Standard Lesson

Graphing Plot and Character in a Novel

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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As a class, students create a basic plot diagram of a book they have read. They discuss the use of symbols to represent major events, and assign a positive or negative rating to each plot event they listed. The teacher then turns their ideas into a graphical map of the story to introduce the concept to the class.

In the next session, students discuss an example graphic map from The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, created from Kenny's point of view, and use a rubric to score it. Students then work in small groups, using an online tool to create a graphic map following another character in the book. Finally, students work independently to create a graphic map for another book they have read.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Story maps represent the basic structure of a narrative text, and act as templates that graphically represent plot elements. Most story maps document the basic elements of fiction: setting, characters, initiating event, conflict/goal, resolution, and theme. However, Margaret M. Foley in her article, "The (Un)Making of a Reader" asserts that we need to ask more from our students when they respond to literature. Foley states, "What is lost in our rush to have everyone comprehend in the same way is the reader's interests, feelings, and ideas" (510).

This lesson plan takes comprehension a step further by asking students to retell the story graphically, based on their own interpretation of the text. By focusing on a particular change through graphical maps, students gain a deeper understanding of a text. In such projects, students think about the events, characters, and themes; assign a value to them and think about how the elements of the story are all interconnected. This idea of comprehension helps students to read and respond in a deeper fashion.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Copies of The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, or other selected text

  • Chart paper or board, and writing instruments

  • LCD Projector (optional)



  • Read The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 as a class—either by read-aloud or using a class set of the book. Students will need to have completed the book before they begin this project.

  • Gather writing utensils for chart paper and the board, and/or post chart paper.

  • Make appropriate number of copies of Graphic Map Example and Graphic Map Rubric.

  • Acquire an LCD projector if desired.

  • Test the Plot Diagram tool and Graphic Map on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • discuss the elements of plot.

  • create an evaluative scale, from high points to low points, ranking the key moments.

  • order key moments in chronological order.

  • work in cooperative groups.

  • use a rubric to assess their work.

Session One

  1. Begin by writing the word plot on the board or chart paper.

  2. Invite students to share what they know about plot and the elements involved.

  3. If students seem to have difficulty with this task, teach a minilesson on plot before proceeding.

  4. Using a text recently completed in class, ask students to answer the following questions:

    • What did the author need to explain in the beginning of the story?

    • What happens in the story to cause the action to begin to rise?

    • Where does the story peak? Is there a clear climax?

    • Which events lead up to the conclusion?

    • How is the story resolved?
  5. Record their contributions on the board or chart paper, or using the Plot Diagram tool and an LCD projector.

  6. Facilitate a discussion about the idea of using symbols to represent events in life. You can begin with some of the following examples:

    • the symbol of birth could be a stork or baby

    • graduation could be marked using a cap and tassel

    • divorce in family could be a drawing of stick people with a lightning strike down the middle

    • death could be shown using a grave marker
  7. Once students understand how to use symbols, refer back to the plot diagram.

  8. Using the ideas shared by the class, ask them to assign a positive or negative value to each of the elements of the plot.

  9. Make a visual representation of this on the board or chart paper, using a symbol for each of the events. This can also be accomplished using the online Graphic Map tool and an LCD projector.

  10. Open up a conversation about the similarities and differences between a plot diagram and a graphic map:

    • A plot diagram tells the story sequentially.

    • A graphic map also tells the story sequentially, but also allows for emotions and judgments to be recorded in relationship to each plot event.

Session Two

  1. To introduce the project to the students, share the Graphic Map Example from The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963. This example was created from Kenny's point of view.

  2. Discuss how this example combines aspects of a plot diagram and a graphic map.

  3. Show the rubric to students and discuss the components.

  4. Allow students to score the Graphic Map Example with the rubric, so they get a feel for what will be required of them.

  5. Explain the project to students:

    • Working in small groups, students will choose another character in The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963 and create a graphic map, following that character through the story.

    • The groups of students will not only retell key events from the story, but they will also assign a value to each event.

    • Using the Graphic Map tool, a maximum of 15 entries can be entered.

    • In the box labeled Scene, record the page number of the section you will be documenting.

    • The Topic box is for a title of the scene.

    • There is an additional box to add a description of the event.

    • The final step is to choose a picture to represent the event.
  6. When students have completed and printed their graphic maps, allow time for them to share with the rest of the class.

  7. This sharing may open up discussions about the themes found in this book: racism, discrimination, differences in the North vs. the South, the decade and the happenings then, and so forth. The 1960s entry from Wikipedia and an NPR article about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing can provide useful background information to help facilitate this discussion.

Session Three

  1. Begin this session by discussing the graphic maps from the previous class session. Talk about what went well, any difficulties encountered, and any problems with technology.

  2. Groups may also want to assess their group graphic map using the rubric to see what they need to improve before they make their own individual graphic map.

  3. Once students have had practice making a map of a character, explain that they will create a map on their own, using another text read in class, as part of a literature group, or listened to as a read aloud.

  4. Allow time during the session for students to work on their maps independently. If desired, students might work in their journals for homework and then move to computers during an additional class session.

Session Four

  1. When students have completed and printed their Graphic Maps for their independent books, provide time for them to share their work with the class.

  2. As students share their maps, assess their work using the rubric.


  • Compare graphic maps of several characters from the same book to see how their lives intersect. Ask students to look for places where the characters are at different or similar points emotionally.

  • Choose a character who appears in a series of books. Graph how that character changes or stays the same throughout the different stories. For a more concrete example, view the lesson plan Mapping a Character Across a Series.

  • This activity can also be completed using a story that the student has written. The student would be able to visually see how the plot and characters work together in their writing.

  • Ask students to create graphic maps for other aspects of the novels—such as the themes (e.g., freedom, civil rights, or maturity). Maps for themes can then be compared to the maps for the individual characters to see how the similarities and differences inform the readers' understanding of the novel.

  • Have students check out the homepage of Christopher Paul Curtis, the author of The Watson's Go To Birmingham—1963, which includes information about other texts written by the author.

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • In addition to observing students as they read and discuss the development of the characters in the novel, collect the artifacts from the lesson (Graphic Map printouts, any notes they have taken, scored rubrics, and so forth) to examine students’ understanding of character and character development.

  • Another form of assessment is to listen to the students as they work in their cooperative groups. Listen for specific details that indicate engagement with the reading. Ideally, these discussions will focus on the particular character and how that character interacts with others. Stronger readers will look more deeply and analytically at the character to hypothesize about motivations and implications for actions and thoughts while reading, and they will draw conclusions about how the character’s actions and changes affect the overall story and its themes. Pay attention to strong details and critical thinking rather than accuracy of predictions as you explore the notes—guessing the wrong outcome of events is an acceptable response as long as the hypothesis is tied to details in the story that support the conclusion.

  • Review Graphic Map printouts for accuracy and the understanding of the characters. For a more specific assessment, take notes and complete the rubric.

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