15 April 2008

Plotting for a Curious Monkey

Sometime in the early 1960s, Children's Hospital in Boston approached Margret and H. A. Rey about telling a story of their beloved character Curious George going to a hospital. George had already spent some time in a hospital in Curious George Takes a Job, when he dropped from a fire escape and broke his leg. The Children's Hospital staff hoped that children might feel less anxiety about going to the hospital themselves if they'd seen their favorite curious monkey survive the experience.

Now that's not a plot or a story; it's a mission. Likewise, the title Curious George Goes to the Hospital is simply a premise (and "high concept") for a story, but not a story itself. The Reys had to create a compelling plot for their character.

The big challenge of building a plot around a hospital visit is that strong plots are usually fueled by the protagonist's desire and steered by the protagonist's actions. But very few people desire to go to a hospital. Hospital patients have limited power to affect what happens to them. They need help from other people, such as doctors; that's why they're in the hospital.

So what plot did the Reys come up with? For a workshop at the recent SCBWI New England conference, I used Curious George Goes to the Hospital as a lab monkey for my idea of an "in response to..." synopsis. This is a tool for summarizing and thus analyzing a plot that foregrounds the protagonist's (and antagonists') actions and thus the cause-and-effect connections between events. Here's the result:

George is a very curious monkey. In response to seeing a big box on the man with the yellow hat's desk, George eats one of the colorful things inside. As a result of George having eaten a piece of a wooden jigsaw puzzle, he and the man in the yellow hat can’t finish the puzzle. In an additional response, George feels sick.

In response to George’s illness, the man in the yellow hat calls a doctor and takes him to the hospital. In response to an X-ray, doctors spot the puzzle piece and recommend an operation, so a nurse puts George in a ward with a sad girl named Betsy and a boy named Steve with a bandaged leg and a wheelchair.

In response to the surgery, George feels better, so he eats ice cream, puts on a puppet show in the playroom, and takes a spin on a record player. In response to George wearing himself out, an attendant puts him back in bed.

The next day, Steve is taking his first steps as part of his rehabilitation. In response to seeing Steve’s empty wheelchair, George gets curious and rides it out into the hall. In response to gravity, the chair rolls down a ramp, smashes into two lunch carts, and launches George into the arms of the visiting mayor. In response to this mess, George feels ashamed and sad.

In response to seeing the same mess, Betsy laughs for the first time since she entered the hospital and kisses George. In response to hearing Betsy laugh, the hospital director forgives George. In response to the man in the yellow hat coming to take George home, a nurse gives them a small box. Inside they find the puzzle piece, and in response George and the man finish the puzzle.
This synopsis reads terribly, of course. But it does the job of highlighting what episodes in the book are crucial to the plot, what George does, and how events tie together. And that's all an "in response to..." synopsis is supposed to do.

The synopsis shows that George goes to the hospital not because he wants to, but nevertheless as a consequence of one of his actions. The synopsis also shows that the plot doesn't turn on George's operation, but rather on an event he instigates: his wheelchair ride. George and his readers can't anticipate the storyline's big turn--Betsy's laughter, and the hospital staff's pleasure--but the Reys set up that moment earlier and fit it into the plot's cause-and-effect structure.

This synopsis also shows that some emotional moments in the book, such as George screaming when he sees the anesthetic needle, are mere blips in the plot. I suspect that needle episode was always part of the plan for the book, but it's supported by the storyline rather than supporting the plot. If the story were to show George running away when he saw the needle, his response would have been an important turning-point in the plot, but it wouldn't have served the book's mission.

I also tried this tool on some Dr. Seuss narratives: Horton Hatches the Egg and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Both of those stories' plots, it showed, depend on the protagonist doing the same thing over and over in response to increasingly difficult pressures until he is vindicated. So their "in response to..." synopses are even more repetitive. Plot twists were not Dr. Seuss's thing.

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