Memoir: Plotting Basics

Two Dimensions of Plot

Plot consists of two dimensions. The first is forward movement. If you’re writing about an external or an internal event, this dimension of plot is your timeline.

The second dimension is rising and falling action or tension. If you are writing narrative, you might want to think of rising and falling action as the level of suspense in a particular scene. Some incidents are more suspenseful than others.

The trick to keeping your reader interested is the way in which you arrange the action in a personal essay. Together, the two dimensions of forward movement and tension can be used to construct a graph upon which you can visually plot your scenes or main points.


Writer as Storyteller

Even if we don’t admit it, all writers are glorified storytellers – from those of us who write novels to those of us who write copy for television commercials and the backs of cereal boxes. We may be sitting in front of computer screens rather than campfires, but we’re still spinning tales with beginnings, middles and endings and we’re still playing to the audience.

Keeping Readers Interested

The technique for telling an engrossing story hasn’t really changed for centuries. The rules for good storytelling, and good essay writing, are:

  • Grab your reader at the beginning. Either jump into the middle or the action or begin with an attention getting line, something to cue your reader about what your essay will contain and to pique his or her curiosity. Usually getting to this point requires some warm-up writing. Later, during revision, cutting these warm-up paragraphs strengthens the essay.
  • Don’t start with details. Only after your reader is hooked and you’ve achieved some degree of momentum, or rising action, with your words, do you start giving supporting details or background. When you do begin to fill in the details, they need to be laid down in small chunks because big ones will slow down the momentum too much.
  • Consciously keep building the tension, action, or interest until you reach the climax, the high point of your story. The short breaks for exposition, or explaining, are important because they give the reader time to catch his or her breath before you raise the tension again.
  • Use your conclusion as a place to pull together the loose ends. Falling action, the big sigh of relief, characterizes the last paragraph or lines of your essay where you tie everything together either explicitly or in a scene.