Shape Your Story, Part Three: Summon the Middle School Teacher in Yourself

As you might have noticed from Shape Your Story, Part One and Two, using a formula can often springboard me smack dab into my inner teacher. The same will apply in today’s lesson, as well. Are you ready class? In order to summon your inner middle grade teacher, you need to picture him or her. Awww, shucks. I can’t remember my middle grade teacher. Can you? But, I DO remember my favorite novel writing teacher. Okay…picturing Joyce Sweeney now. What would she tell us?

Joyce Sweeney, my favorite novel writing teacher

Wow! This visualizing stuff really works! It feels great to walk in Joyce Sweeney’s shoes and I’ve always wanted curly hair! I didn’t have to dig too deep to remember one of the most amazing things Joyce taught me. Introducing: The Plot Clock! (Joint masterpiece of Joyce Sweeney and Jamie Morris)

Plot_Clock (1450 x 1904)
Click image for larger view

Since I’ve summoned Joyce, I thought I’d better ask her a few questions. Maybe that will help you summon her, too!

CB: Why do you feel The Plot Clock teaches great writing? Why four acts instead of three?

JS: When I look at most three act models, I find they are smooshing my acts two and three together in Act 2…that doesn’t allow enough time for the Act 3 upswing, which is in my opinion, vital to getting the reader on board with the protagonist and rooting for them to win. To me, the more twists and turns of fate you can work into a book, the better the ride for the reader.

CB: What’s the best way to use the plot clock for revisions?

JS: See what you have and see how it fits on the clock. Are your four acts symmetrical? If one seems too big or too small, that’s great information about where you need to cut or expand the story. Then it’s also a great practice to compare the complementary points of the plot clock. What’s happening at opposite poles of the clock? Is the thing that was broken at the low point restored in some form at the denouement? Does the turning point complement the binding point? (They are often taking place in the same setting.) And they aren’t opposite, but often comparing the inciting event to the climax is useful, as well.

CB: If you were to summon your middle-grade writing teacher, what would he/she say to you?

JS: Remember that Middle Graders are the champion readers of all the age groups, and the most intellectual of readers. YA’s are concerned with emotion, and Picture Book Readers are all about their bodies, but MG’s are thinkers and learners and researchers. Don’t ever talk down to them and do all you can to empower them.

CB: Woah! It’s like that middle grade teacher lives in you! So inspirational, Joyce! Thank you! I agree that middle graders are champion readers and we can learn a lot from them. By utilizing middle grade books as mentor texts, we will surely summon our middle grade teachers with ease.

It’s your turn now. Best wishes summoning your middle grade teacher! If you have a question for Joyce, now is your chance! Leave her a comment below.

Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels and one book of poetry. During her long writing career she also published many short stories, articles and poems. She has taught creative writing since coming to Florida in 1989 and has expanded her teaching through Sweeney Writing Coach, which offers online courses and webinars. She is proud to say that 52 of her former students have gone on to have their books traditionally published.


  1. Almitra – I like to hear that someone plotted perfectly without the clock. This template, I believe is hard wired into our ‘story brain’. So you can totally follow it without knowing what it is. You must be an excellent plotter! Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carrie, you’re absolutely right. A few years back, Rob Sanders and I launched ‘an investigation’ into picture books and the plot clock. And Tammi Sauer was the author who followed it the best (whether she ever heard of it or now LOL) So that’s one big reason for her success. She’s a plotter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome! Thanks for reading. Works great with picture books, too! Tammi Sauer’s books often follow this pattern. (Not sure she was ever aware of the plot clock, but she just plots awesome books!)


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