Plotting Characters: Climb Rather Than Fly

Posted by on Mar 5, 2014 in Conference, plotting, writing | 19 comments

Hello all! This summer, I’ll be teaching about plotting at the WIFYR Conference (Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers), which is one of the finest conferences in the country. There are a great many authors who credit their publishing success with having attended this conference. Read more about WIFYR here, and if you can come, I’d love to have you in my class!


To give you an idea of the importance of plotting, Becca Birkin, WIFYR
assistant, is guest posting today. This is fairly rare for me, so you know this must be a good post!

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What an honor to visit Jennifer Nielsen’s blog as part of the WIFYR blog tour! I am a huge fan. Her books are exceptional. She really knows how to keep readers turning pages.  After hearing her speak at WIFYR 2013, I can’t wait for her to teach us how to improve our plot skills this coming June. Anyone who attends her mini workshop is in for a terrific learning opportunity.

Since Jennifer’s great plots arise partly out of unforgettable characters, I’ll review an essential plot rule: by the end of the story, your main character must have undergone a recognizable change.

Sound easy? Not really. This change has to happen naturally, or in other words, in a way true to the protagonist’s character. Since conflict is another plot essential, a good storyline should push the character into difficult situations that act as a catalyst for her change. Her reaction to these difficulties can’t, however, be a dramatic and unexplained departure from weakness to sudden strength. If she’s been limping throughout the book, she shouldn’t suddenly fly in chapter twelve.

As an example, if you write about a shy outsider having to speak in front of a huge school audience, his character dictates that he should sweat through every word. If, instead, he suddenly gains the polish of a presidential candidate, there’s no conflict, and thus no believability.

An article in the January 2013 Writer’s Digest explains it well. “Characters who demonstrate instant skill or comfort with something they’ve never tried before resides largely in the realm of schlock. The less familiar the behavior, the clumsier and more uncomfortable it should be.”*

DSC_2287Similar to a mountain climber’s ascent, your protagonist’s change should be the result of struggle, and the reader should feel and experience that upward slope of increasing conflict. In the instance of the awkward teen, as he stumbles through his talk, ignoring the sweat blurring his paper and the Senior hecklers on the front row, the scene tension increases, as does reader empathy.* When his words finally succeed in rallying the student body, his victory feels earned rather than forced.

This is just one example of the many elements needed to make a great plot.  While discussing them is much easier than their application, I don’t know of anyone who has mastered plot better than Jennifer Nielsen. That’s one reason I’m so excited to learn more from Jennifer at WIFYR this June.
“Push Your Characters to Their Limits,” David Corbett, Writers Digest, January 2013, p. 32.


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Note from Jennifer (me!): Thank you, Becca!

Note to local types wanting to publish. Check out WIFYR! June 16-20 in Salt Lake City. Early bird registration ends on March 15!



  1. Will this be broadcasted for those who want to see it but don’t live there/ can’t make it?

    • Sorry, Tylin, I think it’s an in-person event only. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to do something like this in your area!

  2. Thank you , that is a great insight ! I will certainly keep that in mind 😉

  3. I wanna go!! I have a question~What book(s) were you inspired by to write The ascendance Trilogy?

    • Hmm, I dunno, Dakota. I think everything I read sort of funnels in to make me who I am as a writer. Sorta like “you are what you eat,” only I am what I read.

      • So… Reading helps your writing?

        • Absolutely! Even more if you read a wide variety of books!


  4. Thanks! That’s some really good advice on plot.

  5. I am so proud of you!!! I love your books to the moon and back, and they have inspired me to write my own stories 🙂 Thank YOU, Mrs. Nielsen! Keep up the witty writing!! because as they say, “Witt beyond measure is a man’s greatest treasure.” I think Jaron would agree 😀

    • Thank you, Aisha! Yes, Jaron would agree (though he’d add that if he can’t wit might be his second greatest treasure, with his actual treasure being slightly greater), and I love that you have started writing too! Keep going!

  6. Oh Mrs.Jennifer i have a question! Were you born to be a writer like when you were my age did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Or did it come to you after trying several other jobs? I would love to know more about you you seem like a very interesting person you are the person who i look up to and i wish you the best of luck to you and your books in the future remember that!!! You change thousands of peoples lives with your books!!!!! ;D

    • Thank you, Fajjar. The first time I really thought about being an author was in 6th grade, but at the time I didn’t see it as a real career option – not the thing that everyday people could become. So I looked ahead to doing a “real” job, and didn’t come back to writing again until I was an adult. It was silly for me to wait so long before getting serious about writing, but I am very grateful to be here, and I appreciate your kind words!

      • It was a privileged talking to you Mrs. Jennifer thank you a lot for replying and giving excellent feedback maybe one day i can be a writer like you!

  7. So true, Jen you got that character/plot thing perfectly! Can’t wait for your new series, I’m going to have book party when it comes out…. okay there might only be 1 or 2 people going, “The few, the proud, the book lovers”

    In The Ascendance Trilogy, the characters seem so capable and are able to go along with Jaron’s plans. It makes you wonder, are the characters just that good, or does Jaron bring the best out of them?

    • Thanks, Cayla. And Jaron brings out the best in them. He expects great things from the people around him and they deliver.

  8. I think Jaron is the most absolutely lovable character in the library of the universe! He is unbelievably funny, sarcastic and cute! I love when Conner says to him:
    “You’re a trick to figure out, Sage. Would you ever be on my side?”
    “I’m only on my side,” Sage replies, “Your ‘trick’ would be convincing me that helping you helps me.”
    He is so independent, even at 14, but it also gets him in so much trouble!
    Thank you Jennifer for creating this adorable character!


  1. Blog Tour and Interview: Jennifer Nielsen | Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers - [...] WIFYR is offering the opportunity to spend a morning with Jennifer Nielsen learning about plot. The blog tour also…

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