Plotting with Avatar: the Last Airbender

Back in December, I wrote a post about focused practicing and using that to improve. At the time, one of the things I’d been studying up on and practicing was plotting. Plotting is definitely not one of my strengths and I wanted to improve. But how do you practice plotting?

The first thing I did was rewatch Dan Wells’ presentation on the 7-point plot structure. If you haven’t seen these before, I highly recommend them. But then, once my brain was filled with pinches and plot turns, how did I take that information and apply it? Again, how do you practice plotting?

The first thing that came to mind was to thoroughly outline my current manuscript. I was still in the beginning phases and, although I had a loose outline, I definitely could have plotted out all the subplots and tried to weave those all together. Past experience has taught me, though, that I don’t write well that way. In fact, having a tight outline is pretty much like a death sentence for my manuscripts, at least during the drafting phase. I know others who have to have an outline to write, so for them, this might have been a goo
d idea at this point. But I wasn’t ready for that, not yet.

So I kept drafting my story and practiced plotting a different way: by rewatching my favorite TV show, Avatar: the Last Airbender.

I know, I know. According to my driver’s license, I’m an adult, but, yes, my favorite show is a cartoon aimed at kids, and it’s amazing! Drama, romance, intrigues, betrayals, and a fabulous magic/martial arts system.

As I watched, I paid attention to the pacing and the plotting, both of the individual episodes and of the series as a whole, and came out of it thinking the show was even more brilliant than I did before. (It also worked out nicely because my son had to do a similar plotting exercise for homework, so we watched one of the episodes, “Imprisoned,” and plotted it out together.)

It’s been fascinating to see what works in some of my favorite episodes and what doesn’t work in some of my less beloved episodes. I noticed how each of the five main characters (Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, and Toph) learn and grow and end the series in an opposite state than they began it, but all of them have very different emotional journeys. For example, (this may contain spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show) Aang needs to accept that he’s the Avatar and the accompanying responsibilities and Toph needs to learn that she can’t do everything on her own and how to rely on others and be a good friend.

Rewatching a familiar TV show and focusing in on the plotting, to the point of actually plotting out episodes, was a great way for me to practice at this. Now that I’m reaching the end of my first draft, I plan to go back and thoroughly outline it, to figure out where the tension is lagging, where the subplots are floundering (or non-existent), and really tighten up the whole story line, and now, after all my practicing, I finally feel ready to do it.

What exercises have you done that have helped you tighten your plot? 


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.