Friday, October 14, 2011

Plot Discussion: Okay for Now

So I’m studying some book plots in hopes of gaining insight into my own WIP. And I’m taking a workshop that encourages writers to use this model for the main plot:

Protagonist has a specific goal, with high stakes, and takes continuous actions to pursue that goal. An antagonist takes intentional, continuous steps to block the protagonist from reaching his/her goal.

Sounds good, right? Two equal forces, pitted against each other, maximizing conflict and tension throughout the story. Readers learn about and presumably root for characters by witnessing the lengths to which they will go to achieve their goals. Subplots occur that may round out, strengthen, or weaken either the protagonist or the antagonist.

With this in mind, how would you articulate the plot of Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, which Jackie mentioned is on the NBA short list. What is Doug Swieteck’s main goal? Who intentionally wants to block him from that goal? What actions does Doug take to achieve his goal?

Seems to me that Doug has two main goals: to fit into his new town and for his Dad not to be such a jerk. The story doesn't end until he's accomplished both of these, but already I’ve broken the mold outlined above. Plus, Doug encounters a series of opposing forces, rather than just one antagonist.

What models would you use to parse this plot? Which goal carries more weight in the story? Or do you see a different main goal? What would you say is the main plot? Vs. the subplots?

No wrong answers. Just looking for ideas…


  1. Oh, I can't think of this book in terms of a model, but rather in a similar way you began the discussion: Doug shows us his goals and forces are at work to thwart those goals. One of Doug's main goals,and arguably most important to the story and his character arc is to find wholeness. Schmidt mirrors this desire in Doug's goal to make the Audobon book whole again. Doug's internal arcs and his external actions--the plans to make the book whole, collide. Doug witnesses his mother's isolation, his father's cover ups and as the new kid in Merryville, he wants a foundation, something that lasts, that will cement his feet in that ever-shifting world that he has no control over. So Doug controls what he can--focusing on the book. And doing so, sets off a chain of events, organic to the story that show each minor character's arc development as well. For exampke, Older brother: returns disabled @ the beginning of the book. Book ends when brother finds fulfillment as a coach at the school--again another character who mirrors Doug's desire. His brother returns from the War fractured/broken/not whole, and he too, by the book's ending finds wholeness via the coaching job, once he battles obstacle after obstacle (job losses, discrimination, etc.) and through true grit, he finds wholeness and more importantly, acceptance by family, by the town.

    So, maybe Maslow's hierarchy and the human condition are a bit more palpable and powerful as any model. Acceptance, survival, self-actualization, etc. Just thinking... Love this book, by the way! Great post, Cheryl! :0)

  2. p.s. I used this book in my lecture (not in the actual critical thesis) as a model for The Hero's Journey. One argument: the art, Doug's interest in it, finding his way, himself reflected in those paintings, returning as often as possible to learn from the paintings--acts as an unconventional type of mentor (a spin on Campbell's theory).

    The book probably mirrors The Hero's Journey more than any other "model," though. Crossing the thresh hold: perhaps when he enters "stupid old Marysville Library." Side kick: Lil. Mentors: Librarian (his name escapes me), the paintings, etc. Allies: Lil's dad, older/writer lady (eccentric and just wonderful). Enemies: Himself--he must overcome what he's been through to find wholeness at the most basic level: individual--family--society. Again, just thinking. What do y'all think? Did I mention that I love this book? LOL

  3. I like that goal to "find wholeness" because it does encapsulate all the others. In some ways, it's an abstract goal, but the smaller, concrete goals build up to it. Also interesting in that it isn't a goal that Doug would necessarily articulate for himself at the beginning of the story. For example, he wouldn't say,"I want to be whole, not a chump."

    As you point out, Doug is drawn to the theme of wholeness through the art, which provides a vehicle for him to project his needs onto.

    Other ideas for balancing these abstract and concrete goals?

  4. LOL @: "I want to be whole, not a chump." HA! I'll think about all this some more.

  5. At the beginning, I think Doug's goal is to “not be a chump,” to not be beaten up or beaten down or exposed. He hides a lot about himself from others (his inability to read, his father’s abuse, etc.). But Doug is sensitive, perceptive, and honest in most ways. He has a strong sense of “right,” and he really wants people to get what they deserve (good or bad). Ultimately, we see that he really wants both self-respect and even respect from others.

    There are many antagonists in the book: his dad, his middle brother, his oldest brother, the principal, the head librarian, the gym teacher, etc. They all want to deny Doug any self-respect or respect from others. Bit by bit, step by step, he begins to understand each of these people and he ultimately (painfully) chips away at the barriers and earns both self-respect and the respect of others. And boy, does he ever earn every little bit of it.

  6. IDK, seems like the goal he articulates is that he must deal with this new life in stupid old Marysville day by day--the best he can. He must open himself up to the town and its people because that's all he can control, which is the only way he changes as he does. And, Debra, I'd also add that Doug's fears and all that he endures serve an antagonistic role in the story, thwarting his own goals--fear, secrecy, the ability to trust himself and accept the change to this town, for the book, towards Lil's illness, etc. depends on him. So, Schmidt must show Doug's proclivity to be a conduit for change. There's no other choice for him, which makes his actions so organic and authentic and this book so wonderful. But after some more thought, I'd say Doug would articulate (at the beginning) that he just wants to get by each day like we all do. Of course, as we've all pointed out, there are stronger undercurrents that lead to pretty major themes in the book. But all the actions, all his arcs, all the minor characters' arcs lead the reader back to Doug's desires, every time.

  7. p.s. Doug deals with change everywhere--the town, at home, within himself... And we're shown that he deals with all of it one occasion or at a time, the best he can, which is the best any of us can do.

  8. I love all these different articulations! There's a sense to which "getting by each day" and "not be a chump" are the same goal, but the latter phrase is more in Doug's voice.

    I'd love to hear more phrasing too. Anyone else?

    And here's a follow-up question: Is it important for the author and the protagonist to identify the same goal for the protagonist? In your works-in-progress, does your main character have as clear an understanding of her goal as the author does?