The Plot Power of “Because of That”

For me, one of the most difficult parts of writing nonfiction (or any narrative, really) is choosing what fascinating parts of the story to include and what to delete because it doesn’t fit the focus of the book. One of my most valuable tools for figuring out what belongs is three simple words: “because of that.”

The story spine

I first learned about linking plot points with the phrase “because of that” in this Pixar/Khan Academy video about story spines, pictured below. Once the main character sets off to pursue her big goal in Act 2, her choices should drive the action. “Because of that” ensures that each action and each choice in the second act leads directly to the next. If you can fit “because of that” between your plot points, then your main character has agency.

But what if “because of that” doesn’t fit? What if your plot is more like, “This happened, and then that happened, and then that happened.” If you are using “and then” to link your plot points, that’s a strong indicator that your plot is a random collection of events happening to your protagonist. You need to reevaluate. Who is driving the action? Does each scene have a connection to the protagonist’s big goal?

An example

Let’s look at THE FIRE OF STARS as an example. Cecilia Payne was such a fascinating woman, and there was so much I wanted to include in the book. At one time, the book included all kinds of tidbits, including the fact that when Cecilia won a prize at school and could pick any book she wanted, she selected a textbook about fungi. Though this fact was interesting, it didn’t have real bearing on the Cecilia’s lifelong quest to discover something new, so I ultimately discarded it. In a novel, I might have had the space to keep the scene to illuminate Cecilia’s character, but in a picture book I had to be ruthless.

Let’s look at a plot outline for THE FIRE OF STARS, and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. Once upon a time there was a young girl, Cecilia Payne, who was captivated by the natural world.
  2. Everyday she studied trees and flowers.
  3. Until one day, she discovered on her own why a bee orchid looked like a bee, and her whole body hummed with that discovery. In that moment, she decided she wanted to feel like that her whole life.
  4. But Cecilia’s family moved to London to find a better school for her brother, and because of that, Cecilia went to a new school with no space for a curious girl like her.
  5. Because of that, she hid out in a secret place — a dusty science lab for older girls.
  6. Because of that, she taught herself about science, and soon required a science tutor who gave Cecilia her first book on astronomy.
  7. Because of that, Cecilia was accepted to Cambridge University to study botany (because girls couldn’t study astronomy).
  8. Because of that, she took science classes where teachers wanted her to learn facts, not learn anything new.
  9. Because of that, she jumped at the chance to hear astronomer Arthur Eddington talk about his new discoveries at a lecture.
  10. Because of that, she switched her studies to physics where she was the only woman and teased by the men.
  11. Because of that, when she graduated and learned there was no place for women in astronomy at Cambridge, she moved to America to work at Harvard College Observatory.
  12. Because of that, she was surrounded by glass plates capturing the essence of stars and women who cataloged them.
  13. Because of that, Cecilia studied the star ingredients for her thesis, but grew frustrated when she couldn’t make out their meaning. But she stuck with it.
  14. Until finally, she made her groundbreaking discovery about what makes the stars — and our universe.
  15. And ever since that day, other astrophysicists have used Cecilia’s discovery to ask new questions and make more amazing discoveries about our universe.
  16. And the moral of the story is that what makes a scientist is curiosity, passion, hard work, and belief in oneself.

By using “because of that” I’ve made sure Cecilia is driving her own story and that every action has a consequence that forces Cecilia to make another choice in a smooth chain of cause and effect.

Your turn

Grab a narrative draft (nonfiction or fiction) and outline your plot using the story spine. Are you able to use the words “because of that” between your plot points? Or is it a bunch of “and then this?” What adjustments do you need to make to your plot a series of causes and effects?

One more thing

If you want to study THE FIRE OF STARS, illus. Katherine Roy, more closely, the book will release Feb. 7, 2023 from Chronicle Books. It’s a lyrical, double read aloud with Cecilia’s story told alongside the story of star formation. You can preorder it now wherever books are sold. You’ll find all the buy links here. Or ask your local library to purchase a copy.

Books, Science/Math, Writing

Getting from Here to There

My mind is abuzz with navigational terms: astrolabes and gyroscopes, dead reckoning and piloting, latitude and longitude. A couple of months ago, I read Dava Sobel’s Longitude about Englishman John Harrison. Harrison solved the centuries-long problem of determining a ship’s longitude (east/west position) by inventing a sea-worthy clock. By knowing the time at the home port (using the marine clock) and local time aboard the ship (using the sun at high noon, for example), a navigator could use that difference in time to determine his east/west position. For those like me who have long forgotten their geometry: a one hour difference in time is equal to 15 degrees of longitude, since our Earth is a 360 degree circle and there are 24 hours in a day.

There’s quite a bit of drama to John Harrison’s tale. The great astronomers of the day were convinced that the solution to the longitude problem would be found in the heavens. For decades Harrison’s competitors denied him the prize money he deserved for solving the problem. He only received the sum shortly before his death at age 83 when the English monarch intervened.

I thought for sure there was a picture book in there somewhere. First, I thought I’d write a picture book biography of John Harrison. There are only a couple of children’s books about him out there, and they are for older readers ( 8 and up). Still, despite the man’s genius, John Harrison is, shall we say, a bit boring and stuffy. His perseverance is a good moral lesson, but we know little of his childhood and how he became the man he was. This is not the stuff of captivating biography.

Instead, I started ruminating on a navigation book for early elementary students. Over the past couple of months, I’ve devoured books for children and adults, Web sites, lesson plans and more about navigation. I’ve drafted a pretty lengthy outline of what a book about navigation could cover. And, here’s where it gets tricky with nonfiction: determining how much information is just the right amount for ages 5 through 8.

Matching the level of detail to the target audience is a consistent challenge for me. I find myself writing and rewriting as I simplify, simplify, simplify without dumbing down the information. I constantly turn to the writers that inspire me for this age group: Gail Gibbons, Melissa Stewart, Darlene Stille. I reread their books trying to get a feel for the “just right” level of detail. Sometimes I try to explain what I’m writing to my five-year-old to gauge how much I think he understands. When I can, I consult grade-level standards for my state or others. Once I think I’ve hit my mark, I read him the whole draft. Still, the process of whittling down such vast quantities of information is a challenge.

I’m interested in hearing from other writers of children’s nonfiction (books or magazines). How do you ensure your level of detail is a good match for your audience? Do you have any tips for simplifying complicated information?