One Writer’s Journey

June 19, 2014

Rising Tension: The Dot Test in Nonfiction

Dot TestI’ve been working on a readers’ theater script for Schoolwide.  The first script I did was relatively easy in that my subject, Gertrude Ederle, was known for one BIG achievement.  She was the first woman to swim the English Channel.  My second script is about Elijah McCoy.  He was an inventor he created dozens and dozens of devices that made the machinery of the early industrial revoluion more efficient.  He also invented a variety of items for household use.

When someone is known for one thing, it is fairly easy to create a script with rising tension.  You build up to that one thing and show the ups and downs, stressing the downs.

When someone is known for a body of work, it gets trickier.  As I finished typing my first version of the McCoy script, it felt flat.  Yes, things happened.  Yes, things went wrong.  But the feeling of increasing tension?  I wasn’t so sure it was there.

To test things out, I did the Dot Test; I’d used this test before but only for fiction.  This was my first time testing a piece of nonfiction.

In the plot dot test, you draw a line across your page.  If you are testing a picture book, each unit you test will be a spread.  If you are testing a novel, each unit you test will be a chapter.  For this piece of readers’ theater, I tested scenes.

To the right is what it should look like, more or less.  In short, you should have steadily rising tension.

I read scene 1 and scene 2.  The dot for scene 1 is on the line (my starting point).  Ideally, the dot for scene 2 should be higher because you want the tension to rise.  Sadly, my results for this manuscript are below — see the red dots?  Dropping tension.  Blah.  Scenes 3 and 4 were a little better but not good enough.  Given the facts of McCoy’s life, the tension should have been there but in all reality, it wasn’t.  I had a loose conglomeration of facts with no increasing tension.

To solve this, I had to spot the nonfiction story and  adjust my text accordingly.  I did that and then gave the story another read.  As you can see by the green dots, the second version was much more successful.  My critique group backs up this claim.  I still have a few details to fix better in the story and an explanation or two to make, but now the reader can feel the tension.

If your nonfiction story feels flat, test it for rising tension.  You might be in for a big, flat surprise.





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