Unlocking the Plot: Literature Studies for TeensBetsy Strauss
Literature holds mysteries just waiting to be discovered. The setting is a great place to start asking questions. The next best area of focus is unlocking the plot. I remember fretting in school when I was asked, “What was the main idea of this story?” It was overwhelming to choose one thing that drove the whole story. All I really needed were a few simple tools to help guide my observations to help reveal the author’s purpose in writing the story.
The Key To Unlocking The Plot
One simple question will unlock the plot for your teen: What does the main character want?
When I first learned this question from Adam Andrew’s Teaching the Classics, it seemed almost too simple. Let’s try it:
- Think about The Lord of the Rings series. What does Frodo want? To live at peace in the Shire.
- How about Huckleberry Finn? Doesn’t he just want to be free to do as he pleases?
- What about the man from To Build a Fire? He just wants to get to the cabin where the other men are housed.
While it’s a simple question, it’s not easy to answer. The trickier part is that there can often be more than one answer. The challenge is choosing the best answer. You will find that the best answer leads you to the greatest conflict, and that is where a story’s plot comes to life.
Conflict: Why Can’t They Have What They Want?
This is the sum up of teenage angst. It should be easy for them to relate to this question. Even though most of us like to shy away from conflict, the reality is that a story doesn’t go anywhere without a problem. There are five main conflicts to choose from which help make defining the conflict easier.
If you’ve identified what the main character wants, now you just need to decide what’s keeping them from getting what they want. Here are the options:
- Another character is opposing them. In literary terms, this is referred to as a man vs. man conflict. Think of Peter Pan vs. Captain Hook; Cinderella vs. her Step Mother; Frodo vs. Sauron. In each of these stories, the main character is kept from getting what they want by another character. It’s not always a villain, but that’s an easy way to imagine this type of conflict.
- Nature makes it difficult. The next possible conflict is a man vs. nature conflict. The best example of this is Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire. Nature is against the man throughout the entire story. Nature wins.
- Society doesn’t agree. Some stories feature a man vs. society conflict. In these types of stories, the main character struggles against the beliefs of those around them in order to get what he wants. Huck Finn wants freedom to be unrefined, yet society wants to refine him. Atticus Finch wants justice for the innocent in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the society won’t let a black man go free.
- An internal struggle exists. One of the most fascinating conflict types is man vs. self. We’re all familiar with wanting something, but our own fears or limitations get in the way of realizing our dreams. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, on the surface it seems as if the conflict is man vs. man; the criminal vs. the police. However, when you get into the story, you realize that the real thing torturing Raskolnikov is his own conscience. He could have easily gotten away with his crime had he not felt so guilty for committing it. And that’s a good thing.
- God intervenes. The last conflict type is man vs. God. This can also apply to other supreme beings in stories. I think the Book of Job is the best example of this type of conflict. Job has done everything in his power to do the right thing, yet God intervenes and allows Satan to harass him. The resolution of this story comes when Job realizes his folly in questioning God. This type of conflict can also be seen in stories like Homer’s The Odyssey, where other gods are against the main character.
Once you’ve identified what the main character wants and why they can’t have it, you’re on the path to unlocking the plot of any story. Try out these questions with the next book you read or movie you watch. Practicing asking simple observation questions will lead to a habit of looking for the answers to them.
What’s keeping you from unlocking the plot in a story? [insert conflict here]