Plot or Not?

Feb 8, 2022

Plot seems like an easy thing to identify. We follow plots in the novels we read, the movies we watch, the TV series we binge. But when it comes to writing memoir and narrative nonfiction, plot can be a little harder to find.

This handy quiz will help you find your plot in your memoir memories and nonfiction notes. Check your work against this list and remember that your nonfiction story will have a plot, an adventure, a change for your protagonist (even if it’s you) over the course of your story. It’s there, somewhere, waiting for you to find it.

That’s what plot is, after all. Change over time. And whether you are writing your own story or sharing your expertise, your book needs to show your reader that something changes. That’s what makes it worth turning the page.

Plot or Not: A Timeline

Many writers start with a timeline.

You’ve worked long and hard to organize your stories and information. You’ve mapped out the dates and put everything in the correct order. You pored over old journals and documents to make sure that your timing is correct. Everything hinges on the reader knowing how things happened and when and why and you’ve got it ready.

This feels a plot… Look, you say! Change over time, literally, I wrote a timeline! I used colored markers and everything!

So, is this a plot?

Sadly, NOT a plot!

A timeline is a lovely way to organize your thoughts and ideas, and is often a very necessary step in developing your story. However, a timeline is simply a list of things that happened. That change occurred to move from Point A to Point B is not inherently obvious.

A timeline is also a great way to make order out of chaos, but a plot can be messy (and often is). Change is rarely easy, rarely predictable, and rarely obvious. As a writer, it is up to you to work through the cause and effect from one point on that timeline to the next.

Plot or Not: A Family Tree

Admit it, you love

Or you’ve taken one of those DNA tests and opened a conversation with “I’m 7% French – would you believe it!” and it started a fabulous conversation.

(True story: I once had dinner with the guy who dressed in Lederhosen in the Ancestry commercial. It was his true story – he really was shocked to find out about those ancestors! And he’s a really great guy, too!)

That family tree that you’ve worked so hard to build, and those stories you’ve collected from great-great grandparents who braved the unthinkable has inspired you to tell their stories. You are the one to preserve their legacy. And I am so impressed by you already!

But, is gathering all those stories and people on that tree a plot?

No, NOT a plot!

A family tree is just a list of people. Their stories need more than branches to connect them. As an author, it is your joy and privilege and incredible opportunity to pull out the story that weaves throughout that tree. Your reader wants to know more than that these people lived. Your reader wants to know how their lives came together to change something in an enduring way.

Think of your family tree instead as your cast of characters. They details and experiences are essential to your story so it’s fantastic that you have them organized already. Now it’s time to set the protagonist in the middle and build that plot through the branches. What are the changes that happen to your protagonist through encountering these other incredible people at important moments in their lives?

There’s where your plot begins.

Plot or Not: Data Set

You’ve gathered all the info and carefully organized it in that massive excel spreadsheet or folder of word docs.

For a researcher like you, this feels like the beginning. You have the pieces of the puzzle. You know what message they combine to tell.

But is it a plot?

No, NOT a plot!

A spreadsheet, like our lists and trees, is just a list of things. They sing to you. You see all the beauty of their interrelationships and outcomes. But your task, your challenge, your great honor and responsibility as a writer is to translate that wonderful data into a story that best expresses the way the data will change the reader’s life.

It may be that your protagonist heroically takes your reader through the journey to make sense of all that you have researched. Or it may be that for this nonfiction story, you need to remember that the person who changes the most from page one to page 250 is the reader themselves.

Your organization is so necessary to your story.

Now it’s time to begin to put it into action.

Plot or Not: That Graph from High School

Who remembers this one?

We had tests on it in my high school. It was one of those things that was both incredibly fun (I mean, who didn’t feel cool because you now knew the word “denouement?”) and incredibly annoying (did we really need to fill in exactly what scene was the climax of The Crucible?).

So when you think plot today, perhaps this basic school memory floats in. But maybe you think this was just some basic quiz information, not really applicable in “the real world.”

Is this old-school graph really a plot?

YES, it is a plot!

It may feel basic, but you can use something like this to guide you through any book. It doesn’t matter if it’s The Great Gatsby, Wild, or The Devil in the White City. If you’re not sure, go back to your favorite book, that one that you someday want to write (and if you’re wondering, every single memoir writer I’ve ever worked with has referenced Wild, and every nonfiction writer brings up Devil… because they’re that good!). See where the points on this chart fall. Trust me, they’re in there.

So when you are starting to translate your idea, or your timeline, or your list of people and things into a plot, ask yourself where will these points be for your protagonist?

That uphill stretch? Those are changes. That fancy denouement? You get to write one of your own.

edPlot or Not: This Wild Vonnegut Graph


Kurt Vonnegut famously explain how stories take shape. He drew this. Shall we call this a plot? 

His weird squiggles look very different from that high school chart we just talked about.

So is this zig-zagging roller-coaster really a plot?

YES, it is a plot!

Take a moment and listen to Vonnegut explain it himself.

If our high school chart was “Plot 101,” then Vonnegut’s theory of charting a plot is your upper level advanced grad course. It takes into account the fact that plots have nuance, change is never, in fact, a steady line uphill, and every plot turns and reveals change in different ways all the way to the final page.

If you’re looking for some great writing advice, he has a whole book, that I heartily recommend.

In the short term, it’s time to add momentum and authenticity to that basic school chart. How would you graph your story this way? Try it out.

Plot or Not: Pixar Rule Number 4

Our final consideration comes from a now-famous list of storytelling genius set forth at Pixar (yes, that Pixar). These rules for storytelling have supposedly been used to map out every single Pixar project.

Rule No. 4 is a graph of a story. It starts with “Once upon a time…” of course.

But before you tell me, “Caroline, I’m writing nonfiction. There’s no once upon a time…” or “Caroline, my memoir is real, not a fairy tale…” let me ask you to look closer at the steps in Rule 4.

If you fill in this Pixar madlib, do you have a plot?

YES, it is a plot!

This is my favorite way to find a plot in a hurry, in fact. And it works every time!

It doesn’t matter how data-heavy your story is, if you lean into this idea that everything happens because of the previous thing, you have a plot!

Because of is a promise to yourself as a writer that you are only including the next story or the next detail because something has changed from your previous chapter or moment.

Because of is a promise to your reader that they will learn something new based on the information you’ve already given them. It makes them trust you because you’ve promised no surprises. The story will make sense and at the end, they will learn something totally new.

Now it’s your turn.

I challenge you to try it out.

Fill in that Pixar madlib, even if your instinct is to say “No, this isn’t for me!”

And, if you need help making your plot bigger and better and filling it out into a whole amazing book, I have even more ideas in my back pocket I’m happy to share.

So, tell me, what is your plot?

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