In my two earlier posts on Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, I wrote about the importance she attaches to the writer figuring out the main character’s back story, developing that “what if? moment, and identifying her misbelief, which she will have to overcome during the course of the story.
I discussed the “origin scene,” that pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life when the misbelief took root. The misbelief will ultimately prevent the protagonist from achieving her deep-seated desire. Cron recommends that the writer develop three scenes in which the misbelief has kept the protagonist safe from harm and the moment when the plot forces her to go after what she wants. This is the key moment when life no longer allows the protagonist to put off going after what she wants. This comes in the form of an external event that forces the protagonist to confront her misbelief
This is where the Story Genius blueprint comes in. The blueprint is actually a scene by scene progression of the external plot, driven by the internal struggle that each event triggers in the protagonist. All of the work the writer has done to develop the protagonist’s backstory, deep-seated desire and misbelief and the origin scene comes into play here. The key to the blueprint is to develop a series of Scene Cards. Cron provides a useful template. At the top of the page is the Scene #, followed by the Alpha Point, and two subplots (if needed). The template then has four quadrants. In the upper left is Cause (what happens). In the upper right is Effect (the consequence). In the lower left under Cause is a quadrant labeled, Why It Matters. And the lower right quadrant under Effect, is labelled, The Realization, followed by, And so? The upper two quadrants relate to The Plot. The lower two quadrants relate to The Third Rail. Note that the Scene Card is based on the cause-and-effect trajectory, which will propel the story forward.
The Alpha Point is the key role that the scene will play in this cause-and-effect trajectory. It ties to the action of the plot. It answers the question, why is this scene necessary? What is its function? Each scene must have a specific alpha point. If it has more than one, then these should be filled in under the two subplot lines.
The Cause side of the blueprint is what happens in the first half of the scene. The third rail part of the quadrants relate to why what’s happening matters to the protagonist. The Effect side of the quadrants deals with the external consequence of what takes place in the scene. The third rail deals with the internal change, the realization the change triggers in the main character, or the key character in the scene. This must lead to action, which is what the protagonist does next. Each scene must cause the character to change her plan in some way. The “And So?” section is where the writer will record what must happen next as a result of this scene.
“Remember, your goal is just as much to be specific about your protagonist’s inner struggle as it is to be specific about what will happen in the scene,” Cron writes. “The two are linked, and each is neutral without the other. Your protagonist’s internal agenda is not simply what gives emotional weight and meaning to what’s happening up there on the surface; it’s also what drives the decisions she makes, and therefore the action.”
Cron recommends the writer start at the beginning, naturally, and develop the first scene, knowing it will be rewritten many times. Then she urges the writer to jump to the end of the story. Why write the end so soon in the process? The reason is that it will help the writer to figure out what must happen between the first page and the last page to ensure the protagonist must really work hard to earn her “aha” moment. The end writers must seek is not just a resolution of the plot, but what the protagonist realizes about herself, that transformative moment when she must overcome her misbelief. How to get that moment right? The protagonist must work hard to earn this revelation. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen at the end of the story, but rather when the character summons up the courage to fight an all-out battle to achieve what she wants. In any case, the writer must put the reader in the middle of the story. “Your goal as a storyteller isn’t to tell us what your protagonist realizes; it’s to plunk us into the event that causes her to have the realization in the first place,” Cron writes. The reader must be inside the character’s psyche.
Here are the questions the writer must answer in working out the ending of the story:
-At the end, will your protagonist achieve her external goal?
-What will change for your protagonist internally?
-What will happen externally in this scene that forces your protagonist to confront, and hopefully overcome, her misbelief?
So, with the beginning and the ending of the story worked out, the next step in the blueprint is to make a Scene Card for each scene. Specifically, writers should write the first five Scene Cards, keeping in mind the cause-and-effect trajectory. The first five scenes set up the story and put the balls into motion. And this should be done in chronological order. “The Scene Cards will help you layer your scenes so each one has maximium power, urgency and believability. They enable you to envision the multidimensional aspect of your novel in one fell swoop,” she writes.
Organization of materials is part of the blueprint and Cron recommends setting up the following folders (either electronic or hard copy):
-Key Characters and their story specific bios.
-The Rules of the World. This is where the writer keeps track of the logical framework of the world in which the story is grounded.
-Idea List. This is where the writer puts those ideas that are too fuzzy or conceptual.
-Random Scene Cards. Put any scene that the writer can envision that has an Alpha Point but doesn’t seem to connect to the Third Rail.
-Scene Cards in Development. Arrange these cards in chronological order and number them.
Next, the writer uses the character’s past to set up the plot. The writer plumbs the protagonist’s past to create a cause-and-effect. Each event should cause the next one to happen, creating an escalation. Each event must tie to an internal change that it triggers in the protagonist, which in turn leads to the next event. At this point, Cron recommends the writer draft a brief overview of the novel as it stands, even if it’s just a rough sketch. Look at the sketch and pinpoint the moments that challenged the protagonist and caused her to act. List each potential scene, plot point, and storyline that springs from the sketch and begin to develop them. This will allow the writer to build a number of potential scenes. Add them to the Idea List. Ask what secrets does the protagonist have? What lies has she told? To others? More significantly, what lies has she told to herself? What external obstacles has the writer planted in the past that will keep the protagonist from her goal? Write Scene Cards for these ideas.
Following all of these steps in the blueprint will bring structure to the story, but to guard against developing a series of random plot points, the writer must then ask, “why?” Each plot point must relate to the story logic and therefore each must be tested by asking this question. “The “Why”–the reason something might happen, can happen, does happen–is what creates your novel’s internal logic, so that things add up, and your reader can eagerly anticipate what might happen next,” she writes. This is the test that must be applied to the plot ideas that have been developed.
What if the writer follows the blueprint and still encounters gaps or dead ends? Cron advises the key is to add conflict. Making it harder on the protagonist will fill in the gaps. “In fact make it worse than he imagined it could possibly be–worse than you imagined it could be at first blush.”
The final two aspects of the blueprint relate to secondary characters/subplots, and writing forward. Secondary characters must have a connection to the protagonist’s misbelief They either challenge or reaffirm it. Like the main character, secondary characters have agendas, but their agendas must help facilitate the main character’s story. Again, keep in mind cause-and-effect.
Writing forward means taking the Scene Cards for scenes 2 through and writing those scenes. When the writer finishes writing the first five scenes, she should have dozens of Scene Cards in development. These should be in chronological order. There will be a lot of writing and rewriting and the writer will eventually experience that feeling where the characters take on a life of their own.
The writer’s biggest challenge at this point is to put the reader in the protagonist’s mind, to make the invisible, visible, as Cron puts it. “When it comes to your protagonist, you can, in fact, read his mind. The trick is to give the reader the same experience.” The protagonist must react internally to everything that happens, in the moment. and must draw a conclusion that affects what he’s doing or how he interprets what’s happening.
This closing bit of advice summarizes how writers can best use Cron’s blueprint: “Understanding what [the protagonist is] struggling with will tell you what those conclusions will be, and what she’ll do as a result. That’s what unites the story and the plot, and what moves them ever forward.”
Story Genius is based on a complicated, but highly useful blueprint that I found impossible to describe in a single blog post. I hope writers will find as much value in this three-part post as I found in this game changing book.