Plotting: MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN
Line-by-line writing is important. Characterization is key. But for most readers and editors of genre and mainstream fiction, what’s most important is story. A story that grabs the reader by the throat, hauls her inside, and doesn’t let her go until the story comes to a satisfying end. How does a writer create a work of fiction that compels the reader to keep turning pages?
Ransom Riggs demonstrates his mastery of story in his wondrous first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. In chapter one, our protagonist Jacob, whose grandfather has told him fanciful stories about peculiar children from his youth—a girl who floated to the ceiling unless anchored with a rope around her waist, an invisible boy who took off his clothes so he could watch others in secret, a boy whose stomach was full of bees—finds his grandfather, bleeding to death. Attacked in the woods behind his house, the old man lies in a tangle of weeds and vines. In his last breath, he tells Jacob to “go to the island. You’ll be safe there. Find the bird. In the loop….September 3rd, 1940. Tell them what happened.”
Most writers know this important secret for maintaining readers’ interest: keep the main character in trouble. And Riggs provides trouble by the boatloads. He packs the story with surprising turns; we never know where we’re headed. Time travel, flesh-eating monsters, gunfights, and even a little romance keep us turning those pages to find out the answers to Jacob’s questions, to solve all the mysteries he encounters, to find out what happens next.
A helpful resource for learning how to structure a story is Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. In this book, described as the bible of the film trade, Field breaks story into three acts. Act One, the setup, comprises the first twenty-five percent of the story. It introduces the characters, their dramatic needs, and sets up everything that follows. At the end of Act One, the writer places a plot point, a surprise that hooks into the action and spins the story into a new direction. Act Two, the confrontation, comprises the next fifty percent of the story. The protagonist confronts obstacles and conflicts that must be overcome to achieve her dramatic need. At the end of Act Two is another plot point, a surprise that once again, hooks into the story and spins it into yet another new direction. Act Three is the resolution. Does the protagonist live or die, succeed or fail, survive the test, get away safely or not?
Ransom Riggs has structured his novel similarly. Jacob, the protagonist in Miss Peregrine, meets with surprising turns at a nearly dizzying rate, many more than Field’s prescribed plot points at the ends of Acts One and Two. But two of his best surprises are placed approximately at the 25% and 75% marks. And his third act is a dazzling spectacle, the climax stretching for more than fifty pages of exciting action as Jacob and his peculiar friends risk everything to save their world.