Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson

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!


  1. I enjoy action stories. One style I like is the basic save the world story, think James Bond. (For lack of a better term I think of them as TV episode stories.) In many of these, there does not appear to be character development. How does your Universal Story apply to this kind of story?

    Loyd Jenkind

  2. Ahhhh! My name is Loyd Jenkins, with an s. *facepalm*

  3. Welcome Martha! As someone who (she says optimistically)is going through the last rounds of editing before handing over my manuscript, this sounds like a great approach - a way to look at the story holistically (if that doesn't sound too airy-fairy!)

  4. Thank you for sharing your Plot Planning system, Martha. This sounds logical and creative at the same time.

    I bought myself The Power of Myth DVD for Christmas. This is prodding me to watch it.

  5. Hi Martha, welcome to JRW! I love the part where you say the protagonist may become conscious of her backstory wound for the first time...this is exactly why writing a mystery feels very similar to the process of psychotherapy!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thank you, Hallie, for this opportunity to share my passion with your writers! Much appreciated.

    Yes, Loyd, many stories rely purely on the dramatic action the protagonist is confronted with on his way to the climax. Often, books like this are referred to as airport books -- books people buy in the airport, read during a long flight and then leave on the plane as they debark. They often sell very well.

    In the same way, blockbuster summer films rely heavily on the same format of high-action, little character development. Though, more and more, Hollywood has caught on that for the broadest reach and better box office success, for an audiences to connect to a story on an emotional level, they have to connect to the character. Now, rather than provide a cardboard action figure to enact the action, more movies offer three dimensional characters with flaws and all.

    In purely action-driven stories, still the action rises and falls in exactly the same way as the energetic flow in the Universal Story. Become aware of how and where the energy surges and falls and you increase your chances of keeping your reader happy.

    The more aware you are of hoe yo develop characters that readers identify with you, you broaden you audience which leads to more sales...

  8. Groan... up early... no tea... clumsy fingers -- the final paragraph of the previous comment should read:

    The more aware you are of how to develop characters that readers identify with, you broaden your audience which leads to more sales...

  9. Thank you for your comments, Rosemary. Yes, many writers benefit from pushing aside the words of your story to see the deeper plot and structure.

    Too often writers hide behind beautiful words and clever turns of phrases and balk at applying
    structure and plot to their stories.

  10. Universal story, natural story tellers, and plot planning lines have me hooked! I try to do much too much in my head. I think the ideas in this book could be very helpful!

  11. Martha, you made an exceptional point about the protagonist's wound.Thank you.
    Una Tiers

  12. Martha, I love the idea of being able to handle and manipulate the scenes. That absolutely works for me. But it's hard once the book is written and you're juggling 300+ pages!

    Any tips on how to handle the handling?

  13. Thanks for your comments, Ramona. That is the dance, isn't it? Creating a story that is both logical and creative at the same time. I find lots of writers excel at one or the other and need support to find a balance between the two.

    Happy DVD viewing. I fell in love with Joseph Campbell when I was a kid which has only deepened the older I've grown and the more I studied his work. He's a world treasure...

  14. Hi Michelle, I marvel at how some writers can juggle everything in their heads without the plots and subplots, characters, foreshadowing, thematic significance becoming a jumbled mass / mess! I think of those people as natural-born story-tellers.

    The process of creating something out of nothing is never an easy task with or without a Plot Planner, though lots of writers do find the visual aid helpful.

  15. Hi Hallie, what I recommend is a tedious process, though often helpful.

    Make a list of scenes, or events or chapters (if you want to do this quickly so you can continue writing -- list the scenes that come off the top of your head without going into the manuscript. This way you'll identify the big scenes which is adequate for the rest of the exercise).

    Plot those scenes out on a Plot Planner either above the line where the antagonist is in control or below the line where the protagonist is in control. Then, for those scenes that are directly linked by cause and effect, draw a line connecting the scenes.

    When there is a major secondary character(s), I recommend drawing a second Plot Planner line above the first one and plotting out that character's scenes separately.

    In this way you can compare the two plot lines and consider where the energy is building and falling and better assess your choices.

    There are appropriate times for the energy of a story to wane, especially when there is a sense of doom looming in the future. For instance, in parts of the first half of the middle of a story or where you are now, Hallie, as the protagonist prepares for the biggest scene in the entire story -- the Climax.

    When strategically placed, a drop in energy allows for the reader and audience to rebuild anticipation and expectation for what will happen next.

  16. I NEED this book! Oh, sorry. Hi, Martha. Welcome to JRW. I forgot my manners in my enthusiasm. I'm a pantser with a side of puzzler thrown in just to make things crazy. I'm usually pretty good about tracking plot threads but every once in awhile, I forget to tie one up (that wasn't meant to be a red herring) or I totally forget about an important thread during the revision process. I've tried all sorts of "systems" but haven't found the one that works yet. I really like the ideas you presented here. Thanks!

  17. Martha, I'm printing out that process and tacking it to my bulletin board. And getting the book. THANKS!

  18. Thank you, Lucy, for having me here!
    Let me know, Michele, what you think after using the concepts in the book.
    Una, A core plot of stories revolves around the protagonist’s inner development. To satisfy this inner plot, the protagonist must undergo a deep and fulfilling transformation. The flaws (which reflect the backstory wound) with which you imbue your character do not come out of the blue. They usually originate in reaction to something in the character’s backstory.
    Thank you for your comments!

  19. This is a wonderful resource for us; thanks for sharing your system, Martha. And kudos to the gals for twisting your arm to bring it to us!

  20. Martha, I'm buying a copy of your book for my allergist--a frustrated writer--who asked me just this past Wednesday if I could recommend a book on plot.

  21. Working out that chart right now... Many thanks, Martha!

  22. The Plot Whisperer sounds like the perfect book for me as I approach the dreaded middle of my mystery.

  23. Are you kidding, AuntieMwrites?! I feel honored to be here and interact with all of you. Thank you for your kind comments!

    Right timing, Darlene. Love how that works!

  24. Judy, the middle is fraught with antagonists both real and imagined (and this applies to the writer as well). As you jump in, remember, antagonists are there to challenge your protagonist to rediscover the perfect imprint of herself. Of course, they, the villain or family members or whomever, would never label their actions as such but that's what you're striving for. Don't be afraid or reluctant to pour on the conflicts, deadends, frustrations, etc.. Makes for more exciting reading and deepens the readers' understanding of who the character is in the flawed state. As the problems mount, her ability to remain in control weakens which allows the readers to see who she truly is, and makes the ultimate transformation even more satisfying.

  25. Wow. I need this...

  26. My husband and I went through your DVD course, Martha, and found it very helpful. Lots of good stuff in your system. Thanks!

  27. Have fun with it, Barb!

    Thank you, Nancy, for your kind words and your generosity in sharing them here...

  28. Martha, your explanation of the "story beneath the story" makes sense. Thanks so much for presenting it in a form that's easier to see and manipulate. I need your book. :-)

  29. I'm so glad I caught a tweet that linked to this incredibly informative post. Thanks to JRW for hosting, & to Hallie for interviewing Martha here today. I'm in awe of Martha's extensive, impressive experience, and how wonderful that she has shared it in PLOT WHISPERER, and in this post, and even further in the responses to the commenters ~ gems!

    I will share this on Twitter & FB. This book is a must-have. How inspirational to find out about it as we focus on our writing plans for the new year. Thanks, Martha, for writing it ~ and to JRW for letting us know:-)

  30. Visual plotting sounds like a good idea! I've never done that with my books. I write out the key character needs, obstacles, character changes, revelations, etc.

    Cheryl Rainfield

  31. I enjoyed the entire article however, I found these words really struck me & simply have to be my favorite part of your post.
    "Standing back from all the words and viewing the story as a whole allows you to better determine the causality between scenes..."

  32. Hi Gussie, Thank you for your comments!

    Kathleen, you are a prime example of why I love writers so much. Not only do you make me feel so darned special by lavishing praise on me... while I turn to putty, you then generously share your enthusiasm and what you find to be helpful with others in our writing community.
    Thank you! I wish you every success with your writing.

  33. Thank you, Martha!This has been interesting and helpful. Your book sounds like something that will be very useful to me right now - I look forward to reading it!

    Thank you for visiting JRW!


  34. I am definitely curious about this book. I am currently working on a WIP and freely admit I am sort of floundering.

    I have some trouble with the terminology of things like "threshold to the ascent" and stuff like that...I can never figure out exactly how MY story and plot points fit into that sort of thing. Maybe after I read the book, I will understand that better?

  35. This sounds really interesting. I am wondering about writing a series though. In each book, would the main character have to have a different wound she discovers near the end? Wouldn't that become rather unbelievable?

  36. Whatever works, Cheryl, to keep you at the business of writing.

    Nana, I'm glad you like that part so much! Cause and effect...

    Thank you, Nancy, for commenting. Perhaps you'll be a winner of one of the PW books in the giveaway. Good luck!

  37. Mardou1, the book has visual aids to help bring clarity to the terminology. Also, I neglected to mention the How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay Plot Series on Youtube. It's free and it covers the different plot points as does the Monday Morning Book Group at the same Youtube series.
    A directory of each of the series with hot links to the various steps are listed on my blog. You have to scroll down a bit. One series directory is on the right. The book group is on the left. Perhaps that may be a place to start? Or, perhaps you'll win the book!
    So long as you actively pursue your goals -- learning the terminology, you'll get there...Great good luck.

  38. Hi Jan, the character development in a series is a bit tricky. What's helpful is to create a Plot Planner for the entire proposed series and determine what parts of herself she reveals on an ever-deepening level in each new book of the series.
    Such as the Dragon Tattoo series where we come to know the protagonist just enough in one book to satisfy the reader and, at the same time, create curiosity for more information and thus, compels to the reader to buy the next book in hopes of learning more.

  39. I'm going to sign off now -- exhausted.

    Though it's still early here in California time, I have to awaken at my prime writing time --4AM -- to work on the book my publisher asked me to write to "expand the Plot Whisperer brand". Love how that sounds!
    Thank you again, Hallie, for having me. I had a ball interacting with your writers.
    And thanks to all you writers who commented and all of you out there who felt safer hiding in the shadows...

  40. All I can say is "WOW". Your short assistance to Hallie has given me the incentive to sit down with my WIP and 'get it done'. Thank you! I definitely need your book.

  41. Oh, I am so late. And this looks wonderful. Plot planning lines. I might be hooked!

  42. Hey Martha,
    I am always glad to hear what you have to say about the Plot Planner. It is a great visual & and also uses the body, away from the computer.

    Each time I read your posts I learn something new about writing and about life.
    Once again, thanks so much,


  43. What an engaging discussion! Thanks to the community for the great questions, and thanks for the juicy tidbits I find in your responses. I will enjoy the YouTube and blog referrals, till I can get my hands on this incredible-sounding book. A Must Have, Must Study.

    For years I have been having a love affair with myth and the Universal Story.

  44. I think your book is just what I need. I must have a classic case of sagging in the middle(s)--20 WIPs with no end in sight. The comments here are interesting too. Thanks!

  45. Martha, the book sounds wonderful! Several years ago I took a "Hero's Journey" plotting course. It was extremely helpful and covered the very aspects you are talking about.

    I used it to plot my current WIP which I feel is going very well. It is the first time I haven't gotten "lost along the way!"

    I 'm thinking about geting your book to help me with my next novel.

    Thank you for a great post!
    Sasscer Hill

  46. I love Martha Alderson and listen to her on You Tube and read her blog almost on a daily basis. She is SO helpful to me. Thank you, Martha, for all you do!

  47. Martha is so helpful to me. I watch her almost daily on YouTube and read her blog, as well. Thank you, Martha, for all you do. ;-)

  48. Martha,
    The book sounds really interesting and could be just what I need right now.

    I'll visit your blog as well.

    Catherine Maiorisi

  49. All writers need to see Kal Bashir's website at ; it goes in DEEP about story structure, plot, archetypes, change, new worlds and change. A MUST, IMHO.

  50. Oh, so funny! I got your book last week! And now here you are. Meant to be. Thank you so much...

  51. And if you're still here..I'm on page 126 of maybe--375? Where should the story be? ( :-) ) And I promise I'll tell you where I actually am.

  52. This is a GREAT book. I'm reading it now while revising my WIP. I have Blockbuster Plots too. Thanks, Martha, for writing these 'help' books as well as the YouTube classes.