Finding the Plot

Finding the Essential Plot in Nonfiction

When I write stories, I think about other stories I’ve admired, the kind of stories that leave me with a feeling of suspension, and admiration. One story in particular that I find myself returning to is Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible.”

The story serves as a chapter of her highly acclaimed novel Love Medicine, a book that I also find myself returning to. If you’ve read the novel, Erdrich casts a virtual spell over her reader by shifting point of view from one character to another. In “The Red Convertible” she masterfully inhibits the voice of Lyman Lamartine.

You’ll have to read “The Red Convertible” to complete this week’s writing prompt, but I promise you- you will not be disappointed, so check it out: The Red Convertible

There are many elements to admire in this story: point of view, pacing, symbolism. Erdrich’s pacing includes flashbacks, and in 12 pages she covers a great deal of ground: starting in 1974, when the story takes place; to 1969 when Lyman and Henry take a road trip across the U.S., through Canada, and Alaska. Erdrich then swiftly moves us through Henry’s induction into the Marines (1970), Henry’s difficulty returning to civilian life (1973) and Lyman’s desperate attempt to save his brother.

There is tremendous efficiency to the way she tells the story, and it’s linked through a photo taken of Lyman and Henry, in 1974, the day that Henry commits suicide. This is a story of masterful plotting. Each flashback, each reference to the photograph and the Red Convertible are absolutely necessary, and perfectly Aristotelian in that “…the events [are] so constructed that the displacement or removal of any one of them with disturb and disjoin the work’s wholeness…”

That unity of plot is perfected in Erdrich’s theme- Lyman’s guilt and grief- and the symbolism of both the photograph and the Red Convertible itself. These are incredibly powerful components, and I’d like to see if we can work with some of those ideas in this week’s writing exercise. For the past few weeks, I’ve focused on fiction- so this week, let’s turn our attention to nonfiction, and leverage some of the elements Erdrich works with to construct plot in “The Red Convertible.”

After all, the tricky part about writing nonfiction is restraint. It’s easy to overwrite a world that you know well, because it is your world. So we are going to take a walk through some of the fiction craft moves that Erdrich uses in “The Red Convertible” to write a memoir piece and limit ourselves to the essential with an eye towards perfect plotting. Here goes:

  • Guilt: Think of a friend, or relative, someone whose situation you feel guilty about. Write about that- at least a paragraph. Tell us when and why and how you came to feel badly about what happened.
  • Object: Now think of an object that you shared with that person, or an object that reminds you of that person. (I’m going to hold your feet to the fire on this- I want it to be an actual, physical thing. No amorphous stuff like “love” or “family” or “music.”) Now, describe that object as if it is alive.

    For example, Lyman describes the car as “… large as life. Really as if it was alive. I thought of the word repose, because the car wasn’t simply stopped, parked or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming, a FOR SALE sign in its window.”
  •  Flashback: Reflect backward on what life was like before you had a falling out with the person you feel guilty about. What were those good times like? Remember to put us in scene by giving the reader sensory details- describe not only what you saw, but what you heard, smelled, felt, and tasted.
  • Backfire: Describe how you tried to fix the situation that makes you feel guilty. What overtures did you make? How did they end up backfiring? What were some unintended consequences of your falling out or attempt to patch things up?

    For example, Henry confronts Lyman, and lets him know the jig is up. He confronts Lyman, and says “he knew what I’d done with the car. It was obvious that it had been whacked out of shape and not just neglected…. He said he’d fixed it just to give it back and I should take it.”
  • Sound: Describe the last confrontation or meeting that you had with the person you feel guilty about. How did it make you feel? Where were you? What happened? How did each of you react? Remember to put us in scene. You’re going to end this piece of flash-fiction with a sensory detail that leaves the reader breathless. Think of the sounds that you associate with the failure.

    For example, Erdrich leaves Lyman standing on the bank of the river where Henry died, having driven the Red Convertible to a watery grave with Henry. There is a heartbreaking deliberateness to Lyman’s description of his last look at the river, when he says “It is all finally dark. And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.”


I hope that this gets you started on an essay, memoir, or journalism project that leads to wonderful work and deep writing. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at And as always, if you write something terrific, send it in and we’ll consider it for publication in Bridge: The Bluffton Literary Journal.

Jamie Lyn