Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Happy February! This month we’ll be talking about Francisco X. Stork’s YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World, which recently received the Schneider Family Book Award at the ALA Conference in Boston.

As we move out of our exploration of the short stories in Geektastic, we wanted to announce that the winner of our first StorySleuths StoryChallenge is Easter, who worked on a story featuring a Jane Austen fan. Thank you, Easter, for participating!

Dear Meg and Allyson,

Every book or story I read provides tips, examples and inspiration for me as a writer. I gather these lessons like apples from a tree, some to use right away and some to save for later. Every now and then, however, a book comes along with a major writing lesson that hits me directly on the head, Newton-like, and clarifies a pressing problem I face in my current project. Marcelo in the Real World is one of those books.

It occurred to me as I was trying to write a synopsis of my work-in-progress that the basic premises of my novel and Marcelo in the Real World are similar. In my novel, the protagonist moves to a new country, where she must adapt, against her will, to an unfamiliar culture. Marcelo, too, must go against his will to work in an unfamiliar country, “the real world,” which is located in the mailroom of his father’s law firm.

Lesson #1: Make the stakes clear. If Marcelo lives by the rules of the real world during his summer job, he will be able to choose what high school to attend in the fall. He wants to return to Paterson, a private school for children with disabilities, while his father, Arturo, wants him to transfer to the public high school for senior year. The stakes for my character… uh, still working on that.

But the lesson on stakes is just a minor point. The real lesson—a real bruiser—came when I contemplated the different plot lines that emerge from Marcelo’s experience at the law firm. The story is not just about Marcelo learning how to deliver mail and manage unreasonable deadlines or irrational secretaries. At work, Marcelo encounters new people and situations that challenge him to move outside his comfort zone. These people and situations develop into different plot lines that compliment, deepen, and even transform Marcelo’s original quest.

In contrast, my novel, so far, is primarily about my protagonist and her struggles adapting to her new living environment. The struggles are interesting, but they are not enough to sustain an entire novel. They do not push my character into changing as a person.

Marcelo in the Real World has four major plot lines:

  • Marcelo’s quest to succeed at work so that he can choose which school to attend (Layer 1).
  • Marcelo’s relationship with Jasmine, his boss (Layer 2).
  • Marcelo’s relationship with Wendell, the son of another lawyer in the firm (Layer 3).
  • Marcelo’s desire to help the girl in a photo he discovers in a file at work (Layer 4).

Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, would call these four plot lines plot layers, in other words “plot lines given to the same character” (p. 99). [Note: according to Maass, subplots are “plot lines given to different characters.”] Plot layers create textured stories that reflect the complexity of real life. In Marcelo in the Real World, the four plot layers noted above make Marcelo’s quest to succeed more challenging as well as more rewarding.

Plot layers alone, Maass contends, are not enough. He says that writers must then look for ways to link the layers together in “nodes of conjunction” (p. 99). These nodes might occur when a character from one plot layer encounters a character from another plot layer or when action in one plot line results in consequences that affect other plot lines. Several nodes of conjunction occur in Marcelo in the Real World.

Marcelo’s lunch with Wendell is an example of a node of conjunction. Marcelo assumes that Wendell has invited him to lunch because their fathers have encouraged their friendship. However, as soon as they order their meals, Wendell explains the real reason for his invitation: he would like Marcelo to help him “get Jasmine” (p. 122). Specifically, he would like Marcelo to bring Jasmine along on an evening cruise on Wendell’s yacht.

“Then all you have to do on the yacht is entertain yourself for a while up on deck while I take Jasmine below” (p. 125).
While Marcelo doesn’t immediately grasp Wendell’s intentions, he does know that Jasmine doesn’t like Wendell and he wants to protect her from him. Wendell’s request brings together Layers 2 and 3.

When Marcelo refuses to help Wendell “get Jasmine,” Wendell fires back with a new proposition. He will help Marcelo succeed at work (Layer 1) in return for Marcelo’s help with Jasmine. Now three plot layers intersect, leaving Marcelo in a quandary. Can he accept Wendell’s help at work without compromising his relationship with Jasmine?

This node of conjunction complicates life for Marcelo. As a result of lunch with Wendell, Marcelo gets a new assignment at work, which pleases his father but displeases Jasmine. Marcelo’s new task, organizing files relating to the firm’s biggest client, also leads him to the discovery of the photograph that launches Plot Layer 4.

As the story progresses, Stork continues to develop these four plot layers both independently and in relation to each other, resulting in a very “real world” portrayal of the complexities of real life.

(By the way, if you want to see how I analyzed the plot lines in Marcelo in the Real World, click over to Composition Book where I’ve posted pictures of a plot map.)

StorySleuths Tip #44: After establishing clear stakes for the protagonist, use plot layers to compliment, deepen and even transform the story arc.

Want to know what’s coming next at StorySleuths? Don’t forget to sign up for the StorySleuths monthly newsletter. We’ll send out details of upcoming picks as well as occasional writing challenges.