Memoir and Plot–Yes you DO Need One!


My guest blog today is from Martha Alderson, aka “The Plot Whisperer” who has a fabulous new book out through Writers Digest The Plot Whisperer. Martha has worked her magic with many of my students over the years,  and I’m so glad to speak with her at one of my teleseminars through NAMW.

Today she will be talking with me at the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Member Teleseminar. Join us to get her special tips and to ask your own questions about plot in your memoir.

The Power of Plot for Memoirists

In novels, the protagonist is defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action of the story. In memoirs, the main character is the author herself who is also defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action in the memoir. When I consult with memoirists on the plot and structure of their memoirs, I immediately switch the main character of the memoir from being the writer with whom I’m consulting into a protagonist instead.

I do this for three reasons.

1) Just as the protagonist in a novel or screenplay is transformed by the dramatic action in the story, the memoirist must also show the same sort of transformation in herself due to the external dramatic action of the events of her life portrayed in the memoir. Story is all about the protagonist undergoing a journey and becoming transformed in the process. The journey itself must be built on exciting dramatic action in order to please and entertain the audience.

2) A switch in the focus from the writer to the protagonist gives the memoirist enough distance from her own story to better determine the elements needed to create the greatest impact on the reader. For example, I have found that although most people are quick to identify other people’s flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc in a memoir becomes more difficult to manage.

3) When the feedback I give during a plot consultation is focused on the protagonist of the story conveyed in the memoir, the input is not taken as personally as if I were referring to the writer herself. For instance, many writers tend to be introverts, which often translates into a passive main character that often floats from one event to the next. It is easier for both the writer and myself when such a problem is referred to through the guise of the protagonist.

Memoir writing at its best shares the writer’s past with the reader in story form in order to entertain, enlighten, motivate, and/or make sense of life itself. 

Anxious to leave a legacy, more and more baby boomers are turning to writing their memoirs. For some, the story reveals itself effortlessly. Others have difficulty raising the veil for clarity. In the second case, I often find the problem lies in having lived a vast and rich life. What to put in and what to leave out becomes the dilemma.

In order to bring a story to fullness, a writer searches for the underlying structure that best demonstrates some sort of meaning. There are three ways to do this.

1) Write what you are drawn to write and see what you end up with.

2) Pre-plot scenes and ideas on a Plot Planner based on the Universal Story, keeping alert for the moments that could constitute a major crisis which in turn creates a jumping off place for the crowning glory of the work ~ the climax.

3) Write what you are drawn to write and, at the same time, plot out scenes and ideas, keeping in mind the form of the Universal Story.

An event written in scene does not warrant staying in a memoir merely because “it happened that way.” Yes, using true events often leads to a richness of authentic details and emotional revelation. However, just because something meaningful and life-changing happened to you in no way guarantees that the event will be meaningful to your audience. And, of course, the true events must contribute to the overall story plot, or these authentic details end up weighing down the story.

The events themselves must build in conflict, tension, and suspense and provide some sort of thematic significance in the end.

A recent plot consultation revealed a tragic story of loss the writer lived through. This is not unusual. Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Writing about it helps bring meaning and closure. If the aftermath that ensues after a trauma and what is lost and what is gained provides excitement, terrific. However, the one event is not always enough to wrap an entire memoir around. If this is the case, then a secondary plot line may be needed to create more page-turnability to the project and show the overall character transformation. Thus, the trauma becomes the back story, that which makes the character who they have become while the secondary plot line becomes the front story, the moment-by-moment pursuit of a specific and tangible goal.

For for a passage or sentence, character, or plot angle to remain in a memoir will not be because of the beauty of the writing or the cleverness in the plotting or the depth of the characters, although these things are critical in captivating the reader. Each line and each element in each and every scene of a memoir belongs there because it has a definite purpose in providing overall meaning to the piece.

The only scenes that belong in a memoir are the ones that best show how a character responds to the challenges, conflicts, tension, and suspense in one’s own life as she moves nearer to transformation and, in the end, contribute to the overall meaning of the story.

Martha Alderson is the Plot Whisperer. Her latest book — The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master has been released by Adams Media. She is the founder of the award-winning blog: The Plot Whisperer, a vlog on YouTube: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and International PlotWriMo. Her books include Blockbuster Plot Pure & Simple and Blockbuster Plots Scene Tracker Kit and several plot dvds and ebooks. Martha takes readers and writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

Her clients include best-selling authors, writing teachers, fiction editors, and Hollywood movie directors.

How to Write a Powerful Memoir, Part 3: Plot In Memoir

What is a plot: a plot is a series of dramatized events that show how characters encounter obstacles and challenges, and how they solve their problems. The protagonist is different by the end of the book than he is at the beginning.  For Part 3 in my series on How to Write a Powerful Memoir, I want to share a little bit with you about how to focus on plot in your memoir.

The arc of the narrative can be divided into Act One, Two, and Three, the usually invisible structure of a book, play, or movie—though in a play this structure is overt. In Act One, the characters are introduced, the story problem is set up, and we are drawn into the world of the story.

In Act two, all the problems of the characters become more muddled and complex, and there are a series of actions and reactions that show the development of the character’s journey to change and transformation, all the while trying to solve the problems that were delineated at the beginning. Since real life does become more complicated, the way that plot works is imitated by life. Or is it the other way around?

In Act Three, the threads and layers of development reach a peak at the crisis and climax of the story. Here the character is tested, where the true depth of learning and transformation is revealed. The crisis may be thought of as a spiritual challenge or a “dark night of the soul” where the deepest beliefs and core truths of the character are tested. The climax is the highest level of tension and conflict that the protagonist must resolve as the story comes to a close. There’s an aha at the end, an epiphany when the main character has learned her lessons, and can never return to the previous way of living.

Dramatic structure, the narrative arc, is a mythic structure, a deeply satisfying resolution that fits with our need to create pattern and perspective in the midst of chaos of real life. That is why memoir is so challenging—we are trying to create story out of chaos, to make sense of the irrational and nonsensical impulses that drive all human beings. When you lift your own significant plot moments out of the confusion, you will have the basic spine of your story.

A memoir brings the light of our own consciousness and our reflections to the simplicity of “this happened and that happened” episodic structure that is often the first draft version of the memoir. When you create your plot and become aware of your themes, you offer readers your unique perspective, shining your creative, artistic light on “reality” so they can be inspired and transformed by your story.

I’ve truly enjoyed sharing with you some of the information you need to help you learn How to Write a Powerful Memoir.   Mastering each of these elements–Structure, Theme & Plot–should help you Write a Powerful Memoir.

How to Write a Powerful Memoir, Part 2: Theme In Memoir

A memoir is a focused story about a theme—a topic, an angle the story will take to show important changes in the protagonist—you—and the reason that the story is being told.   As you may have guessed,  Part 2 of my 3-Part series on How to Write a Powerful Memoir, will focus on the importance of theme in memoir.

When we start writing, we often don’t know our theme, we are still marinating in the memories and details of our stories. When we explore the turning point moments and muse again about why we are writing a memoir, theme begins to rise up like mountains at the edge of the plains. This is often an unconscious process, and we need to write some stories before theme becomes clearer.

An example of theme: Lit, by Mary Karr, is the third volume of her trilogy of memoirs. This last book is about her descent into and her recovery from alcoholism through finding religion. It’s about many other things too—her early literary life, her husband, son, and friends who helped her. It’s about her mother and her family and her deeper reflections on material she wrote in The Liar’s Club. But the arc of the story takes us from her being lost in using alcohol to numb herself, to becoming sober and finding herself again.

Most of you know that Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is about his poverty stricken childhood in Limerick, Ireland. The arc of his story begins with his earliest memories and ends with his leaving his home to come to New York. There are other themes and topics too—the Catholic Church, death, his mother Angela, his abandoning father, and dying, starving siblings. If you look at the book in terms of turning points, you will see that he includes what he considers significant events that shift the plot into new directions, each one adding force and direction to the trajectory of the story.

I look forward to sharing more with you about How to Write a Powerful Memoir. Be sure to watch for my next article on Plot and read part 1 of this 3 part series, which focuses on Theme in Memoir.  Each of these elements will help you better understand How to Write a Powerful Memoir.

How to Write a Powerful Memoir, Part 1: Developing the Structure of Your Memoir

Turning Points and Timeline Exercise

At the beginning of December, I mentioned by way of an introductory article on How to Write a Powerful Memoir, that I would begin a series of 3 articles delving into Plot, Structure & Theme.  Each of these elements will help you better understand How to Write a Powerful Memoir.   This–the first of the three articles–focuses on developing the structure or main spine of your memoir.

There is a great technique that helps you locate the main spine of your stories for a longer memoir. Think about the turning point moments in your life, the special times that changed you profoundly and altered your life in such a way that it was never the same again.  Make a list of the 10-15 most significant moments that turned your life path from one direction to another. These might be very different kinds of moments, some ecstatic joy and soaring happiness, and others profound sadness, confusion or grief.

Now draw a timeline on an 18×24 sheet of paper—a long horizontal line to represent time, and mark your birth about ¼ of the way along that line. This way you can note the events that you might want to write that occur before your birth. You might want to write the stories of family, parents, or grandparents—some of the lore that you listened to during holidays or family picnics.

Divide the horizontal line into sections that represent decades, and set out the dates of your life, beginning with your birth, including the year and the date along the horizontal line. Begin to locate your turning point events along the timeline.

In my workshops, there is always an “aha” when doing this exercise. First, thinking about the significant turning points can be illuminating and provide new insights, but then when people see events on the timeline, inevitably they start murmuring about how the events clustered, or how they’d thought the event was closer or further away from another significant event. The emotional impact of the timeline exercise can the powerful, as there is nothing like an image to illuminate the important moments of our lives to offer new insights.

Starting with a spine or structure by using these turning points and timeline exercises is a great place to help you learn How to Write a Powerful Memoir.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I offer two more suggestions for How to Write a Powerful Memoir.