Tag Archives: Lisa Cron

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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Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: “Wired for Story,” by Lisa Cron

I never was much of a student in science. That was one of the reasons I became a journalism major and a writer. If you’re like me in that respect, don’t be turned off by the title of Lisa Cron’s outstanding craft of fiction book, “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.”

Craft of fiction books come and go, but this one’s a keeper. Cron’s premise (backed by neuroscience) is that human beings are hard-wired to read and appreciate stories. She doesn’t stop with that valuable insight, though. She digs deeper to explore the significance of emotion in giving the story meaning. She then shows the reader how to develop protagonists who have deep inner goals. Then she covers story development, stressing that specific details bring a story alive.

Following the chapters about developing protagonists and stories, Cron introduces the subject of conflict, the “agent of change.” Then she covers cause-and-effect. She explains the path from the set up to the payoff and follows that with a chapter on how to weave in back story and flashbacks. The book ends with a chapter about the lengthy amount of time it takes a writer to hone writing skills before she reaches the cognitive unconscious area of the brain.

The chapters begin with a cognitive secret and a story secret that set up the subject matter to follow. For example, Chapter 3, entitled, “I’ll Feel What He’s Feeling,” begins:

Cognitive Secret-Emotion determines the meaning of everything—if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

Story Secret-All story is emotion-based. If we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

Each chapter ends with a handy checklist that summarizes the major lessons.

In a July 30, 2012 interview on the popular blog Writer Unboxed, Cron discussed why the brain craves stories. “Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency, that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling, that seduces us into leaving the real world and surrendering to the world of story.”

The bottom-line is that writers should focus on story. It’s the story that will get the attention of an agent or a publisher. And story, Cron concludes, is how what happens affects the protagonists.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book that I could not begin to list them. It is written for writers at all levels, from beginner to seasoned pro. I highly recommend this book.

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A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book, “Wired for Story,” a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.

Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamont in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work, Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamont’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.

“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.

Read the full post

Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:

#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.

#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.

#5. Know your ending first.

#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”

As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:

  • Premise: what is the story about?
  • Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
  • Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
  • Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
  • Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
  • Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
  • Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.

I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.

If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.

I will be reviewing both Cron’s and Weiland’s books in future posts.

If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?

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