Review of “The Plot Whisperer” by Martha Alderson
I lead hikes and trips on occasion or discuss geology with friends. Occasionally I get asked to recommend a good book for beginners in geology – “Geology for Dummies” as it were. I usually point people to the “Roadside Geology” series. I find it explains what to look for and where and why it is important.
I have been doing writing for well over 25 years. But nearly all of that writing has been “technical writing” – explaining how to do something or explaining some difficult concept. To be blunt, one does not have to make such writing interesting. I have several manuals on technical writing as well as a battered copy of “Strunk and White” elements of style. Those resources have helped me fix grammar and sentence structure. But nothing about how to write a compelling plot or create worthy characters.
So when I began my experiment in writing, I did what I usually do in such cases – looked for some good advice that I could mark with a highlighter. I stumbled upon “The Plot Whisperer”, By Martha Alderson in Amazon books. The reviews of the book were very positive and it was available in the local library. As soon as I picked it up, I knew I needed my own copy to dog-ear, highlight and annotate.
Ms. Alderson is a “Plot Consultant” and has worked with fiction editors, teachers and movie writers. She publishes an award winning blog – The Plotwhisper Blog Spot. She offers workshops, retreats as well as a plethora of free information and advice to aspiring and current writers.
Ms. Alderson anchors her ideas with the idea of the “Universal Story”. In her view any successful story follows the “energy path” of “the Universal Story”. That stories start with a certain level of energy, build to a crisis for the protagonist, ebb as the implications of crisis sink in, and then rise again to the climax where the conflicts and themes of the story are resolved.
The Plot Whisperer has three parts. Outlining the Plot looks at basics. What do you want to write? What are the barriers you create to writing? What is the “Universal Story”? And there is advice on creating and using themes. “Creating Characters” has the basics of creating compelling characters, developing motivations and voice for each character, and considering the spectrum of antagonists. She also looks at settings and the importance of transforming your reader into a strange new world. “The Journey” looks at each section of the Universal Story and how to develop and write for that portion.
What I Liked
As a new writer, Mr. Alderson’s “Universal Story” has been extremely helpful and enlightening. I have seen the concept in just about every American or European movie or show I have watched. (Japanese and Chinese story lines seem to have a slightly different flow, but I would not have been able to identify that without out the Universal Story guide). As someone who was just getting started, I could see the risk was that my story would spin in circles or take impossible leaps. The Universal Story kept my story moving and anchored. Ms. Alderson does an excellent job using common literature examples throughout the book to explain her points about the Universal Story, character development and motivation.
Ms. Alderson divides writers into “left brain” plotters and “right brain” spontaneous writers. My left brain favors plot planning, detail oriented, bottom up. I recognize my inclination to ignore character motivation, development and the beauty of the language. In identifying that weakness, I found her guides to character development, setting development and general use of themes invaluable as I developed my story. Ironically, this “left brain” planner tends to plan about one chapter ahead as opposed to writing an entire outline out.
What I could live without
The Universal Story works on the idea of energy in the story which I intuitively understand. However, at times, Ms Alderson’s extension of energy from the author to the story gets a bit mystical. I recognize the power of writing to self-healing. I do some private journal just for that reason. But in letting this creative side of me out, I am not sure I need or want to think about the psychological underpinnings quite so much. Ms Alderson provides tips, Plot whisperer asides, and the Writers Way comments. It is the latter that sometimes feel a bit overdone. “At the crisis, the protagonist picks herself up and moves steadily towards the climax. The writer, however, has free will. Staggering from metaphorical pain and death, you enter a threshold. …Stripped of everything at the crisis, you clearly see your protagonist’s story mirrors your own.” Maybe, possibly once. I am not sure this novice is quite ready for such introspection.
This is a great resource for beginning writers. Those of us who have not had multiple English classes to dissect other novels and short stories need a map to find our way. This reference provides an excellent guide.