Interview with Martha Stockton Alderson–Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple

Martha Stockton Alderson, author of Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple has been kind enough to answer some questions regarding her book and her writing life. She is an award winning author who offers her services to novices, other published writers, and children from all walks of life. Read her extensive bio and list of novels at In the midst of numerous books about plotting, this one stands out in the ways you’ll see below. Foremost is Alderson’s plot-tracker…check it out! HER NOVELS ARE AWESOME, TOO—LINK BELOW!

HOUSEWIFECAFE: You’ve mentioned that it took “12 years to truly grasp the elusive concept of plot and use it effectively.” Writing a story seems so simple until you’re drowning in hundreds of pages of writing, suffocating in your own creation. Why is determining plot and illustrating it over the course of a book so difficult?

MARTHA: As crazy as this sounds, the problem lies in the words. Yes, I know; that’s what we do ~ write words. But plot is detected most easily beneath the word level.

Plot is a series of scenes deliberately arranged… (There is more to the definition, of course, but this limited version is helpful here.) To make this deliberate arrangement, one benefits from being able to step away from the words and all “the pages of writing.” A simple way to view the overall story level at once is with the use of a visual template, like a Plot Planner.

Once you can see where you are going, then the act of “illustrating it over the course of the book” becomes smoother, but not necessarily any easier. When we can “see” the plot we have one less thing to worry about, for a while anyway. Plot is fluid and needs to be re-evaluated after every draft. Once the plot is set, the real fun of making every word perfect begins.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: In Blockbuster Plots: Pure and Simple you ferret out how scenes and summary feed into the Plot. What’s most important to know about these three ideas?

MARTHA: Simply put, story is conflict shown in scene. The operative word here is scene.

Scene is the moment-by-moment action played out by the characters on the page. Every scene shows the advancement of each of the three plot threads in good fiction ~ the dramatic action plot, the character emotional plot, and the thematic significance plot.

Scene is intimate. Summary puts distance between the story and the reader.
This is true whether you write fiction, screenplays, or memoirs.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: Your descriptions of different types of Summaries make clear that a writer should use summary in specific ways for specific purposes. How does the Scene Tracker help writers achieve the balance between using summary and scene?

MARTHA: I focus primarily on scene, mostly, I suppose, as an overreaction to one of the most common problems I see with beginning writers ~ “telling” instead of “showing.” But I have been working lately with more short story writers where summary is an important tool for achieving brevity.

That said, I still believe on giving more weight to scene. Scene allows the reader to slip into the action of the story and to live out the action moment to moment along with the characters. Scene is alive. Summary is not.

I advocate for readers. Before I started writing, I had a clinic for kids. I didn’t sell the practice to write, but, by the time the sale was final, I was hooked. Those kids met me in familiar territory. Now, my wish is to stamp out the frustration many people have reading for enjoyment, and so I advocate that writers consider their readers. Writers who are sensitive to all reading and learning abilities attract a broader audience.

Scene is easier to read than summary. There is more white space. And I’m not talking only about writing for kids. “Oh, but I’m just writing for myself,” you say. “I don’t buy it,” I reply. As John Gardner says in his classic Writing Fiction writers have one goal and that is for glory.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: You say in the book (paraphrased here) that once a writer shows a scene she should resist the urge to add emphasis by retelling in summary—that the writer should trust her readers. How should a writer balance showing enough detail so the reader isn’t lost with telling them so much that they don’t feel there is mystery or a reason to read on? In your book Spirits at War, this line, “A thin line of moisture gathers on my forehead, like thunderclouds on the horizon, a warning,” illustrates beautifully the notion of having “just enough.” It leaves the reader wanting to know what comes next but doesn’t elaborate so much the reader is bored. What decisions go into creating this type of cliff-hanging sentence?

MARTHA: Consider that every element in writing follows the universal story form. The overall book has a plot woven of the three plot threads and includes the four most important scenes: the end of the beginning, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution. Each chapter follows this same pattern, but rather than a resolution, chapters work best if they end with a cliff-hanger. Sentences that contain this same multi-threaded plot that ends with a cliff-hanger are divinely inspired. Achieving this sort of pattern occurs only after the structure and the plot have been firmly decided upon. Then the trick becomes staying loose enough to let the muse in, to turn off the critical mind and wake up the creative mind fully to make every word count.

HOUSEWIFECAFE:There are times I write a scene and think it’s funny and at the same time reveals that a particular character is compassionate. Then someone reads it and doesn’t come away with that impression at all. In the end, can a writer ever know exactly how readers will take her words–assuming the problem isn’t a matter of clarity?

MARTHA:We all long for our own authentic truth to be heard. The breakdown comes when we do not know our own truth. When reading over what we write, we often hear what our mothers taught us, what our tribe thinks. But what do we believe is true? When the affect we want is not evoked, often there is something deeper that need to be explored.I consider what we do ~ writing ~ as a gift, one that is easily squandered, strangled, or shunned. Writing is about digging for what we truly mean, first for ourselves and then to our readers.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: In Blockbuster Plots you use an excerpt from Rick Bragg’s Ava’s Man to illustrate gripping tension and conflict in a scene. You say that Bragg could have mentioned people watching the two characters or that cars might have been driving by behind them, but all that matters in this scene is what’s between the two men. Again, in the interest of balance, how do you know when you’re missing environmental details? How do you know you haven’t stripped your book bare?

MARTHA: Authentic details tied to thematic significance is where the deeper meaning comes in. But one never knows for sure how much is too much and how much is just right. That’s what makes writers, and all artists, crazy. So many choices.Every once in awhile we have to let go of those expectations of perfection. After all, we are human and thus implicitly designed not to be perfect. We are a flawed creation creating a flawed creation without end.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: Could you talk a little about how the character’s emotional development plays into plot?

MARTHA: Plot is made up of three threads: Character emotional development Dramatic action Thematic significance In other words, the protagonist acts or reacts. In so doing, he or she is changed and something significant is learned. Both writers who like to outline first and those who like to face a blank page generally start a story with a character with a goal. Thus begins both the character emotional development plot and the action plot. Tie the character’s private passion to a bigger, more universal public subject, and the thematic plot is launched. The story builds as the character confronts one antagonist after another. A story ends when the final cliffhanger is resolved and the character has been changed at depth. The action plot provides excitement. The thematic plot provides meaning. The character plot provides fascination. People read 70% for character, so to consider character emotional development as an equal, or bigger, plot strand becomes critical.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: You mentioned before that you gave up a successful business to research and write. How does your daily writing schedule differ from the hours you kept when you were in business?

MARTHA: I still am in business. A plot workshop designed to save other writers the frustration I had when it came to writing plot has turned to a flourishing business. I support writers worldwide with plot consultations, and I volunteer my time teaching plot to kids in my town and at the local children’s shelter. And, as much as I am a teacher to writers, I am also an advocate for readers. After I sold my practice and before the plot business began, I retreated into my writing cave, as my husband calls it. I disappeared for seven years. I look a back at that time as pure heaven.

Like the kids I used to work with, I, too, had speech and language problems. Someone helped me, and I, in turn, started the clinic. I have always lived in my head, in an imaginary world. When I was a kid, it was frowned upon. Now that I’m an adult and I call myself a writer, it is more than acceptable; it is cool.
Rediscovering my teaching, I have found that, though I like writing the best, the risk that comes with being part of the real world thrills me. It is harder to live in the flow of humanity because of all the stimulation, but to do so is to be alive. And, after all, real life is where we find what we write about.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: How did you know it was time to give up the business and focus on writing?

MARTHA: I feel that time has arrived again, but this time I want to find balance. A friend says that writers can write and take care of themselves; it just takes balance. Hmmmmm. I wonder.

HOUSEWIFECAFE: What do you do to alleviate writer’s block?

MARTHA: I get up and move. Best way for me is to get out the banner paper and make a Plot Planner or track a few scenes on a Scene Tracker. The big muscle movements generally release something sublime and before I know, I’m back to writing again.

HOUSWIFECAFE: Thanks so much Martha! The time you took here is so appreciated and will be helpful to everyone who reads it. Readers, feel free to leave questions for Martha and I’ll forward them if she doesn’t see them herself! Get the book, it’ll be worth your while.

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