Sunday, November 10, 2013


When I discuss plotting with students, I provide numerous examples from movies and novels for each of the twelve steps. (For a full discussion of my plotting system see The Secret Language of Stories at Carolee Dean Books).

 I like to follow up with a discussion of plot as it relates to an entire story. Picture books work quite well for this purpose since they may be shared with students at one sitting. Many of them contain content that is appropriate for teens as well as younger students.

One fabulous example is Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Vaunda is a New Mexico author and librarian and her book is a Coretta Scott King Award recipient.

This true story follows the life of a slave who became one of the most feared lawmen of the Wild West. The bibliography and website information at the back of the book make it easy to connect to other articles and support the common core standards with non-fiction resources. 

Here's the plot...

THE OLD WORLD: The story begins with a dramatic showdown between Bass Reeves and outlaw, Jim Webb. It then goes back in time to explore Bass’s slave days in Texas. His owner was so impressed with his shooting skills that he not only took Bass hunting and entered him in shooting competitions; he also took Bass with him to fight in the Civil War. But one night something happened that changed Bass’s life forever.

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: Bass and his owner had a fight over a card game and Bass hit the man. Fearing for his life, he decided to run away to Indian Territory where he lived among the various tribes and learned their languages.

MENTORS, GUIDES, AND GIFTS: Judge Isaac C. Parker served as in inspiration by giving Bass a job as deputy marshal, to help bring order and justice to the Indian Territory.

THE CROSSING: Bass traveled to each of his missions with a set of fine horses, a chuck wagon, a cook, a guard, at least one posse man, and a tumbleweed wagon used to bring in the criminals.

THE NEW WORLD: One of the first challenges Bass had to face in his new position was the fact that he was illiterate. He asked someone to read the warrants to him while he memorized each name and all the charges. Sometimes he had thirty warrants at a time, and he had to keep all of that information in his memory.

I love sharing this part of the story with my students, since most of them have severe reading disabilities. It demonstrates how we can all develop strategies to overcome our deficits and short-comings.

THE PROBLEM, THE PRIZE, AND THE PLAN: One of Bass Reeves favorite methods for capturing outlaws was to use disguises. One time when he was tracking two brothers, he dressed like an outlaw, going so far as to shoot three holes in an old hat. Then he walked twenty-eight miles to their hideout so no one would see his fine horses or his wagons.

MIDPOINT CHALLENGE: When Bass arrived at the house, he showed the mother of the outlaws his hat full of bullet holes and told her a posse was after him. She invited him in and when her sons arrived, the three men agreed to become partners.

DOWNTIME: Everyone but Bass went to sleep. He stayed up and put the criminals in handcuffs. They woke up to a very rude surprise.

CHASE AND ESCAPE: Bass made the two men walk the twenty-eight miles back to the tumbleweed wagon. Their mother followed for three of those miles, yelling and screaming at Bass.

Note: Many stories, even picture books, contain repetitions of the plan, attempt response cycle. What comes next in the Bass Reeves story are several shorter vignettes of his adventures capturing various outlaws.

DEATH EXPERIENCE: Although Bass faced many ruthless outlaws, his most dangerous experience was facing a mob of ordinary citizens.  They were about to lynch a black man. Bass rode right into their midst without a word, cut the man down, and rode away with him on the back of his horse.

CLIMACTIC SHOWDOWN: The climax of a story is the test of a hero’s true character. In a story of the Wild West you might expect a shootout or a duel, but Bass’s defining moment was much more internal. He received an arrest warrant for his own son who had killed his wife in a moment of jealous rage. Bass had to decide if he was going to follow through with his duty or not. True to his character, he arrested his own son.

REWARD: When Oklahoma became a state and the Indian Territory was a thing of the past, local lawmen replaced federal marshals. Bass joined the police force in Muskogee, Oklahoma. When he died, hundreds of people attended his funeral. One man commented that Bass was, “one of the bravest men this country has ever known.”

Understanding the basic plot structure of stories can be an invaluable way to get story ideas of your own. When writers, whether amateurs or experts, see the different ways plots can unfold, they may tuck away ideas for their own adventures.

When students understand these patterns that are repeated across genres, they start to recognize them in movies and books. The secret language of the story becomes a language they may learn to speak.

Remember, for a more detailed discussion of each of these twelve steps, go to Carolee Dean Books.
For classroom resources for Bad News for Outlaws see the publisher's site at Lerner Books.

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