SUSAN! You're the winner of a copy of Elaine Johnson's "A Beginner's Guide to the Brain"! Congratulations!! Email me off-line with your mailing address and Elaine will get a copy in the mail to you, post haste. (Email me; hallie "at" hallieephron "dot" com)
HALLIE EPHRON: As I struggle on page 225 (but who's counting) with my new novel, trying to get my characters from from here to there without hitting the snooze button, I yearn for a muse in diaphanous robes who drops fabulous ideas in my pearl-like ear.
So when I saw that Martha Alderson has written a book that's just come out entitled "The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master," I was intrigued. Desperate even.
In it, she talks about harnessing the power of the Universal Story, and now she's here at Jungle Red to tell us what she means by that.
Martha's publisher is giving away two copies of THE PLOT WHISPERER, and we'll hold a random drawing from among commenters to find the winners.
MARTHA ALDERSON: Action-packed, suspenseful mysteries; slower, character-driven mysteries; cozy mysteries; literary mysteries; and a combination of these share a common structure beneath the stories. Writers benefit from studying this structure, also known as the Universal Story or the story beneath the story.
The Mythic Journey Joseph Campbell so passionately explored and shared with the rest of us is part of the Universal Story.
The Universal Story represents the story of someone changing and evolving as part of the bigger story of all of nature and world around us undergoing constant change and evolution. Natural-born storytellers tap into the Universal Story intuitively. Others must learn how to use the Universal Story to write compelling stories of their own.
HALLIE: How did you come up with your system?
MARTHA: From my background in special education, I find many people, children and adults alike, learn better when they are able not only to read and/or hear an explanation of new concepts but also to see and manipulate them as well. Thus, I developed the Plot Planner.
A Plot Planner is a visual line that represents the invisible energy of the Universal Story and a place to plot out the scenes of your story. This can be done before you even begin writing, before a major revision or as a final check before submission. Once the scenes are in place on the plot planner, you are better able to assess the significance of your characters and the dramatic action of your story by seeing how all the scenes work together against the backdrop of the entire piece.
A plot planner gives a visual accounting of all the scenes in a story. It helps you compare scenes that heighten conflict and suspense to those quieter scenes that show the character in control. Each scene delivers more tension and conflict than the preceding scene and builds with intensity to the story’s climax.
Standing back from all the words and viewing the story as a whole allows you to better determine the causality between scenes, where to plant red herrings and foreshadow things to come and the overall coherence of the story.With such an insight, you are able to turn scenes with emotionally rich characters experiencing conflict into the driving force behind an exceptional mystery.
I’ve heard from many writers that when they hit a rough patch and lose energy for their stories, merely a switch from writing to filling in a template stimulates their creative juices. Before writers know it, they are back to writing.
HALLIE: Sounds like just what I need.
I wonder (she said selfishly) if you could offer a few tips for conjuring plots for mystery novels -- or perhaps a few pitfalls?
MARTHA: I do not pretend to be an expert at crafting mystery novels, I leave that to you. However, after more than 20 years of analyzing hundreds of novels of all genres, memoirs and screenplays and teaching and consulting with writers from five years old to 102 from all over the world, I am an expert on plot.
You say you are on page 225 and, based on the page count of your recent novel (congratulations, by the way, on a fabulous story!), I’d say you are either building to the crisis or in the threshold after the crisis and making final preparations for the ascent to the climax.
HALLIE: Amazing! You are exactly right.
MARTHA: If you’re building to the crisis, you are writing scenes where the antagonists (and this includes not just a villain, if your story has one, but anything or anybody who interferes with the protagonist reaching her goal) have cranked the heat up to high. As the challenges thrown at the protagonist intensify, the protagonist struggles.
The crisis hits when the antagonist(s) prevails (and can be viewed as the antagonist’s climax) and the protagonist loses – the greater the loss, the more exciting the story and the greater the potential for character transformation.
Often in a mystery, the crisis hits when the protagonist learns she has incorrectly identified the murderer in a murder mystery’s small circle of suspects; or villain, where there is a villain; or otherwise learns she has been going in the wrong direction in her attempt to solve the crime or mystery. Suddenly, all ways forward and all ways back are blocked to her.
In more character-driven mysteries, the protagonist herself plays a part in her own demise. In other words, the antagonist’s success is partially due to the protagonist’s flaw, a flaw that has developed as a result of her back-story wound.
If you are at the threshold in preparation for the ascent to the climax, then you likely are writing scenes where the protagonist scrambles to identify where she went wrong and re-calculates her approach and assembles all she needs for the final confrontation with her greatest foe at the climax. If her back-story wound is interfering directly with her success at achieving her goal, this is also a great place to reveal her back-story and show her becoming conscious for the first time of how she sabotages herself from reaching success.
My hope is that perhaps somewhere in all those words is the inspiration you seek.
HALLIE: In fact, VERY helpful, Martha. I am at a sort of taking-stock moment in preparation for the final ascent and confrontation.
Now it's our readers' turns -- Martha will be here all day talking about plot and doling out her expert advice. So please, chime in, and remember books will be going out to two lucky commenters!