EVENTS Emotional story arcs

September's London Masterclass with Jo Cotterill was about creating emotional story arcs and exploring a range of story structures. Zoe Kear reports.

The Inciting Incident

Jo Cotterill started the session with a brief overview of her career as a writer of everything from picture books to YA. She infused the class with humour and light-heartedness, as well as a good dose of reality.

The session was practical and interactive. First stop was a writing warm-up exercise.

This was a good reminder that daily writing is important, even for an established writer. Jo acknowledged that sometimes this will involve wrestling with your own brain to sit and write for half an hour, even if your thoughts and mouse wander elsewhere!

Next, we explored the importance of memory. Memories – and the emotions attached to them – are powerful writing tools and can often provide seeds for future stories. Consider writing out memories on a daily basis.

Jo Cotterill leads the Masterclass. 

The Big Reveal

With the help of graphs on different narrative structures, and using her own book, A Library of Lemons, as an example, Jo highlighted the movement of the main character’s emotions through the story and why this is important to the overall feeling of satisfaction as we read a book. As is often suggested, the writing world is split between ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’. Jo explored the impact of ‘pantsing’ and letting the character and their emotions drive the plot. This can be great for building a story with real heart, but Jo did add a warning that this approach also requires courage and a lot of editing once you have finished!

The Pit Moment

This arrived as we all ached for lunch (I’m kidding). However, attendees did have a ‘man in the mirror moment’ as we explored the importance of empathy. Empathy is often confused with sympathy and Jo explained the difference with brilliant simplicity: empathy means feeling with someone, whereas sympathy means feeling for someone. Research by organisations like the Empathy Lab, which Jo works with, has shown that children can learn empathy through books and reading.
The final writing exercise focused on putting everything into practise by considering the emotional journeys of our main characters in our current writing.

The Masterclass was packed, as usual.

The Ending

Bitter-sweet, as all good endings are, but there was a last-minute twist as Jo shared her pearls of wisdom about being a writer with the group.

These included:

look after yourself

value your writing

keep your fire burning

dare to dream.

This was the penultimate masterclass of the year. Next year’s eagerly anticipated schedule will be announced at the Winchester conference later this year.

*Main article, all pictures: Alison Smith.


Zoe completed a Masters in Creative Writing in 2017 and is currently seeking an agent for her teen fantasy as well as working on her current project, a YA drama. Outside of writing, Zoe is a full-time teacher and enjoys reading and walks in nature. You can find her on Twitter @ZoeGKear.


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, SCBWI-BI's online magazine. Contact her at

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