May 19th, 2017

The Origin Scene: Where Your Story REALLY Starts

Lisa Cron

I had a lot of great questions this month, but Laura Drake’s question goes directly to the very heart – the foundation — of your novel. She asks:

I’m stuck on The Origin Scene. Partially, I think, because it feels like if I get it wrong, the rest of my book is screwed. Any wisdom there?

Here’s the easy (and scary) and admittedly way too glib answer: Yep, get it wrong and you’re screwed. Let’s dig deeper into what that really means, and how to make sure you avoid it.

To do that, here are the things we’ll discuss:

  • What the hell is an Origin Scene, anyway?
  • Why is it so crucially important?
  • How can you “get it wrong”?
  • How can you get it right?

What the hell is an Origin Scene, anyway?

An Origin Scene captures the moment, which occurs long before page one of your novel, when your protagonist’s defining misbelief takes root. It is almost always occurs during childhood.

This might have you asking, “Um, what’s a misbelief, exactly?”

As you no doubt know, every protagonist enters a story already wanting something. This is what sets her story long agenda – the agenda she steps into the novel with already fully formed. To be super clear: this is something she’s wanted for a long time, since way before page one. 

The key thing is: in all that time your protagonist hasn’t gotten what she wants. Hey, if she could easily get it, sure, you’d have a happy protagonist, but then you’d have no story. In other words, something has long stood in the way of your protagonist achieving her goal. And that is her misbelief.

We’re not talking about a logistic misbelief – like, “Hey, I thought the world was flat, and you won’t believe this, but turns out it’s round!” Rather, it’s a misbelief about human nature; a misbelief about what makes us tick, about what people are really like, inside. And your protagonist — just like us here in real life — is not after this info on human nature as an academic quest or as “knowledge for knowledge sake,” but to help her achieve her primary goal: continued physical and emotional survival.

Misbeliefs tend to spring up during a traumatic situation in which your protagonist has skin in the game – meaning, something that matters to her is at stake. And by traumatic, I don’t mean a great big “dramatically” traumatic moment, like getting sucked up into a space ship or snatched and tossed into the trunk of a car. I’m talking about the more mundane, insidious variety of everyday inter-personal trauma. The kind that cause you to suddenly realize things like: “The nicer a person is to you, the more they’re trying to manipulate you,” or “The only way people like you is if you never rock the boat,” or “Only weak people need help.”

And here’s the kicker: in this traumatic situation, your protagonist’s misbelief isn’t a misbelief at all, but something she believes to be wholly true and that rescues her from something that otherwise might have caused her emotional harm. Thus her realization doesn’t make her dumb, stupid or flawed, it actually makes her smart. The problem is that while said misbelief might have been true in that specific situation, out in the real world, it’s not true. I mean, every time someone is nice to you it doesn’t really mean they’re trying to use you. I don’t think.

The trouble is, what was adaptive in that one specific situation, is maladaptive everywhere else. But your protagonist doesn’t know that. To her, her misbelief is a very savvy piece of inside intel that she’s insanely lucky to have learned early in life. As far as she’s concerned, it’s not what’s hurting her, it’s what’s saving her. Thus it’s no surprise that she then uses her misbelief to help her achieve her agenda, trusting it to guide her through the rocky parts of life.

And so by the time she’s an adult, her defining misbelief will have snaked into just about every crevice of her life, picking up supporting misbeliefs along the way, securely rooting it in place. That’s one of the main reasons that misbeliefs are so hard to recognize, let alone overturn.

Why is it so crucially important in the beginning?

Because – make no mistake — overturning your protagonist’s misbelief is what your plot will be constructed to accomplish. Which, of course, means you must know, in detail, what her misbelief is, where it came from, and how it’s shaped her worldview since its inception.

That’s why your protagonist’s defining misbelief cannot remain general or conceptual. It must be traced back to the single, concrete event (again, almost always in childhood) during which her worldview shifted.

And capturing that moment – in scene form — is your novel’s Origin Scene, and it takes place long before the novel opens, often by decades. It is always written in the first person, regardless of the novel’s POV. The goal is to transform this life-altering turning point moment into a full-fledged scene, so you know not only what happened, but exactly how your protagonist made sense of it internally as it unfolds.

How can you “get it wrong”?

What defines your story’s arc – in fact, this is your novel’s genuine throughline — is the inside intel on why your character does what she does as her worldview evolves thanks to the events of the plot. A novel is about an internal struggle, not the external struggle that triggers it. On one end of this arc is the Origin Scene, when your protagonist’s misbelief takes hold. The novel itself begins much later, when the plot forces her to go after what she wants, but in order to have a shot at it she must recognize, question, and ultimately see through her misbelief. Your story makes its point near the end, with your protagonist’s “aha” moment – that is, when her misbelief finally bites the dust. Or as T.S. Eliot so aptly said: “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.”

So “getting it wrong” means that the Origin Scene does not set the novel’s whole arc of internal and external change in motion. When that happens said novels tend to begin with some surface level, or randomly “dramatic” moment that’s geared to “objective” generic drama, rather than something with unique, subjective meaning for the protagonist.

You get it wrong by not digging deep enough, by staying surface, general. That is, by writing the scene from the outside in, so we’re not inside your protagonist’s head as she struggles to make sense of what the hell is happening. The whole point of the Origin Scene is that one of your protagonist’s seminal beliefs is going to get blown out of the water, and replaced with a powerful misbelief, and we want a front row seat inside her head as she draws this conclusion.

How can you get it right?

I think this is the real question you’re asking — how do you know what the right moment is? Since this is what kicks everything off, what if it kicks it in the wrong direction? That is a scary thought.

The good news is that by the time you’re writing your Origin Scene, you’ve already created a lot of potent story-specific info: you know the point your novel will make, you know who your protagonist is before the novel starts, you know what she enters wanting, and you know what her misbelief is. So while yes, you’re now creating something out of nothing, you’re doing it purposefully, rather than by “pantsing” blindly forward into the abyss, fueled by nothing more than desire and a whole lot of caffeine.

And that can feel clunky. Which is totally fine. Don’t fight it. Lean into the clunk. And know that there is no “right” answer here. No “one” moment that will work, making every other moment “wrong.”

The reason this can feel so intimidating is because you are consciously creating the seed from which will grow the web of internal logic your protagonist will use to make sense of everything. In the beginning it can feel almost arbitrary. It is not.

Rather, it will be — by design — one end of a very clear, escalating trajectory that culminates when your protagonist finally realizes that what she thought had been keeping her safe is really what’s kept her from getting what she wants.

There are many possibilities for an effective Origin Scene– if you’re struggling with it, my advice is to use an exercise that the brilliant book coach Jennie Nash came up with:

  • Put on comfy clothes, and get a timer. Set it for 45 minutes.
  • Sit down at your computer, or pick up your pen and write out a possible Origin Scene. Remember that there is no “one” right answer. Start writing and don’t stop. Don’t censor yourself, don’t try to “nail” it, let yourself go. If this sounds like pantsing, it kind of is – but with parameters, with context, and, most important, with internality. Meaning: make sure you’re letting us know what your protagonist is thinking as she struggles with what to make of what’s happening. Also don’t worry about “writing well,” don’t edit, don’t waste time with lengthy description or lovely luscious metaphors. That would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise.
  • When the timer goes off, stop, stretch, get a snack, then set the timer again for 45 minutes. Write a different Origin Scene – one that happens in a different place or time. Jennie is strict about this: You can’t just write a different version of the same scene or the same scene from a different perspective. She means a whole new scene.
  • When the timer goes off, rinse, repeat. The third time is often the charm. Let yourself be absurd, even. Ridiculous. Don’t hold back!
  • Evaluate which scene resonates the most. Jennie says that it’s often the one that surprises you the most, or calls up a strong emotion in you. You can, in other words, feel it in your bones.

Pair this scene with the aha moment scene when your protagonist’s misbelief will be resolved near the end of your novel, and you’ve got an Origin Scene caffeinated enough to effectively drive your whole novel from start to finish. (Yes, as in just about everything, coffee is key.)

Otherwise, you risk falling into the most common rabbit hole novelists inadvertently tumble into: writing 327 pages that turn out to be nothing more than a bunch of things that happen.

And that, too, calls up a strong emotion. One that even coffee can’t help.

Do you agonize over your Origin Scene? What exercise(s) do you use to dig for it? What other questions do you have for Lisa?

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About Lisa

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Lynda.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Visual Narrative in New York City. In her work as a story coach, Lisa helps writers, nonprofits, educators, and journalists wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. She can be reached at wiredforstory.com

33 comments to The Origin Scene: Where Your Story REALLY Starts

  • Lisa, THANK YOU! We were discussing the origin scene on another group (you know that several groups have subgroups to discuss SG, right?) and many had questions like mine.
    This really helps. And I love Jennie’s suggestion about writing more than one – reminds me of Don Maass’ advice: make a list of 10 or more, then go back and cross out the first 3, because they’re the obvious ones.

    I’m taking Jennie’s advice today.

  • Great exercise at the end there!

  • Love the depth of explanation. Very helpful! Jennie’s free writing exercise adapts well to other Story Genius exercises and is uber helpful with busting through any resistance one feels to a particular exercise. Ask me how I know 🙂

    Two questions for Lisa: Any particular advice on using Story Genius for revising a completed draft? (I’m doing that now, and encountering more rewriting than I’d anticipated, but definitely a stronger story. Can see advantages of using SG from the get-go.) Also, have you considered a companion workbook for SG – a literal fill-in-the-blank style similar to one Maass did for his Breakout Novel book? I can see myself using SG repetitively and would love step-by-step process for planning/plotting future books. (Wish list: said workbook would be digitally compatible with Word or Scrivener…just sayin’.) Thank you!

  • This was a phenomenal post–thank you Lisa & Laura. While I know the general background of why my character believes what she does, I’d never heard the term Origin Story before. Of course, that could be that I got my copy of Story Genius a few weeks ago and haven’t had a chance to open it! I’ll rectify that ASAP, but in the meantime, thank you for a wonderful explanation of how and why it works.

  • Julie Dalton

    Really helpful post. Thank you! How early in the novel should we introduce the origin of this misbelief? I understand that in chronological time, it happens before the book starts. In terms of how the narrative unfolds, should it be introduced in the first 20 pages? 50 pages? 100?

  • Your post has really enlightened me and works so perfectly for my latest WIP which is about a little girl growing up on the streets, unloved and uncared for. She meets a young man whose brain has been fever-damaged but whose philosophy and understanding of life is spot-on. She knows what she yearns for in life for both she and her friend, but until she overcomes her “misbelief” that she’s not worthy of love, it will never happen. The concrete moment for her, was the day her mother tried to sell her for $50,000 to a well-dressed man she met in the street.

  • Wonderful post! Thanks to Laura for asking a great question and to Lisa for an answer that took me in several directions, especially after reading that exercise idea.

    I also resonated with the core idea of the Origin Scene — so much so that I remembered an event as a kid where an assumed understanding (you know how you simply put together reasons for why things happen as a kid?) of mine was blown out of the water. That epiphany, that the world might not be as I had constructed it, still ripples through all my encounters and life experiences. Pretty cool — thanks for bringing me back to my own ‘Origin Scene’.

  • After reading this, I see my book has more symmetry than I even planned. Now I can see how I need to make this more purposeful.

    My one sister is a nun (and eventually a nurse), pushed to the church by her older sister to protect her from their father’s crazy. In the years that follow, the two sisters lead very different lives and become estranged. The resulting misbelief for my nun sister is that she has a visceral fear of men. To get back to a relationship with her sister, she is in a situation as a nurse that has tons of men. Gay, straight, naked, clothed – she is surrounded by men every day, and must iron out this misbelief to achieve her goals and find happiness.

  • Lisa, I LOVED this exercise so much from Story Genius. It truly got me closer to my main character and rooted the story that much stronger in its premise. (and my critique partners echoed this as well!)

  • The origin scene has always been the scariest part of writing for me. I wind up creating one million different versions because I never nail down the defining mis-belief. I *know* that’s what I’m looking for, but I’ve never had someone explain it in such a tangible manner. Thanks! This helps a bundle.

  • HMB

    Laura and Lisa, Thanks so much for this great post!
    I’m working through Story Genius (up to chapter 8 now) using it to revise my completed manuscript. Like Kathy, I’d love to hear your tips on how to use SG for revising. What I’m seeing in my first chapter now is that a few of the backstory details that hinted at the origin scene need a lot more developing. Also, I’ll need to shift the focus of a lot of dialogue.
    I know it will make a stronger story. But I need a way to outline these changes.

  • Beth M Skarupa

    Laura and Lisa, thanks for this great post explaining the origin scene! It’s timely too because I am using Story Genius to write my first novel … actually, trying to fix my WIP that has a lot written that might be thrown out now. Question: I’m struggling with a protagonist who has a traumatic event happen (death of husband) that affects everything she does from there on out (the story starts 4 years after she is widowed). I know the misbelief needs to be something that comes from something that happens to her in childhood or at latest adolescence. So my question is about that – do you have any hints on how to figure it out/reconcile the two things? I’m thinking my protag’s misbelief should be something that also ties into the way she reacts to the trauma. BTW, my first stab at the misbelief was: you must be in control of everything to stay safe. This leads to my protag’s perfectionism, But then I thought maybe it should be “If you try to be perfect, you will be safe.” But maybe I am way off track? Any advice appreciated!

  • This is excellent! I’m going to be referring back to this for my current WIP. While reading, I just wrote up a quick question for each major character, focusing on my protagonist about each character’s misbelief. I decided I really needed to know my villain’s misbelief as well as my hero’s misbelief, even if I don’t plan on being inside my villain’s head in the main novel – I feel like I need to know where that villain’s misbelief started. I’m looking forward to diving into that main writing exercise.

  • I love this! I also have a question. If writing a romance, do we need an Origin Scene for both the hero and the heroine?

  • Thank you for this wonderful post! I’m starting my fourth novel and this sure gives me better footing at the start gate . . . saved this one! 🙂

  • I’m plotting a book now and this post really gives me something to think about. I’ve never heard of this ‘misbelief’ thing but I shall have to figure out how I can write an origin scene.

  • carrienichols

    What a wonderful post! Thank you!! Now I know what’s wrong with one of my characters–I need an origin scene.

  • Very informative and powerful post. I had not heard of the term Origin Scene before. Thank you!

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Origin scenes can be tougher when writing memoir as I found out through my Story Genius courses. Because the scene needed to be true, I had to look back to find the pivotal moment in my childhood that set me up for my feelings of incompetence for college. Lisa’s mantra of specificity helped me find the moment in order to move on with my memoir about attending college as a mother of five children. Thanks, Lisa!

  • Lynda Jo Schuessler

    I know Lisa does a Q&A regularly for WITS. Not sure if this is a good place to leave a question but I’ll give it a try. What if you want to write a series? Do you find a mis-belief of the protagonist for each book? Or, is the mis-belief not quite resolved by the book and carries forward through the series? I realize that everyone probably has more than one major mis-belief in operation in their lives but I’m wondering how this would work.

  • I’m a huge fan of writing more than one version of a vital scene (I’m a fan, not necessarily a practitioner 😉 so that exercise resonates.

    I know the protagonist has to enter the story wanting something. Perhaps because I’m writing what I know (hee hee) I keep writing about people whose greatest desire is to maintain the status quo, for things to never change (one is a coming of age story, the other is a scifi adventure.)

    Loads of doubt about this, though after two reads of Story Genius and Wired for Story it still feels like the rest of the elements come together.

    Can a protagonist’s “want” be “to maintain the status quo” or am I kidding myself?

  • I linked to this from Lisa Cron’s newsletter this morning and it made me realize that although I had a vague idea of how my character had ended up thinking she had to depend on others, I didn’t have a concrete scene in mind. Sketching it out also inspired my first blog post in months. So thanks!

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