Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, Part 3

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.









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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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Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron (Part 1)

I have to say this right off the bat. This book was a game-changer for me. I was struggling with my work-in-progress. Something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, forced me look at my story in a new way.

Story Genius takes such a comprehensive and logical approach to writing that it cannot be summarized in one blog post. It is a logical and methodical blueprint for writers. Since I cannot do it justice in a single essay, I will devote several blog posts to this valuable resource for writers.

Cron devotes a lot of the early chapters to describing what “story” is. “Story is about what happens internally, not externally,” she writes “Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels. We don’t come to story to watch the events unfold; we come to experience them through the protagonist’s eyes, as she struggles with what to do next.”

She provides writers with a useful definition of story: “A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” It is the internal change that writers need to focus on. The main character’s internal struggle is the “third rail” of every good story. She describes it as the “live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.”

So the writer starts with the internal struggle, which Cron defines as the conflict between what the protagonist wants (her desire) and the “misbelief” (often a fear) that prevents her from getting it. And this is where I got hung up in my work-in-progress. I never identified the protagonist’s misbelief–at least in the first three or four drafts of the work. If I didn’t know her misbelief, how could I possibly know what she really wanted? I ended up with a story that was a series of events, with struggles along the way for sure, but the transformation lacked potency because I hadn’t clearly developed the internal meaning and story logic.

Another point Cron makes is that meaning in a story emanates from emotion. “It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning. This emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit, straight from the protagonist to us,” she writes.

So at the outset, Cron urges the writer must ask these questions:

1. What does your protagonist want?
2. Why does she want it?
3. What will getting it mean to her?
4. What are her misbeliefs? (It is a misbelief, but it feels so true).

What she calls “the origin scene” is the centerpiece of the story. That is the scene when the protagonist’s misbelief takes root. It is crucial. It must be a full-fledged scene that has the protagonist go into it believing one thing and then her expectations are not met. Her viewpoint changes as a result.

In my next post, I will explore how Cron explains where the writer should take the story once the misbelief has occurred








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Book Review: “Heat and Light,” by Jennifer Haigh

Energy policy (including the practice of hydraulic fracturing  or “fracking”) is the subject of heated debate in the current political campaign. Proponents hail fracking as a new source of inexpensive domestic energy which has reduced reliance on foreign oil. Opponents point to harmful impacts on the environment and the possibility the underground drilling may have contributed to earthquakes in some regions.

The brilliance of Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel, Heat and Light, is how she brings this controversial subject to a human level. The story is set in the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Bakerton, a crumbling community reeling from the collapse of its coal mining industry. A Texas energy company comes to town with the promise of hopes and dreams. A slick young salesman convinces land owners to sign leases to allow drilling under their land, holding out the lure of easy money. The struggling families are easy marks.

One of Haigh’s central themes is how desperate people chase false hopes and dreams. Rich Devlin leads a large and diverse ensemble cast. Rich works as a correctional officer while he dreams of raising the money to start a dairy farm on the land he inherited from his grandfather. He jumps at the chance to sign a lease. His fragile wife, Shelby, is prone to drama and is constantly taking her daughter, Olivia, to the emergency room with vague ailments. Later, Shelby will claim Olivia’s illness is related to pollution of their well water from a leak of chemicals used in the drilling process.

Rena Koval and Susan “Mack” Mackey, a lesbian couple who are neighbors of the Devlins, manage an organic farm. Concerned about environmental impacts, some of their largest customers cancel contracts when they get wind that drilling is going on in their area. This propels Rena to invite a geology professor to town to rally support against the fracking project, which complicates her life when she becomes smitten with the professor.

Shelby’s spiritual counselor, Pastor Jess Peacock, faces her own struggles. Lonely and adrift after the death of her husband, Pastor Wes Peacock, she finds solace in an affair with Herc, who is part of the drilling crew and fails to mention that he has a wife and family back in Texas. Wesley’s back story is the most powerful. Stricken with cancer in his mid-30s Wesley becomes convinced his illness can be traced to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. As a child, his family lived near the damaged nuclear reactor.

Rich Devlin’s dream of a future as a dairy farmer turns into a nightmare when he learns his family’s well water is contaminated. A lawyer tells him that his land is most likely worthless. Meanwhile the Texas energy behemoth that is bankrolling the fracking venture is hemorrhaging money.

Haigh has conducted an impressive amount of research into the process of fracking and the equipment and processes required to drill underground. There is also a chilling chapter told from inside the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the day of the disaster.

Her prose is clear and sobering, but never flowery. She writes of the region’s dependence on energy, “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But, cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”

At another point, she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”

Haigh skillfully weavers numerous subplots and supporting characters into the story. “Heat and Light” is the most ambitious and satisfying work yet from this talented writer.



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Every serious writer goes through periods when he is stuck. Or, better put, the story is stuck. The writer reaches an internal roadblock and can’t figure out how to advance the story.

I spent a lot of time last summer thinking about my story. I pondered possibilities. I thought through various scenarios. I obsessed over characters. And I didn’t put a single word down on paper. I spent a lot of time not writing, or, I should say, not writing my story. I wrote blog posts. I started a new fiction project. I wrote stuff not related to fiction. I just couldn’t write my story.

Then I had an epiphany, with a little help from Larry Brooks and Lisa Cron. More on that later. Last winter I had read Larry Brooks’ excellent craft of fiction book, Story Fix. At that time my story needed a lot of fixing. I received my edited manuscript from my book editor in the late fall of 2015. It needed a lot of work. After analyzing the edits and talking to some of my closest writer friends, I made the difficult decision to throw out the entire second half of my story. It didn’t work and it made the main character appear unsympathetic and cold. This was the opposite of how I wanted the reader to feel about my main character. Larry’s book helped me to recast and reorganize the latter half of the story, but the path was still hazy.

In her new book, Story Genius, How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron discusses how the secret sauce of a story is the main character’s internal struggle and how she resolves it. I will be blogging about this book in more depth in a future post. One of the things Lisa urges writers to do at the outset is to identify the main character’s misbelief. What does the character mistakenly believe and what obstacles must she face before she can overcome that misbelief? What is the character’s internal goal? What is her internal struggle? I wish I had done this work before I started my work-in-progress (WIP).

She writes, “…the protagonist’s internal struggle is the story’s third rail, the live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.” She writes that it is “emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning. This emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit straight from the protagonist to us.”

This triggered my epiphany. That was what I was missing. What was my character’s misbelief? What did she do as a result? What specific events will cause her to confront her misbelief? I sat down and brainstormed until I had answered these questions. And suddenly the whole second half of the story, the new story I struggled to write, fell into place.

During the past week, I’ve written 7,000 words. I feel as though I am in full NaNoWriMo mode, only this time I am armed with a specific road map. It’s a great feeling.



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Danger: Reconstruction Under Way

Plotters warn writers the danger in taking a “pantser” (seat of the pants) approach to writing a novel is they will discover at the end of the first draft that their story didn’t work. Or, that they need to “reboot” by throwing away a major chunk of their original story to make the novel work. I learned that lesson the hard way. And I didn’t learn it after the first draft. I learned it after sending off my polished (or so I thought) manuscript to my editor.

Not that I didn’t harbor earlier doubts about that manuscript. Members of my writer’s group had told me the major decisions made by the main character in the original manuscript made her unsympathetic to the reader–the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. My critique partners told me the main character would never turn her back on her family the way she did. I brushed aside these criticisms because having the main character return to her family didn’t support the story events. Maybe I just didn’t want to do the hard work upfront of completely scrapping the second half of my story. Well, that’s what I ended up doing after I received my edits from my editor.

Many of the shortcomings my editor pointed out centered on the main character’s “unlikeability.” There was a fix to that; make her more likeable. To achieve that, I made the difficult decision to scrap the entire second half of the story–about 35,000 words in a 70,000 word manuscript.

Once I made that decision, I faced a daunting challenge: how to reconstruct a new story from the ash heap of the former story? To do that, I engaged in a series of “what if’s”.

What if Maura returned home and attempted to reconcile with her family? That would certainly make her more sympathetic. After all, family meant everything to her.

What if, when Maura returned home, she discovered that her mother was suffering from dementia? And her father had started drinking? And she had to be the caregiver for her mother, her father, and also her young baby. Sympathy in spades.

And, what if, Maura’s mom wandered off one day when Maura was supposed to be watching her, and got hit by a car?

One “what if” led to another and pretty soon I had a better story than the original. And the new story was more true to the traits I hoped to imbue in the main character?

My first challenge was to figure out what the story was. I am still adding “what if’s” to the list. My next challenge will be to add meat to the bones of the new structure. Then I need to put it all together.

There is a better way–becoming a plotter. I vow to become a plotter, starting with my next book.

What about you–are you a pantser or a plotter? What are the pitfalls of each approach?



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Book Review: “The Children Act,” by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s 13th novel explores weighty issues: the clash between religious beliefs and science, the promise of youth and the challenges of middle age, the corrosive effects of family conflict, and the power of the judicial system. At its core, though, The Children Act is less about societal issues and more about matters of the heart.

Like his masterful 2001 novel, Atonement, McEwan has crafted an intricate story that hinges on one moment of horrible misunderstanding. The main character, Fiona Maye, is extremely well drawn. Fiona, 59, is a British high court judge who presides over the family division. Fiona handles this difficult assignment with fairness and balance. McEwan takes the reader through the reasoning of her decisions on several thorny cases. She is clearly a judge who rules with sensitivity and wisdom, doing as little damage as possible to the fragile children whose fate rests in her hands.

It takes a special person to rule on family matters and Fiona is well aware of the human toll of these cases. She observes, “Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs.”  Fiona learns first-hand the pain of a union riven apart when Jack, her husband of 35 years announces one evening that he plans to have an affair. Fiona tells him that if he follows through their marriage is over. Hours later she receives a call about an urgent case to which she has been assigned. Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehova’s Witness stricken with leukemia, has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion on religious grounds.

After hearing both sides of the issue, the judge decides to meet young Adam in the hospital. The scene in the boy’s hosptial room is the most powerful in the novel. Though Adam is sickly and short of breath, Fiona is struck by his vitality and his passion  for life. He has taken to writing poetry and learning to play the violin. Adam, in turn, is touched by how much the judge cares about him. She ultimately rules in favor of the hospital and Adam receives the transfusion.

But that’s not the end of the story. The judge has a subsequent contact with Adam that goes terribly wrong, much like the famous scene in Atonement when Briony makes a false accusation against an innocent man after misinterpreting something she has seen. Though the scene in The Children Act felt stage-managed it did not detract from this eloquently written novel. McEwan’s prose is such a pleasure to read and I recommend this novel.

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