By Ann Rousseau Smith, SCBWI CenCal News Liaison
Lisa Cron, story analyst, speaker, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructor, faculty member of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in New York City, and author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, will be leading a workshop, Wired for Story: Becoming a Story Genius with Story Coach Lisa Cron, on Saturday, February 16, 2019, in Santa Barbara.
Lisa has worked as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. As a story coach, she has helped writers, nonprofits, educators, and organizations master the power of story.
Lisa agreed to answer some questions ahead of her February workshop.
ANN ROUSSEAU SMITH: We are looking forward to your visit to the SCBWI CenCal region. What is a story coach?
LISA CRON: Great question! I can only answer this for myself – what I do is work with writers to be sure the story they’re writing makes sense, and is on the page – think story logic. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Here’s the thing: story logic does not come from the plot, because the story is NOT about the plot. The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist, internally. It’s about an internal change, not an external one. Which is why story logic comes from how your protagonist is reacting internally to what’s happening, and how that drives the choices the plot forces her to make. In other words, it’s not about what she does, it’s about why she does it. As a story coach, I help writers dive deep to create that internal “why” and then make sure it’s what’s driving the story forward from the first page to the last.
ARS: What is the difference between plot and story?
LC: Let’s dive a bit deeper! The plot is simply what happens externally in the story. One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is believing that the story is about the plot. It’s not. The plot is there to force the protagonist to make a needed internal change. In other words, to overcome a longstanding misbelief about human nature – about what makes people tick – that has been holding her back. And since a story revolves around how someone deals with a problem they can’t avoid – the plot, that is, the external problem – is very often something the protagonist brought on herself. Not in a finger-waggy, “shame on you, you only did it to yourself” way, but because it’s the unintended consequence of decisions the protagonist made; decisions based on what her past life experience taught her were good decisions. Decisions that she believed would keep her safe.
Which is why all stories begin in medias res – a fancy Latin way of saying “in the middle of the thing” – the thing being the story itself. Page one actually begins the second half of the story. The first half (yes, backstory) is what creates the protagonist’s longstanding misbelief, and very often the problem that’s hitting critical mass there on page one.
Backstory, as it turns out, is the most crucial layer of story. It is where all story logic lies, and it’s laced into every single page. Neither “pantsing” nor “plotting” are very effective ways of writing, because both begin the process pretty much on page one. Which is like saying, I’m going to write a story about the most important turning point in someone’s life, who I know absolutely nothing about. The takeaway is: The story begins long before page one, and it’s what creates both the protagonist’s misbelief, her story-long agenda, and the plot itself. Without it, the plot becomes “just a bunch of things that happen.”
ARS: How has your past experience helped you as a story coach?
LC: I’ve worked with story, manuscripts and writers for more decades than I want to admit to being alive. And what I learned from reading thousands of manuscripts is that what tanks most manuscripts is NOT what writers have been taught it is. It’s not about the “good” writing, or the “plotting.” Because what actually rivets readers is this: how what’s happening affects the protagonist internally, forcing her to struggle with what action to take. In other words, story is not about an external plot-level change, story is about the internal change the plot forces the protagonist to make in order to resolve the plot problem. Story is internal, not external. Knowing that enables me to zero in on exactly what’s missing – and more importantly, why – and what to do about it, in every manuscript I read.
ARS: Can you tell us about your nonfiction books, Wired for Story and Story Genius?
LC: Wired for Story is theory, along with very specific questions you can ask of every story you write. Story Genius is prescriptive. It takes that theory and transforms it into an actionable, step-by-step plan that you can use to create a riveting story, beginning with the first blush of an idea.
LC: The best answer is a description of the workshop! To wit:
Every writer wants two things: to tell a story that hooks readers and never lets them go, and to find a way to accomplish that without going through the long slog of endlessly writing draft after draft. This workshop provides clear, actionable ways to meet both goals. Instead of rooting around in your “plot” for the story, you’ll unearth the key elements specific to your story that will thencreatethe plot, bring it to life, drive it forward, and give it meaning. These elements have little to do with the surface events or “writing well” and everything to do with what we’re hardwired to respond to in every story we read (turns out the brain is far less picky about lyrical language than we’ve been lead to believe). You’ll be able to zero in on what your story is actually about before you write word one, or if you’re in the midst of your umpteenth rewrite, before you write another word. You’ll not only produce a more powerful novel, chances are you’ll drastically reduce your rewrite time.
You’ll leave knowing:
- What the reader’s brain is hungry for, why, what a story actually is, and why writers are therefore the most powerful people on the planet.
- Why all stories begin in medias res (Latin for in the middle of the thing)
- What your point is. All novels make a point, beginning with the first sentence.
- What your story is about. You will create a What If?that captures both the external and the internal story you’re telling.
- Who your protagonist is before your plot kicks in.
- What your protagonist enters the story already wanting very badly, and as important, why she wants it.
- The longstanding misbelief that’s kept your protagonist from getting what she wants.
- Your protagonist’s story-specific worldview, including creating her “origin” scene, the moment in childhood when her misbelief took root.
- How your protagonist’s misbelief has driven her choices from its inception up until page one.
- Whether your escalating plot problem has the power to force your protagonist to struggle with her misbelief, ultimately forcing her to change.
- When your novel opens, and why.
- Your protagonist’s ultimate “aha” moment.
You’ll gain the skill and confidence to succeed as a storyteller, no matter where you are in your writing career: If you’re starting from scratch you’ll be able to take a story idea from fuzzy to crystal clear so you can write forward with confidence. If you’re in the midst of a WIP, or even in the midst of revising, you’ll be able to do an in-depth diagnostic that will reveal what’s working, what isn’t, why, and exactly how to remedy it.
Thank you, Lisa!
For information on SCBWI-CenCal events (open to all SCBWI members!), go to http://cencal.scbwi.org.
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Photo provided by Lisa Cron.