Posted tagged ‘Plot Whisperer’

A Tale of Two Books About Writing Novels

September 10, 2020

The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, Adams Media, 2011
Plot, Ansen Dibell, Writer’s Digest Books, 1988
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I read a lot of books on the craft of writing. 

It’s a little like my quest for meaning and spirit during my twenties — a search for the book or person or method or experience that could make sense of the world in a deep way.  Unsuccessful in many respects, I might add, yet that impulse informed my life too.

So it is with wanting to learn more about writing novels.  It’s another kind of spiritual quest, if you want to get highfalutin’ about it, in the form of this impulse or desire to evoke imaginatively a world and characters to care about.  If done well, such creations can seep back into our every day world in surprising and even beneficial ways.

The frustration for me is how far off the mark my written meaning falls from what I want to inarticulately portray.  This frustration is part of the impulse — maybe I can do better this time.

I look to books on writing to help.  I have two here to discuss: The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, and Plot by Ansen Dibell.  Both are about “plot” but are really structural guides for the entirety of a novel and its characters and settings.

I have to say, and it’s the impetus for writing this post, that Ansen’s book (I love that first name) has moved into the pantheon of my top three books about writing novels. It is there with John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story (for its inspiring analysis and formulation of the elements of a great story) and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel (for the solace of its wisdom about how daunting it is to discover the story that wants to come to life for you).

The Plot Whisperer

I will describe Ansen’s book in more detail below, but I wanted to start with The Plot Whisperer, which is presumably like a horse whisperer in leading you to water.

Alderson’s book is subtitled: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. That’s promising a lot — even me?!?

It’s a useful book in many ways about structuring and planning your novel. She has a method with schematics and diagrams, a plot planner, which may or may not inspire you. Her book, unavoidably, shares some characteristics with many, many writing craft books: Three-act structure, the importance of theme, showing over telling, what makes a good protagonist, what makes a despicable villain, and so on.

I confess to a prejudice against shoe-horning any novel into the three-act boot, as if it’s magical footwear, but I always translate it into just being statements about the beginning, middle and end of a story.

She is good about the emotional trials, how many writers struggle over their stories.

I found of use her visual way to lay out the different facets of your story as you develop it. I wrote previously, for instance, about her method of circling around potential themes in The Quest to Write with Meaning .

She has seven questions to ask for every scene and its relationship to the plot, which you can find in many places, but still are valuable:

  1. Does the scene establish 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?

There is much more to her book than I will cover here. The most inspiring thing I took away from Alderson’s work was her identification of “The Universal Story” and its three phases — comfort and separation, resistance and struggle, and transformation and return. That’s a lot to think about: what those words mean.

Plot

Ansen Dibell was an American science-fiction author who passed on in 2006. She also became well known for her writing about writing, in particular for Plot.

(Ansen Dibell was a nom de plume and probably a wise choice — her real name was Nancy Ann Dibble. It’s amusing that some reviewers on Amazon assume Ansen is a man (as I did at first). It probably helped, back in the day, with male science fiction readers’ prejudices about women writing in “their” genre….)

Without cutting down Alderson’s book too much, I rate Ansen’s book so highly because it seems to arrive from within the novel writing experience, whereas Alderson’s book is more from the outside looking in. Ansen’s stance is more “this is what it’s like, what I’ve found that works, what you need to think about” rather than as a template bestowed upon neophyte novelists.

I like Ansen’s writing voice a lot; that is her, still in the world.

“But you know, and I know, that writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of invention, and the more serious you are about your writing and the more complex the story you’re trying to tell, the more likely it is to start creating itself in unexpected ways.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable flip side is that the story is also more likely to take a quick dive into the sock drawer, unless you can identify what’s going wrong and choose an effective strategy for coping with it.”

And so we have this book of hers, with her strategies about two problems: creating plot and controlling plot.

Let me highlight just a few of the insights and strategies she talks about.

— I found invaluable a section on how to test a story idea. I’ve had so many great ideas for novels over the years that led nowhere. “I think that’s what the traditional advice to ‘write what you know’ really means: to choose things that matter enormously to you, things you have a stake in settling, at least on paper.”

— She advises on practicalities: multiple viewpoints, how do you switch; the dread world-builders disease, where it becomes more fun to create the world than to write about it; keeping exposition under control.

— Her chapter called Building the Big Scenes: Set-Pieces really provided me a different and valuable way to think about the progression of a novel. Set-pieces! This is the first craft book I’ve read which talks about set-pieces.

What is a set-piece? These are the memorable landmarks of the story, like the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. “Seeing a scene like that coming, watching it build to crisis, is one of the major ways of creating tension, drama and suspense in a story.” This isn’t every scene. In even a long novel, she says, there might only be between six and a dozen. She calls it “outlining from the inside” by connecting each set-piece, as you block out the story in a rough form.

— There is another entire chapter about using melodrama as a carefully administered spice to occasionally add zest to the story. It’s not always to be avoided, as would be my tendency. Get a little dramatic! “Melodrama is a part of our common emotional and cultural language.” She uses the idea of “a curse” as a symbol for melodrama in her discussion of how to use it, which I found fascinating. Even if you don’t believe in it, some of the characters will….

There is much more but this gives you an idea of this excellent book about fiction writing.

Her final advice:

“Use the simplest possible structure that conveys what you want to convey, presents what you want to present. … It’s not the form but the content…

“Now, quit reading. Go write.”

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An afterword:

It struck me after reading over Martha Alderson’s seven questions to ask about a scene: The frame of mind to ask those questions is exactly not the frame of mind that allows the flow of imaginative writing to which we aspire.

The questions are good, but need to be limited to being pursued after something is written, for revision. Or even better maybe, reading them just before buckling down to the heart of the thing itself, following a man through a room as he abruptly swerves to speak to his sister… the devising is of a different order than a list of analytical questions.