If you have not read the book, this post will be full of spoilers – beware!
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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Plot Development
As I begin writing my second novel, I’ve been thinking about how much I struggled with plot on the first one. I had the idea for a story in my head, but figuring out how to pace it, what order things needed to happen in, and if I needed better foreshadowing of plot turns was very difficult. I found that I had to go back a re-write a great deal because the ending was anticlimactic and just fell flat. It was encouraging, when I went to a lecture by Jesmyn Ward earlier this month, that she referred to the first 15 drafts of her book – this speaks to the craft portion of writing!
One of the things that I’ve been doing as I read a novel now is briefly to summarize each chapter and look at what questions make the reader turn to the next chapter?
Sing, Unburied, Sing is comprised of 15 chapters, each from a single character’s point of view. Here is my plot breakdown:
Chapter 1: Jojo
We meet all the main characters on the day of Jojo’s 13th birthday. Pop and Jojo kill and prepare a goat for dinner. We learn Mam is dying. Pop tells part of the story about Richie in their time at Parchman prison. We find out Jojo’s father, Michael, is going to be released from prison. There are two timelines and two stories started in this chapter – the current story of Jojo’s family and the second story of what happened at Parchman prison with Pop and Richie.
Chapter 2: Leonie
We learn that Leonie has a job and a drug habit supported by a coworker. She sees the ghost of her brother, Given, when she gets high and we learn that Given was shot by a white classmate and killed. It was written off as a hunting accident, but it becomes obvious that it was an intentional killing that gets covered up. We learn about Mam’s superstitious beliefs. Leonie tells Pop that she and the kids, Jojo and Kayla, are going up to Parchman to get Michael.
Chapter 3: Jojo
They begin their road trip to Parchman with Misty, Leonie’s coworker. Jojo recounts more of Pop’s telling about Richie and Parchman. They stop at a friend’s home, where they pick up meth to deliver on their way to the prison.
Chapter 4: Leonie
Kayla gets sick on the car trip and we learn what Mam has taught Leonie, as well as about their relationship. We also see, the detachment she has from her children and how they cling to each other.
Chapter 5: Jojo
They spend the night at the home of Al, Michael’s lawyer, to whom Leonie and Misty deliver the drugs. We learn more of Richie and Pop’s story at Parchman. They pick up Michael from prison.
Chapter 6: Richie
From the perspective of Richie, the ghost – it confirms that magical realism is part of the story, because with Leonie’s drug-fueled visions of her brother, Given, the reader isn’t sure this is a reliable narration. Richie tells more of the Parchman story and essentially attaches himself to Jojo.
Chapter 7: Leonie
With Michael back in her orbit, Leonie is distracted and struggles to focus on the children. They stay the night at Al’s before the return trip home. Michael and Leonie get high together after the kids are put down for bed. We learn about Michael and Leonie’s early relationship and first pregnancy.
They begin the trip home, but get pulled over by a police officer. Leonie swallows the drugs they have. They are told to get out, and Michael and Leonie are handcuffed. Jojo, unaware of the danger, reaches in his pocket and the officer draws his gun on him and puts him on the ground. They are released and sent on their way.
Chapter 8: Jojo
Jojo sees Richie huddled up on the floor of the car when they are stopped by the police. We see the experience from Jojo’s perspective. He was reaching into his pocket for the talisman bag Pop had given him before they left, in the hopes that it will give him strength and keep him from crying.
Leonie is on her way to an overdose, after swallowing the drugs. Michael stops at a convenience store for milk and charcoal to help her. We see more of the relationship between Michael and Jojo. Jojo talks to Richie.
Chapter 9: Richie
Richie continues to tell about his life at Parchman while observing Jojo and Kayla on the trip home.
Chapter 10: Leonie
We learn more about the origins of Leonie and Michael’s relationship. They plan to drop the kids off at Mam and Pop’s, but they are not home. Michael insists that they go to his parents’ home. It’s a chilly reception that erupts into a fight between Michael and his father related to his father’s racism. Eventually, they return to Mam and Pop’s, where Mam is near death. Mam asks Leonie to perform a ritual that will end Mam’s suffering and Leonie resists.
Chapter 11: Jojo
Jojo’s relief at being home and seeing Pops is palpable. Richie is making his presence known to Jojo, but is trying to reach Pops, “Riv”, because he has no memory of the end of his life and wants Pops to tell him what happened. Michael cooks the kids breakfast in the morning and Jojo recalls a time when they went fishing together. Michael loses his temper with Kayla and smacks her. Jojo calms her down, while Richie is persistently insisting he ask Pops to finish the Parchman story. Jojo visits Mam and he asks her what happens when a person dies. She thinks she hears something outside the house, but Jojo brushes it aside, knowing it’s Richie.
Chapter 12: Richie
Richie is basically haunting Jojo and Pops, although Jojo is more conscious of it. Richie stays under the house, making all kinds of noise, not allowing Jojo a moment of peace. He begins to observe Leonie, as she goes to the graveyard to collect stones, fulfilling Mam’s request.
Chapter 13: Jojo
Richie persists and Jojo relents, going to Pops to ask him to tell the rest of the story about Richie and Parchman. It is finally revealed that Pops killed Richie to prevent him from being torn apart by a white mob.
Chapter 14: Leonie
Leonie sees Given, her dead brother, again, thinking it was a remnant of the drugs she last took. Kayla is worked up, talking about the boy and the black bird. It is apparent she has seen Richie as well. Mam is dying and seeing Given. Given and Jojo tell Richie to go, that his story is done. Mam dies and Given is gone. Leonie begs Michael to take her away, desperate to get high and be with him. They leave.
Chapter 15: Jojo
Jojo sleeps in Leonie’s bed after Leonie begins to only be home a couple days of the week. Jojo is still taking care of his little sister, but Pops is there. Jojo sees Richie again in the woods. Richie says he’s with a lot of other people who are stuck – people lost, with bad stories. Richie says Jojo has changed and there’s no need for Richie to come with him anymore.
Possible Discussion Questions:
What did you think of the plot in Sing, Unburied, Sing?
Did it keep you engaged?
There were multiple stories interwoven. Did one peak your interest more than the others?
Do you struggle with plot and pacing while writing?
As a writer, do you consider yourself a planner (knowing the story before starting) or a pantser (letting it emerge as you write)?
Resources for Plotting:
How to Develop a Story: 10 Steps to a Winning Plot
How to Organize and Develop Ideas for Your Novel
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
Plot and Structure: Techniquies for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell
20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias