Saturday, July 11, 2009

Plot Workshop for Kids and Teens

Later this month I am scheduled to teach plot and writing to kids in the town I recently moved away from after having lived there for 30 years.

This is to be the last of these annual offerings.

I am sad to see the end of both that program and the one we -- thanks to the organization and sponsorship of my fellow board members of the Friends of the Los Gatos Public Library -- offer to the kids at the local children's shelter. I think back over the past seven years and all the kids we supported in writing down their feelings and imaginings, and I smile.

My thoughts turn to the Family Shelter I recently spotted in the new town where I live. I imagine all the stories waiting to find their way to the page.

One door closes.

Another door opens...

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Plot at the Local Children's Shelter

Seven young adults between the ages of 12 to 17 shuffle inside the Children Shelter’s classroom. The boys loom large. The girls shift from motherly to sexy and back, like blinking red lights.

I break down some stories to them with a focus on the Beginning 1/4 of the story and ending at The End of the Beginning. I ask them to write the beginning of a story real or imagined that leads to a moment of no return, a moment when life shifts, when good turns bad or bad to worse. I suggest that the character want something that now becomes seemingly impossible to attain.

For a girl with clear brown eyes, her main character wants more time with her dad. The End of the Beginning is when her dad dies. Another girl shows a mom in heaven remembering her beautiful little girls. The End of the Beginning is when the girls go live with an uncle with a belt.

For the Middle of their stories, I asked them to describe the new world the main character is now living. I ask for three bumps that shake the character, stop the character, interfere with his/her dreams and leads to a Crisis. The Crisis is is the dark night of the soul.

Before I release them to their writing, we play charades. The two biggest boys and a girl with incredilbly long eyelashes act out emotion cards. The other kids and volunteers and counselors guess at the emotions. I stress for descriptions of what they see that leads them to know the emotion. I wanted them to "show" the character in the emotion, not "tell" the character.

To demonstrate anger, the biggest boy grabs a chair, swings it over his head and slams it to the floor. The girls reel backwards and scream. Counselors leap to their feet. I ask him to do it again but without the violence. Then we dissect his facial expressions to find the more subtle signs of anger and rage.

After a lunch of pizza and juice, we trudge back inside for the End. The room is stuffy and close, but feels safe and womb-like.

I give examples of characters overcoming tremendous odds at the Climax and being deeply transformed by the experience. We talk about what stories mean overall: a tough time leads to a lifelong belief that people are no damn good? (my father throughout his life) Good triumphs over bad (the girl with the belt). Bad triumphs over good (the boy with the rage).

My hope is that giving the kids an opportunity to get the bad stuff out of their bodies and moving is good. Rather than let it sit and fester, to bring the fear and disappointment out to the light of day is a good thing.

What have you left buried deep inside????

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Appropriate for a group activity or individually

1) Decide on a main character ~~ person, animal, machine, made-up
2) Give the character a goal ~~ something she/he/it wants more than anything else.
3) Make a list of possible bad guys and things that can interfere with your main character getting what he or she wants.


Other people -- classmate, teacher, parent....
Nature -- weather, allergies, animals....
Machine -- computer, bicycle, skateboard....
Society -- homework, chores, expectations of others....
Character's own self -- fear, hate, prejudice, flaw....

4) Introduce these examples in the Beginning -- 1st 1/4 of the story
5) Show the examples interfering with the main character achieving his or her goals in the Middle -- the middle 1/2 of the story
6) Show the main character eliminating the examples in the End -- the last 1/4 of the story


Saturday, at the Asilomar Regional Reading Conference, I sat in on a class where the teacher demonstrated one method of writing instruction currently being used with students in public schools. Since then, I've been trying to understand what I saw.

First, however, I made my plot presentation to a roomful of teachers and specialists and administrators. What a joy to discuss great fiction with teachers. Goosebumps raced across my arms more than once when I relayed a perfect dramatic Crisis or touching Climax. The book example may have been The Cay or it could have just as easily been Harry Potter. All five book examples I used hit the marks of the Universal Story form like clock-work.

The sea of faces in front of me did not reflect my excitement. The longer I spoke and their faces remained expressionless, the more insecure I grew. Finally, when I could stand the pressure no longer, I blurted out, "Do you already know all this?"

The resounding, "No! Why haven't we be taught this before?!" soothed my fears and renewed my faith. The plot insider tips I'm so passionate about sharing are helpful to classroom teachers, reading specialists, librarians, and program specialists, and ultimately, the students themselves.

I concluded the talk with something I truly believe: Once kids and teachers learn to spot the structural plot, they can better enjoy reading and writing.

A line of teachers waited to sign up for the free Plot for Kids ebook. Excited me to want to finish the writing project.

My friend and I then attended a writing session that showed the proscriptive reading program currently being taught in primary and middle school.

A group can only go as fast as the slowest member, I kept reminding myself.

Standardized teaching, at least through this program, plot is event-driven. Usually there is an obvious moral to the story.

At first I despaired, unable to integrate what I know plot really is into what's in place now. Then I remember that the concepts I espouse work for great fiction. In the classroom, great fiction is usually summarized for teaching. That means cutting all the moment-by-moment excitement and the chance for deep character identification.

Does that means what I'm so excited to teach can only happen with library books? I wonder.....

In every great story, the events affect and change the character. That change means something. What that character change means is something the reader decides.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Asilomar Regional Reading Conference

Planning for the big day on Saturday. I have way too many examples and information to share in just an hour. Setting it up so the teachers will act as students. I'll go through the Plot Planner and Scene Tracker techniques to show how to help improve reading comprehension and writing skills as mandated by the Content Standards.

All the book examples I'll be using are on the recommended literature reading list.

I'm excited to see what the teachers come up with, and curious as to how they perform compared to actual kids! I'll let you know....

Monday, February 25, 2008

Young Writers Workshop

Saturday was the second of the two Young Writers Workshops I teach annually through the Friends of the Los Gatos Library sponsorship.

Dark day full of rain outside. Inside, 14 soggy kids straggled in. 8 - 13 years old, some returnees, others with the writers glaze already in place, a couple who were made to attend by their parents, one under such duress he succumbed to three - count them three - temper tantrums before coming. Could have fooled me. He appeared to have the most fun of all the kids there, and he wrote pages......

Loose overview of what to comes in the Beginning of a book, instruction to create a Beginning, hats in place, a fury of writing. Lunch to discuss beginnings of favorite books. Then, process repeated for the Middle, and then the End. A bit of reading at the end. Closing ceremony. Parents arrive.

By the time we left, the sun had come out. Sort of sums up the workshop. As one of the volunteers commented: "The kiddos left starry eyed."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Martha Alderson, M.A. Bio

Martha Alderson, M.A. is an international plot and story consultant. Her clients include best-selling authors, writing teachers and fiction editors. She created a unique line of plot tools for readers and writers, including BLOCKBUSTER PLOTS Scene Tracker Kit, and the Plot Planner DVDs. She teaches plot workshops privately, through University of Santa Cruz, Learning Annex and writing conferences.

Long before working with adult writers, Martha worked with children with speech, language, and learning disabilities. She finished graduate school with a Masters in speech development, a double major in Psychology and Speech Pathology, a California Teaching Credential in Special Education, National certification by the National Speech and Hearing Association, California certified by the California Board of Medical Examiners.

Upon graduation, she worked in the California public school district as a speech and hearing specialist and later became the language consultant to all the special education classes district wide.

Alderson went on to establish a speech, language, learning disablility clinic for children young adults. After more than twenty years of interacting with thousands of children, she knows firsthand the many different ways people learn. She sold the practice and began writing.

She began her writing career fifteen years ago, writing articles in her area of expertise -- speech, language and learning disability therapy. She won local recognition for both "The Silent Disabilities" and a series of articles promoting a letter-writing campaign to fight the lowering of funding for California's educational system.

Six months later she became the managing editor of a regional home improvement glossy magazine. It was then, after hours, she began writing.

Five years ago, Alderson started teaching plot workshops incorporating as much sensory feedback as possible for full discovery and ease in learning. With the help of this communications leader, children and adult writers of all skill levels now grasp the elusive concept of plot and are able to use it effectively in their own works of fiction.

Never losing her love of working with children, Alderson began volunteering her time to teach children plot writing through the Friends of the Los Gatos Library sponsorship. She then went on to develop a writing program for a local children's shelter.

In 2005, she was a California Association of Library Trustees and Commissioners nominee for "her outstanding contribution in developing and providing annual Young Writers Workshops for children and youth in Los Gatos for the past five years, and extending the program to the children and youth of the Santa Clara County Children's Shelter."

"The astonished look of accomplishment on the kid's faces is a wonderful testament of your gift to teach. We are forever grateful for the time you shared and are anxiously awaiting your next visit. The Children's Shelter is a temporary placement facility for abused, neglected and abandoned children. Thanks again for making a difference in the lives of our children."
Mark Forrest, Recreation Director.

Although her major work is with adult writers, Alderson continues to work with language arts teachers and reading teachers, and helps children better grasp reading comprehension and develop writing skills.

Note: for a more in-depth bio go to:

Saturday, February 23, 2008



Reading and Writing Activities (Grades 6-8)
by Martha Alderson, M.A.

Teacher Note: These activities were created to offer information through a variety of auditory and visual channels to accomodate all different learning styles.
Grades 6-8 (ages 9-12) Students
1.) Become more proficient in
Reading (R2-R3) and
Writing (W2) Standands
as outlined by the California Language Arts Content Standards
2.) Develop thinking skills as laid out in Bloom's Taxonomy

The following are sample guidelines from the California Language Arts Content Standards that work particularly well to the study of this plot tool:


R2.0 Reading Comprehension (Focus on Informational Materials)
Structural Features of Informational Materials
R2.1 Understand and analyze the differences in structure and purpose between various categories of informational materials
R2.3 Analyze text that uses the cause-and-effect organizational pattern
R3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
Structural Features of Literature
R3.1 Articulate the expressed purposes and characteristics of different forms of prose (e.g., short story, novel, novella, essay)

Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
R3.2 Identify events that advance the plot and determine how each event explains past or present action(s) or foreshadows future action(s)
R3.3 Analyze characterization as delineated through a character's thoughts, words, speech patterns, and actions; the narrator's description; and the thoughts, words, and actions of other characters
R3.4 Identify and analyze recurring themes across works (e.g., the value of bravery, loyalty, and friendship; the effects of loneliness)
R3.5 Contrast points of view (e.g., first and third person, limited and omniscient, subjective and objective) in narrative text and explain how they affect the overall theme of the work

Literary Criticism
R3.6 Analyze a range of responses to a literary work and determine the extent to which the literary elements in the work shaped those responses


W2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)

W2.1 Write fictional or autobiographical narratives:
a. Develop a standard plot line (having a beginning, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement) and point of view
b. Develop complex major and minor characters and a definite setting
c. Use a range of appropriate strategies (e.g., dialogue; suspense; naming of specific narrative action, including movement, gestures, and expressions)

W2.2 Write responses to literature:
a. Develop interpretations exhibiting careful reading, understanding, and insight
b. Organize interpretations around several clear ideas, premises, or images from the literary work
c. Justify interpretations through sustained use of examples and textual evidence

W2.5 Write summaries of reading materials
a. Include the main ideas and most significant details
b. Use the student's own words, except for quotations
c. Reflect underlying meaning, not just the superficial details

Teach students to push aside the words and "see" the underpinings of all great literature. Both the Scene Tracker and the Plot Planner tools for writers are demonstrated. Although initially produced for adult writers, these plot tools have proven helpful to students of all ages in improved reading comprehension and writing skills.
The stategies outlined below and in the materials and products themselves, encourage students of all ages to examine the text they read in a more analytical way. The Blockbuster Plots line of plot tools are useful aids in strengthening the following in their own writing, too.
For our purposes here, plot involves three major elements:

Character Development
Dramatic Action
Thematic Significance

The lessons that follow are intended for large-group or whole-class instruction. These whole-class exercises and experiences unify the group, create a common language in which to speak about reading and writing, and a common frame of reference.
The students can refer to their work here when they read other titles and write their own stories.

Purchase the Plot Guide for Children's Book Authors; A Writers Workshop DVD (NOTE: although orginally created for adult writers, this workshop DVD has proven a valuable help for Middle grade students to improve not only their reading comprehension skills, but their writing skills as well.)

This interactive DVD is formatted like a book so you can either watch "play the movie" in its entirety or, for help in a specific area, click on the "lesson selection" chapters.
The chapters are as follows:

1) Introduction
2) Plot Definition
3) Character Emotional Development Profile
4) Plot Planner
5) Scene vs Summary
6) Plot the Middle
7) Plot the End
8) Scene Tracker
1.)To deepen your understanding of plot, you may also wish to purchase as a supplemental reference material:
2.) To deepen the students interactive participation to the lesson outlined below, you may also wish to purchase as supplemental reference material:
1) Assign students to read Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko on their own to prepare for the class discussion.
Appropriate for: MIDDLE SCHOOL/Jr High or Grades 6-8 (ages 9-12) Students
California Department of Education Recommended Literature
Reading and Language Arts

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
History/Social Science

2) As the children are reading the book, watch "Chapter 2" of the DVD that overs the PLOT DEFINITION. Go over the information with the children (refer to BLOCKBUSTER PLOTS Pure & Simple [BBP] as a supplemental reference for the definition of plot -- pages 109-112)
3) While the children are reading the book, go over the Character Emotional Development Profile (BBP pages 145-152). Discuss and define all seven character traits ~ flaw, strength, love, hate, fear, secret, and dream. Have each child fill out a Character Emotional Development Profile for themselves.

4) When the children have read the book and before watching "Chapter 3" of the DVD, have each child pick a character and fill out a Character Emotional Development Profile. (BBP pages 145-152) Discuss what they came up with and why.

5) Watch "Chapter 4" of the DVD and discuss.
6) Before watching "Chapter 5" of the DVD, go over Scene and Summary (BBP pages 25-29). Have each child mark their books (can use post-it notes if you do not want them marking up their books) where a scene begins and ends, and where a summary begins and ends. Discuss which sort of writing the children most like to read. (Generally, the answer is: SCENES)
7) Watch "Chapters 6 & 7" together and discuss.
8) Watch "Chapter 8" together and discuss. Have each student pick their favorite part of the story and track the scenes in that chapter or section. See if by the process of tracking they deepen their understanding of the story (make copies of the SCENE TRACKER template from the SCENE TRACKER Template CD enough for 3 each per student.)

Teachers' Guides

Teachers' Guides

The following Blockbuster Plots line of plot tools has teachers' guides available for student readers and writers
Middle School
High School

The following plot tool has teachers' guide for MIDDLE SCHOOL/JUNIOR HIGH students

Plot Guide/Writers Workshop DVD
Both the Scene Tracker and the Plot Planner tools are demonstrated

Includes: 120 minute Plot Intensive Workshop DVD (best to also have on hand for reference help: the 200-page Blockbuster Plots book and the Scene Tracker template CD & tutorial)
Free online Reading and Writing Teachers' Guide by Martha Alderson, M.A., teacher and plot consultant for writers.
Teacher Note: These activities were created to offer information through a variety of auditory and visual channels to accomodate all different learning styles.


MIDDLE SCHOOL/Jr High or Grades 6-8 (ages 9-12) Students
1.) Become more proficient in Reading (R2-R3) and Writing (W2) Standands as outlined by the California Language Arts Content Standards
2.) Develop thinking skills as laid out in Bloom's Taxonomy