Writing and Publishing Your Family History – Part 2 of 4: Choose Your Plot

Welcome to the second part of writing and publishing your family history. Let’s talk about your family history book’s plot.

Image showing the shape of a story
From Elegant Hack’s The Shape of a Story via http://eleganthack.com/the-shape-of-story/

The structure of a book depends on the organization of events in the plot of the story. So what, exactly, is a plot? A plot is a term that is used to describe the events that make up a story. In short, the plot is the main part of a story. These events relate to each other in a sequence or a pattern of events or experiences.

The plot is the foundation of a story. It’s the focal point around which a writer builds his or her characters and story settings. Why is it a focal point? A plot organizes events and relays information in a manner that is logical. A plot also drives the story, and all of a story’s characters, forward, providing writers with natural action points that add drama, insights, revelations, and all of the great things that makes stories interesting, compelling, and engaging for readers.

1. Primary Elements of a Plot

plot structure diagram image
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There are five main elements in a plot:

A. Exposition or Introduction

This is the beginning of the story, where characters and setting are established. The conflict or main problem is introduced as well.

B. Rising Action

Rising action which occurs when a series of events build-up to the conflict. The main characters are established by the time the rising action of a plot occurs, and at the same time, events begin to get complicated. It is during this part of a story that excitement, tension, or crisis is encountered.

C. Climax

In the climax, or the main point of the plot, there is a turning point of the story. This is meant to be the moment of highest interest and emotion, leaving the reader wondering what is going to happen next.

D. Falling Action

Falling action, or the winding up of the story, occurs when events and complications begin to resolve. The result of the actions of the main characters is put forward.

E. Resolution

The resolution, or the conclusion, is the end of a story, which may occur with either a happy or a tragic ending.

2. Choose Your Plot

In terms of genealogical stories, there are seven main types of plots. Was the life of the person or family you plan to write about defined by adversity? Or perhaps theirs was a tale of going from rags to riches? Is it a love story? Below, you will see a summary of the plot types with examples, as well as the five story stages for each type of plot. Note the order of the stages, which always begin with “The Call” (or story opening) and concludes with a resolution – the end of the story.

Plot type diagram image
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3. Story Stages Explained
(Alphabetical order)

Now it’s time for you to familiarize yourself with some of the plot stages you may be unfamiliar with that were provided in the table above. Understanding the progression of each plot stage will help you craft a riveting and compelling narrative by understanding where a story’s action points occur within storytelling. Story stages are important as they propel your story forwards, giving it momentum and depth. The information below is informed by, and adapted from, Christopher Booker‘s landmark book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories.

Anticipation Stage and Call

In an Adversity story, the reader learns about a monster from afar. The reader learns about the monster’s powers, influence, and the terror and or destruction it wreaks over a community. The hero or protagonist accepts a call-to-action to defeat the beast. In a love story, the “monster” is a barrier that prevents the lovers from being together. The reader learns about the obstacle facing the lovers, who pledge to overcome the difficulties they face no matter the cost.

Anticipation Stage and “Fall” into the Other World

The reader sees the protagonist in the protagonist’s dreary or humdrum life. Then, suddenly, a negative impact or dark force propels the hero out into the world. Or they awaken in a new and unfamiliar world – like a hero who is attacked, rendered unconscious, and wakes up to discover he has been shanghaied on a strange ship, taking them to an unknown land. Or, like Rick Grimes (The Walking Dead) or Jim (28 Days Later) – the protagonist wakes up from a coma into a world that has changed beyond all comprehension.

Arrival and Frustration

The hero is so close to realizing their goal! However, the hero still has one or two things left to do before the quest is completed. The next stage is the Final Ordeal.

Central Crisis

The world up-ends during the Central Crisis. The negative impact doesn’t just re-emerge; it’s stronger or more powerful. The hero hits rock bottom, the walls feel as though they are closing in, and the hero seems to lose everything. This point is the darkest part of the story, where all hope seems to be lost.

Destruction or Death Wish Stage

It’s the end of the protagonist. Their death can come as a result of events that spiral out of control, an act of violence, by his or her own hand, or at the hands of an enemy. No matter how it happens, their death doesn’t cause much grief. Whatever darkness the protagonist has introduced into the story dissipates and doesn’t affect anyone else.

In terms of a Tragedy, this stage is a darker version of the Rebirth story. Or, depending on the story being told, it is the 180-degree opposite of the Overcoming the Monster story. It’s a cynical version of the Rebirth, or the flip side of the Adversity story because the Dark Force or Negative Impact wins.

Dream Stage

Adversity story: The hero prepares to fight the obstacle, barrier, or monster before it becomes too powerful or insurmountable. The storytelling tension arises as the reader knows the “monster” hasn’t been stopped – it is still approaching.

Dream Stage in a Voyage and Return story: The hero awakens or emerges into a world that is utterly alien to them. Nothing is familiar, and they are far, far from any semblance of home.

Final Ordeals

These are the final tasks the hero has to undertake before the goal is reached. It’s at this point the reader understand that the hero is the only one – or one of a few – who have “the right stuff” to achieve the goal.

Final Union, Completion, and Fulfillment

This is the part of the story when the hero gets the girl (or boy), the keys to the kingdom, the land that was stolen from him or her, or emerges victorious from battle. Whatever form the negative impact has taken in the story, it has been vanquished. It is at this point the reader should feel the journey the hero has undergone has molded him or her into a person of fortitude and wisdom. This is the “happily ever after” part of the story.

Frustration Stage

The monster has arrived, or the obstacle proves seemingly indestructible. Whatever the monster signifies, it’s power is revealed in all its towering and devastating glory.
At this stage, the reader questions whether the hero or protagonist has what it takes to overcome the monster.

Independence and the Final Ordeal

The hero acquires newfound strength, or power, which must be put to the test. In other words, it’s showdown time. Does the hero have what it takes to overcome the negative impact finally? This is the epic battle part of the story where the hero or the negative impact must emerge victorious. It is all or nothing time. At the struggle’s end, the hero emerges free from the negative impact…and moves on to the Fulfillment stage. Or the negative impact consumes the hero, and all is lost, as in the movie The Wicker Man, where the hero dies in the end.

Initial Wretchedness at Home

This is exactly like it sounds: the hero is in a state of emotional misery, usually due to some external factor mistreating or negatively impacting on the hero’s life (we’ll call this “the negative impact”). The negative impact can be a parent, a monarch or powerful aristocrat, society, etc. Whatever the negative impact is, it forces the hero out into the world to do something to overcome the negative impact.

Kingdom, the Other Half, or Elixir Won

The hero wins! And he or she receives their hard-fought-for reward(s).

Miraculous Escape; Death of the “monster”

The hero emerges victorious!

Miraculous Redemption

The protagonist is given an opportunity to switch sides – or stay bad. Remaining bad would be the easier thing to do. However, the protagonist makes an effort to redeem themselves. Death is usually, but not always, the outcome.

An example would be the character of Severus Snapes in the Harry Potter series. – a character whose story arc goes from being a good person, to a deeply flawed character who is ultimately redeemed by a selfless act of heroism.

Monsters, Temptations, The Deadly Opposites

The dark force or negative impact can take the form of monsters, temptations, kidnapping, being caught between a rock and a hard place, deep behind enemy lines in wartime, etc. In between these tests of the hero’s courage, purpose, and valor, are periods of rests where the hero can reflect, re-assess their goal, assess their strategy, and also gain some much-needed strength for the fight ahead.

Nightmare Stage

It’s battle time! Unfortunately, the battle is far from easy or winnable for the hero. Yet, just when all seems lost for the hero, there is a glimmer of sunlight. Towards the end, the tides of the battle appear to turn…and the hero just might win.

Out into the World, Initial Success

Out in the world, the hero must confront new ordeals. The hero might achieve a little initial success. The hero may even catch a glimpse of “the promised land”. However, it’s just a glimpse of a small measure of success. At this stage, the fight against the negative must continue. Which leads to the Central Crisis.

Oppressed in the City of Destruction

This is Tolkien’s character of Frodo in the land of Mordor. Whatever the form this negative impact or dark forces takes, the plot begins and gives the hero a mission to accomplish. At this stage in the story, the hero’s journey is in enemy territory, and still far from their goal. However, don’t forget about the monsters. The conclusion of this step leads to the Monsters, Temptations, The Deadly Opposites steps.

The Dark Power is Triumphant

The protagonist’s agony continues. Actually, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel or any possible change to his or her circumstances. The reader needs to believe the circumstances are insurmountable too.

The Threat Recedes

Following an initial journey down a dark path, the protagonist’s new status quo seems to be going well. The storyteller establishes that the choice to go down a wrong path initially works out for the protagonist. Perhaps it was to win the heart of a girl (or boy). Perhaps it was to gain success, wealth, power, or influence. In other words, the choice to turn bad helps the protagonist – at first – while making the reader understand why the protagonist made the decision they did.

The Threat Returns or Strengthens

The protagonist is now stuck in a seemingly permanent state of distress and begins to see the error of his ways or begin to understand the price that must be ultimately paid for their decision. However, digging themselves out of the hole, they voluntarily placed themselves into seems to be impossible or painful.

Voldemort promised Snape he’d spare Lily’s life, but he didn’t. Snape, now known as a Death Eater, has his reputation permanently tarnished. Snape is left with nothing as a result.

Thrilling Escape and Return

The hero escapes from whatever doom has plagued them – and they return home. The special sauce is the hero who has learned an unforgettable insight into themselves or something about their life or their home. Think about Harry Potter. Every time he returns to his true home, Hogwarts, it is always with new knowledge and insights about himself.

Under the Shadow

The protagonist falls under the spell of darkness. In other words, a basically good person is corrupted by dark forces or bad intentions, like Macbeth. This is the stage where the protagonist succumbs to darker influences, much like Tolkien’s character of Faramir in The Two Towers, who can’t resist the evil influence of the One Ring.

Hopefully, at this point, you can see how this approach to writing a narrative non-fiction family history need not be a ‘by-the-numbers’ kind of genealogy book. Approaching your writing project through this lens will move you beyond a “Joe Bloggs was born in 1832 and lived in St. Louis and worked for a bank” type story into something that is more riveting – and a real page-turner!

Next Stage

In the next article (Part 3), we will explore choosing your hero or protagonist type

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