MARTHA ALDERSON PUT STORY STRUCTURE ON MY DINING ROOM TABLE

I didn’t begin my life thinking that I would be a writer. I was always much too busy for that. But after my kids left home, I began to write some small articles for newsletters and I found myself keeping a journal. I felt empty with everyone gone and it gave me comfort to commit my thoughts to paper. Over the years, my urge to write kept growing. I started writing stories for my friends and they encouraged me to write more. The idea of writing a book seemingly started without my consent but the words kept waking me up at night. Writing was taking hold of me.

As I struggled to make sense of my bedside notes, I learned of a writers’ group at Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology, called “Adventurous Writers.” It was there that I began to learn the trade: developing a theme, learning how to plot a story, the elements of the hero’s journey, and the importance of through-lines. After the basics are in place, you top it off with a “hook,” a cherry on top of an ice cream sunday, something to immediately capture the readers’ interest so they can’t put it down.

We studied many different approaches for mastering story structure. My favorite book that taught me how to write was The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson (Adams Media, 2011).  In the text were diagrams of plots illustrating elements of the universal story, prescribing how many pages should be devoted to the beginning of the story, exactly what page should end the beginning and when to move the story upwards in intensity towards the crisis. Once your hero is over the hump and just when you thought everything was going well, she is thwarted by another barrier, the climax, which quickly unfolds into the resolution. All stories follow this same plot structure. Think about it when you are watching a movie or your favorite TV show.

As I took hold of the ideas in Anderson’s text, I dutifully made a trip to the butcher at Eastern Market and tried to explain why I needed a long piece of butcher paper. The butcher looked puzzled but he gave me the paper. I started my plot-planning on the dining room table, minimizing our eating space to my husband’s chagrin. I used red sticky notes for hot emotional scenes, blue for the cooler transitions, and yellow for the lessons I was learning. As the story grew more involved, i needed more space and I moved to the to the living room floor, blocking access to our front windows and my husband’s favorite easy chair. After a spousal chat, I withdrew to the wall next to my computer but the story moved on.

My confrontation with the archbishop was my first chosen hook, but as my story evolved and I worked to get its elements in the proper places, the archbishop got replaced with J. Edgar Hoover’s counter-intelligence program, COINTELPRO. You will want to meet the characters in my upcoming book:

What My Left Hand Was Doing:

Lessons from a Grassroots Activist

by Joann Castle

Coming soon: Click “follow” at the top of this page for updates on publication.

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