I recently chatted with Lisa Cron about her most recent book, Story Genius, a detailed guide for writing a compelling novel. I have known Lisa for a long time and largely attribute my deep understanding of 'story' to our many conversations over breakfast at our favorite diner 'Rae's' in Santa Monica. And I continue to learn from her!
In this interview I was particularly struck by her insights around how traditional writing is typically taught - as early as kindergarten - leaning on 'technique' over 'story'. Perhaps my ears perked up because I have a four-year-old daughter. Even so, it makes me reflect on my own foundation and evolution, and the ways I've had to unravel and re-learn, thanks to people like Lisa who has made teaching 'Story' her life's work.
So I hope you'll take a moment to glean some Cron wisdom...
LISA CRON has worked as a literary agent, a TV producer, and a story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and many others. She is a frequent speaker at writers' conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. She teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA in Visual Narrative Program, and is the author of Wired for Story. She splits her time between Santa Monica, California, and New York City.
In her book Story Genius, Lisa takes you step by step, through the creation of a novel from the first glimmer of an idea, to a complete multi-layered blueprint--including fully realized scenes-- that evolves into a first draft with the authority, command and richness of a sixth or seventh draft. It follows on the heels of her first breakout book, Wired for Story, which offers a revolutionary look at story as the brain experiences it.
Karin: You call yourself a “Story Coach” versus a “Writing Coach,” why is that?
Lisa: When people hear the word “writing” they think, “How do you write? What's your technique?” and that comes at it from such the wrong place. Because story begets writing, not the other way around.
That's why people who know me well, when I'm working with someone, and I go, “Well, you're a really good writer,” they know I'm about to tell them something awful. That's not a compliment.
What is “You're a really good writer” code for?
For me, it's code for: you can write a sentence, you can write a generic scene, you can use words but what you're using them for isn't there. It's not about writing; it's about story. The power comes from the story not the writing. It's story first. That's what ends up giving power to any words. The problem is that writers think that the words have to be there first. It keeps them from getting into the starting gate, let alone out of it, because everything has to be beautifully written from the get-go. And if you don't know what you're talking about or writing about or what the story is, what are you using those words for?
Why do we have it all wrong?
I spent the past two years in this small school district in New Jersey that was K through 8. They wanted to figure out how could they incorporate story into how they teach writing. I've always said that writing is taught wrong everywhere. Originally in my head I was thinking post-secondary. And I got there and I went, “Oh no, it's starts in Kindergarten. I see exactly where the problem is.”
Kids in second grade are taught “theme.” What does that even mean? It doesn't mean anything. I tell adults not to use that word; it's a horrible word. You don't say, “What's my theme?” You say, “What's my point?”
It's taught in terms of technique. It's taught in terms of using beautiful, flowery language. It's taught in terms of mastering how to write a sentence.
I'll give you a great example. I worked with this great literacy coach at the school, and she told me before I got there, “I just want to let you know what you're up against.” About a year or two before I got there - I can't remember if it was a third or fourth grade class - but there was a little girl who came up to her and she'd written about the time when her parents sat her down and told her they were getting a divorce. And so she's reading a piece and she's holding back the tears trying not to cry. And the literacy coach said, “This is so beautiful, this is so amazing. Let's go show it to your teacher.” And so the teacher read it and the first words out of her mouth were, “Um, you missed a couple of transition words here.”
That's the problem.
Besides the fact that it's taught in terms of different techniques and pretty, flowery language - flowery language is very much applauded - they get these prompts that are things like, “Jane was walking on the beach, and she found a bottle with a message in it. Write a story about what happened...” Or “Joe woke up and heard some noise in the backyard and looked outside and there was a castle in his backyard. He decided to go in and explore. Write a story about what happened...”
Prompts are always like that. It's just a big weird thing that happened. But there's no story in that, why would that matter? I don't know.
The problem is, writers are taught the technique of how to write: here's how to write a sentence, here's how to write a paragraph. But when it comes to actually writing a story, they're not taught anything. And the thing is, ultimate and complete freedom is not liberating. It's paralyzing. Because how do you know what matters and what doesn't? What's the point? You're just standing there knowing nothing.
So I said, here's what a story is: it's character, problem, struggle, solution. They didn't know that a story is about how somebody changes. They didn't know that a story was about an internal struggle. They didn't know any of that. For them a story is just what happens. Adults hear it, too. “Okay, here's what a story is: it has a beginning, middle and end.” Show me something that doesn't have a beginning, middle and end. I mean, what does that even mean? Again, it means nothing.
People don't teach story. Writing is taught as if you learn how to write somehow a story is going to appear by itself. You get good with words, you develop your voice, which is bullshit anyway, and then somehow you're going to write forward and a story is going to appear; and if it doesn't, it means you don't have any talent. That's what kills me.
When people say things like, “I have a love of language,” I'm like what the hell does that mean? Language is nothing; language is an empty vessel. Language is a means of communicating something. How can you be good with language if you don't know what you're communicating? That comes first. Then you have the language with which to express it. Story first, writing second.
I think the key thing that is missing - the seminal mistake - is this belief when you start writing, you start writing on page one and you go forward to the end. When actually all stories begin 'in media res' - meaning in the middle of the thing - meaning that there is just as much of it before as after, and that there are certain very specific things in developing story that you need to do before you get to page one. Which is not in any way, shape or form “pre-writing” but everything that you develop “before” is actually in the novel itself; in fact, the most foundational layer of it and on every single page.
Are you talking about the relevant backstory?
I hate the term “backstory.” Backstory is story. My favorite quote that I've been using is Faulkner who said, “The past isn't dead, it isn't even past.” In other words, when the character steps on the page, they bring that with them, that's how they got to where they are.
It's the lens through which the protagonist - and really every character - sees everything. It's how they evaluate everything. It's how you evaluate stuff; it's how I evaluate stuff. There is no general reality out there. We make sense of everything, and everything gets meaning, based on what our past experience has taught us what those things mean. So if you send someone onto the page without knowing that, in a story specific sense, it's like pushing them on to the page with amnesia.
Tell us about your new book Story Genius...
Story Genius takes you step by step, from that first glimmer of an idea that sparks you, all the way through a method as to how to dig down and how to really get that first draft on to the page -- and what you need to know and how to do it. It's literally 100% prescriptive: here's what to do, here's the next thing to do, here's the questions to ask, here's the test to put your ideas through, here's what you're looking for.
If I could burn every copy of The Hero's Journey and every story structure book out there, I would make the biggest bonfire ever. I think any story structure method is awful and I'll tell you why.
They're like plotters; they start with the external story. They go, “This has to happen at this page, that has to happen over here”; they're looking at external structure. Story structure is a byproduct of a story well told. The plot is not what the story is about. The story is about how the story is affecting the protagonist and the plot is created to force the protagonist to go through a very specific internal change that they needed to make before the plot ever was even conceived of.
Those books will take very successful, well-known movies or novels and they'll break them down based on this theory. And the thing is, you already know that movie. You already know that novel. So the internal story, the thing that is really giving it meaning, you already internalized. So when you look at the external stuff, you think, “Oh I'll just make the external stuff and that internal stuff just shows up.” And it isn't true.
Story structure builds things from the outside in; story is built from the inside out.
Can you talk more about re-defining theme as “What's your point?”
All stories make a point on the first page and everything goes to that point. The point is how the character changes internally, that 'aha' moment at the end. It's kind of like that dithery friend who's going on and on and on... and you're smiling... and what you're trying to do is not shake them by the shoulders and go, “Why are you telling me this? What's the point?” If you don't know what the point is, then you can't write a story that tells it. You have to know.
It comes down to - and it's surprisingly deep - why does this matter to you?
I use that phrase a lot, “Why does this matter?” It's a much more relatable way of talking about it than “theme.”
Well, “theme” is scary because it's general. And when people think of theme, they think of that thing that hovers over. The thing is, the story is in the specific.
But I've noticed that it can take time to uncover and really get to - at least for memoir - the deeper, underlying truth of the experience and why it matters and what the actual change is that you're writing about. So what do you suggest?
Everybody enters wanting something really badly, something that they've wanted for a really long time, not something that they want once the plot kicks in. You've got to figure out what that is.
Their “misbelief” is what's keeping them from getting this thing that they want. I would never use the term 'fatal flaw' because it sounds so finger-waggy. It sounds so pejorative. And I would never use the term “wound” because it turns the protagonist into a victim. But it's a misbelief. Once you know that, you ask yourself, “Where did that come from?” It came in childhood, almost always; and I would guess that's definitely true with memoir writers. It defines how the character sees the world.
A misbelief is something that happens in a difficult situation that saves the character from something really bad happening. And in that moment it's true; but it's actually not so. So characters believe this misbelief; they feel like they are super lucky to have learned this early in life. And it drives their life. Once you've identified that and written it in scene form, when it kicks in you can start to trace it through story specific events that led the character to what's going to happen to the character on page one.
I'll give you an example I use all the time. I even have it in the book. Did we talk about the movie “Protagonist” ever? It's a great one; it's a documentary.
So in this movie “Protagonist,” there are four men telling their stories. One of them is this guy Mark Pierpont and he's gay. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian enclave. It doesn't sound like they were in a cult - it wasn't David Koresh or anything - just very fundamentalist. He felt very loved and felt very close to his mom. But he, I guess like all of us, felt like he was different. He didn't quite get 'why' but it didn't matter. And then one day at school - he was 11 or 12 - someone came up to him and said, “God hates faggots.” And he went, “What's a faggot?” He went to the dictionary and looked up the word; and that became the defining moment in his life. If what I want most is love and connection, but if I have that, God isn't going to love me? Therefore, I can't be gay.
And he lived his life based on that. He got married to a woman!
When did he have to confront that misbelief?
The thing is, in a story the character is confronting it in every scene. In every single scene they've got to make a tough decision, and the story is what they have to struggle with to make that decision.
As I recall, I think the moment of truth was when he became one of those guys who was counseling other guys that they could not be gay. He was counseling someone who so deeply reminded him of himself that he couldn't do it. And he became the great guy - flamboyant with a capital “F” - that he was always meant to be. But you watch him buck it his whole life.
The “point” you're making is that 'aha' moment, what it takes to change someone on that level. And now the character can solve or not, depending on what kind of novel or memoir you're writing, that external plot problem.
A story is one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates.
Story Genius is not a formula. I never go into any kind of formula. I just go into, “This is what a story is and these are the things you need to know about your character and what's happening in order to then tell a compelling story.” There's no formula to it at all. Just, “This is what you need to get to, and those other methods won't get you there.”
Look at E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car in the dark, you can only see as far as your headlights but you can make it all the way there.” No you can't. If you have a natural sense of story, then maybe, but the rest of us are driving off a cliff. And that doesn't mean you're a better writer.