Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, Part 2

In my initial segment on Story Genius, this game-changing craft of fiction book, I discussed Lisa Cron’s definition of story and the importance of identifying the main character’s “misbelief,” which will present challenges in her quest to achieve her goal.

Let’s review. Story, Cron wrote, “is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” Writers must understand that story is “about what happens internally, not externally. Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels.”

Armed with an understanding of what story is, the writer’s first challenge is to define the point of the story by drafting a “what if” question. The question must be specific, personal, have high stakes, and lead to internal conflict. She gives the example of Romeo and Juliet. What if two teenagers fell madly in love, only to discover their parents were mortal enemies?  This ‘what if’ question should tell the reader what the point of the story is and why the reader should care.

Next comes the “who,” that is, developing the main character, or the protagonist. The protagonist arrives on page one with a fully formed world view, which the writer must know cold. “The point is, your protagonist doesn’t start from ‘neutral.’ He starts from a very particular place, with  very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.”  She urges writers to write a paragraph or two that sums up who the protagonist is at the moment the story begins. Writers should focus on who is this person on the inside. What do they believe? What do they want?

After the “Who” comes the “Why,” as in, why does your protagonist care?  The why relates to the protagonist’s internal struggle. She explains, “So, how do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear). It is from those two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame.”

The main character starts out with a deep-seated desire (something they badly want) and a defining misbelief that stands in the way of achieving that desire. These two elements are the story’s third rail that everything that happens must touch. So what is it that the protagonist wants? It can’t be something universal, like world peace or happiness. What your protagonist wants must be difficult to achieve and in conflict with her misbelief. That’s why it’s so important for the writer to define the protagonist’s misbelief.

Once the writer knows the character’s misbelief, it is time to go backwards and define the protagonist’s worldview. The character’s worldview is based on her past. The worldview is the character’s decoder ring, how she makes sense of the world around her. This is where the Origin Scene comes into play. The writer must envision a moment in the protagonist’s life when this misbelief took root and then transform that moment into a full scene. This is the Origin Scene.

Now it is time to track how the protagonist’s misbelief has skewed her life, by developing three story-specific scenes focusing on crossroad moments. These scenes will track those moments when the misbelief keeps the protagonist safe up until the moment when the plot forces her to go after the thing she wants. These scenes will help the writer to establish the cause-and-effect trajectory that underpins the story. “By establishing the moments in your protagonist’s past that are relevant to the story you’re telling, you’ll have the material from which to build a solid blueprint.”

Cron points out that the cause-and-effect trajectory doesn’t necessarily dictate what will happen in the story, but rather “it just lays out the possibilities of what might happen. But–and this is the point–it’s essential that each one of those possibilities could legitimately be caused by what came before.”

Next, she urges the writer to write three turning point scenes in this trajectory. These scenes will take place in a linear fashion. Each scene will capture a time in the protagonist’s life when her misbelief led to a major decision. These decisions will change the character’s external life, increase the stakes, and be part of the story-specific trajectory that leads to page one of the novel. In each scene, her misbelief will prevent her from getting what she wants.

Now we are well along the way of building the blueprint for the novel. Next comes the “when,” as in the moment when the story starts. As Cron puts it, “The simple answer is that it starts when life will no longer allow your protagonist to put off going after that thing he’s long wanted…” In the next post, we will get into the heart of the blueprint, by identifying the problem or external event that will force the protagonist to confront her misbelief.



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