Some authors just like to begin a book and see where it takes them. With no idea about where the story is heading, this is known as ‘writing by the seat of your pants’ – that is, deciding what will happen as you write. Improvising this way works well for some but if you’re not careful you can end up with an incoherent or rambling tale with a string of events that don’t gel together in the way you’d hoped they would.
Mapping out your work – plotting the route your story will take – needn’t mean you can’t be creative or change events along the way. In fact you’ll probably find that your characters become so real they begin to tell you what should happen!
You needn’t plot your book down to the last comma and full stop. A general outline works well by breaking your story down into slots or chapters and sketching out what will happen in each section. By doing this you can continue to add layers to the work while not losing track of your main idea.
A plot, indeed, can be described in one sentence. My book, Black Dog’s Treasure, could be summed up as: Children discover riddles and solve clues left by a mysterious Captain that lead them to a reward.
Black Dog’s Treasure is aimed at children aged 7-11 and so is relatively short. A little under 8,000 words, it is told in five chapters. The ‘black dog’ of the title has a duel meaning. Digga, one of the book’s main characters, is a small black dog and is central to the storyline. The pirate ship that appears mysteriously to the children is also named the Black Dog.
When writing a children’s book ensure each chapter ends at a critical moment so readers are eager to read on. Here is the outline for Black Dog’s Treasure; this chapter breakdown shows how the various plot lines work, how the characters face the challenges set them, and how the chapters end at a crucial point in the story.
- Ten-year-old Jessie, holidaying on Beacon Island in her Gramps’ lighthouse, walks his dog, Digga to the beach and meets twins Finn and Meg practising for a sandcastle competition. She shows them a secret cave but they’re hindered by the bullying Bovis brothers. Looking out to sea, they spot what looks like a ghost ship called the Black Dog. In the cave, Digga uncovers a scrap of parchment with a riddle on it hinting at a reward if the clue is solved. On the old ship, someone is watching them.
- The following day on the other side of the island the children spy the Black Dog again. It’s following them. Rain forces them back to Gramps’ lighthouse where Finn notices a faded painting of the old ship; it’s identical to one hanging in the Guest House dining room where the twins are staying. Written underneath is another riddle. On the beach they find a message in a bottle. Could the next clue be linked to the painting at the Guest House?
- To evade the Bovis brothers the friends must find a different exit out of the cave. A dangerous climb leads them up to another part of the island. A rock carving of a ship and a dog’s head shows they’re on the right track. At the Guest House, Meg sneaks in but is waylaid by the proprietor. Eventually they find and decipher the next riddle and head for The Smuggler’s Store where they hear of a special carved rock known as Black Dog Rock. They know where this is.
- Back at the Rock, Jessie’s metal detector picks up a signal but the ground is too hard to dig. With help from Digga, a rusty tin is uncovered. Inside, the Captain’s clue hints at his castle but there no castle on the island. Apart from sandcastles, of course, which reminds Finn of the competition he’s meant to be entering. At the beach they realise Digga is missing and suspect the Bovis brothers. Something the competition judge announces helps Jessie solve the final riddle. Now she knows exactly where to look for the reward.
- Standing at the highest point of Beacon Island, they spot the ship heading for the shore. But there is no sign of any castle. Then, through Finn’s binoculars and almost completely hidden among trees they see a strange shape covered in ivy that Jessie believes is the Captain’s folly – a structure people build for fun. The friends have found the castle where the final clue tells them to go back to where it all started, and in the cave they finally get their reward.
But you’ll have to read the story to find out what it is!