Finding the Plot Structure in Your Story

In On Writing, Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma by Louisa Leontiades

Writing is therapeutic, at least for those who like to write. All writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and analysis involves some measure of escapism, some measure of focus and of meditation. But for those who have been through trauma writing memoir is of particular value.

  • Writing memoir allows you to decant the stories which would otherwise remain entangled in your mind as you re-live them anxiously again and again. It relieves the pressure for your poor, exhausted brain.
  • Writing memoir allows you to distance yourself a little from those traumatic events, giving a third eye on what happened so that you can better understand them. It may even allow you to grieve for the pain of the past you (an act of self-love) and to cry more, a stressbuster in itself.
  • Writing memoir opens the connection to others who empathize… you are not alone.
  • Writing memoir gives voice to you and your stories, even if you write them to small acclaim.

This last benefit is a form of simple validation, and I’ve found that it can do wonders for your self-esteem. Most trauma destroys your sense of identity which negatively impacts your self esteem. Many trauma survivors have been silenced in some way, indeed that is in itself part of the trauma. So writing it out, and better publishing it–even on a small blog–means that your voice is out there. This is in itself hugely valuable. It is an act of self-love, of self-validation maybe the first one you have ever allowed yourself to experience. It says–no matter how quietly–that you and your story is worthy of being heard. It is a first step.

But apart from the above benefits which are in themselves amazing, I’ve found that writing memoir gives a potential paths to healing…

Rewriting the past

Many of my own stories describe me as the victim of abuse or circumstance. They involved adoption trauma, narcissistic abuse, a disfiguring car accident as a teenager, parental divorce, several rapes, sucide attempts, domestic abuse, my own divorce, depression and anxiety… well, you get the picture. These stories accumulated one after the other, they swirled around in my brain crowding out everything else until my life experience was so heavy that it thoroughly erased my identity, my voice and my ability to be happy. Until I got it out and re-wrote my past. Until eventually I no longer felt like the trapped victim of it. I felt like a hardy survivor and later, a victorious thriver. My experience of the past changed.

This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, how can one change the past? In what we know of as reality, the answer is of course that you cannot. These events happened and they are your truth. But it is possible to change your relationship to them. To discover another way to see them, a different ‘plot’ in the same story using perspective shift. Because memory itself is more than we can consciously recall. It is also the way in which past events affect future function. If you can change your perspective and allow it to co-exist with–not erase, that’s not what you want– your original perspective, it is also possible to change the way you react now and in the future. It is possible to suffer less.

There’s a concept in therapy called re-authoring. Before I learned the proper term, I called it re-framing. I discovered it quite by chance, and it involved telling stories of my childhood in my child voice and then re-telling them from a different perspective. An adult or older perspective.

Authors say that ‘writing is rewriting.’ Nowhere is this more true than when you write memoir in order to heal. I wrote the stories as I remembered them and as I felt them, in my younger voice. But as I grew older, read more, learned more and loved myself more (which came largely but indirectly, from continuously writing and publishing my stories), I found silver linings to my past trauma.

Even difficult ones–such as the rape by my biological father–propelled me concretely, viciously but actively into forging a clearer identity, my own identity, away and separate from him. That was a silver lining. My experience with my narcissistic adoptive mother I discovered, had trained me to be empathetic – after all when you are forced to be an extension of someone else for so long, you know exactly how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That was also a silver lining (although stopping doing it since my ability is unconscious through lack of boundaries, is quite another feat!)

Those in the know, call this silver lining ‘posttraumatic growth’ although I’ve found that the growth in itself was often very painful. But it is also true that we cannot grow without pain, hence the expression whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But the expression seems somewhat trite and careless, because although I have new strengths they are in proportion to my new weaknesses. I have needed new strength and patience to cope with anguish and anxiety that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Trauma changes you. It literally transforms the way your brain works, which means that we have to find new ways to cope with life perhaps in the absence of hope, trust and old beliefs. Writing experience out has helped me see more clearly how trauma has changed me, what knowledge I’ve gained, and helped me to create personal meaning in the face of senseless violence. I still believe it is senseless, but the meaning I’ve managed to create is my silver lining. It belongs to me and no one else.

So the silver linings do not take away the dark clouds. I have not been able to erase them. But without the clouds there would be no linings, so now I don’t need or want to, even though once I wished they had never happened. Reframing makes them easier to live with and lighter, more pleasurable to carry. I feel that what were once my burdens have become more like my diamonds. They are my unique and multifaceted self. They are the flaws which make me beautiful. Life is not pain free and I don’t believe this is a realistic goal. But life is a great deal happier because I have managed to find joy amid the pain in the darkness of the past. It’s a process, and in many stories I’m still reframing (and re-framing, and re-framing…)

But before you re-author (or re-frame), the process of writing in detail the events and feelings which surround your trauma will allow you to experience it again. Yes, that’s scary. Be prepared with plenty of your self-care tricks (including real-life therapy). But hopefully now you will be reliving it in safer circumstances and thus you will train your mind over time to realise that this event no longer has the power over you it once did. The experience of trauma will be lessened.

More than one plot?

The reason I’ve written the above passage in such detail therefore is to show you that your aim should not be just to find one plot. Think of it like tracing a path through a scatter diagram, there might be several routes. You will hopefully and eventually find at least two. The traumatic one, and the re-authored one. I have found several and I’m sure there are more. But this cannot be done in parallel, only sequentially and that takes time. I hope this truth is not discouraging although I fear it might be. What we all want is to escape the hideous cycle of flashbacks, anxiety and fear just as soon as we can. Finding one plot in your stories may seem like an enormous challenge, finding two nigh on impossible. But the work is worth it and it is my intention with these posts to help you do it. It is also joyful work, and the more work you put in on interpreting and rewriting your stories, the more your mind will almost imperceptibly absorb the impression that you are worth it. Your self-esteem will increase. And also, the more you do it, the easier and quicker it gets.

In my own experience I could not wait years for the validation of publishing a memoir. That came later. I started a blog and I wrote many of my stories in the minutest detail. In a virtuous cycle, the more I published, the better I felt. The more capable I was of telling my truth.  The more I was standing up for myself. Sometimes horrible trolls would comment on my posts. In those times I was everything my parents and my abusers believed me to be, selfish, ungrateful, a slut and a trouble maker. I was discouraged, sometimes despairing. In these times, facebook groups for like-minded women who’d been through my experience were enormously helpful. Turning off the comment function on wordpress also helped.

By blogging first, I started seeing my life as a story, or more accurately, as many stories. This idea is important. Memoir is not autobiography. It is not factual detail after factual detail although that’s the way your writing may start. It is your memory of events and feelings either now or in the past (because memories change). There is no wrong way to start, by the way. Your way is right for you. Nonetheless no-one’s life story is just one story. It is interpretation of many stories which means many plots. So my suggestion is that you start with just one key story, one key incident. One bound by a short amount of time might be the easiest. One which contains a small realisation is a good one for the purposes of healing. Luckily life is full of them, especially with hindsight.

Finding the first plot structure in one story

As a writer I’ve read dozens of books on plot structure. Many contain conflicting information, but most have proved valuable. The list below contains some references for you to read. For the more you know what a plot can look like, the more you will see plot structure almost intuitively in your own stories. If you are trying to find the narrative plot in your whole life, you are starting with an enormous task, because as I mentioned, your life is many, many stories and hooking them all up into subplots is a challenge even for the most experienced. When you’ve decided to start with just one story, the task becomes a lot simpler, but still – each story, even the simplest must have plot. Think Veni, Vidi, Vici. It’s a very simple story. I came, I saw, I conquered.

That’s because stories are essentially made up of beginnings, middles and ends. Act one (how I got there), act two (what I did there/what happened to me) and act three (the outcome/how I reacted). In your one story, you can allow yourself to ignore all other influences, all other stories which may or may not be linked to this one. For example, the story of one time your lover hit you (just one, even though there may be many). One specific incident of sexual abuse, although in my experience it rarely happens just once. One example of narcisstic parenting although by definition this continues over years.

This also makes it simpler because your story might just be one scene (still with a beginning, a middle and an end!)

To demonstrate the ‘one key incident’ approach, I’ve chosen the short story of my realisation that I had been in a disfiguring car accident. As it happens I wrote it in story structure intuitively, as many of you will because that’s how we process situations. I’ve chosen it because it’s an early piece of writing, in a very young voice, not particularly sophisticated and I hope therefore less scary to tackle. You can do it (even if it takes a little practice). Before I wrote it I hadn’t realised how angry I was about the entire thing, nor how self-absorbed my mother was. Reading it over shocked me and also revealed the real theme of my story (unknown to myself before writing)–my mother’s absolute refusal to take responsibility for anything. Many of my stories turned out to be that same theme in the beginning even though they were about totally different events.

Most stories you tell will be according to a time sequence in the beginning. That’s okay, more than okay and simplest. Mine is not really, but it is the way I remember it. That’s also okay. Since I do not remember the car accident (being unconscious and all) the way I tell it starts from the day I woke up to reality and realised I had been in an accident in the past. But before I analyse it, I’m going to give you an very brief overview of the most common plot structure so that you can follow the analysis. If you need it, I have written more about plot structure (using a light-hearted FRIENDS breakdown of one of my favourite episodes) in more detail here.

A Brief Overview of Plot Structure as it might relate to Trauma

  • Act one is commonly known as scene setting. It answers the questions, where are you? What are you doing? Why are you there? Who is there with you? What is around you? How are you feeling? Some authors call this the exposition. In old literature it tends to be the boring part of times and dates, village setting and character description. The part before you get into the real action. Nowadays writers tend to start in the middle of a scene and sprinkle description through actions and reactions. Write in any style you see fit remembering that the editing process is your friend.
    • So what situation do you find yourself in? With whom? What’s making you nervous or fearful? Are there patterns on the walls, what do you hear? Try also to include an ‘inciting incident’ or a clue as to what the story might be about. Alternatively a slight jarring, or disturbance. These things are useful if you are to read it over and over again which you will, you don’t want to end up boring yourself because then you might never continue…
    • Doorway one (the end of act one) is the lingo writers use to explain why you would continue to act two. It is also for that reason called the doorway of no return (the first one!). What propels you into act two? What opens the metaphorical door and why must you go through it? Moral obligation? Financial obligation? Curiosity? A literal journey? Need? The doorway is why you stay and endure or why you go/change probably at great cost to yourself.
      • Let’s say it’s an abusive relationship, the doorway–the why–could be as simple as ‘I could have left then, but I loved him’–love means you are obliged to stay–or ‘I didn’t believe myself capable of surviving without him and wouldn’t for another two years’–fear for your life means you are obliged to stay– or ‘I tried to break up with him, but he wouldn’t let me go’–physical threat means you have to stay–or ‘he owed me ten thousand dollars and losing that much money would cripple me.’
  • Act two, the main meat of the story. What is this particular incident about? Why are you telling it? What’s going on?
    • Let’s go back to a domestic abuse incident. How did it escalate? What did he say or do? What was your reaction? Action, reaction, reflection. Action, reaction, reflection.
    • Midpoint (the middle of act two, more or less). The midpoint is why I’ve suggested that you choose a story with a small realisation. The midpoint might be your shift in your way of thinking from who you were in the beginning to who you become at the end.
      • The woman who loved him, to the woman who hated him. The woman who felt she had to stay, to realising she had to leave before he killed her. The child who was obedient, to the child who started to rebel. This does not have to be a big realisation! You don’t even need to have had it at the time. You can remember, ‘yes that’s when a change must have happened, or sown its seed even though I didn’t realise it back then.’
    • Doorway two (the end of act two), or what propels you through to the final conclusion. Also commonly known as the second doorway of no return. After you hit the midpoint, what was your reaction to the realisation? What was the reaction of those around you? These actions, reactions and reflections move you forward towards the doorway towards resolution. Outwardly demonstrated or inwardly felt. They set you up for the final conflict/resolution. That doorway is also sometimes known as the ‘all is lost’ moment… for people who’ve experienced trauma it’s when things can seem at their darkest (only within that incident though, as I’m sure there are many of these moments in many other incidents) which means change has to happen. It makes resolution inevitable or possible.
      •  It was time he hit your child and this time, if not for you, for them you had to leave him (or her). It could have been when you sought guidance and by telling your story to someone else this meant that it would never be a secret again. You couldn’t deny it anymore. That realisation sets the stage for something to change.
  • Act Three, the final battle OR the quiet resolution OR renewed hope OR the utter defeat.
    • The reason I’ve described it as all these things is because sometimes we do not act as we would if we were the heroines in those fictional stories. Sometimes we stay and continue to be traumatized. Sometimes we are too traumatized to leave and writing about it should ideally not shame you further. Shame, horrible stuff. Abandon it if you can. Sometimes we simply resolve to find a way (but haven’t yet, it’s too hard). Sometimes we don’t at all and the story has what we describe as a ‘literary ending’ ambiguous, despairing etc. ‘this is all my life will ever be’. Sometimes we disassociate because we have no other way to leave, but at that time disaasociation is the resolution–the only resolution possible. In fiction, baddies would be vanquished and all would be hunky dory. But life is not like that and your writing doesn’t have to be either. Resolution means the end of that particular story with a new ingredient, but not necessarily solving the problem. Maybe as in my story below, the resolution is only the revelation of a much deeper problem (that’s good, because if you intend to make it into a fully fledged memoir, then your stories will be a sequence of these revelations until the real resolution).
    • And then the ‘Final Image’ is the take-away. Often it is the opposite to the opening image and demonstrates concrete change or realisation, but doesn’t have to be.

And so onward to an example. The story below is not reauthored, but has been tweaked and edited many times to reflect my trauma. Trauma does not tend to come out all at once in writing. You write, reread, reflect. Tweak, read, re-reflect and so on and so forth. How do you know when you are finished? Probably when you recognise yourself wholly and completely in your words. Probably when you start to cry by reading it. Buy tissues.

Story title: God Moves in Mysterious Ways

[Note. the title only was given to the story when I finished writing it. I’m not sure even now if there’s a more appropriate one]

Act one: Setting the scene

[Note. consists only of one short scene]

We were back again. Through the mist of fields in affluent Cheshire, followed by grey hazy tower blocks to a hospital in inner city Manchester. [Note. slight jarring…we’re in a hospital, why?] The doctor said,

‘Do you still think it’s a dream?’

‘It’s a weird dream,’ I replied cheekily ‘Where people keep asking me whether it’s a dream or not.’

‘Can you feel that?’ he said, poking my cheek with something sharp and shiny.

‘No,’ I said, ‘what are you doing?’

‘I’m taking the stitches out of your face where we reconstructed your cheek’ he said. ‘There are bits of glass in there still, but they’re too difficult to get out.’  [Note. another jar, glass why?] 

Then he addressed my parents as if I weren’t there. ‘It’s normal she can’t feel anything. The nerves have been severed. It’ll take some time to get the feeling back, if at all.’

‘Why do I have glass in my face?’ I asked.

‘You were in a car accident,’ he said gently. ‘Two months ago. You were unconscious for a while. But here you are, safe and sound. Alive. Do you know how old you are?’

‘Twelve,’ I said and smiled at this man dreamily because I wasn’t awake. I also smiled because my mother who was standly quietly in the corner for once, would be impressed at me dreaming about a doctor. But what was he saying? A car accident never happened surely. I had been going to worship God. I remembered passing the bridge just before we turned off, but then nothing. My memory was blank. A car accident would be something I remembered. It was too big not to, ergo this must be a dream. I must be asleep in the car on our way to church to sing at midnight mass. I had been wearing my favourite cream crossover top with rosebuds for the occasion. I wasn’t anymore.

But here was another curious thing. My parents were together in the same room. Yet they hated each other. My father was around a lot more often than he had been, it seemed. And now we were off to the supermarket together. What was that all about?

Doorway one: ‘Why is Dad driving us around?’ I said as we drove away from the hospital.

Act two: Into the main action, revelation

My mother said ‘Our car was wrecked. Totalled. And even if it weren’t, do you think I could ever drive with you in the car again? I’ll never be able to.’

‘Are you still divorced?’ I asked them.

‘Yes,’ said my father curtly from the front seat of the car. His voice was bitter.

This dream was becoming more vivid. But if it wasn’t a dream then it must be true. And how could I prove it?

‘Give me money,’ I said to my mother.

No english courtesy. No please and no thank you. My mother found rudeness unbearable I knew, so she would give me money only if it was a dream–since I had asked for it in the rudest way possible. Meekly, shockingly, she opened her purse and fished out a few pounds.

‘If you’re wanting that Sweet Valley High book you’re missing, then you’re out of luck. It still hasn’t come back into stock,’ she said.

I was dumbfounded. Approval for the Sweet Valley High series that my mother had formerly delegated to the trash pile along with radio one pop songs and my new preference for low quality clothes from Top Shop proved beyond a reasonable doubt, that this was indeed a dream. This woman was not the mother I knew. This was another mother.

‘Ah well I’ll stay in the car,’ I said miserably. I didn’t like this dream at all.

‘Okay then, we’ll be back soon,’ the other mother said.

As soon as they disappeared in the supermarket, I scavenged through the car for items which would prove the reality of my existence. Receipts, cardkeys for my father’s office, anything that seemed…well not dreamlike. I memorised numbers thinking that if and when I woke up, they would have changed. Then startlingly happy idea occured to me.

‘If this is a dream, no one will hear me if I press the car horn out loud.’

I slammed the horn intermittently in Sainsbury’s supermarket car park. Maybe twelve times and the sound was deafening. But it was like those car alarms that randomly go off, ignored by strangers. I was invisible.

As I lay on the back seat, trapped in a dream I didn’t like, I saw two familiar figures coming out carrying shopping. My other-father approached the car and I slammed both my fists down on the horn. He dropped the bags and I heard a glass jar crack. Then he wrenched the car door open and said in his best Clint Eastwood impression,

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

I beamed beatifically at him. Little did he know that for once his anger was welcome. That was the father I knew.

Midpoint (realisation, switch): Which meant that this was not a dream.

Later, I asked my mother.

‘What happened to us?’

‘We were in a car accident as we turned into church. It was a bad one. The driver crashed into your side of the car and the glass pulverized your face and you smashed your head. It could have been worse of course. You didn’t break anything. But you were struggling so hard with the ambulance men that they couldn’t attend to me. I have very bad whiplash which means chronic back pain, probably for the rest of my life.’

[Note. esclation, more revelation]

‘But the doctor told me I was unconscious,’ I said. I felt resentment, why did we always end up talking about her?

[Note. act, feeling, reflection]

‘Off and on maybe,’ she said, dismissing me. ‘When you woke up, I came to visit you. I leaned over and said, “How are you darling?” and you said “Push off.” To me! Your loving mother! I stood up and said to a passing nurse, “Did you hear what she just said to me?” The nurse said, “She’s been saying a lot worse!” I didn’t even know you knew those words. I’ve never taught them to you.’

She started crying at my brain-damaged blasphemy. At the proof that I had rebelled against her ‘good’ and godlike upbringing.

‘Sorry Mum’ I said automatically. ‘But can you tell me how the accident happened?’

‘I’m not a good night driver,’ she said. ‘We turned right, and that driver wasn’t as far away as I thought. Of course no one can prove what speed he was going. You can sue me. Legally they say it’s my fault,’ She cried harder.

‘It’s not your fault’ I said grinding my teeth. I saw her pain jarring with my own anger but simply repeated ‘You’re not a good night driver. These things happen.’

[Note. action, reaction, anger]

‘I’ll give you five thousand pounds anyway,’ she said looking noble. ‘It’s more than you’d ever get from the insurance. After all, it wasn’t really a life-threatening accident.’

No, I thought in sarcastic italics, only facially disfiguring one. Lucky, lucky me. I don’t want your fucking guilt money.

Then she held my face in her hands and said ‘The scars are fading now. Make sure you put cream on them every day like the doctor said. If you don’t it’ll be your fault they don’t heal.’ And suddenly there was the mother I knew. The mother who blamed me for everything it seemed, including being disfigured.

Darkest moment: I recoiled at her narcissistic touch and thought ‘I don’t want to put cream on them. I want them to stay there so you can see every day how ugly you made me. I hate you.’

Act Three: Inevitable resolution (not her fault)

I looked at her. She was musing.

‘Do you remember how you insisted on sitting in the front seat of the car that night?’ she said ‘I should never have let you. It was my fault for letting you sit in the front. But if you’d listened to me, none of this would have happened.’

‘So my scars are my fault?’ I said. Flatly. Unemotionally.

‘Well in a manner of speaking,’ she replied. There was no kindness in her voice, only self-righteousness. ‘This is what happens to you when you disobey me. I didn’t want it to happen of course,

Final image: …but God moves in mysterious ways.’

Further References on Plot & Structure

These books are generic but will get you started-

  1. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing Power in Your Story – James Scott Bell
  2. Save the Cat – Blake Snyder
  3. Writing for Love: How to Write a Novel in Eleven easy steps – Chrissie Manby

This is the first post in the ‘Women Writing Memoir to Release Trauma’ series. Ask to join the Facebook group