Some creative folks seem to thrive on a certain amount of chaos. I’m not one of them. If my desk, my inbox, or my schedule is cluttered (or worse, if all of them are in disarray, as they are as I write this, in the midst of the holiday hubbub), then my brain feels cluttered and my writing suffers.
Although I don’t like messiness in my life, I do like it in my stories. In fact, one of my favorite plotting strategies can be summed up in two words: “Chaos ensues.” This works best when you’re going for humor (which, by the way, is something editors frequently say they’re looking for). Here are three examples from my books:
- When an inept magician is a last-minute replacement at a birthday party, chaos ensues. (Maxwell’s Magic Mix-Up, illustrated by Regan Dunnick)
- When a forgetful family sets off for a day at the beach, chaos ensues. (To the Beach!, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott)
- When a first-time skater starts rolling down a steep hill . . . well, you get the idea. (Samantha on a Roll, illustrated by Christine Davenier)
But what sort of chaos, exactly? That depends on your story. But if, like me, you write picture books, you want your chaos to have lots of visual impact. Think slapstick. Think messy action verbs: slipping, falling, spilling, breaking, bumping, colliding, crashing. For example, as Samantha races downhill, she plows into Matt, snags Katie’s kite, collides with a bride and groom, and overturns an ice-cream stand, among other calamities. To add to the mayhem, her adventure (conveniently) happens on the same day as the town parade, allowing me to put a fire brigade, marching band, and assorted spectators in her path.
If you’re writing for young kids, you also need to figure out a way to resolve things happily (you have more leeway here if your audience is older). Take Samantha. Thanks to a well-placed skateboard ramp, the aforementioned kite, and a strong breeze, Sammy sails back home, her mother none the wiser. (And, well, no, that couldn’t really happen, but that’s okay—kids are happy to suspend disbelief.)
Prompt #11: Chaos Ensues (or, A Series of Unfortunate Events)
Start with a “When X happens” clause, followed by “chaos ensues.” Then, without thinking too much, write about seven to ten mishaps that contribute to the chaos. Stumped? Here are a few you might try:
- When Joe brings his mouse along on a class trip to the museum (or a wedding, or other inappropriate setting of your choice) . . .
- When a dog wanders into a fancy restaurant . . .
- When Susie commandeers a motorized car (for kids) at a high-end toy store . . .
- When the zookeeper sets up a trampoline at the zoo . . .
If, after doing this exercise, you see the skeleton of a story in your chaos, consider the ending. How might you resolve the problem, undo the damage, clean up the mess, or otherwise resolve things happily?
Want to read other books that use this sort of strategy? Here are a few personal favorites: The Christmas Crocodile, by Bonnie Becker, illustrated by David Small; Seven Silly Eaters, by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee; Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers; and Boing!, by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Bruce Ingman.
Linda Ashman has published more than two dozen picture books (*see below for an abbreviated list) that have garnered the attention of reviewers, “Best Of” lists and numerous honors and starred reviews. As a poet, she has been compared to Ogden Nash, Mary Ann Hoberman, Douglas Florian, and Jack Prelutsky. Linda also gives back to the writing community through workshops and her “how to” handbook for picture book writers called THE NUTS AND BOLTS GUIDE TO WRITING PICTURE BOOKS which has been described as a “must have” and “indispensable” guide.