Review: Plot Perfect by Paula Munier

There is no such thing as a bad tool, the saying goes, only a tool used for the wrong purpose. Trying to drive a nail with a screw driver can be very frustrating, as can trying to turn a Phillips head screw with a hammer. If there is a perfect tool for every task, there should be an appropriate task for every tool.

Books on how to write are like tools; a book that does not suit one writer can be helpful to another. A quick glance through Amazon or Goodreads will show you that a vast spectrum of books on writing are rated four stars or more (which is utterly unhelpful when you are trying to choose a book to buy). This is because every book is a perfect fit for somebody. The trouble is to find the best writing book for yourself.

I rate my writing books on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene by Paula Munier, I would say, lands squarely on the “plotter-instructional-advanced” category. I also need to add another scale and that is “completeness”. No text book can cover all the topics completely, but this book does a good job on this measure also.

Once again, we see an explanation of cards, outlines, and bubble charts, but with special emphasis on the creation of complex, contradictory characters and well constructed plot. The author is a senior agent for a literary agency that handles content for major Hollywood studios and media conglomerates and her book is clearly targeted for the professional and equivalent. It will probably be most helpful to people who have spent a good deal of time writing and have specific skills they want to horn. Not highly recommended for the first time writer looking for an entry level text to prepare for her first participation in NaNoWriMo. Munier writes:

I have a client who’s a great writer – and he has received four prestigious Pushcart Prize nominations to prove it. But despite those heady credentials and his newly minted Master of Fine Arts, he’s having trouble with plot.

That is the audience she is writing for. Her client is having trouble with plot in the same sense that Tiger Woods is having trouble with his irons. Those of us who have neither heady credentials nor an MFA might find it a better application of our time and energy to digest something more basic and fundamental before venturing into master class territory.

The main down side of this book is that, since it is directed at writers in the know, the instructions can at times be telegraphic. Her entire lecture on story setting spans all of four pages, and her epic tome on humor is a page and a half. As knowledgeable writers, we are supposed to “get it” just by reading these curt transmissions. Inevitably there will be parts we don’t get, for which she presents suggested reading material as successful examples of the kind of writing she promotes. If there are too many passages you don’t “get”, the reading list could grow pretty long.

That said, Munier’s instructions are practical and on point. With charts, diagrams, and bullet points, she lays out the blow by blow how-to’s of plot construction and character development. There are no lofty ivory tower musings or discussions of existential angst and structuralist ambiguities.

These days, every topic of learning has been divided into fractional sub-genres. Even books on writing are specialized into books on plot, characterization, story structure, dialogue, tension, prose, and other elements. This book is primarily focused on plot, a small portion of all the ingredients needed to create a novel. Yet, within the confines of its narrow range, this is the most complete book on the market. Think of a professional-level instructional book on carburetor replacement for very serious and accomplished mechanics.

Like all good instructional books, this book will direct you to more books you should read. (Seriously. When three how-to-write books in a row directs you toward Joseph Campbell, it’s time to read Joseph Campbell.) In particular, this book should inspire you to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon of which Munier presents an excellent case study methodically dissecting its plot elements. It would surely be helpful for the serious writer to emulate her example and try to compose their own case study on, say, Pride and Prejudice. Exercises like that will take time, and if you are not patient enough to invest your time in your push-ups and sit-ups, you need not apply. One of the reviewers on Goodreads comments “Useful, but a bit heavy on the lists of books to read and learn from.” Suck it up. Nobody said learning to write a novel was easy.

This is a very focused and very in-depth book. It should be read as such. It could be the perfect book if it fits your needs. The sad part is that we do not see more writers who are good enough and determined enough to benefit from books such as this.

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