Story is Internal & More Wisdom from Lisa Cron

One of the many highlights of the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference was the “Wired for Story” workshop presented by Lisa Cron, writing instructor and author.

The workshop was based in large part on Cron’s excellent book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

One of the major points of Cron’s workshop was the focus on story as internal. The writer must identify the protagonist’s inner struggle by developing the character’s back story before she begins to put words on the page. This doesn’t mean the writer should draft a detailed biographical history of the character. It means the writer must know the main character’s internal goal and what will prevent her from reaching this goal, and how the main character will be transformed by overcoming challenges that stand in the way of achieving this goal.

Citing the techniques used by advertisers and preachers, Cron said every major decision people make is based on emotion. Emotion comes from feeling and feeling is a physical sensation, she said, a chemical reaction that the brain then translates into emotion. Writers must make the reader feel that emotion through the characters. “If the reader isn’t feeling what the protagonist feels in the moment on the page, as she’s struggling with the difficult decision she has to make, the reader’s not going to be reading on.”

She gave this excellent definition of story: “Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result.” She broke down the definition. Story is how. What happens is the plot, but that’s not what the story is really about. Affects someone: the protagonist. This is the person whose skin the reader is in. Everything that is in the plot derives its meaning based on how it affects the protagonist in pursuit of a difficult goal, which is sometimes referred to as the quest or the story question. In pursuit of a difficult goal. Story is about change and all change is difficult. And how they change as a result. This is the key to a powerful story. And that is why the writer needs to know the protagonist’s back story before she begins to write.

Protagonists come into a story with two pre-existing conditions, Cron said, something they want and something they must overcome to get what they want. She described this in terms of a “misbelief,” something the main character clings to in difficult times and something that colors her view of the world. The writer must challenge the character and put this misbelief to the test because the transformative growth will force the character to confront and ultimately overcome this misbelief.

“We don’t come to story for the surface world. We live in it,” Cron said. “What we want to know is what goes on beneath the surface.”

There is a tendency among writers to come up with a plot first and then figure out the characters who will populate it. This approach, Cron argues, will give the reader a series of unconnected events with no story to give it meaning.

“Story is about an inner change,” she said. “And you can’t construct a plot that will force your protagonist to earn new eyes unless she begins seeing things through old eyes. She can’t see something for the first time with new eyes if you as the writer don’t know how she saw it to begin with.”

And that’s why the writer needs to know the character’s back story before beginning to write. The key elements the writer must know about the character’s past is the specific event that knocked the protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief, and the event that triggered the protagonist’s desire to attain the goal and what gives it meaning for her. And once the writer has worked out these, she must put it in scene form.


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4 responses to “Story is Internal & More Wisdom from Lisa Cron

  1. Exploding Mary

    The most disappointing films I have watched, and books I have read, all share this: once interesting characters were forced, through plot, to be untrue to their natures, often rushed through emotional changes in a sort of lip-service to complexity. It always fails to work on me, and I cannot see why anyone is moved by such material. I am not opposed to plotting, but I do see it as secondary to character– indeed, it should arise from the characters’ normal lives and situations.

    • Mary, I couldn’t agree more. A bigger problem for me in films is that there is not enough character development. So scenes are created where I am supposed to care about the character but there is nothing that makes me care or form an emotional connection. Of course I tend to be character-driven in my writing. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I think reading this post will benefit all fiction writers. The book is very useful.

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