If you’re looking to write a compelling novel, plot out a perfect screenplay, or refine your life story into a beautiful memoir, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is a great first book to look into.
That or, Stephen King's On Writing. But that'll be another post.
She boils storytelling down to stupidly simple, step-by-step method. This approach helps unlock your idea and develop it into a full-fledged novel.
Here are only a few nuggets of gold I mined from reading Story Genius.
What is a Story?
As the first order of business, Cron discusses why humans read stories in the first place.
The reason: to learn.
Humans use stories as maps to help them navigate their own lives. Imagine someone is struggling with, say, unrequited love. A timeless subject in literature. When they read a book or see a movie about a stalker who's unrequited love ruined their lives, the reader may learn the right way to act themselves.
They'll say, "Oh, maybe I shouldn't be a stalker. It ruined that imaginary guy's life. Hmm. Thanks books!" Then they'll put their binoculars down and go home.
It’s in this way, Cron says, that stories are one of the most useful survival tools found within the strange inner-workings of mankind. She has more on this theory in another book, Wired for Story. But we'll save that for another day.
She also takes the time to make the distinction — as many writers do -- between story and plot.
This distinction becomes one of the key characteristics in her method.
Start with a worldview
Now, we all, in our real lives, have tons of worldviews. However, Cron points out, stories should concern themselves with only one. One worldview that bends and twists throughout the course of the story.
Which brings me to an important property of worldviews. They are elastic. They can change. This change is what we'll use to plot our entire story.
Cool, I know.
Cron believes every story starts with an incorrect worldview -- a misbelief. This is similar to what K.M. Weiland calls lies.
The plot, then, is made of all the events aiming to change this worldview.
What's more, the worldview throughout the story gives us our third rail! Our emotional foundation. The tracks heading directly toward the inner change at the end!
Start with the ending.
Cron says the ending is all about a character changing their incorrect worldview. Correcting their misbelief.
So, to come up with the entrance of our story, the first thing we have to ask ourselves is, "What do I want my protagonist to learn by the end of the story?"
Picture Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. At the beginning, he hates people; loves money. At the end, he loves people; hates money. Essentially.
The formula is simple. Take the ending worldview you want and use its opposite as the beginning.
And that's all we need to come up with at first. Easy!
From this initial worldview, we can work outward from there and discover all sorts of things! Cron says the next step is to come up with a protagonist who can best illustrate this 180° change in worldview.
Following up the example: The perfect protagonist who starts out believing that politics don't affect their lives, I'm imagining, could be a promiscuous pothead who gets pregnant.
We'll even give her a name. How about Tina. Sure. Hi Tina.
With the protagonist figured out, we can engineer a plot that bends her worldview. Something that forces her to believe that politics do affect her life.
I'm imagining an anti-abortion law is probably going to make it into the plot. Before we get to all that good stuff, backstory is really the first place Cron suggests we start tacking down our plot.
One of my favorite parts of Story Genius, is how Lisa Cron treats backstory.
It needn't be some over-complicated mess. Some sprawling anthology of every event that lead them to where they are now. No. We don't have to work out their entire life. We just have to work out the events that brought them to their initial worldview.
For a character's backstory, Cron recommends creating one event that initially spurred this incorrect worldview. Could be something that happened when they were a child. It's always safe to blame the parents in writing.
Then she says, come up with three events that solidified the misbelief. Shaped it into the steadfast one your character will start the story with.
And that's it. That initial event and the three molding events should be all the backstory your character will need! Furthermore, it can set up the third rail of the story.
Back to the abortion example (because that's always safe to talk about...):
By the end of all of this, Tina decides not to vote or to pay attention to politics for the next ten years. Not only that, she thinks politics is bullshit, and she curses the government every chance she gets.
Que the third rail.
The third rail
The third rail acts as the Rosetta Stone that translates stories into plots,
It's the emotional driver of the book.
For Tina, this is the future of her child.
For readers, it's what keeps the novel’s plot ever-connected to the underlying story.
For writers, it’s this third rail that helps us create plot points that matter.
One crucial theme highlighted throughout Story Genius is the idea that everything should mean something. No event or plot point should be random. You should base every event or action on the emotional change you want your characters to have. Everything that happens through the course of your novel should be born from the emotional third rail.
It's like a north star, as Jeff Simmermon explains. Something that every row of your character's ore should float them towards.
Thinking about Tina again. Her child could force her to pay believe in the power of politics in a variety of ways. And thus, a variety of plots can be born.
The possibilities are endless!
This mentality helps you, inversely, to know when to throw something out of your novel.
Does it help your character get to the emotional change they're seeking? No. Delete it.
Does it involve Tina being resistant to believing that the government can change anything? No. Get rid of it!
David Mamet has a ton of amazing thoughts on this subject, even if he does talk like a crazy person.
Super Quick Recap of Story Genius
Here's the writing formula that I took away from Story Genius: