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What makes a story memorable? What keeps readers turning the pages? Lisa Cron explains her tips for writing a story that readers love.
This is a pre-recorded intro as I am currently traveling in Israel. If you want to see the photos, pop over to Facebook.com/JFPennAuthor
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Lisa Cron is a story coach and the bestselling author of Wired for Story and now her new book Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages that Go Nowhere)
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- How Lisa's new book, Story Genius, follows along from Wired for Story with more practical application for writers.
- Lisa's definition of story and why she would remove The Hero's Journey from that equation.
- Why story is about what is under the surface of what we experience every day.
- How books that are poorly written can sell so well.
- What politicians and advertisers know about the human condition that writers need to pay attention to.
- How Lisa disagrees with Anne Lamott's description of first drafts.
You can find Lisa at www.WiredForStory.com and on twitter @lisacron
Transcription of interview with Lisa Cron
Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com. And today, I'm here with Lisa Cron. Hi, Lisa.
Lisa: Hi, Joanna. It's so great to be here. I can't begin to tell you. It's just so strange, I'm so far away and yet it feels like we're in the same room.
Joanna: I know, it's very cool. Just in case people don't know you, here's a little introduction.
Lisa is a story coach and the bestselling author of “Wired For Story,” and now her new book, “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining And Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).” That's a hell of a subtitle, Lisa.
Lisa: It sure is. Oh, man, it really is. It's like, can you say it without running out of breath? I think.
Joanna: It's pretty hard but we're gonna get into the book in a minute, but you were first on the show in 2012, and I can't believe it's four years later.
Lisa: I know.
Joanna: It's crazy. So give us a bit of an update.
What have you been up to? What do you do as your day job? Why this book now?
Lisa: Okay. That's a great question. I appreciate it. From then to now. I've been working with writers in one form or another. I've been teaching, I've been speaking all over the place, which is so deeply fun because there is nothing more fun than being in a room full of writers talking story.
My day goes by, and I start working at 5:00 in the morning and end it about 10:00 at night, and the time just goes by so fast.
But what happened was when “Wired For Story” came out, almost immediately I started to be asked, “Okay, well this is great but to some degree it's conceptual.” You know, I get what you're telling me, and that was a hard thing actually about writing “Wired For Story” which was, you know, it all came from working with writers and reading manuscripts and going, “Okay, where is this going wrong? Why is it going wrong?” And it turned into the principles that are in “Wired For Story.”
But I remember when I was writing it thinking, “Okay, here's 16 different things you need to know concurrently, how do you put that out in a linear way?” So I broke it down.
But people were coming to me and saying, “Okay, I get all that. But what do I actually do? Like how do I do that? How do I take it and put it into a novel where I'm beginning from beginning to end? How do I create a novel that does that as opposed to just seeing if this little thing works or that little thing works or this piece of it? How do I either start from scratch and go forward? Or if I'm already in the middle of something, how can I really tell it's working or not? How can I apply that so I'm sure that I've actually got something, you know, that's gonna rivet readers?”
And really the answer is, honestly, from the very sentence, because otherwise you tend not to have a reader.
“Story Genius” is how you take those things step by step, from the first glimmer of an idea, and come through with the framework, the foundation of the story that you're gonna tell. And be able to go forward. And so that book, it's 100% prescriptive so that you're doing things all the way through.
Although it does have a couple of chapters in the beginning where we're talking about, you know, here is the theory and here is what a story is, and here's why. I tend to think and I know this is incendiary, but I think it's just got wrong everywhere, so this is why and this is what you really want to come to and think about when you're writing.
I never liked this term even when I was inviting classes myself: exercises, because it always sounds like, okay, but that's separate from my writing. I'm going to do an exercise to do something but now.
What you do throughout the book is, again for lack of a better term, exercises that goes to your specific story. So every single thing you do is specific to the story that you're telling.
And the last thing I'd say about it is that in none of it is pre-writing. Every bit of what you do ends up in your novel either for better scene form or giving you that foundation, either it goes from beginning to end.
That's the foundation that most people don't even think about, not because there's something wrong with them, but because it isn't taught, because they're not taught to focus on it. They're taught to focus on the external, and that just ends up with, as agents and editors will tell you, 99% of what comes in. It's just a bunch of things that happen, it's not a story.
Joanna: And that's what I wanted you to come back on because I had an editor on the show a few weeks ago and he said the same thing. A big mistake writers make is: here's a pile of paper, and thinking that that is a story.
You said you spent years in rooms talking story with people. And on one side it's like, yes, we know what a story is. We're all readers. But when you actually write a story it becomes quite difficult. Let's just get back to basics.
What is your definition of a story?
Lisa: Okay, my definition is…and let me just say it once and then let's break it down, if that's okay? And you can stop me at any point because I can certainly go on and on. And ain't that a thing?
My definition of story is a story is about how what happens, affects someone in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.
And if I could just break that down quickly. It's about what happens and that what happens, that's the plot and that is merely the surface of the story. It is not, and I can't say it strongly enough, it's not what the story is about.
Here's another totally incendiary thing, if it was up to me, I would get rid of every story structure book out there starting with The Hero's Journey because first of all that's a misnomer.
It's not story structure, it's plot structure and it's starting with just these things that happen, and that inherently gives you an empty shell with no actual meaning. So it's about how what happens, which is the surface, it's the plot, how it affects someone, and that's the protagonist.
When we're lost in the story, it really is like, I like to use the term, it's like a Vulcan mind meld with the protagonist. The protagonist is your reader's avatar and everything that happens in the story, or over here in the plot, get its meaning and emotional weight based on one thing and one thing only; how it is affecting your protagonist and what they feel as they struggle with what to do.
It doesn't mean that it affects them just in general, for example, your protagonist can't stand to be cold, and over here in the plot it's snowing. And so they're gonna steal a coat because they don't have one.
I mean how it affects them in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal which is that, for lack of a better term, plot problem, story problem because stories are about how we deal with the unexpected.
They're about how we deal with something that we probably would really like to just take a nap and it's just going to go away. It's how we solve a problem and how we change. So there's something difficult that they want. If your protagonist isn't struggling or is just having a great time and going from party to party, it's anecdote after anecdote, you got one of those piles of pages.
It's how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal and then how that person, the protagonist, changes internally as a result, how their world view changes. And that is what the story is actually about.
In other words, story isn't about the plot. Story is about how the plot affects the protagonist and is internal. It's not external, it's about that internal change. What would it cost us to make that change that we have to make in order to adapt to what's happening outside.
And if you're thinking, is it right to change from what to what, like what does that mean? That's why before you can even create the plot, you have to figure out these two things that a protagonist, all protagonists in the end of the story will have already fully formed.
Something they want really, really badly and then what I call a misbelief that usually was deeply ingrained early in life, it's actually what's keeping them from getting it.
Story is about how the plot forces them to go after that thing that they wanted long before the plot started. But to get it, they have to overcome this misbelief, they have a change of getting it and to see things differently. So that's basically my kind of long, my big nutshell version of what a story is.
Joanna: I was on Facebook earlier on a forum and this author was ranting about someone else stealing his ideas. This is a well-published author complaining about a TV program stealing his ideas. And honestly I didn't even, I didn't say anything on it. Why I'm bringing this up is so many people think that there's originality in the idea. And what you've just described as a story, they're all the same.
Lisa: They're all the same.
Joanna: Where is the originality? People listening, you hate the idea of prescriptive story writing.
What is prescriptive? What is original? What do we bring that's original?
Lisa: I think that prescriptive story is the story structure books. I think prescriptive is when the shape of a story actually has to look like this: on page 20 this has to happen, on page 100 this has to happen, here's your end of act 2. I don't think any of that is true.
It doesn't mean that a finished story might not hit all of those points but that's not what you come at. It's in how specifically this affects a specific character and how their specific world view changes, so we get that insight as to what it's really like to have to go through that's based on who that character is.
That's where originality comes from. It's funny, I did a book signing a couple of weeks ago and someone, some man raised his hand, “I've heard that there's only seven plots, you know.” And it's like it's always men who ask questions like that, I have to say.
But it's like, yeah, okay, what? I said, “You know, there's really kind of only one story.” Interestingly I think on that level, what most people are writing about is human connection, the cost of human connection. What does it cost me to connect.
When we evolved a couple hundred thousand years ago and our brains had that big growth spurt that we've been told had to do with analytic thinking, that's when we got the ability to think analytically, what evolutionary biologists and psychologists now think is that that's when our brains were rewired and now we need to belong to a group. We really need to belong, to feel like we're part of something. Like they talk about lone wolves. I don't even know if there's lone wolves with wolves.
There's no such thing as a lone wolf. We're all people who need people. And it's that balance of how much of myself can I keep and get what I need. But I've also got to help other people and be part of a group because I can't make it alone. And where is that balance? Everyone on one level or another, I think, is writing about that.
The originality comes into this internal struggle and what does that character bring to it. That comes from that story's specific lens that they walk on to page one with. This thing where we come into some new situations, this external thing is going to happen to us that would be a plot of a story. We're not like tabula rasa, we don't walk in with no background. Everything we do, every choice we make is based on one thing and one thing alone, which is what our past experience has taught us that that needs.
And based on what we want and what our agenda is. And that's where the originality comes in. That's why you can't copyright an idea, you can't copyright a premise, because a premise is nothing. A premise is just kind of a thing that happens.
It's a way to start, but you have to dig into the why it matters to your protagonist and who that person is from the get go. And if I could just say, “Well, it seemed to be very clear,” I don't mean like you need to know a lot about your protagonist in some big, general, like to a big bio sort of way, which I think is just as worthless as knowing because how do you know what matters and what doesn't if they tend to be very shallow. Again, a bunch of what as opposed to why.
Really it's digging into that story's specific question. What does that misbelief do? Where did it come from in their life? What was the moment where it happened? Write me that scene, usually it's in childhood. And then I could go on and on and on.
And that's why, I mean think of love stories, there's bazillion of them. Some feel formulaic with, “Oh, my god, I've already seen that 12,000 times. You're not giving me any inside intel. You're not giving me a fresh way to look at it that I wouldn't have thought of or seen.”
That's what we come for, that fresh inside intel that I can now use either to guide my life better, or so that I understand the people around me.
I notice that when I work with writers it's like all of a sudden they're going, “Wait, what's my defining misbelief?” And suddenly they go, “I understand the people in my life so much.” For better or worse, you understand them so much better because you don't know just what they're doing. You really have an idea of that deeper why.
And the last thing is often almost always that deeper why is completely different than what it looks like on the surface. And that's what we come for. Here's what you're saying, what you're really thinking because these two things are often not the same thing.
Joanna: I agree with you on that. When I was reading your book, I was reflecting on the books that are memorable to me. And the books that are memorable to me are different to the ones I would say are more like fast food.
I read Lee Child, “Jack Reacher.” I wanted to bring this up because Jack Reacher is described as a lone wolf and there is no change in the protagonist. Jack Reacher arrives as, you know, with a toothbrush in a town, he acts like John Wayne, and then he walks out of town and he hasn't changed. The situation has changed.
I wondered what your opinion was in these episodic series books. I have series characters and they go on adventures. But they can't change too much because I want to have lots of books, you know what I mean?
Joanna: I agree with you when it comes to the bigger standalone books. But how do we do that with a series that might go on for a long time?
Lisa: I think there are whole layers to that answer. I mean first of all, again, you need the lens that that character walks onto the page with and how they're analyzing things because that's how we make sense of things.
I think in most series, “Jack Reacher…” I read the “Killing Floor” and it felt to me like I got a lot of his, you know, for lack of a better term because I think it's one of those really misunderstood terms in writing, back story. Meaning the lens through which he's seeing things. So whether he changes or not, we need insight into why he's doing what he's doing, and into how he's making sense of what's especially in a mystery because we come for how are they going to figure that out. But I think in the deeper ones, there is some change.
I haven't read all of them but Elizabeth Georgia's Inspector Lynley series. One of the things she said, I love this quote, she said, “I chose to do a series because as a reader, I love series.” And I mean I do too. My big love growing up were mysteries. I love Raymond Chandler.
But she says, “I love series. I always have ever since I was a child,” just like me, “but only series where the characters move and change through time.” And that is the point, they are moving, they are changing.
I think, even the characters where they don't change like James Bond or Poirot or Jack Reacher, they're still making sense of things based on their past. And the more you like them, the more you do go into their past.
I think same thing of Sue Grafton, she said of Kinsey Millhone, you know, her and she's got…we're gonna have to get a new alphabet, right?
Joanna: Yeah, she's got 26 now, I think.
Lisa: Exactly. What is she gonna do? And she said, “Kinsey doesn't change so much but the reader learns more about her,” and this is the key part, “and how she sees things.”
Joanna: Got you.
Lisa: And that's what we're talking about. The other part of it is that if you are writing some kind of a mystery series or thriller series, or like “Jack Reacher”, you need to know these same questions about for lack of a better overarching term, the perp, the bad guy, because that's what we come for.
We just don't want to see that they did some horrible thing, we want to know why. What did they believe that made that be okay? What happened in their lives that's allowing them to see things so drastically differently than the way that we do?
I just read a book, called “Perfect Days” by Rafael Montes and he's Argentinean. And it's about a guy who's a psychopath, and is told in the first person, and he hasn't changed at all. But just being in his skin and seeing how a psychopath would read things differently than the way hopefully you or I would read them is riveting.
That's what makes it interesting, how are they making sense of it? And we don't make sense of things in general, like in some sort of general we've all got the same rule book.
We make sense of things based on one thing and one thing alone, and that's what our past experiences taught us. And so the story is creating your protagonist's story specific past that then leapfrogs into the story. The plot comes out of this almost always.
Again, scenes from there are in the story and the thoughts, the memories, stories specifically are laced into every single page. It's one they're always writing, it's not wrong, people or back story. You don't put that in.
There's one I've heard, somebody very big in the writing circles will say, “You don't put any back story in the first 50 pages.” And I think, “Have you ever read a book?” I could you name you off the top of my head 10 books that not only do that but do that on the first page. Because that's what we need, it's just that they do it artfully. All of that advice tends to mean is just don't do it poorly, like I totally agree with that. Don't do it poorly.
Joanna: Don't info dump.
Lisa: Don't tell us for the sake of telling us. It's there because the character is making sense of what's happening in the moment on the page. They're always going to make a difficult, hard decision in every scene that they're in.
And the way they make that decision is to dig down into why this matters to them and what that moral choice needs to be. And so that's what we're looking for. And you can't know that without diving into these things first. And that's how you get completely what your story is about. And again, I could go on and on and on. So, that's the answer to that, and another thing.
Joanna: And then thinking about this, again, a lot of people in the indie author space write a lot of, we write a lot of books. And when you're talking about what the story is really about, I think this often comes down to what the author cares about. And there are often themes that come out over and over again in an author's work.
Lisa: Most authors.
Joanna: For me, good versus evil comes up over and over again.
Is good versus evil what the story is really about? What do you mean by what the story is really about rather than just the plot?
Lisa: The story is about how the character changes. That's where we're in that person's skin. I mean literally, biologically when you're lost in the story, the same areas of your brain light up that would light up if you were doing what that main character is doing. Maybe that's why we like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I don't know.
But the point is that internal making sense of change, that's how you make the point. You don't make it in some big external thing because that's the surface world.
We live in the surface world. We get the surface world. We understand that completely.
What we want to know is what's going on beneath the surface. It would come down to figuring out what's your point, but then how does that plant specifically in the story that you're telling?
It's not just good versus evil because so what? What point are you making about good versus evil? What defines good? What defines evil as far as you the writer is concerned? What are you trying to say? Why does it matter to you? And then what would this character's conflict would be?
Where they would be pulled towards, for lack of a better term, evil thought. Where is that internal moral struggle? And that's what you would really figure out.
It's personified within that character's going through your novel. But that's what you need to know. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of hard things happening and the character is reacting for surface reasons. What happens is then you have a plot and the character has to react in the way the plot demands them to. And now you don't have individual characters, you have plot puppets. And this keeps it the other way around because all stories at the end of the day are character driven. Every story is character driven.
It's that old thing, oh, well, literary novels are character driven and, you know, and mass market is plot driven. It could not be less true. It could not be.
Sure, mass market might have bigger, more things blow up maybe, not always. A lot blew up in “The Goldfinch” but it's still all about that internal struggle because that's what we come for, and that's what you wnat to nail, and that's where that good versus evil comes down to.
Because everything else is just conceptual. We don't live in a conceptual world. We live in a specific world, you, me, everybody. Everything out there, good versus evil, we actually only care about it based on how it's going to affect us, given our agenda. Otherwise, it's just some conceptual thing and we try to focus on it and we find that we're really thinking, “I'm hungry. I wonder how much longer until lunch?”
Joanna: You mentioned “Fifty Shades of Grey” there and you do mention it in the book.
A quote from the book, “We don't come to story for beautiful language, poetic writing, or even dramatic plot points.” So, why has “Fifty Shades of Grey” sold 100 million books and “The Goldfinch” which won literary prize, I think it won the Pulitzer, right?
Lisa: It did, it did.
Joanna: Why is that? I think that is now voted or whatever.
They found it was the number one book that people bought but didn't read.
Lisa: Full confession, I read both. I love “The Goldfinch.” I deeply loved it. It's totally flawed.
The reason is because we don't come for beautiful language. Because what does beautiful language even mean? Like what is language?
‘Wordsmith', which is a term that makes me gag, honestly. Because what are words? They don't have any meaning by themselves. It's a conduit. A word is an empty vessel. What makes a word beautiful isn't the sound of it, it's the meaning it conveys and that's where a story comes in.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” grabs us and we are in Anastasia Steele's skin. I mean anything is about sex, it always has. Like you can't talk about it with that them being these unintentional double entendres. You just can't go there without that.
But it's about something, and we care about her, and we understand where she's confused. We understand what she wants. We understand what is going to cost her, and that yanks us all the way through. Is it poorly written?
Donald Maass and I did a thing, we both blog on the Writer Unboxed, and so we did a thing, it was supposed to be called 50 Things Writers Can Learn From “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I think we stopped at 70-some just because we had to just go, okay, we're just going to stop now because we can go on forever.
But I did one of those, you know, those Amazon searches where you could see how often something is repeated in a novel. Holy crap was repeated 40 times in the first book alone.
Joanna: And my inner goddess?
Lisa: If you used inner goddess for a drinking game, you'd be in rehab before you are halfway through the book.
It is really poorly written, but it grabs people because it's a story and because we care, and because she made us care. Even as part of your brain is going, “If she mentions the beige background or something one more time, I'm gonna…” You know, it didn't matter. You wanted to know, you felt that sense of urgency.
The problem with a lot of literary novels, I think it was there was just something in the Times about, you know, going to that exact point. It was the Pulitzer and it sold 1000 copies or 1,500 copies. Because here's the thing about, I'll say something totally incendiary, I think the worst big book ever typed and written is “Ulysses.” I think it is unreadable. I think it is horrible.
But one of the reasons I think that it pulls people, that people are afraid to say that they don't like it, goes to something Steven Pinker talks about. The linguist and behavioral psychologist, or I forget what exactly what he hangs his head on the most, but he talks about the fact that we are wired to want to survive and to survive well.
And this is where the story goes to, it's not so much about surviving – like I need enough food or I need enough water – but it's surviving in the social world. That doesn't mean dating. It means, you and me and everybody we know. How do we survive? And wanting to survive while seeming smart. I think that there are a lot of people who want to say they've read books that are hard because it makes you seem smart.
I do not mean this in a judgmental sense. I don't mean like they're trying to fool us. I mean we've incorporated that enough so we actually believe that that does somehow make us. So people I think are afraid to say, “Yeah, that was really boring,” or “That was really awful,” or “I couldn't do it,” or “It was work.”
It's this idea of if it's work, it has more meaning. And my feeling is if you have to work at it, if it's not pulling you in, it's not a story. It's not doing its job.
It entertains you to put your biology literally on hold. You leave the real world and you're in the world of the story.
Because we come to every story asking that one question, “What am I going to learn here that will help me make it through the night?” In your cognitive unconscious, you don't think that. And that's what stories do.
If you're working at it, if it's work, it's not a story, at the end of the day. Which doesn't mean you don't get something. I think Ulysses was successful back in the day because it has dirty bits in it. And you couldn't publish dirty bits, and I think everybody went through all that stuff to get to those.
Joanna: Oh, that's funny. Yeah.
Lisa: I'm sure I'll get trashed for that, but that's what I think.
Joanna: I think that's really interesting. I agree with the kind of work/fun thing. I used to be a business consultant. I worked really long hours, I worked very hard. I used my brain all day.
All I wanted at lunch hour and on my commute on the way home and in bed was escapist thrillers.
Lisa: Right, right. But the key thing is this, we don't turn to stories to escape. We turn to them to navigate reality, but it feels like an escape.
Lisa: I think the reason that we don't see the power of story is for the reason you just said, which is we love them so much. We love them so much and they make us feel so good that we think that that's what it's about. We start and stop there. It's to escape reality.
It's really is how to navigate reality, and that's what we don't realize. On that level we're affected by stories every minute of every day in terms of how we see the world, and we don't know it. That is the scary thing. And the people who know it aren't writers. The people who know it, this is what makes it even scarier, are advertisers, are telemarketers. Or if you look at our country right now, politicians. They know how to do this. And writers tend to not.
There's no such thing as mindless entertainment, there is no such thing. We are affected all the time, and it just changes how we see the world.
I think we're affected even more than we used to be for two reasons. One, because there's long-form story now in a way that years ago there couldn't be.
And second of all, because we don't interact with people as much as we used to because here we all are. All you guys out there who are watching or listening, and Joanna and I, we're looking at each other, but we're not in the same room. You don't get that much interaction. We're used to bringing it in by watching or reading, and then projecting that out into the world because that's what stories, that's what they're for.
They're far more powerful I think than we know. That's why I firmly believe that writers, like you guys out there, you're the most powerful people on the planet because stories are the most powerful communication tool. You're changing people, your stories change people.
That's why you want to figure out: what's my point? How do I want my reader to walk away? What do I want them struggling with? What do I want them thinking about? That's the first question because writing is hard. Once you know that, it definitely makes it easier because you have that sense of purpose.
Joanna: I agree that writing is essentially sort of mind control of the reader at the moment they're going through that story. And it's funny you mentioned your American politics and we won't go there, but there's a hell of a lot of storytelling going on.
Joanna: It's like a master class in whatever kind of storytelling. I want to come back to you. You're saying you're incendiary, but there was something else that you mentioned which was Anne Lamott's “Bird by Bird.” And everybody loves Anne Lamott's “Bird By Bird.”
Lisa: I love Anne Lamott.
Joanna: Yeah, she's amazing. And she talks about the shitty, and this is a quote everyone, shitty first drafts.
But you disagree with her definition.
Lisa: I do. And I think that this is where writers make a massive mistake.
Where Anne Lamott makes a mistake, and I think the “Writing Well” makes a mistake, is she says because it's the shitty first drafts, and again these are her actual words, she calls it the child's draft. And she said you can let it all…you can romp all over the place, let anything, you know, come out.
I hate to say this, it's like a NaNoWriMo, it's just gonna come out because at the end of the day, no one's gonna see it anyway, you can go back and rewrite it.
And that could not be less true. Because at the end of the day, somebody is going to see it and that person is you. And you're going to go back and you're going to go, “Oh, my gosh, here's this thing. It rhymes all over.”
And then you're going to go, “Okay, it's a shitty first draft. I get it, I'm a writer. No such thing as writing, only rewriting.”
But the problem is is when you go back to rewrite, and again I'm not saying in any way we do this on purpose, but your task and allegiance is to what you've already written, and not the story you're trying to tell, especially when you're not 100% sure what that story actually is.
Writers go back and they're looking for connective tissue. It's like they want to keep as much of what they've got and they're going to try to stitch it together with some sort of story logic from the outside in, which is impossible to do.
Now you've got kind of like a Frankenstein thing, right? And it made no sense before and now it makes even less sense.
The heartbreaking thing is, that's when writers go, “I don't know what made me think I was a writer. Like I wrote it and then I threw all this other time in and out. It's terrible and I'm gonna give up writing and I'm gonna take up, you know, like I don't know, like interpretative dance or something.”
But the thing that always killed me about that is that where they went wrong often had very little to do with their ability to write or their words, and everything to do with their ability to tell a story.
Because there's some massive difference between a shitty first draft of an actual story and one that romps all over the place.
It's just the worst advice ever in my opinion. Because when a writer goes, “Oh, I'm just letting it out and then I'm gonna come in, I'll show it to you.” I was like, “Don't do that, don't do that. Let's talk now.”
Because the mistake you're making is right there in the beginning and that everything after that is going to have to go because you didn't dig down and it isn't really about things.
When I was in publishing and as an agent, you often feel that writers write something and they give it to you and they're hoping you're going to tell them what it's about.
Lisa: It's about 300 pages. I have no idea. It's just a bunch of things that happened and it's heartbreaking.
Joanna: It's funny when you say it like that. I know what you mean because I think years and years and years ago when I first tried to sit down and write it's like, oh, just sit down and write what you feel. But unless you actually learn what scenes are and how to write from a character point of view, and I hate to say structure but, structure in some form, then you do end up with a whole load of random stuff.
But let's see, can we make it more specific because going back to your massive subtitle, going beyond the outlining to write a riveting novel. I know we've talked about a lot of things but something more specific around not throwing it all on the page.
How do we go beyond outlining?
Lisa: Right, because you can't. Stories don't begin on page one. That's the big mistake. We read and we think, “Okay, you know, I read and I start at page one then get to page 327.” So when I write I start on page one. It's a linear form and it's not, because you don't know what that is.
All stories begin in medias res, Latin for in the middle of the thing. Page one of the novel is the middle of the thing. The story goes back this way. So the beginning is really to figure out, because people come with that idea of, “Okay, here's my premise. Here's where I think it's gonna go this way.” But then it's really digging down and going, okay, why is that gonna matter to you because it's not about that. It's about this inner change that they're gonna have to make.
And it's really digging back to figuring out okay, what are their inner wantings? What is that thing that's going to hold them back? Which usually takes you all the way back to their childhood, a misbelief which is something that grabs them when they're very young, and we all have this.
If you start looking at your life, you'll see it's kinda terrifying actually. You know it's something that you had real, some difficult, traumatic, usually psychologically traumatic situation where a belief saved you. It was adaptive at that moment, you know, learned very quickly.
I won't go into it in depth, but if you were in the family and you realized in some very specific moment that every time your sister did something nice, kind of unsolicited, she really wanted you to do something that's going to get you in trouble for her. You come to this moment where you go, “Okay, wait a minute. The nicer someone is to me, the more they're trying to cheat me.” So every time somebody is super nice, that means they want something and now I don't trust them.
Now in that moment that was true, that was adaptive. That probably saved that person from something horrible. But if you take that belief out into the world and that's how you see things, that is going to steer you wrong from most of your life because you're not going to trust the very people who do see you and the very people who do care about you.
So it is figuring things like that out, again and this is in very specific detail, and then how that has driven that person's life also based on what they want. And then they get to the plot which is now going to force them to go after that.
There's a ton of stuff that you would figure out in terms of that person's life specifically based on what we just said, not in general, that would lead you up to the beginning and up to that thing that's going to force them to go forward. And then it only goes forward based on how it's affecting them internally because that's what the scene is.
Because that's why I get scared when people think of okay, let me learn to write a scene. Yeah, that's important but the most important thing to think of is that a scene is like if you picture, you know those big, like a concrete bridge over something like you're driving over it, but it's made of concrete slabs and you can kind of see where the slabs are.
You think you got a flat tire going over them because your car goes thump, thump, thump. It's like think of every scene is one of those slabs. So the scene before leads to the next scene, the cause and effect, that scene is there and then it leads to what happens next.
So coming into every scene, you've not just got what happened before in terms of like plot-wise, but you've got how that's changing your protagonist, why it matters to your protagonist. Because in every scene, they're going to go in with an agenda, wanting something.
And this is an agenda that is story long, from first page to last. They've got all characters have a defining agenda. Everything they do is to make that agenda real. So you know that in every scene they're trying to advance that agenda.
Same thing for every secondary character which means you need to know specifically what that is. And you need to know how in that scene they're trying to advance it. What does it mean to them?
Then something happens, scenes are all broken into two parts, every scene. But they come in, the first half is the cause. The second half is what that changes within the scene.
So they come in wanting something that has meaning. They do something, they've got to struggle. They always have to make some sort of tough choice in every scene. That's what takes us to that internality, that's how you get that backstory in. Because with all of us, the way we make sense of things is to look at the past, that's our decoder ring, to try to figure out what does this mean really? What's really going on here?
And then we think about what we might do. We play against the future, is this going to help me with my agenda? And then we make the decision and that's what you need in every scene, on every page. Then they do what they do within the scene.
Usually it doesn't go the way that they wanted, that's where structure comes from. It's internal and external, and in every scene they change. In every scene, that a-ha moment, that change that we're talking about, that they go through, they come in and the story will disabuse them of that scene by scene by scene, kind of going back and forth and back and forth. But in every scene there is this slight change where how they're going to achieve their agenda shifts a little bit.
And that's basically a scene. This method allows you to do that and figure that out both in the future and going forward. So you don't end up with, and I don't advise anybody every write a full outline of anything ever without going forward. Because it is this internal that changes it, when people write outlines they can only outline the external.
These two things kind of go hand in hand as you're going forward. And the rest is kind of too complex to sum up quickly in a few minutes. That's basically it and there is a card system that helps you map it out as much in the future as you can go, and keep track of all these moving parts that you've got. Because the story has tons of moving parts and writers tend to not realize that.
That everyone in every scene has that overarching agenda, every secondary character. And you need to know all of that within each scene to write a compelling scene. But to write a scene out of order or just this cool thing would happen, never works, never works.
Joanna: I do talk about the writing craft being like an iceberg, in that you can write a novel with the little bit that's above the surface. But you can then spend the rest of your life learning all of these types of stuff, and your book has a whole lot of really great stuff in. I totally urge people to get it. One last question before we finish.
You've read thousands of manuscripts probably now and as you said, you worked with Donald Maass. And what we've said is there is an archetypal story. What do you think is the thing that makes books like the “Hunger Games,” “Harry Potter,” or “50 Shades,” you know, “Gone Girl.”
Is it publishing luck? All these stories might have the same elements that are strong, but what does pop, you know, enable a story to pop, do you think?
Lisa: I think it's immediacy. Something is affecting somebody. We understand what it means to them, not just on the surface like a meteor is coming at me and I might get killed, like we get that.
With Harry Potter, what it meant to him in the beginning. “Gone Girl,” we instantly get what's going on with Nick when Amy isn't there and he talks about that in that opening page. What are you thinking, Amy? I wish I could unspool your brain. What's going on? It's that internality. It's never about what happens, it's about why and how it affects the character and why they do what they do.
And they need to be responding and I think it's actually this in the moment on the page, as they struggle with what to do so that we're feeling that internality of it and we get what this up here is costing them inside and why they're not willing just to say it, because that's our life.
Brene Brown is great, her original TED Talk about vulnerability is we're afraid to show even what we believe about. It's so courageous to be a writer because you're letting the world know what matters to you. And that's what we come for, I think that's what makes people buy those books and actually read them, because they want to know that. Oh, my god, out here they think they're doing it for this reason but I'm inside their skin and I know it's really this over here.
How are we going to find that out? That's what pulls us in. And without that, we don't care what something looks like, sensory details do not bring a story to life per se. It's only when they're there for a story-specific reason to tell us something about what's happening and what it means to someone.
If you look you'll notice that on every single page, that's what does it. It's that making us feel it. Because again, it is that Vulcan mind meld. So if what's happening isn't affecting your protagonist, not only just happy, sad, and some sort of big feeling, but affecting how they're thinking about it. How are they going through this and trying to decide what to do. That's where emotion comes from. It doesn't come from happy or sad, it doesn't come from my heart was pounding or my leg was jittering.
It comes from how they're making sense of it internally, that's what pulls us in. But only in terms of this tough decision they got to make in the moment. Not like long rambling musings, which is how people do it wrong, or some big general thing that has no application to what's happening.
They are thinking about it because the plot is forcing them to in the moment and it takes some action and they're not sure what to do. That's how it was watching them make sense of things I think is the key thing.
And then yeah, there's a lot of luck. That said, there is a lot of luck as to what's gonna hit and what isn't, and I would guess that with “50 Shades of Grey,” you could probably find like a blind taste test, right? And you could probably go out there and find six other trilogies and if they said, “Okay, read these and tell me which one you think sold a hundred million copies,” you wouldn't be able to tell because that part is luck. It's just luck.
Joanna: Yeah, and that's the business of everything. There's luck in pretty much everything so, you know, let's just get on with it. So, fantastic stuff. Tell us where can we find the book and everything about you online.
Lisa: Okay. My website is just wiredforstory.com. You can find me there. I have a newsletter that goes out usually every Friday, and I have a downloadable thing. It will give you like 11 takeaways, the 11 best takeaways from “Story Genius,” so you could take a look at that. And then “Story Genius” is available, you know, Amazon, you know, in bookstores online, all of the usual places you will be able to find it, and “Wired for Story” also.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Lisa. That was great.
Lisa: Oh, my pleasure. It's always fun, Joanna. I hope we meet again soon.
Marion Hill says
I really enjoyed this episode. I love when you have podcasts about Story Craft and how we better can learn how to tell better stories. I truly believe learning how to tell a story is the best way to bring more readers to our books. I went ahead and got Wired for Story first and then I will read Story Genius next.
Pete Bauer says
This was an uber-awesome interview. Came at the perfect time for me. Having finished a series that had been in my brain since 2008, it was daunting to start over with a new series, new characters, etc. I don’t have 8 years to let the idea gestate, so this interview was incredibly helpful to me. I bought her book as soon as I was done listening to it.
Thanks, Joanna! You’re amazing!
SC McCole says
I respect you a great deal Joanna, so I’ll be blunt.
This was the best—and the worst—story advice I’ve heard on your podcast (and the fastest-talking guest ever.)
Lots of us writers, especially us plotters (which is the only way to effectively write 80k+ words, just saying!) need to be reminded that all stories are character-driven. Lisa’s advice is a much-needed reminder to focus on depth of character in every scene.
Throw out structure? Oh no no no. I issued an audible “WHAT?!” Lisa calls out Lamott for giving the “worst advice ever,” but this takes the #1 spot.
Character and Plot are two sides of the same coin. Neither can exist without the other. They are the Yin/Yang of story and hold together an unbreakable synergy in the monomyth.
Structure is critical in both plot and character development. Both need to be mapped out to some degree. I would love to be presented with a list of bestselling novels (of any era) that have no structure—I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of white space on that page.
And love your work, both fiction and non-fiction Joanna.
You are a pioneer and information guru for the indie community.
Joanna Penn says
I thought this interview might be contentious – and in fact, I personally disagree with a lot of what Lisa says. But I have also had a lot of people who LOVE it – so I’ll assume that people will take what they need from the shows and ignore the rest 🙂
Thanks for re-Tweeting.
I rather feel this was a real “been to the mountaintop” experience. (I was going to state it in more emphatic terms but didn’t want to get dinged for profanity 😉 )
Thx for all you do, Joanna.