21 March 2012

Memoir and Plot and Structure

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a character-driven memoir and motion picture of the same name.

In this story, the protagonist (I use the term character and protagonist even with a memoirist in order to make the reference less personal and to remind memoir writers to develop their character to show change and transformation) attempts to achieve her goals (outlined below). She also, on a much deeper level, undertakes an intensive spiritual investigation. As a seeker, her focus is on the search for Truth or meaning.

The book is more prose writing than in scene, in that the author spends lots of time describing Italy and India and Bali, the three places where the three segments of the book unfold. In much of the book, the author also discusses her thoughts. Because of the subjects she described ~~ the history of meditation, descriptions of the Ashram, and the like ~~ are fascinating and extremely well-written, and most readers like to learn something new through reading, many will not object to the telling nature of much of the narrative.

When Gilbert does write in scene, the descriptions and discussions have depth and impact. However, the dramatic action, when in evidence, is secondary. Her character emotional development and search for resolution and God over time carries the significance.

A thematic significance statement for Eat Pray Love could be:

A spiritual journey is challenging but, when undertaken with passion, and dedication, can transform a person enough to overcome hurt and love again.

The Beginning (1/4)
The Beginning of Eat Pray Love functions in an introductory mode as all good Beginnings do. The protagonist’s dramatic action goals are clearly outlined: 1) to spend one-third of the story in Italy learning the language, 2) one-third on her Guru’s Ashram in India in meditation, and 3) one-third in Indonesia with a medicine man. Her character emotional development goals are clearly implied: 1) undergo intensive self-inquiry, 2) recover from her recent divorce, and 3) find balance and spirituality in her life.

The Beginning of the story takes place in Italy with a goal of learning Italian. This section functions on a sensory level with lots of eating great bread and pastries, drinking wine, and meeting terrific men. Of the three sections, Italy is the least challenging for the author, which is fine because this is where we find out her issues: she has had a spiritual crisis, which ended in a divorce and followed by an unfulfilling relationship.

In the Beginning, and into the Middle of the memoir, the protagonist freely shows her flawed self, which, at times, comes across neurotic enough that if her writing were not so compelling, the reader might not stay with her. However, the more flawed the character, the greater the possibility in the final transformation.

The Middle (1/2)
In the Middle third, the protagonist travels to her Guru’s Ashram in India and spends her time there mostly in meditation. When she is in scene in this section, it is often with Richard from Texas who is a hoot and a compassionate mentor.

The more she has to devote to meditation, the more frustrated she becomes, which is an effective means of revealing more and more of the depth of who this person truly is. Take note: Although the project only covers one year in her life and the author has several memories of the past, there are only a couple of instances where she actually goes into a flashback.

The Middle is the territory of the antagonists and the bulk of this character’s antagonism comes from her own mind. She can’t concentrate. She can’t meditate. She can’t let go of the past. She engages in useless longings.

In her search for spirituality, “you revert from what attracts you and swim toward that which is difficult.” The more difficult her journey becomes, the more flawed we see her character. Still, as challenged as she becomes, she never gives up or gives in.

At around the three quarter mark in the story, the crisis hits after she climbs to the top of a tower at the Ashram and asks to be shown everything she needs “to understand about forgiveness and surrender.” Up until this point in the book, we know she has been craving a resolution to her dissolved marriage. She would have loved to have an actual conversation with her ex-husband, but knows that will never happen due to the ugliness of the divorce, which had turned them into “two people who were absolutely incapable of giving each other any release.”

Once she drops into mediation “to my surprise, I did an odd thing. I invited my ex-husband to please join me up here on this rooftop in India…. And he did arrive.” What happens after that, as she finds out what she needs to about herself and her part in the past, is she finds the release she so desperately craves.

The End (1/4)
The End is the section where the character now shows whether or not she truly understands her flaw and her part in what is not working in her life.

The Climax occurs at nearly the end of the story when the protagonist commits to helping a woman with a child of her own and two orphans she has taken in. Up until this act, the protagonist has been completely self-centered. She has obsessed about her life and flaws and worries.

At the Climax, we see that the wake-up call that came at the Crisis has ripened into the new personality deeply enough that she is able to extend herself in generosity and help another person. This action is the perfect metaphor to show character transformation. We have a definite sense that the protagonist would not have been capable of doing what she does for this family if she had not experienced every single thing she has undergone previously ~~ the definition of the Climax.

The Resolution
In the end, the protagonist finds love, and satisfies the thematic significance statement: A spiritual journey is challenging, but with passion, and dedication can transform and overcome hurt enough to love again.

To write a lasting and meaningful story, don the hat of a sleuth. In each rewrite, provide another layer of the thematic significance of your stories. Your readers may never uncover the deliberate care that went into the formation of every detail of your story. They will be left to ponder the meaning you set forth, possibly even be changed at depth by your story’s theme. The effort is worthy.

To familiarize yourself with the Universal Story and the basic plot terms in the above blog post:
1) Read The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Now also as a Kindle edition)

2) Watch the Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? on YouTube. A directory of all the steps to the series is to the right of this post. 27-step tutorial on Youtube

3 Watch the Monday Morning Plot Book Group Series on YouTube. A directory the book examples and plot elements discussed is to the left of this post.

For additional tips and information about the Universal Story and plotting a novel, memoir or screenplay, visit:
Blockbuster Plots for Writers
Plot Whisperer on Facebook
Plot Whisperer on Twitter