Giving Your Story a Plot

I can’t tell you how often I read early drafts of memoirs that are thorough, lively recordings of events, great for preserving family history but absolutely unsatisfying as memoirs.  First this happened, and then this, and then this… Even when the events are shocking, amazing, horrific, terrifying, or otherwise scintillating, the drafts read like flat historical records.

Some authors stop there.  Their purpose is creating a record of events, or simply getting down the story satisfies their needs.

But a record of events is not a memoir, and I’ve just discovered a new way to explain why.  I’m reading Janet Burroway’s master-text, Writing Fiction:  A Guide to Narrative Craft, awed by how smart and practical her advice is and by the ludicrous fact that this book is no longer in print.  Burroway’s exploration of the difference between story and plot is an excellent guide for writers needing to make the leap from a record of events to a memoir.

First, some definitions from E.M. Forster:  A story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.”  A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story.  ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. … If it is in a story we say, ‘and then?’  If it is in a plot we ask, ‘why?’”

Burroway goes on to show how the “causal relation between what happens first and what happens next” helps a writer create a plot—that is, explore the “why”.  Forster’s first example (“The king died, and then the queen died”) is a record of events.  But when he gives the queen’s death in relationship to the king’s death we now have causality, emotional connection and disconnection:  plot.  “When ‘nothing happens’ in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relation between what happens first and what happens next.  When something does ‘happen,’ it is because the resolution of a short story or a novel describes a change in the character’s life, an effect of the events that have gone before.”  Characters are changed by events.  A story works when events change people and the reader knows why.

Isn’t this the great joy of writing memoir?  We know what happened but we don’t necessarily know why.  For this reason, a complete record of events is a great start.  You’ve written out all your scenes.  They’re in chronological order.  You know what material you’ve got to work with.  Then you can return to that draft and interrogate it.  What changed?  Why?  How?  When?  What’s the cause?  What’s the effect?  Who was I before / during / after this event?  What was my relationship to these events?  What is it today?

I often talk about this as reflective work, plumbing the inner emotional or spiritual story, but Burroway has helped me understand that the link between inner and outer story actually is the plot.  In memoir, plot traces change in the main character.  This is as good a guide for revision as any I’ve found.

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