Ms. Anderson hadn’t created such a likable character in Melinda Sordino.  The whole movement of the story is dependent on the reader’s sympathy.  If you don’t care about Melinda, you don’t care about the story.  Period.  So, bravo to the author for hanging a story on one character and making it work.

So, next time writing style.  In a book like this, a quiet book, writing style is key.  Even though there are many strengths to this book, I think the writing style is the biggest one.