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Book Review: The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson

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Martha Alderson is a writer by night and a plot consultant by day. She has worked with hundreds of writers in workshops, retreats, and personal consultations. Over the past 15 years, her clients have included bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. With her new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, Alderson delivers a powerful addition to the writer’s bookshelf.

Any writer in search of a new slant on plot development — as well as character development — will find a unique approach here. Alderson loosely links story development to the writer’s own personhood as the writing develops.

Organized in three parts, the book focuses first on plotting and themes, next on creating characters and setting, and then on fleshing out the journey. Skeleton charts titled “Plot Planner” and “Scene Tracker” encourage the writer-reader to begin tackling these tasks right away because they look so simple. Alderson slowly unveils their complexity during the course of the book while offering myriad hints of encouragement to keep writers believing — knowing — they can do it. The book suggests both visual and kinesthetic ways to access ideas. The Plot Planner chart, for instance, uses paper and sticky notes and different colors to represent scenes and characters.

This book comes closer than others I’ve read to shedding light on the nuances of the writer’s battle-dance with the story. The writer becomes part of the story, bringing his or her own struggles, flaws, and strengths to bear on the characters’ struggles, flaws, and strengths. Alderson believes “that every book is part of a Universal Story that flows throughout our lives, both in our imaginations and in the reality that surrounds us … What is left after the end of the story has the potential to transform not only the writer but all those who read the story as well.”

Alderson, writing with empathy and clarity, works this thread throughout her book. Shaded “Plot Whisper” boxes guide the writer in specific how-to strategies. Sections called “The Writer’s Way” help the writer gain self-knowledge to enrich scenes and characters.

The Writer’s Way sections are written in second person and are clearly directed to you, the reader, personally. Less prescriptive than the Plot Whisper sections, they have an almost singsong quality that lures you to search for awareness and bring yourself into the equation. Sprinkled among the more straightforward concepts in this how-to book, the Writer’s Way sections help you get in touch with the Universal Story from another angle, your very own.

About character development, Alderson writes, “The most complete way for a reader to identify and relate to a character is through the range of emotions exhibited by that character … In a world that is left-brain dominated and heavily influenced by the left-brain specialties of logic, literal interpretation, and other features of the mind, displays of emotion are often frowned upon. We learn to mask our feelings and protect ourselves. This leads us to the mistaken belief that when we experience strong emotions we are the only ones to do so. Genuine emotions are universal and recognizable even between people who do not share the same language or customs. Every honest show of emotion by the protagonist renews the Universal Story.”

In a subsequent Plot Whisper box, a specific action Alderson recommends is this: “Keep your journal with you at all times to jot down behaviors you see in others or feel in yourself that signify emotional reaction to external events. Push yourself to detect emotional displays, no matter how subtle, beyond clichés.” It is typical of this book to provide concrete ways to get at nuanced material.

Alderson’s detailed look at crisis versus climax is the most helpful I’ve read. On crisis, for example, she writes, “A crisis is a deep disappointment, a blow, the dark night of the soul. A crisis heralds the full transformation at the end of the story, but first comes a severing from the past, and at the crisis the protagonist suffers. The crisis is a breakdown with the potential for a breakthrough.” And that’s only a portion of the value Alderson delivers about the crisis scene. She delivers such value for all aspects of creating a novel.

I used the ideas in The Plot Whisperer in two ways during the month of November. I drew and tacked onto my office wall a Plot Planner and then attached labeled stickies to see whether my existing draft of a novel panned out okay. I was reassured that my scenes fell in line with a worthy plot plan. At the same time, Alderson’s comments on what I should be noticing helped me to deepen my comprehension of what was there and what might still be needed.

The other way I used The Plot Whisperer in November to help me figure out whether I had a solid idea for a new novel. November was NaNoWriMo month. I really wanted to draft a novel in 30 days, but as it turned out I would have only about 15 days. So I used that time instead to keep studying Alderson’s book and to zero in on a plan rather than let my speed-typing fingers do the talking (as I did in 2009 and 2010, when I “won” NaNoWriMo). Alderson’s book, I discovered, is helpful whether you are a seat-of-the-pants or an outlining first-draft writer. I’m experiencing the truth that one can be either type depending on the novel.

Whether at the start, middle, or end of draft one, the novel you are writing must at least begin to attend to all the points Alderson makes. It is reassuring that her book — my copy extremely dog-eared now — will be a constant resource.

Ideas in The Plot Whisperer are accessible no matter what draft or revision stage you are tackling. The index, sadly undervalued in too many books, is helpful. The only area for improvement I can suggest overall would be the addition of subtitles to the Plot Whisper boxes, to allow at-a-glance access during a writer-reader’s revision stage.

Alderson recognizes writing as a craft and teaches another way to come at it, a very personal way. Her book is a wonderful mix of analytical and reasoned aids delivered with emotional acumen in a light therapy session that never has to end.

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About Meredith Ann Rutter

  • I mean every word, Martha, and it’s been great to meet you too!

  • Thanks to Google Alerts I learned of your wonderful review, Meredith. I didn’t know you before reading your piece and now feel like I do. Your words delight me. Thank you.