Book Review—“Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene” by Paula Munier, published by Writer’s Digest Books, 2014
In keeping with the book’s title, Paula Munier doesn’t flinch when she states, “If you want to write commercial fiction, you need to be about plot.”
Perhaps anticipating some raised eyebrows, Munier adds, “Even if your aim is to write literary fiction…you need plot as well as style. Something needs to happen and that something is plot.” She cites literary novelists who write great plots and whose books are commercially successful: John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, and Kazuo Ishiguro, among others.
Importance of Theme
Munier starts her book by discussing the importance of finding and positioning your theme. “Themes speak to the universal, they address the human condition. The best writers know this and milk it from page 1,” she writes.
“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë is about love and revenge. “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins is about power. Some of the most beloved and enduring books state their themes outright: “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen and “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. Once you’ve identified your theme, you’ll be able to use it strategically, such as in writing the first and last lines of your manuscript.
Unique Selling Proposition
“The same but different is what publishing is all about in today’s challenging marketplace,” writes Munier. Publishers are looking for something like the current bestsellers, but it should be different enough to set it apart from those books.
To illustrate the concept, Munier cites Amy Heckerling’s film, “Clueless,” which is like Jane Austen’s “Emma” set in Beverly Hills. “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin is like J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” but based on the Wars of the Roses.
The concept of “the same but different” could be your unique selling proposition (USP). Sometimes the USP is a character, such as Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s hero in “The Maltese Falcon.” Munier devotes a chapter to the novel as a case study.
Subplots and MacGuffins
Munier reiterates the old adage that the first page sells the book, while the last page sells the next book. She tackles a common problem in many unpublished manuscripts: the sagging middle.
“Keeping the plot moving in the second act is often a matter of beefing up or adding subplots, creating scene sequences, and using devices,” she says. In a “learning sequence” subplot, the protagonist must acquire certain knowledge or master certain skills. Think of Rocky preparing for the big fight.
The MacGuffin is another excellent device for the second act. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term, which refers to an object, event, or character that drives the plot. MacGuffins could be treasures and secrets in crime fiction and weapons, mystical artifacts, and technology in science fiction. In “The Maltese Falcon,” the novel’s title refers to its MacGuffin.
Valuable Writing Tools
“Plot Perfect” is a treasure trove of tools for writers. Munier packs her book with exercises, checklists, templates, tips and tricks, and recommendations. The “Writer at Work” exercises are targeted tasks with immediate objectives, such as defining your theme by writing a list of proverbs.
Munier’s character profile template is very helpful. In the past, I’ve written random notes about my characters. After reading “Plot Perfect,” I started using the template to organize my thoughts better. I plan to use the same framework for every important character I create.
One of the book’s strengths is the author’s ability to personalize some of the most technical aspects of writing. I enjoyed the stories excerpted from Munier’s memoir, “Fixing Freddie,” as much as I learned about polishing my USP and choosing the right POV. Her stories are informative, touching, and funny. I had a laugh-out-loud moment reading a story titled “God Bless Dad…Again,” while also learning about the “hero’s journey” technique in plotting a story.
Munier is incredibly well-read. From Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Thomas Harris and Elizabeth Gilbert, she has done the legwork and distilled the lessons for writers to apply immediately.
“Plot Perfect” is a one-stop shop where writers like you and me can learn more about the craft and take advantage of Munier’s extensive knowledge as an author, writing teacher, editor, content strategist, and literary agent. Read the book and you’ll know what I mean.
To learn more about Paula Munier and “Plot Perfect,” click here.