"Celebrated writing teacher and author Martha Alderson has devised a plotting system that's as innovative as it is easy to implement. With her foolproof blueprint, you'll learn to devise a successful storyline for any genre. She shows how to: Use the power of the Universal Story; Create plot lines and subplots that work together; Effectively use a scene tracker for maximum impact; Insert energetic markers at the right points in your story; Show character transformation at the book's climax"--P.  of cover.
Unlike other writing books I've read, The Plot Whisperer is also a self-help book for writers. The author sees the Universal Story as playing out in the writer's life as well as their writing. She includes several "Writer's Way" sections to talk writers through the psychological and energetic aspects of transforming themselves while writing their novels. (This may explain why this is the only writing book I've read in which I've noticed a legal disclaimer about how the publisher isn't offering professional advice.) While I thought this was an interesting idea, I found it to be more distracting/annoying than helpful when included in a writing book. I could easily use self-analysis as a way to procrastinate on writing! If a feeling-centered, "New Age" approach to writing appeals to you, you may get a lot out of this book, but it just didn't work for me.
Plotting is one of those aspects of novel writing that looks a lot simpler from the outside. New writers (and sometimes not so new) can find they have a great story in their head, have solid writing skills, a good command of dialogue, and a knack for description, but once they transfer their story to paper it just isn’t working. The middle’s saggy or the ending lacks pizzazz or the beginning is overloaded with backstory—if you hang around writing groups for a while, you soon begin to spot the problems with everyone else’s writing, and eventually you begin to see it in your own.
I don’t think a grasp of plotting should be confined only to novelists, either. Non-fiction writers, particularly those attempting a memoir, need to understand story-telling skills just as much as fiction writers do. Any story needs a structure.
Of course there are those people called pantsers who just sit down and write, and tell you that they never do any plotting. I would argue that successful pantsers are just people who are very good at holding a plot structure in their heads, but I’d also advise keen plotters to sit down occasionally and try to write a story entirely without plotting it, just to see what happens. I’ve been trying that myself lately, and a couple of stories have emerged that will serve as concepts or foundations for novels, once rewritten in a slightly more orderly way.
But enough about me. The Plot Whisperer struck me as a good place to begin as I started work on plotting a new novel (me again) and indeed, it proved to be of value. For copyright reasons I can’t show you the mind map I made using Alderson’s suggestions, but it’s pretty extensive—given that I threw a new item onto the mind map every time something Alderson wrote struck me as useful and the resulting mind map is huge, I would say that there is much of use to be found in this 233-page book.
Alderson starts out describing the difference between left-brained and right-brained writers—I found that thought-provoking. Right-brained writers, as you’d expect, see the big picture of a story, while left-brainers have a more sequential approach and are good at writing out a story scene by scene. Interestingly, looking at my mind map I can see that Alderson is predominantly right-brained—she’s excellent at providing the reader with all the elements of a good story, less skilled in explaining how you go about the process of building a good plot step by step.
Alderson does provide the reader with a visual representation of plot in her plot planner, which looks a bit like a sales graph. If you want to see this and other plotting visuals, visit my Pinterest board on the subject. Because there are other ways of visualizing plotting out there, any or all of which could be useful for your particular book, and maybe it’s Alderson’s that’ll resonate with you. I think if I look at all the story elements she talks about in the course of the book and map them onto the plot planner diagram she provides, I might see her method more clearly—but to actually embark on plotting out your own story via her diagram, you need something like a six-foot-long sheet of paper and a place to lay it out while you place sticky notes on it, which doesn’t work so well for me. She also provides a scene tracker chart example that could be easily replicated in any spreadsheet program and that’s good, but again my own brain doesn’t do too well with spreadsheets when it comes to novels. It’s too, well, spreadsheety (whereas, for example, I’m an Excel GODDESS when it comes to logging my word counts and analyzing how well I’m doing compared to my writing goals).
What I mean by “the process of building a good plot step by step” is that whole business of how you get a story out of your brain and into decent shape on the page, preferably without having to rewrite too much (although Alderson is clearly a fan of rewriting, as she often refers to the (many?) rewrites you’re going to be doing as you craft your novel. Which is awesome for writers who either write VERY FAST or have a lot of time for writing, but for those under contract or obliged to sandwich their writing time in with other responsibilities, getting your plot structure/story right first time, most of the time is a valuable skill.) Most of us start with the bare bones of a story—how it begins, a few key scenes, and how it ends—and then we have to build flesh onto the bones by coming up with secondary characters, subplots and world-building. Having done this a few times, I can take Alderson’s plot elements and possibly map them onto her plot planner diagram as my own plot elements, but I’m not sure how clear that process would be for someone trying out plotting in the early stages of a writing career.
The Plot Whisperer also suffered a bit from a tendency of all writing books, which is to veer off into tangents about what is and isn’t good writing. I think Alderson is right when she claims there’s such a thing as a Universal Story (which differs from one genre to another,) but there’s no such thing as a universal book or universal writing. Reading is an incredibly subjective exercise—how many of us are open-mouthed with disbelief because THAT book or THAT book are bestsellers and loved by millions, and we just KNOW they’re badly written? Are we gifted with some kind of superior discernment? For example, Alderson at one point introduces the notion of Constantly Escalating Tension, a concept that’s led to more bad Doctor Who episodes than I can count. Sometimes, and in some genres, the tension needs to be subtle and subterranean, a wander through a dark wood rather than a series of ever-greater perils with lots of shouting (and, in the case of Doctor Who, running). At times, I felt like I was being told how to write my book rather than how to plot it, and I want to hear about mechanics rather than specifics so such advice doesn’t work for me.
I also had a bit of trouble with the ‘Writer’s Way’ sidebars, in which Alderson explains all the angst you, the writer, are going to experience as you hit point A or point B in your story. Really? Well, Alderson runs plotting workshops, so maybe her generalizations are the result of experience, but I’ve never suffered in these ways. She makes writers sound like a pretty neurotic lot—well, some of us are, but many of us aren’t.
Final verdict—worth buying because it’s more thorough and less egotistical than many books about writing tend to be, but still not my Ideal Plotting Book. I’m beginning to think such a thing doesn’t exist.