Saturday, April 24, 2010

Martha Alderson, Plot Consultant

While I was in the quicksand of revising a novel some time ago, I came across Martha Alderson's web site. She works in interesting ways. She's a plot consultant. She doesn't want to read your chapters. That's right, no drafts to be submitted and critiqued.

UK: Martha, you trust that writers possess the rhetorical mastery their work needs, so they can't distract you with gorgeous language and clever turns of phrase. Instead, you make them think about character, theme, story, about all that stuff that (to me anyway) often makes me feel as if I'm walking through impenetrable jungles with wild animals waiting at every turn to do me in.
MA: Though character, theme and story can be scary, I know that what writers find in that jungle is worth the time and effort. Gorgeous language and clever turns of phrase make stories a joy to read. Intertwined with action and character and theme gorgeous language and clever turns of phrase become classics.

UK: How did you end up doing what you do?
MA: I've always been a slow learner. Though the term wasn't invented yet when I was young, dyslexia made abstract concepts frustratingly difficult for me to comprehend. Non-verbal well beyond norms, when I grew up I chose to help kids like I had been and became a speech pathologist and learning disability therapist. After I sold my speech, language, and learning disability clinic for kids, I started writing. Though it took 12 years before I truly grasped the elusive concept of plot and used it effectively, when I did, I chose to help writers like me and started teaching plot and eventually became a plot consultant.

UK: How do you go about working on coaching novelists through the maze of plot options that might confront them?
MA: As crazy as it sounds, the problem for most writers lies in the words and the solution is in the structure of a story. Yes, I know: that's what we do, write words. But plot is detected most easily when you push aside the words of a story to reveal the plot strands of character, action, and theme in every good book at both the reading and the writing level.

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged.... (There is far more to the definition of plot, of course, but this limited version is helpful here.) To make this deliberate arrangement, one benefits from stepping away from the words and all the pages of writing. A simple way to view the overall story level at once is with the use of a visual template, like a Plot Planner.

Once a writer can see where she is going, the act of communicating it over the course of the book becomes smoother, but not necessarily any easier. When we can "see" the plot, we have one less thing to worry about, for awhile anyway.

Once the plot is finally set, the real fun of making every word perfect begins and what comes naturally for writers like you, Uma, flows.

UK: What about the writer who simply can't pre-plot? Some of us need to wander blindfolded in dark mazes with our characters for a while before the story begins to take shape in our minds. Any tips for the writer who needs to embrace the chaos first before allowing plot into the picture?
MA: While you wander, keep in mind the following key scenes for plot:

  1. Set-up: The set-up you create in the Beginning makes the journey the protagonist undertakes at the End feel inevitable.
  2. End of the Beginning: The protagonist's goal shifts or takes on greater meaning and turns the story in a new direction, launching the character into the actual story world itself.
  3. Halfway Point: The moment the protagonist consciously makes a total commitment to achieving her goal and does something that signifies she has burned all bridges back and thus can only go forward.
  4. Crisis: The all-is-lost moment.
  5. Climax: Just as it looks as if all is permanently lost for the protagonist, she saves the day.
UK: When and under what circumstances would a novelist want to use a plot consultant?
MA: A plot phone consultation can be done before you even begin your writing project and just have ideas, during the writing process, or as a final check of the overall story before sending it out. Lots of very talented writers struggle with the plot and structure of story, especially highly creative people who write. Plot and structure are linear and rigid whereas creativity is fluid and vast.

I often debrief after a plot consultation at the Plot Whisperer. Stop by for a visit.

UK: You've used Gennifer Choldenko's wonderful middle grade novel, Al Capone Does My Shirts, to illustrate scenes, story arcs, and more. Any other reading recommendations for middle grade or YA novel writers? What's different about this kind of analytical reading for plot?
MA: I have a long list of books I've used in plot workshops both for kids and for adults who write for kids: Harry Potter, Where the Wild Things Are, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, Riding Freedom, Hatchet, Flipped, Call of the Wild, The Secret Life of Bees, Because of Winn Dixie, and lots more

I plan to write an eBook for Children's book writers but unlike the plot writing workshop DVD where I use Gennifer Choldenko's book, the eBook will feature examples from all the books I've used.

UK: Any other plotting tips?
MA: If you shudder at the thought of structure or run from the concept of plot, I'd like to share Joseph Campbell's words:

"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to the the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave that was so dreaded has become the center."

Plot and structure are the jewels. You'll see. Trust the process.

UK: Thanks, Martha! Here's to story, the thing we're all after.

An eBook is in the works: Before the Next Draft: The Art of Stripping Away Words to Reveal the Deeper Plot & Structure of Your Story, To be notified when it's out, sign up for Blockbuster Plots free monthly Plot Tips eZine. Look for other plotting tools here.


  1. Terrific interview! I've already gotten a lot out of your plotting tips. Blockbuster Plots looks excellent and helpful. Thanks for the post!

  2. This is just too funny. I ordered Marha's DVD two years ago, and I watched it for the third time yesterday. Her blog is a treasure trove, and as she mentions herself at the beginning of the DVD, what she says sinks in a little more as we go deeper into the process and the understanding of story, structure, etc. I can't wait for the e-book. Thanks for this great interview, Uma. And thank you, Martha, for all your work to help us writers navigate the jungle of story and structure.