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Take Five with Lisa Cron and STORY GENIUS

Story Genius coverWe are so excited to introduce you to WU contributor and craft guru Lisa Cron’s new book, STORY GENIUS [1], and that she’s with us today for a Take Five interview — and a sneak peek of her book.

Let’s get right to the good stuff.

Q1: Can you tell us a bit about Story Genius, and how it’s unique in the market?

Lisa: You bet! In a nutshell: Story Genius is a fully prescriptive how-to guide that decodes what is actually captivating us when we’re lost in a story, while taking writers through the step-by-step process of creating a novel, starting with the first glimmer of an intriguing idea.

By the way, Story Genius almost didn’t get written, because right off the bat I ran into a thorny problem: I knew that while we could talk forever about “how to create a novel” in a conceptual way, the only way to make it work is to see the steps in action. How could I write a prescriptive book without examples of what writers need to actually do – step by step — order to write a novel? Where on earth could I get those examples?

Which brings me to something that’s completely unique about Story Genius: Enter the brilliant, savvy, courageous novelist and book coach Jennie Nash, who volunteered to begin her next novel – utterly from scratch – within the pages of Story Genius so that readers could watch the process in action. It’s not a pretty process (which is a reassuring part of the point), because in the beginning it can’t be about “writing pretty,” instead it’s about creating the story itself, which then gives birth to the plot. Watching the process unfold is invaluable because you can see, first hand, exactly how a writer starts by digging to the heart of the story, and how everything else organically builds from there.

Another thing that makes Story Genius unique is that it focuses – first, foremost and always – on creating a story rather than on mastering “writing.”

Most other books tend teach in bits and pieces – learn to write a scene, learn to write dialogue, learn to create conflict, learn to craft interesting characters, learn to write a great metaphor, learn pacing, learn plot structure – as if these are distinct, separate, generic elements, and by conquering each one individually you will have learned to write a story. Couldn’t be less true!

Worse is the heartbreaking, manuscript-derailing implication that these elements can then be randomly applied from the outside in to spice things up: add a little more drama here, add a bit of humor there, amp up the tension in chapter 3, throw in a ton of “sensory details” all over. It doesn’t work that way. As Story Genius makes clear, all of those things – internal drama, humor, tension, everything — must spring, organically, from the story itself.

So what exactly is a story? A story is one single unavoidable external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.

Which brings me to the third thing that makes Story Genius unique: It makes very clear that the story is not about the plot; you can’t create the plot first, which shatters the myth that is at the heart of both the Pantsing and Plotting method of writing: that the story begins on page one, and moves forward from there. Not so! The story begins long before page one, and a lot of work must be done in order to get there. That work is not pre-writing – it is the most seminal layer of the story itself, and will be laced into the novel on every page. We’re not talking about “general” backstory, or about sometimes asking a question or two about the protagonist’s past, all the while writing forward. We’re talking about digging to the heart of the story itself: the creation of the internal problem the protagonist will enter the story with, already fully formed.

After all, if a story is about how the plot forces the protagonist to change, you have to know what that change needs to be – and why they need to change – first. This is what creates the internal lens through which the protagonist will see, evaluate, and struggle with everything in the novel – beginning on page one. And the beauty of it is, by diving deeply into your protagonist’s story-specific past (rather than a general all purpose bio), your plot will begin to appear. After all, as Faulkner so astutely said, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”

Q2: Why this book, now?

Lisa: It was a one, two, three punch. Here’s to the rule of threes! To wit:

  1. As soon as Wired for Story came out, writers started emailing me, asking where to start, what method to use, and what specific steps to take in order to create a story that gives the reader’s brain what it’s hungry for. And then . . .
  2. My brilliant Book Coach (yes, the fabulous Jennie Nash) didn’t let me rest for a second (she’s mean like that). Her first words were: “Okay, I love the theory in Wired for Story – I totally get it — but what are you going to tell writers to actually do?”

“Um,” I replied, “Take a nap, maybe? Or wait, maybe that’s just me.” And then …

  1. My whip smart editor at Ten Speed called me, exasperated – she was trying her hand at fiction, and had read a slew of books on outlining, plotting, and writing, and finding them all woefully unhelpful. She asked me if I wanted to write a how-to book for writers, built on the theory in Wired for Story, to help them write a novel, beginning from the first wisp of an idea.

Obviously the nap was going to have to wait. So I began to turn the theory of Wired for Story into a clear, concrete, doable method for writing a novel, and while I thought and wrestled, I wrote Story Genius. And then something amazing happened: while writing the book, I began to teach from it – to clients, at writing conferences, and this past summer at the School of Visual Arts in their MFA program, Story: Visualized. It worked so well on its feet that Jennie and I have turned it into an online course. Here’s the lesson it all taught me: you never know where your writing till take you – sometimes it ends up opening doors you didn’t even know were there.

Q3: How does Story Genius complement your previous book, Wired for Story?

Lisa: Wired for Story used brain science to debunk many of the longstanding writing myths that had forever been derailing writers and revealed what the brain is hardwired to hunt for in every story we hear. Story Genius begins by defining what a story really is based on what we’re hardwired to respond to – and thus unmasks what actually gives stories their unparalleled power (hint: it’s not beautiful writing nor a “dramatic” plot). Story Genius then takes writers step-by-step through the creation of a story that will have the ability to instantly invoke the sense of urgency that makes it impossible to put the book down, even though it’s 2 a.m. and you have a big day tomorrow.

What creates that sense of urgency? This is where you might want to ask to see an excerpt!

Q4: Can you share an excerpt with us?

Lisa: From the introduction of Story Genius:

Humans are wired for story. We hunt for and respond to certain specific things in every story we hear, watch, or read—and they’re the exact same specific things, regardless of the genre. Why is this so? Because story is the language of the brain. We think in story. The brain evolved to use story as its go-to “decoder ring” for reality, and so we’re really expert at probing stories for specific meaning and specific info—and I mean all of us, beginning at birth. Even a kindergartner recognizes an effective story, because it’s built into the architecture of the brain. Story is how we make sense of the world around us; it’s a system that predates written language by eons. Heck, before spoken language, we grunted and signed in story. I’d wager that early in the morning, the cranky among us still do.

Because our response to story is hardwired, it’s not something we have to learn or even think about, which is why we are often unaware of the power story has over us. When a story grabs you, you’re in its sway, no questions asked. You may have heard the oft-expressed sentiment that getting lost in a good story demands a “willing suspension of disbelief.” In fact, this couldn’t be less true, because it implies we have a choice as to whether we fall under the spell of a captivating story. We don’t have a choice. The power story has over us is biological.

But while responding to story is hardwired, creating a story is not. As the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once noted, “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” But here’s the part she missed: before we can learn to write a story, we have to know what a story actually is. That is, we have to know what’s really hooking and holding readers.

The problem is that most writers mistake story for the things we can see on the page: the stunning prose, the authoritative voice, the intense and exciting plot, the clever structure. It’s a very natural mistake, and a crippling one. Because while no one could deny that all those things are important, they lack the crucial element that gives a story meaning and brings it to life.

What drives a story forward is, at first blush, invisible. It’s not talent. It’s not voice. It’s not the plot. Think electricity. The same way even the most powerful lamp is useless unless it’s plugged in, a story can’t engage readers without the electricity that illuminates the plot, the voice, and the talent, bringing them to life.

The question is: what, specifically, generates that juice?

The answer is: it flows directly from how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening, how she struggles with, evaluates, and weighs what matters most to her, and then makes hard decisions, moving the action forward. This is not a general struggle, but one based on the protagonist’s impossible goal: to achieve her desire and remain true to the fear that’s keeping her from it. As we’ll explore in detail, story is not about the plot, or what happens. Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes internally as a result.

Think of the protagonist’s internal struggle as the novel’s live wire. It’s exactly like the third rail on a subway train—the electrified rail that supplies the juice that drives the cars forward. Without it, that train, no matter how well constructed, just sits there, idling in neutral, annoying everyone, especially at rush hour. Ultimately, all stories are character driven—yes, all stories, including 50 Shades of Grey, A Is for Alibi, Die Hard, War and Peace, The Goldfinch, and The Little Engine That Could.

In a novel, everything—action, plot, even the “sensory details”— must touch the story’s third rail in order to have meaning and emotional impact. Anything that doesn’t impact the protagonist’s internal struggle, regardless of how beautifully written or “objectively” dramatic it is, will stop the story cold, breaking the spell that captivated readers, and unceremoniously catapulting them back into their own lives.

The reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected—either by publishers or by readers—is because they do not have a third rail. This is where writers inadvertently fail. This is the biggest mistake they make. And so they write and rewrite and polish an impressive stack of pages in which a bunch of things happen, but none of it really matters because that’s all it is—a bunch of external things that the reader has no particular reason to care about.

Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. It’s about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the problem that the external plot poses. That means that the internal problem predates the events in the plot, often by decades. So if you don’t know, specifically, what your protagonist wants, what internal misbelief is standing in his way—and most important, why—how on earth can you construct a plot that will force him to deal with it? The answer is simple: you can’t.

This is why you have to know everything there is to know about the protagonist’s specific internal problem before you create the plot, and why this knowledge will then, with astonishing speed, begin to generate the plot itself. Story first, plot second, so that your novel has the juice to instantly captivate your readers, biologically hooking them before they know what hit ’em.

Q5: What’s next for you?

Lisa: A nap? Okay, no. What I’m most excited about at the moment is the online course Jennie Nash and I have created through her company Author Accelerator. It’s called the Story Genius Method Novel Workshop [2] (short, sweet and to the point, unlike the my books’ subtitles, right?). It’s a 10-week intensive course with over 900 minutes of video, examples, weekly assignments, notes from your own personal book coach, and live online Q&As with both me and Jennie. That’s my favorite part – I admit – because there is nothing I love more than talking story in a room full of writers, digital or analog.

Speaking of which, I can’t wait till November for two reasons: 1. The election will be over (fingers crossed that he-who-cannot-be-named goes the way of Voldemort), 2. And because on the day that that happens, I’ll be in Salem at the Writer Unboxed UnConference [3]. I can’t wait to see all you guys there!!

And then there’s this other book I’m going to write. This one is on . . . wait for it . . . story! Talk about a one-track mind. But this one is for a general audience. My goal is help everyone really understand – and then harness – the power of story in their lives.

But first, I definitely want to take a nice little nap.

Sounds fantastic, no? Thank you, Lisa, for being with us today!

Readers, you can order STORY GENIUS on Amazon [4], Barnes and Noble [5], iBooks [6], Kobo [7], Indiebound [8], and Google Play [9]. Write on!

About [10]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [11] and Kathleen Bolton [12] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [13] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [14] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [15] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [16], and join our thriving Facebook community [17].