Writers in the Storm

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November 14, 2018

Story Logic: The Crucial Importance of Because, But, Therefore

Lisa Cron

Brace yourself! (Spoiler alert: there is good news coming.) But first . . .

Here’s a hard fact: 97% of writers never finish a first draft.

Here’s an even harder fact: 96% of those finished manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers.

And the indie route? Statistics show that the vast majority of self-published books sell under 100 copies. Mostly to family and friends. Who, ahem, say they’ve read it. Look, a squirrel!

Sadly, I am not surprised. I’ve spent my career working with writers, manuscripts, story, and in that time I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where if you asked me, “What’s it about?” I’d say, “It’s about 300 pages. I have no idea. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.”

Which neatly answers the question: Why do so many manuscripts fail?

It’s not because the writer didn’t know how to “write well” or that the prose wasn’t polished enough or that the plot wasn’t rip roaring enough. It was because the manuscript was nothing but a bunch of things that happen.

But what does that mean?

It means there was no cause-and-effect trajectory – internal, external, escalating or otherwise -- so nothing to anticipate, nothing to care about, nothing to root for. Instead, it was: this happens, and then that happens, and then . . . wake me when it’s over.

And to make matters worse, the two most popular “schools” of writing tacitly encourage exactly that.

Pantsing is the worst culprit; plotting a close second. Why? Because both methods start by focusing on page one, when the story itself – the place from which all meaning and all plotting springs -- starts long before that. After all, a story is about how someone solves a problem they can’t avoid.  And let’s be honest, as real life has taught us, even though it can feel as if problems spring out of the blue, the truth is they take an awful long time to reach critical mass – that place where we have to pay attention to them.

Besides, the story isn’t about the plot anyway, it’s about how the external problem the protagonist faces causes her to make a long needed internal change. In other words, the plot comes second – the first goal is to figure out what internal change, scene by scene, it must force your protagonist to make. All of which is created, in story-specific detail, before you get to page one.

Pantsing ignores all this, promoting the killer misbelief that if you have “talent” the story will simply come. Head hits desk. Heart breaks. It doesn’t work that way.

Plotting, on the other hand, by focusing on the plot first (big mistake!), tries to create a cause-and-effect trajectory, but the problem is, it’s merely a surface cause-and-effect trajectory. It’s math. And faulty math at that. For two reasons.

  1. It’s just a string of external events. Readers don’t come for what happens, they come for why it happens, hoping to pick up a little inside intel that will help them navigate their own lives. And the reason why anything happens inherently lies in the past. Which is why, as Faulkner so brilliantly said: The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Meaning you have to know WHAT the story-specific past IS, not only in order to understand the WHY behind what’s happening, but to know what’s happening in the first place. Make no mistake, it’s the “why” that creates the “what.”
  2. Which brings us to the second reason plotting relies on faulty math: The WHY stems from the characters, not the events. Why would your protagonist do that? Hell, why would any character do what they do? Without knowing that -- and getting it on the page – the things the pre-ordained plot will force your protagonist to do won’t make any sense. And guess what, then neither will the plot!

But what if you ARE a dedicated pantser or plotter, and committed to beginning on page one of the manuscript come hell or high water, what can you do?  How can you make sure your WIP doesn’t turn out to be nothing but a bunch of things that happen?

Yep, we’ve reached the good news! There is a method you can use to help make sure you’re not writing yourself out into a big, empty, directionless (albeit beautifully written) field:

As you write forward, approach each scene by focusing on one of these three words:  Because, But, Therefore.

Because: Just focusing on the “Because” gives you a head start – because you’re focusing on the “why.” Again, readers don’t merely want to know what your protagonist does, what we’re hungry for is why she did it. Why did that happen? By focusing on “Because” you’re developing the ongoing causal connection between what’s happened in the past, and what’s about to happen now.

But: Stories are like life – they’re about how we navigate the unexpected. Think: unintended consequences. Collateral damage. Often the “But” is something the protagonist could have foreseen if only she hadn’t been so focused on something else. Sometimes it’s a total shocker. But always, when the protagonist stops to think about it, in retrospect it’s explained by the story-specific past.

Therefore: What is the consequence of what just happened? How does it play forward? What change did it spur? Often the “Therefore” is internal, as in: as a result of what happened, the protagonist realized this, and so decided to do that.

Want an example? This is from a brilliant, dedicated and savvy client of mine, who sent me a shorthand outline of what we’ve been working on for months, and thus inspired this post. She’s writing contemporary fiction, and has already written all of the below in scene form, and it goes deep. She’s now working on the last third of her novel, and decided to quickly synopsize what she has so far. The full document is far longer than the snippet here.  Note that it begins long before the novel starts. 

  • Because her friends pushed her to do it as part of a Cosmo quiz, high school senior Emma finally bares her heart and writes a secret love letter to Ryan, thinking he'll never see it.
  • But her friend betrays her and gives it to him. 
  • Because she’s is humiliated by the letter, when her dysfunctional mom announces they’re moving out of Texas that very weekend, Emma is relieved and doesn't look back, never calling friends. She disappears from their lives, believing you can’t trust anyone. 
  • Therefore as soon as Emma graduates high school, she moves to New York and focuses on her career.
  • But because she deeply craves a family connection she’s never had, she becomes an event planner, so she gets to be close to families, but not in them. No risk of hurt.
  • But what she doesn’t know is that Ryan loved her letter, and was heartbroken when she disappeared.
  • Because Ryan thinks that Emma will reach out to her hometown BFF Natalie at some point, he becomes friends with Natalie and her boyfriend, Frank.
  • But he finds he really likes these people. And as the years pass, even though he’s moved to London, their friendship becomes genuine. He's uncle Ryan to their 3 kids.
  • But Ryan can’t forget Emma. Now the successful CEO of a tech startup, he still has that letter and every once in a while checks FB searching for her. He finally finds her new, very successful company’s FB page. 
  • But when he Ryan reaches out to Emma on FB, her assistant, who handles all social media, not knowing who he is, dismisses him. Ryan believes it was Emma who blew him off.
  • Therefore he decides it was just a stupid letter, and that he’s been nursing a ridiculous fantasy, so he asks his girlfriend of four years to marry him. She's been dropping hints, they’re living together already, all their friends are getting married, and he feels maybe it doesn't get any better than this. I have it good. 

Here’s where the novel starts:

  • But when unforeseen circumstances force both he and Emma back to their Texas hometown, he discovers the spark is still burning bright -- in both of them.
  • Therefore each one must confront . . .

And with that the novel is off and running, fueled by what happened in each character’s past, barreling toward what each one entered the story already wanting, already fearing.  And those “unforeseen circumstances”? For both Emma and Ryan, they were the culmination of a long and, in retrospect, inevitable series of events.

My advice? Whether pantsing or plotting, focus on those three key words: Because, But, Therefore. Don’t write any scene that begins with the deadly, “And then . . .” If (make that when) you find you need to go into your protagonist’s past to dig up the reason “why?” – the because -- do it! Because that’s where meaning, depth and the real truth that you’re writing about is buried. And that is what hooks readers. Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. The plot? Without the internal story driving it, that’s just a bunch of things that happen.

Are you a pantser? Plotter? Can you see how, either way, this can help?

*     *     *     *     *


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

44 comments on “Story Logic: The Crucial Importance of Because, But, Therefore”

  1. My WIP (well, my only work) is a memoir, but this is helpful to think about "because, but, therefore" as I proceed. Memoirs, like fiction, can too easily devolve into a string of, "and then this happened." Thanks for sharing!

    1. It's so true -- story is story regardless the genre, regardless the format -- what hooks us, what we come for is the exact same: Inside intel on how to best navigate this mortal coil. Good luck with your memoir, Karen!

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Maddeningly writers so often tragically mistake the plot for the story. It's NOT about the plot, it's about how the plot forces the protagonist to make an internal change. It's not a "writing rule" it's how the brain works -- that is, how we all navigate out here IRL. Onward!

  2. Yes! This! "... it’s about how the external problem the protagonist faces causes her to make a long needed internal change.." This reminds me of James Scott Bell's "mirror moment" advice.

    I'm a "planster" and I have to know enough about my characters to get me going. I've found I can discover some of those "whys" and "becauses" as I go, then go back and add them.

    1. Yes! But -- and this is a caution -- it can be dangerous to go back and add them, or figure them out later because they were true, and were driving your protagonist's actions from the get go. AND the way backstory plays out in a story is NOT merely via flashbacks, but on every single page as she struggles to make sense of what's happening and what to do the better to achieve her goal and not to appear vulnerable (read: let people know what she's really feeling). In other words, backstory is the most fundamental layer of the story you're writing, and it's what both creates the story and drives it forward. And all this means one thing: I've had too much caffeine! Onward! 😉

      1. Thanks, and I'm not talking flashbacks. It's behaviors, things to add when you come to grips with one of those "becauses". So often, I find the character has been living up to the past I haven't consciously written, but it's there.

  3. I like this logic based recipe for writing: because, but, therefore. I'm wondering about order since because is back story and I'm now weary of telling and flashbacks.

    Do you have any recommendations for weaving in the because while entangling the reader in the present day protagonist's story, without telling or flashbacks?

    1. Ah, great question! Here's the answer: Backstory iis NOT just about flashbacks, and it's NEVER telling. Backstory is so deeply misunderstood by the writing world. You never put backstory in "for the reader" -- backstory is woven into every single page as your protagonist turns to the past in order to figure out how to react in the present. Sometimes it's a flashback (and then only because the protagonist or POV character is trying to figure something out in the present). Here's a piece of advice that will illustrate this: take a highlighter and, in the book you're currently reading, highlight anything and everything that is backstory. I was working with a writer who did this and she reported that she was half way through Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS and had highlighted 60% of the book. I was talking to an instructor in Stanford's continuing education writers program the other day who said she has students read the first chapter of THE HUNGER GAMES to highlight how much is backstory. They were stunned. Point being: backstory is the most fundamental layer of the story you're writing. It's everywhere! Good luck with your WIP -- Onward!

  4. When I began writing, I loved meandering off on interesting tangents, chasing the story through scene after pretty scene. After all, that's life, right? But fiction is much more orderly and purpose-driven than life.

    And, in some ways, harder.

    Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom with us, Lisa.

    And if any of you haven't read Story Genius, do your writing a favor, and run out and buy it! It'll save you years of meandering!

    1. Thanks Laura! And so true -- what's that old quote that's been attributed to Mark Twain, Lord Byron, G. K. Chesterton, Humphrey Bogart, Leo Rosten, and Tom Clancy?: "Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense." But here's the thing that I believe: Fiction is how we make sense of reality BECAUSE we can zero in on and dig down to the REAL "why" -- the one that all those other bits of reality obscure. After all, story is how we make sense of everything -- not just in books, but in life. It's how the brain is wired. (And yes, Laura, I have had a LOT of caffeine at the moment and I'm in that blissful state where I'm feeling no pain and could go on and on forever! Here's to our drug of choice -- long live coffee!!!!)

  5. I work out my stories in my head long before I put anything to a keyboard. One of them started with the protagonist's conception. I eventually realized I didn't need all the details of her life, which shape her actions and reactions in the actual story. I could drop details as needed in her conversations and the conversations of people who knew her. Now I can start her story as an adult about to embark on the journey she has spent her life preparing for. It will be much less typing...

    1. . . . and the "details of her life" -- that is, what drives her, why, how she makes sense of things, -- don't merely appear not just in conversations, but in your protagonist's head as she struggles with the escalating plot problem. Backstory -- in the form of internality -- is laced into every page. It is often where the but, because and therefore manifest. Onward!

  6. I feel like I just figured out the secret to the universe. You just deftly and simply explained why I can never seem to figure out how to get beyond just following my characters around and waiting for something to happen, and why plotting always feels so forced. THANK YOU.

  7. Yessssss! I so needed to read this today. Not only to help with my own WIP hurdles, but also to help me understand one of the things that’s bugging me about an otherwise ok novel I’m reading. I’m determined to get to the end of it, but it took a fantastic premise and turned it into a disappointing series of “and thens” and I don’t care about any of the characters despite being told the stakes are high.

    This blog entry was exactly what I needed to propel my momentum forward in the right direction. Thanks!

  8. Thank you so much for this, Lisa! I just sat down and worked out the Because, But, Therefore pattern for my current WIP, and while I had most of it in place already (having read your books and worked with you on Cruising Writers!), I discovered a kink that I need to fix. Perfect timing! ♥

  9. If we cannot make our readers care deeply about what happens to the protagonist, then it doesn't matter what's in the plot. Thanks for a helpful bit of perspective and an easy tool.

  10. There is no coincidence...but, this is hitting my inbox at just the right time, because I need to massage my WIP with the backstory necessary to show why the stakes are so high to the characters. Therefore, I thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing this today!

  11. Therefore what? Therefore what? I have to know what happens to Ryan and Emma!

    Also, this is great. I'm doing a workshop with Shannon Donnelly on plotting from your character, out, at the moment and this ties in perfectly. Thanks for sharing you expertise.

      1. I would love to present with her! At them moment though, she's just giving me a headache with her tough lecture notes and exercises. Oof, I can feel my brain stretching. 🙂

  12. I'm a pantser with a little bit of planning, and I keep notes as I go along to keep facts and characteristics straight

  13. Good story logic! I'm going to look at some of my work, old and new to see how I can apply Because, But, and Therefore.
    I thank you for the continued support of me and other writers.

  14. I attended a seminar for Pantsers at a conference, and decided that wasn't for me. At another seminar for plotters at the same conference, I came away discouraged and wondering who wrote books the way I had learned to. Yet now that I'm working on books two and three, I'm encountering some of the blocks and barriers many of you have talked about. Thanks for these three words. I'm going to stick them on the wall in front of my desk.

  15. You gave me this gem last year and it made a lot of things work better in my writing: "..the story isn’t about the plot anyway, it’s about how the external problem the protagonist faces causes her to make a long needed internal change...."

    And this post helps me work the above concept around my plotser/pantser self, so thank you. Thank you so much. I can do a scene by scene with this to find the holes a whole lot easier than the way I do it now.

    I love it when I read a post I can USE.

  16. Thank you for this valuable road map. It makes perfect sense to me. Now I will go back through my WIP nearing completion of its second revision to look for these markers. If they're not there, I will know that it won't be ready to send out to the world until they are.

    Thanks again Lisa.

    1. After I read your blog yesterday I went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. At some point in the film I realized I was taking mental notes of all the backstory relayed through flashbacks and dialogue. You were absolutely correct, there was tons of it. Big light bulb moment for me as I watched/listened to how a master storyteller like JK Rowling did it. Makes me want to see it again purely from a technical viewpoint. This helped me enormously.

  17. This article has useful information, and I appreciate your efforts. I have read your book, and now I'm studying your book. Thank you so much. Luther

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