Martha, it’s so fabulous that you can join us today. We have talked in the past about the way memoir writers grow a little pale when thinking about plot. They feel constrained about the idea of thinking about plot, they don’t quite understand what it is and why it’s important.
- So my first question is to have you define plot, and tell us why a memoir writer needs to understand why they need to grasp the concepts and skills of plot for their memoir.
Let me begin by saying that plot and structure are not constraining. Plot and structure actually give a memoirist the form and function for her memoir and then leave everything else up to her.
In my new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, I cover in great detail the benefits of identifying your weaknesses and strengths as a writer and how to determine if you have more of a preference for right brain functions versus left brain dominance or are more balanced between the two.
Don’t get me wrong; the book is not a guide to the brain. It is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual or an emotional guide to writing. Writing is emotional. You face obstacles that unleash angst, which leads to procrastination.
My intention in shining a light on how the two hemispheres of the brain affect your writing is to allow you to acknowledge and face the difficulties you encounter, difficulties that are reflections of your strengths and weaknesses. In self-knowledge comes the courage to compensate for your weaknesses and the ability to rely on your strengths.
In every memoir something happens (dramatic action plot) to change or transform the memoirist (character emotional plot) overtime and in a meaningful way (thematic significance plot). Whether you understand that as a big picture concept or as a linear, scene-by-scene idea depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
(NOTE: In the remainder of my answers, I refer to the memoirist as the protagonist of the story because doing so gives more distance and supports you in considering the story from the reader’s point of view as well as from your own)
- Memoir writers think they know the plot because they already know “what happened.” Can you talk about this issue a bit—is that way of thinking useful or should they revise their attitude toward plot.
Plot embodies quite a bit more than more than just what happens in the memoir or a sum of the events. Plot is how the events in the story of your life directly impact the main character or the protagonist, in other words, you.
Always, in the best-written memoirs, the protagonist is emotionally affected by the events of the story. In great memoirs, the dramatic action transforms the protagonist. This transformation makes a story meaningful.
Keep in mind that, yes, you lived the story and the story comes through you. However, when you decide to write that story down, you turn from the one who experienced the events to that of a writer. Your job, then, is to present what you have lived in a pleasing and meaningful form to the reader. This takes setting yourself aside and means opening your mind to receive the greatest good of the story.
- Please talk about the emotional, healing, transformation aspects of what you call “universal story.”
The Universal Story delights me. Just as I teach writers to push aside all the words they have written to see the bigger picture of the entire memoir, I also teach writers and anyone else who is interested how to stand back from the drama in their lives to see what is really at play in their own individual lives.
The Universal Story is about evolution, and change is never easy. However, anytime someone grows and changes overtime on a deep and meaningful level from the challenges they confront and then shares that experience others, the memoirist empowers others to believe that such a transformation is available to them, as well.
- Explain to us how memoir writers should think of plotting their story—should they write it first then think about plot, or plan it out from the beginning? (Some will say that planning will get in the way of creativity.)
The most important part is to write the first draft all the way through to the end by any means available to you. An understanding of whether you prefer pre-plotting or you find that plotting as you go works best for you or you find yourself writing the entire first draft by the seat of your pants teaches you more about your preferences and strengths and weaknesses as a writer.
Once you have written an entire draft you are better able to stand back from the story to see what you are truly attempting to say. At that point the real craft of writing a memoir kicks in and a firm understanding of plot and Universal Story serves you well.
- What are some steps a memoir writer can take to create a good scene.
Again, as I stressed in my answer to question #4, the first draft is about getting the story down on paper. As you write this first draft, you may find yourself more comfortable “telling” the story in narrative or internal monologue. Even so, every chance you can, attempt to write moment-by-moment scenes using movement and action to convey or “show” the story rather than simply “tell” the story.
The more you practice writing in scene, the easier and more automatic the task becomes to you. Read great memoirs and compare how much of the story is shown in scene versus told in narrative. Compare a chapter you have written to a chapter in your favorite memoir. What is the same? What is different?
When you have practiced writing scenes and want to evaluate them, track each scene or, at least, track the energetic markers and any other major turning points in your memoir. This shows you which plot elements are missing and which are in the scene in its current condition.
Seven Plotting Questions
For each scene, ask yourself the seven essential questions of plot:
1. Does the scene establish the date and setting?
2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?
3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?
4. What dramatic action is shown?
5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?
6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?
7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?
Evaluate the scene tracker for your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you find your scene tracker has lots of dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, but little character emotional development, plan in your rewrite to concentrate on developing your weakness.
Thank you, Linda Joy for the chance to write about plot and the Universal Story and share my passion with other writers. I look forward to visiting your blog today and interacting with your followers.
I know that all the memoirists who have worked with you have learned so much from your wisdom about plot. Of course there are always questions.
So I invite visitors to come to ask questions of Martha here on the site. And let’s all stay tuned for what she has to say. You might think of more topics.
Here is what people are saying about Martha’s book:
“The Plot Whisperer is Martha Alderson is Obi-Wan Kenobi of Story-Plotlines. Whether you’re writing your first book or your tenth, you deserve tools to make your story engaging, from first page to last. Also you deserve to gain such tools from a seasoned teacher who genuinely cares about helping authors. This empowering book helps you acquire secrets of story-structure and gain personal energy in order to survive and thrive the writing journey.
Teresa LeYung Ryan, http://lovemadeofheart.com
The Plot Whisperer is especially helpful with regard to plotting; not just the storyline but how it impacts the main character. Over time, you come to understand how each scene delivers more tension and conflict, building on the story’s depth, and leading you to an exceptional story. Wise writers will take Alderson’s heartfelt advice and turn it into an action plan.” Helen Gallagher, http://releaseyourwriting.blogspot.com
Martha has been doing one-on-one writer’s consultations for years and this is what reading The Plot Whisperer feels like—it’s like sitting with her and being coached, psychoanalyzed, pushed, encouraged, and, via all of that, INSPIRED to get down and write. I highly recommend both of Martha’s books, Blockbuster Plots and The Plot Whisperer, to anyone who is actively engaged in writing, or who wants to be.” Shreve Stockton, HoneyRockDawn.com
I have known Martha and her work for years, and have brought many of my memoir students directly to her studio to spend the day learning about plot. Be sure to ask your own questions here on her tour! We are lucky to have her here with us!!
In October through The National Association of Memoir Writers, we enjoyed having Martha present her techniques at one of our Member Teleseminars. You will get the audio to that program if you join NAMW. To learn more about the benefits of membership, click this link. Linda Joy Myers