Writing Memoir: Arranging Plot

Photo of canoes in a mountain lake by Justin Roy on Unsplash

I like this image because the canoes in the water point toward a center, and the smaller group of canoes up on the dock also point toward a center. Then there are the rocky peaks in the background, all pointing up.

So, three groups of things that point in the some direction. Two are alike, one is different. I am such a sucker for order relieved by a variation that’s . . . orderly.

Most books have a structure providing order for the action. We often call these plots and subplots. Because I’m as powerless against metaphor as I am against order, in this photo, I see the canoes in the water as elements of the main plot. The canoes on the dock are elements of a related subplot. But those rocky peaks — they are the overarching “big idea” plot.

While I believe that memoirs have their own type of plots, they aren’t as explicit as the plots in fiction and films. Some writers will tell you plot isn’t such a big deal. In his book Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig demotes the importance of plot and promotes character arcs and character agency as the drivers of a story. But he does share tips about arranging the action of a story:

The arrangement matters. It matters that I know the ending but tell the story as if I don’t. It’s vital that I play the magic trick as if I don’t know where the rabbit is coming from — storytellers are, after all, practiced liars, and my job is to guide you through the journey, not fast-forward to the end. Part of the journey is about me asking questions and then withholding the answers for as long as you can stand it.

In my current memoir project, the main plot is about finding my identity as an adopted person, and the subplots of “who’s your daddy?” and “can you stick with your family?” Those are also (yes, Mr. Wendig), maybe more importantly, character arcs.

I know how the story ends, once I decide where it ends. But I have to keep that to myself if I want to keep a reader engaged. As Wendig points out, some stories begin with the ending, and the plot is about why — why did things end up that way? But I don’t think that works for my story.

So, if my story’s arrangement is “me asking questions and then withholding the answers,” what questions am I asking? And if that’s the kind of arrangement you are planning for your story, what questions are you asking?

This seems like a good exercise. The questions can be general or very specific.

General questions: Is a person’s core self formed by nature or nurture? Or both? If both, which parts come from nature and which from nurture? Why do families keep secrets? What is forgiveness?

More specific questions: Can a woman raised in the upper middle class find happiness in a family from the working class? Can a woman who rejected the responsibilities of motherhood be a good substitute parent? Can a woman who thinks she’s always right get along with people who make the same mistakes over and over again? Can these people tolerate her smarminess?

Really specific questions: How can my laugh be the same as the laugh of a woman I never met once I was out of the womb? How can one neglected child split her loyalty between two flawed mothers?

As usual, it’s the more specific questions that strike at the heart. And those more specific anythings — questions, scenes, arguments — -are always harder to write about than the general ones.

Ugh. Writing is such hard work.

I think the canoes are scenes that build the plot/subplot/character arc. They are pointing toward the themes. Those rocky peaks — I haven’t figured that out yet.

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