Great questions this month – so much to say, so let’s get started!
Laura Drake asks: I have a question – I’ve read (no, studied) the first half of Story Genius, and it’s changed the way I write. My weakness is plotting (I don’t). So the second half of the book is lost to me – putting together critical scenes, etc. Any suggestions for using Story Genius for pantsers who get hives at the mention of the ‘P’ word?
Here’s something that may come as a surprise: the second half of Story Genius isn’t about Plotting. It’s about exactly what you’re asking here: how to create critical scenes that move your story forward.
I firmly believe that Pansters can do this work, even if you don’t do it in exactly the way I lay out in Story Genius. I created Story Genius as a tool that writers can use to make every story better, with methods that are adaptable to one’s own familiar writing process. It’s not a formula, or a rigid set of rules you have to follow or else. My goal was to identify what it is that readers are actually responding to in every story they hear – to wit: how the protagonist navigates a hard-fought internal change the plot forces them to go through – and offer guidance on how to create that internal struggle, and then make sure it’s not only on the page, but driving the external action.
Here are 5 tips for Pansters that might come in handy to be sure that your story logic holds from the first page to the last:
- Post a sticky with your story’s point, your protagonist’s overarching agenda, and her misbelief near where you write, and always look at it before you start writing. Use it as a yardstick for what she does, and why. Refer to it when you work — and keep referring to it. This might sound strange, but the physical act of looking at it – seeing it written out in black and white – can really help focus your mind on what matters most.
- Since the plot revolves around one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates from the first scene to the last, write your scenes in order -- even if at first blush they’re thin, skating along on the surface, or feel clunky. Resist the urge to skip ahead.
- Once you’ve written a scene, stop. I know that this is the hard part for Pantsers, but it’s SO powerful! Pull out a Story Genius Scene Card and test it. That way you’ll discover:
- If the scene is, indeed, a critical part of the cause-and-effect trajectory.
- If every character in the scene is acting in accordance with their agenda.
- If the scene itself arcs – that is, if something changes externally.
- If everything in the scene matters to the protagonist, given her story-long agenda.
- If what happens in the scene causes your protagonist internal conflict, forcing her struggle internally with what action to take.
- If your protagonist has a small “realization” at the end of the scene that changes how she sees things, affecting her ongoing plan in some way.
- What must happen next in the story.
- If, in creating your Scene Card, you discovered that there were still things that you need to know in order to really understand why your protagonist is doing what she does in this scene, let yourself dive into her past again to ferret out the info you’ve realized is missing. Resist the urge to race ahead. (Do you see a pattern here? I’m trying to get you to slow down just a tiny bit. Writing forward is fun; I get that. But writing 300 pages that go nowhere? Not so fun. Make sure your pages go somewhere.)
- For every scene you write, allow yourself a few minutes to brainstorm worst case scenarios for your protagonist based on what she wants/fears and keep a running list of anything that leaps to mind – for the scene you’re working on, and for future scenes. Remember, though, that these worst-case-scenarios must be an organic part of the plot’s overarching cause-and-effect trajectory, rather than some random externally dramatic thing that happens. That’s what will make your novel an actual story rather than a bunch of things that happen.
I hope that helps and doesn’t result in another case of hives -- I’m itching to find out (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-). That said, perhaps you might want to keep a bottle of Calamine lotion at hand, just in case?
The next question allows me to address what some of you, whether Pantser or Plotter, may now be wondering: “Just why the heck is it so important to understand – in an in depth, story specific way – why my protagonist is doing what they do before I write it? Can’t I just figure it out later, in the next draft, maybe?” There are many answers to that question. The following is one of them.
LittleMissW asks: I’ve just been told that my protagonist is unlikable at times. When he’s angry he can say very hurtful things to the people he loves. He can also think derogatory things about people (for example, he describes an over-weight woman as being big enough to have her own gravitational pull). For me, this is what makes him real. We all lash out when we’re hurt or angry. We all have the potential to be judgmental and catty. But the impression I get is that it’s not okay to be unlikable. When does a character cross the line between being realistic and being irredeemable?
I wrote about what “likeable” means right here a couple of months back, but this is such a great question that I want to answer it. If I can sum up, this what I hear you asking: How can you have a character say or do things that, on the surface, appear ugly or mean, without making the character unsympathetic -- which is why people would see him as unlikeable?
In a fabulous bit of synchronicity, the same day I was going to tackle this question, fate – in the form of an article by writer George Saunders in The Guardian -- provided a spot on example of exactly how a writer can solve the problem you’re struggling with. Here’s Saunders laying out, step-by-step, how a writer can dive beneath the surface of an unlikable act, to discover the reason for it, so said act then telegraphs a very different meaning. In other words, here is how you allow a character to do something mean, and yet remain likeable:
“I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity.”
The takeaway is this: we don’t come to story to find out what someone did – Bob snapping at the barista; your protagonist making fat jokes – we come to find out why they’re doing it. What drove them? What in their lives taught them that that was all right? What inner conflict drives their choices, their action? Give us that and we don’t need characters to be redeemable, or even likeable at all.
Which, of course, means that Saunders’ Bob didn’t have to have a bittersweet “likeable” reason to snap at the barista in order to rivet us, so long as he had a deliciously revealing one.
And now, I’m once again open for questions for my next column – leave them here in the comments, or shoot me an email at: lisa@wiredforstory
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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