Story First, Writing Second – Especially Come November

photo by jakeliefer via Flickr
photo by jakeliefer via Flickr

I spent the morning working with a very talented writer. An extremely well-placed agent had recently rejected her manuscript, but told her that he’d be happy to consider a revision, or anything else she submits. This is rare praise.

I wasn’t surprised, either by the praise or the rejection. This writer has a great voice; she’s a wordsmith of the first order. Problem is, she can’t tell a story, so as the agent pointed out, the manuscript was meandering, aimless and didn’t add up to anything. And here’s the thing: the writer knew it. But she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.

Talking to her, I said, “Here’s what most writers do, and why they fail: They come up with an interesting character and an interesting situation, and then they start writing to see where it’ll go. They figure that both the story and the character will come clear to them as they write. What they end up with is a narrative that’s basically just a bunch of things that happen.”

“Yes,” she said, “That’s exactly what I did! And when I went back to rewrite, I didn’t know what to do, or how to make it better.”

“Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.

In fact, before we spoke, she’d written to tell me she was ready to chalk it up to a good try, and start over with something else. Which was heartbreaking, and happily, turned out to be unnecessary. Instead, she’s now going back to find the heart of the story was aiming for, and only then will she begin writing forward.

“Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.

November is a Terrible Month to Waste

Why am I telling you this now? Because next month is November, aka National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. It’s that time of year when writers across the country hunker down and let ‘er rip, the goal being to write 1,666 words a day for thirty days.

And then in December, all those writers will go back over those words to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. Which is when the vast majority of them very well might end up feeling like the woman I spoke with this morning. If they’re lucky. Others will spend months, if not years, trying to massage a bunch of things that happen into a story. They’ll send them off to agents who will say, “This didn’t add up to anything.” And then they’ll give up, maybe deciding they aren’t writers after all, and vowing to take up interpretive dance instead. Now, that is genuinely heartbreaking.

And utterly avoidable. How? By taking a little time before November to focus in on the story you’ll be writing – not the plot, but the underlying layer of story that most writers completely ignore before diving in, the layer where everything that really matters takes place: your protagonist’s evolving worldview. That is what readers come to experience.

Story Doesn’t Come Through Writing

Many writers – even established writers – start off with nothing more than a general sense of who their protagonist is, a rudimentary notion of what might happen in the plot, and a basic idea of what their story question will be. They believe that their protagonist’s internal struggle will come clear to them as they write.

This isn’t something you can write forward to figure out, because this inner struggle is what defines the story from the first page. It’s what you have to know before

 “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust

you create the plot. Because a story isn’t about the surface “plot” level events, regardless of how well rendered they are in accordance with any or all of the external story structure models that abound. Rather, a story is about how those events force the protagonist to overcome an internal misbelief in order to solve the story-problem and achieve her goal.

Can you see where this is going? The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue – fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief – that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about.

Make no mistake: readers intuitively know that story is about the protagonist’s inner struggle, even though chances are they can’t articulate it. It’s what we’re wired to track; we filter everything that happens through the protagonist’s evolving worldview.  Don’t just take it from me, here are two august writers who articulate it perfectly:

 “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

 “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust

The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. 

Think about that for a minute. Feel it. Story is about an inner change.

How on earth can your protagonist end up with new eyes, unless she begins by seeing things through old eyes? How can she see something she already knows for the first time (meaning really see it), if we don’t know how she saw it to begin with?

The answer’s easy. She can’t.

The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page.

So if you don’t know what her worldview is going in – and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?

You won’t.  Which means that chances are you’ll just write a bunch of things that happen.

Your Personal Decoder Ring

I want to hit hard on why nailing these specifics before you begin writing is this so crucially important, because it flies in the face of what a lot of us were taught to believe, not only about writing, but about life. To wit: there is an objective reality out there, and unless we’re really, really screwed up, we all see the same world.

We ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect. 

 Not so.

Here’s how the brain really rolls:

Day-by-day from birth on, we each build our own individual dictionary of meaning – think of it as a personal decoder ring. When we’re born it only has a few universal pre-set codes, geared to physical survival. For instance, we’re pretty good at instinctively interpreting the physical sensations that telegraph things like: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I’m dying to know if that cute guy over there likes me.

Just about everything else is learned. And here’s the game changer: it’s not learned “objectively,” so that everyone comes away with the exact same interpretation of what things mean. Rather, it’s all learned subjectively, based on personal experience, so everyone has a different interpretation of the same “objective” thing.

In other words, we ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect.

For instance – and this is from Benjamin K. Bergen’s revelatory new book LOUDER THAN WORDS: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning — if I say the words “barking dog,” we’re all, by definition, going to see a different image.

Some of us will see a German shepherd with loud terrifying bark, some that ubiquitous T-shirt from The Black Dog Tavern in Nantucket, some a yippy-yappy Chihuahua, and some our own loving, tail-wagging mutt who’s happy to see us at the end of the day.

And it’s not just the image we see that’s different – it’s also how it makes us feel, and what we do in response. If you were attacked by a dog when you were little, right now you might be under the bed in the fetal position, breathing into a paper bag and waiting for your pulse to slow.

Your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.

Or, you may have seen good ‘ol Lassie running in slo-mo through an amber field of grain, and now you’re sniffling as you revise your will to leave everything to PETA.

But there is one thing that I guarantee NO ONE ever sees upon hearing the words “barking dog”:

“A highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf.”

Which, of course, is the dictionary definition of a dog – aka an “objective” general fact. And with conceptual terms, the difference is even more acute. If I say, “torture chamber,” you might picture a medieval dungeon replete with an iron maiden, or a dark pit in a desert in Afghanistan, or you might think of being strapped into a dentist’s chair with Yani blaring on the headphones (or maybe that’s just me).

Point being, each of us sees – and feels — what life has taught us to expect in every situation we face. It’s how we make sense of everything. Which means that throughout your story, your protagonist will be calling up her past to make sense of what’s happening to her in the moment. And that, my friends, is precisely what readers come for: inside intel. So your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.

So What’s a Writer to Do?

Before you write word one, you must craft your character’s backstory. Not, mind you, a birth-to-death encyclopedic bio. That can be as paralyzing as knowing nothing. Here’s the secret: you’re only looking for information that affects the story you’re telling. If a story is about a problem, then what you’re looking for is the root of the problem that will kick into gear on page one.

First, you want to pinpoint two things:

  1. The specific event that knocked your protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief that drives the inner action.
  2. The event that triggered her desire for the goal itself, which tells us what it really means to her.

Next, the trick is to trace how those two competing forces shaped her life up to the moment when the story begins. Not trace them in general, but in scene form.

I know, I know. That sounds like work. And as one aghast writing instructor said to me: “My students would never do that. They all want to start writing right away!” To which I responded: “This is writing!”

Plus, if you do this first, your first draft won’t be one of those meandering, romping, collections of things that happen, but the first draft of an actual story.

This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot.

So chances are you won’t have to do as much rewriting later. What’s more, maybe, just maybe, you won’t face certain rejection from agents when it’s time to pitch. Or, if you decide to self-publish, rejection in the marketplace.

And believe it or not, working out a story’s inner logic is the fun part. You can write like crazy, and not have to worry a whit about how “well” you’re writing. You can test out myriad scenarios as you can dig deep into how and where your protagonist’s worldview got skewed. Because you know darn well that from the instant her misbelief took root, there have been specific signs she’s misread, and facts she’s misinterpreted, things she’s done that have made achieving her goal that much more difficult. And, voila! You have her “old eyes.”

Here’s the Brilliant Part

This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot. And as important, you’ll know the key players too – the people in her past who, for better or worse, helped facilitate that worldview. Chances are high they’ll play a part in the novel too, and now you’ll know when and why they’re at cross-purposes with your protagonist, what they’re hiding from each other, and when they’re woefully misreading each other.

In other words, you’ll have created the clay from which you can build your story. Which means that come November first, when the flag goes up, and you hear the announcer call out“Novelists, start your engines,” you’ll already have the keys in hand.

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Lisa, I want to send this to every new writer I know. I’ve been down that path (more than once), where I just start writing with nothing more than a few pages of notes to get me started. Epic. Fail.

    My favorite pet peeve of late is the daily word count. You have to set a word count goal! Hit 1000 per day and you’ll have a novel in 80 days! No, you’ll have 80,000 words to add to the slush pile.

    Planning, plotting, research, developing your characters is writing. Most of us get an hour or two a day to write. I don’t have time to waste on writing 1000 words of un-planned nonsense.

    I wish I’d read this ten years ago. I wish I’d read books about structure and plotting (The Moral Premise is my new favorite) before I just started hacking away at the keyboard. This is work. If it doesn’t feel like work, you’re doing it wrong.

    Thanks for making my day! And have a happy November (maybe we should claim October as National Plotting Month).

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  2. Melanie says

    Good morning, Lisa. This is priceless wisdom and like Ron, I wish I’d known these things when I started writing. I’m printing this out and putting it in my writing binder.

    Ron, it’s truly a small (writing) world. I recently rediscovered Writer… Interrupted and have really enjoyed your posts on Story Structure.

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    • says

      Thanks Melanie! It’s funny, I was just thinking about NaNoWriMo this week. And thinking about what a waste of my time it would be if I didn’t have a detailed plot in hand. So I’ve declared September and October (I’m late) NoNoPlotMo. I’m doing step by step support on my blog (ronestradabooks.com). If Gina will let me take over, I’ll do it on Writer…Interrupted as well.

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      • says

        Thanks, Ron — love what you’re doing!

        And for anyone in L.A. who’s gearing up for NaNoWriMo — or just starting to write (or rewrite) a novel — Jennie Nash and I are giving a one day workshop called Prep With The Pros in Santa Monica on October 20th. Here’s the info: http://wiredforstory.com/nanowrimo-workshop/ Hope you can join us, there’s nothing I love more than being in a room full of writers!

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      • Melanie says

        Wonderful idea, Ron! I can use all the help I can get, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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      • says

        Hi Ron. I am one of the new writers that you speak of. I am working on my first novel. This post helps me so much. I assumed that my being a free-spirit, it must mean that I am a “pantser” as opposed to a plotter. I’ve always had an aversion to outlines. Well, I tried this. Guess what? I didn’t know what the protagonist wanted. It is a murder mystery but it is an cold one. So of course, she wants to find the murderers, But, why now? What’s happened in her worldview to force the change? That is where I was having my trouble! I hadn’t planned anything. I knew the general plot, but had no concept on how to get there. This helps me realize that I need to understand why she feels the need to do this, now, at this time! Thanks for your response. I am going to check out your blog.

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  3. says

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Lisa! What I love about your posts & advice is how they not only help me understand how storytelling works out in book-form… but in life, too. It *has* been a game changer for me to realize that we don’t all see the same objective truth—that we all interpret everything subjectively. I often need that reminder!

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  4. says

    Hi Lisa, I’m sure you are right in terms of creating story and teaching about writing (and I’m probably the odd man out here), but I often have the opposite. For me, character creates the lens, not me. Character arrives first and then reveals the story, the backstory, conflicts, goals, all that inner life, etc. I discover it in the writing and rewriting. Yes, lots of rewriting. I actually don’t know the inner story until the character is on the page living and breathing. The character tells me everything. I’m curious to use your approach as it sounds direct and concise. Here’s my question, how do you know those pinpoints: “root of the problem,” event or goal, backstory, perspective before you know the character? Do you know what I mean?

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    • says

      (Woooosaaa) Master Paula (please excuse Padawan’s intrusion). I think you and Lisa are still on the same page or similar. Your map just looks a tad bit different. My method is in the middle of your method and The Wrath of Cron’s method. I have to put something on paper before I figure my characters. I start my stories with the understanding that I’m writing to create my characters. Usually everything outside of the character development is archived or incinerated. Then, I start planning my first draft, which is actually my second draft.

      Does your story have better forward momentum after your main characters has been developed or before?

      Wooosaaaa – is the digital version of the Padawan bow

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      • says

        Brian, all the momentum comes after characters are alive on the page. For me, story is all about the character so I really don’t get how story comes first or making the story come first. Kind of like jumping off the diving board with no water in the pool for me. But I suppose if you are doing the NaNoWriMo, where racing to write your novel is the goal, then maybe you have to start with your story nailed down.

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        • says

          It doesn’t sound like you are the odd person out. It seems like you have to draft your characters out through some type of first draft, and then, you rewrite until you get a concrete idea of your living characters. Next, you rewrite to shape your story. That’s what it looks like to the Padawan. The concept sounds similar to Lisa’s nourishment, but your approach is slightly different.

          I’m a fan of similar concepts and different approaches.
          But hey, maybe I’m reading everything wrong.

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          • says

            Yes, Brian, you did say it right for me. That first draft is the revelation of character and all that inner wealth, which I hack out. Story develops, motivation shows itself with all the ugly and pretty components and I move along like a train on sturdy tracks. Then the rewriting sharpens, deletes, condenses, and cleans everything up. That’s my personal–but odd–process and it works well for me. I just signed both my novels with a publisher! And my 6th short story is being published in a literary journal this month. I’d like to hear what Lisa has to say about my odd process since it appears to be so opposite of her recommended approach. Creative writing is so personal, though isn’t it?

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  5. Karyne says

    Lisa, this came at a great time for me as I am starting a new MS. I am not particpating in the great NANOWRIMO but these are life lessons for any MS development.

    I love being able to look at things a new/old way and in my opinion, a better way.

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  6. Denise Willson says

    Ah, Lisa, I tip my hat to you. This is wonderful…absolutely amazing stuff. I printed. I filed. I emailed to all my writer friends. I bowed to you, spilling my tea. :)

    Much appreciated.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  7. says

    Lisa-

    You’ve put your finger on what’s wrong with NaNoWriMo. It’s not the goal of writing a lot in a month. Nothing wrong with that. It’s that many authors rack up pages without a solid plan for the middle of their story.

    It does seem, sometimes, that fiction writers are either wordsmiths or plotters. The first group writes beautifully but wanders. The second group has a laser focus on story but falls back on tropes and stereotypes.

    However, I believe that both groups make a fundamental mistake when they accumulate a draft and hope to later massage it into greatness. Changing and rearranging words is futile. A better approach is to recognize that the novel is not the manuscript.

    The novel is the characters, their changes and the events that enact–externalize, in my terminology–their journey. I agree with you that crafting that journey starts with understanding why and how a protagonist must change.

    What I’d add to that is a method of making sure that every scene deepens the struggle, advances or sets back the journey toward wholeness.

    I find that writers like your client often *do* have a grasp of how their protagonists are broken, yet that definition is vague or general. It doesn’t connect well to the story circumstances and force the character–truly force them–to do anything. What should be a journey becomes an amble about the neighborhood.

    What’s needed is both the work you have laid out this morning, followed by scene-by-scene events that dramatize the results. A novel can’t be built effectively out of suffering or delay. A story is stronger when characters must move, act out, stir things up and do stuff that we can see. What puts them into motion is nicely laid out in your post.

    Always a pleasure to see that we’re being treated to Lisa Cron’s story science. NaNoWriMo should go a lot better next month for your words today.

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    • says

      Thanks, Don, and I TOTALLY agree with what you’ve added. The internal journey is what the external journey is created to facilitate. It’s the very specificity of the protagonist’s internal landscape (how and why they’re broken; what they really want and why) that allows writers to craft what you’re talking about here: a clear, escalating situation that forces the protagonist to come to grips with the inner issue that they’d much rather avoid. In life we put off dealing with hard things till tomorrow, which usually translates to about a week from never. Stories are about when tomorrow becomes today.

      In fact, in our upcoming NaNoWriMo Prep workshop on Oct. 20th in Santa Monica, Jennie Nash and I are going to talk about how just that — including exactly what you’ve so astutely added here. Here’s info for anyone interested: http://wiredforstory.com/nanowrimo-workshop/

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  8. says

    Thank you, Lisa! I struggle with stories in exactly that same way – losing momentum halfway through when the story I thought I had got slippery and went swimming away. I always balk at the idea of outlines or any pre-planning because those “plans” never pan out – but now I realize it’s not outlining at all… just setting a frame down. Perhaps now I won’t meander so much!

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  9. henya says

    Lisa, priceless…absolutely priceless. I wish I read this six years ago. Post two aimless and lost-somewhere-on-the-road novels, I’m now beginning(key word) to understand the importance of knowing, really knowing your characters. Currently on my voyage with a third novel, and you came along just in time to save it (and me) from meandering. Thanks over and over again…

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  10. says

    That was frickin delicious Cron. I thank you for the affirmation.

    Your intellectual nourishment is such a (profane word) delight. I find myself revisiting the sin of gluttony whenever you whip up a tasty treat. Now, you must excuse me. The sensation of satisfaction is beginning to overwhelm…………zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

    (Brian is now dreaming in the land of Om Num Num)

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  11. says

    Reading nice prose with no plot is like listening to someone trying to impress at a party with nothing interesting to say.

    Great post. I’m armed with all my notes from a recent plotting workshop and am going to create the story I will start in November with my audience in mind. Don’t be a bore will be my mantra!

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  12. Bob Greene says

    Wonderful post. Changes the whole perspective on writing 1,000 words per day doesn’t it. Should be as many words as necessary move the internal eye of the protagonist toward his/her climatic goal, whether that is one hundred or ten thousand. Enlightening post. I printed it and will refer to it often. Thanks.

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  13. Cal Rogers says

    Lisa—
    I SO agree with everything you say here.
    I’ve never understood NaNoWriMo. Do carpenters spend a month seeing how many nails they can drive into a stack of lumber? What’s the point?
    I especially liked your comment that figuring out your story IS writing—for me that’s the most creative part! Who is the more creative person, the architect who designs the house or the contractor who builds it?
    You have to know what the story problem is—what journey your protagonist is on—before you write it. My protagonist was robbed of his family when he was young, and has been exacting his revenge on those who robbed him ever since. Events in the story force him to turn loose of his revenge, so he can start to live a normal life with his new family.
    Thanks again for a GREAT post!

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  14. says

    Oh, Lisa. I sure needed to read this. I’m thinking of doing NaNoWriMo for the first time and this answers all my questions about preparing for that and for the issues I have in my previous manuscript. I’ll be studying this over and over. I don’t want to waste any more time on rambling story lines. My interesting and unique characters desperately want me to find them a solid story to be in. Maybe I can do that now. :)
    Thanks so much
    Jan Cline

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  15. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Right before I read your article here, I listened to the actual voice of Virginia Woolf on a recording. I clicked on the link because I was curious to hear what her physical voice sounded like and I got so much more. One of the things she said was that words live in our heads not in a dictionary. That if you open a dictionary it is full of wonderful and amazing words that mean nothing because the meaning requires the thought behind the words. It seems you and Virginia’s sentiments about writing run along the same lines.

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    • Alisha Rohde says

      I was thinking of Woolf too, Bernadette…particularly the way we see the world through each character’s eyes and how differently each of them perceives the world around them.

      Would love to know where you found the recording. I am pretty sure I’ve heard Woolf’s voice before but it’s been a loooong time!

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  16. says

    Lisa,

    Thank you so much for this article! It’s a great help to new writers like me who have some trouble with structure. I’m definitely going to take this advice come November, it means a lot! :D

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  17. says

    Heard you speak in L.A. at Writer’s Digest Conference. Your lecture rang so true it gave me chills. Love WIRED FOR STORY. I just finished my first manuscript after years in journalism. The process took so much more time than necessary because I honed each scene without crafting the overarching story first. I thought I was supposed to figure out a way to fit them together like a puzzle. So backwards. I mistakingly thought too much outlining would smother my voice.

    Thank you, thank you. More wisdom, please.

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  18. says

    Loved this post. I tend to be organized and know where the story is going before I dive in, but oddly, it is in the writing and revising that I have discovered what the story is *really* about. So I think I’m writing about AAA, but really it’s about ABA, and by the time I have pondered and revised it for the fifth time, I figure out, it’s really about ABC. I mean for the other letters to convey depth. When I first begin, I can have a one-track mind.

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  19. says

    Lisa,

    I find my love of climbing trees so often leaves me out on a limb.

    Now, thanks to your advice about eyes, the I see the forest. This is going to be an interesting day with my WIP.

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      • says

        I do that ALL the time. Nice to see I’m not alone. Also whenever I write “its” it comes out “it’s” regardless. It’s my hands’ fault, my brain, once it’s engaged, knows the difference.

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  20. says

    Wow! This post is amazingly helpful. I’ve been feeling a little lost in my writing and I feel like now I have a much better understanding of how to improve my work. Thank you so much for sharing!

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  21. says

    Terrific post. Your friend with the agent who loved her voice, but didn’t like the (lack of) story was exactly what happened to me. Now, two years and several revisions later, he is my agent, but I’m still working on the manuscript. I can’t imagine how much smoother this all would have gone if I had taken the time before writing to really work out the story.
    I have promised myself that on the next book I will work harder on the story before I start writing. I learned this lesson the hard way; hopefully you’ve saved a few new writers from repeating your friend’s (and my) mistake!

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  22. Alisha Rohde says

    Another excellent post, thanks Lisa! And perfect timing again, as I’m just at that point in my planning (preNaNo) where *this* is the key thing I need to figure out for my MCs. *Lightbulbs going off*

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  23. says

    Thank you for the reminder, Lisa. I’m linking this post to one of my FB writing groups. The discussion just came up with who plots and who doesnt before writing, and this is the perfect example why plotting just a little is so important.

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  24. says

    Brilliant timing, Lisa, thank you. Wish I were in Santa Monica and could sign up for your workshop — looks very worthwhile.

    Most of us mistake our beliefs as fact. We think we’re objective, the other person has it wrong. Often that extends to our characters: My heroine (loosely based on myself) is right, the other characters (loosely based on others I know) are wrong. As Lisa points out, that leaves nowhere to go. I love the practical advice here.

    I signed on for NaNoWriMo for the first time because I’m trying to con myself back into a routine of writing my own writing (not just working, working, working on other people’s writing). I was astonished to see that over 300,000 writers participated in NaNo last year. A third of a million! I had no idea. Only 14% actually finished their novel-by-word-count, but that’s still 42,000 damp, quivering, newborn novels. Wow.

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  25. Tina says

    I do believe that there an objective reality out there, but I don’t believe that any of us have access to it. We are subjective beings.

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    • says

      Exactly! I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll go you one further: how on earth could reality be defined by our ability to perceive it? If we didn’t have eyes, we wouldn’t know that things could be seen, if we didn’t have noses, we wouldn’t know things have a scent. Who knows what else exists “objectively” that we have absolutely no clue about, and no way to register. For me, though, it usually boils down to something incredibly mundane: I KNOW that objectively I left my glasses somewhere . . . now, if I could just find them.

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      • says

        Lisa and Tina,

        Now we’re getting into the union of philosophy and insight. . . which reminds me of the old joke: The Buddha and Immanuel Kant walk into a bar . . .

        BTW, your glasses are right next to my keys.

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  26. says

    This excellent advice for someone like me who writes various pages of nebulous scenes that I spend a lot of time whittling down (or deleting). Now, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the process of letting an idea bleed across the page. However, the process of constantly allowing stream-of-consciousness narration obstruct the development of story makes for a difficult editing process. I had a long internal battle when I took eight months to restructure my plot. But, now I the editing process is a lot easier. Thanks for sharing this. I’m excited to spread the word to my middle school students. It is never too early for them to learn great writing habits (and how to develop practices that work for them as young writers).

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  27. says

    Excellent post and a wonderful discussion in the comments. I loved your book Wired for Story, and always enjoy reading more here at WU. Thank you, Lisa!

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  28. says

    Thank you, Lisa! I am a pantser who is trying to learn to do a little more upfront planning. Full-on plotting/outlining doesn’t work for me (I deviate from the plan pretty quickly) but I do want to make writing my career, and from that end I know my “write three drafts to figure out what the story is and THEN revise three more times to get it right” system would not easily accommodate writing-as-career. Takes too long.

    But planning in the way you suggest, plus having three or so turning points in mind, could get me there, while allowing for the spontaneity that crops up, and that I actually enjoy the most, while writing. I’ll try that for the next book (yeah, currently on one of the aforementioned revisions to get it right…).

    Thanks again!

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  29. says

    this makes so much sense, yet i consistently read of authors, well regarded successful writers, who write to discover, then go back and start at page one to finish their final piece

    it doesn’t seem natural to me to assume that either that way, or by knowing the story first, is the only way to create enjoyable satisfying fiction

    “going back to find the heart of the story was aiming for, and only then will she begin writing forward” – in itself means one can find all the apriori information first, or, discover it by “going back”

    as you say, it’s our subjective experience that colors all, and some folk (i won’t say “he” or “she”) work from one direction, others from another

    and i myself, find myself needing to be open to both approaches, or feel myself bound in too tight to write, or paint, or dance

    but, i’m always open to listening, and have learned much by applying both approaches, and for that, i appreciate your article, thank you much! best wishes :-)

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  30. says

    Lisa. Thank you! You’ve clarified the foggy water. Not just plot, but the protagonist’s worldview. Right on the mark. Thank you, oh wise woman, willing to share with the masses.

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  31. says

    Hi, Lisa,

    I have been hard at work at both my outline and my draft this morning thanks to this wonderful instruction you’ve given me. I’ve taken the world view concept you shared and put it at the top of Act 1’s outline (for the old lens, I generated a quick bulleted list) and then also at the top of Act 3’s outline (new lens–same list, revised). It’s gratifying to see how my many events are about this lens polishing process. My protagonist won’t get a whole new set of lenses, but the biggest cracks will heal, and at least one nasty smudge will be rubbed away.

    I like what Felipe just wrote–“and i myself, find myself needing to be open to both approaches, or feel myself bound in too tight to write, or paint, or dance.” This has been my story the last three years. I let a character’s voice determine the story structure (and there was none, but a lot of interesting meandering) and then spent two years ripping the book up and outlining backwards.

    With my second novel, I let the character voice hook me and just start talking, which is how I have to begin. Now I’m outlining heavily while also working in the draft–it’s as Felipe says, both approaches, a daily back and forth. This is with only a first act written and how I plan to proceed with everything going forward. I’m so glad I didn’t try to write all three acts this time. Save the Cat beats also keep me focused as I work this way.

    Thank you for poking at the NaNoWriMo pressure we all feel as writers. Because my first novel’s first draft came about from six months of NaNoWriMo-like behavior (wrote a chapter every few days between 5 – 6 AM) I have been working from that lens every since. (YOU AIN’T A WRITER UNLESS YOU CRANK OUT THEM PAGES.) Today I console myself that with a strong story outline, it’s okay to generate fewer than 50 words a day on the draft. I have to keep checking back with the story–is it the evolution from old lens, to new lens–and does A lead to B, truly? When I feel fully satisfied with those answers, I can start churning out more words and pages.

    Lyn

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  32. says

    This makes so much sense, it’s amazing that so many of us resist it. I’m trying to write a sequel to my second novel and wondered why I couldn’t find my way in. It’s obvious, just having the character in a new situation and location is not a story. Thank you,

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  33. says

    Lisa, this is terrific. It’s a point I try to teach to newer writers about knowing their character’s backstory, learning their worldview, and motivations. I’m definitely stealing some points, with credits of course. I’ve got Wired for Story and it’s highlighted and dogeared! Great book.

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  34. says

    Lisa…Hello From Alaska!

    Got to enjoy your chat with us up here last month at the Alaska Writer’s Guild Conference, and still marvel that I found a kindred spirit on the subject of the power of story. The years I spent doing oral storytelling taught me one thing that has carried very well into written storytelling. That is that we must know where our characters come from to be able to seamlessly show the reader/listener where they are going.

    This year thru NaNoWriMo I will be finishing my already in progress WIP rather than starting/finishing a whole project, but one thing about that focused period of writing time is that if we have already established a base point of what the character thinks and feels, and why, it is much easier to get them into and thru exciting bits that make a stunning novel.

    Have a great and productive week!

    Basil Sands

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  35. says

    zing! Such a helpful, useful insight – I’ve been avoiding working on a first draft sitting in a drawer for TEN years now, knowing underneath it all that I didn’t know what to do with it.
    Now at least I know where to start digging. Thanks so much.

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  36. Margie says

    I have just finished a class – Focus on Your Book. I learned a lot and this article has supported everything I learned in the class and more.

    For 10 years my husband has been asking me to write a book about his grandmother. A woman of great faith. I did not feel qualified. I did not have enough information to form the story and so I refused.

    One day, out of nowhere, the story began to develop in my mind. Once this happened I felt the desire to write the book. To help me increase in self confidence, I enrolled in the writing class.

    I am into the third chapter of my book. It is truly exciting to make a story come alive on the written page. Thank you so much for your informative article.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] “The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue — fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief — that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about….The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. So if you don’t know what her worldview is going [into the story] — and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?” ~  Lisa Cron, Writer Unboxed […]

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