Let’s talk about another great tool in the writer’s toolbox: Story Genius by Lisa Cron.
Where many craft approaches emphasize what to do in your writing to make it work, Story Genius is about understanding the human mind in order to understand how we process story. The angle is a good one because it focuses on the goal of getting your work to click with readers, instead of relying solely on the nuts and bolts of story craft itself. While those components are important and have their place, considering how literary work is processed helps to “crack the story code” and “make the invisible visible.”
First off, what is the point of storytelling? Beyond writing a novel or publishing work for the market, where does story come from? It’s as old as the first humans sitting by the fire and sharing what they experienced in their day. As Cron points out, the human mind learns about the world through experience or being provided with information in the form of other’s experiences. Think about it, what is formal education other than the sharing of information that others have gleaned from observed experience? This is the case for scientific discoveries, historical observation or mathematical formulation. Information about experience is being transmitted from teacher to student. Likewise, fables transmit shared societal expectations (morals) through story.
The work that we do as writers is the transmission of information through an entertaining or engaging format. So, as outlined in Story Genius, the way to make that transmission successful – and to make our readers fans of the experience – is to understand the process of approaching and engaging with story.
“Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does – not by telling us what is right, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves.”
“It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning, thus emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit, straight from the protagonist to us.”
This is why a good story places the protagonist directly in the crosshairs of a problem that cannot be avoided and must be dealt with using the skills at hand – the protagonist’s goals and motivations. The events of the plot must force the protagonist to change. This is not new information; many a craft book tells us the same. Beautifully written phrases or exciting action scenes mean nothing if the protagonist must not change. This matters because we cannot turn away from the opportunity to see how the protagonist goes through that change. As readers, we are asking ourselves how we would respond in the same situation, how we would change faced with the same problem. It may be tempting to say that we could never be in such a situation – caught up in a political conspiracy or suspected of murder – but the base tension remains the same. How would we respond to situations out of our control? Watching a protagonist do so draws us in. And when the world, goals and motivations that have been built are believable, the reader easily lets themselves be immersed in the story.
Story Genius also guides its readers through more concrete steps of crafting story, along with the exercises to put those steps into action. Some criticism of the book is the challenge of doing “pre-work” or writing exercises that won’t make it into the actual draft of a novel. These extra steps can be frustrating, but they are worth the detour when working with the internal story elements and preparing the challenges that will test the protagonist.
For many of us, the writing is the goal, the activity that brings joy. But if we want our work to reach others, to resonate, to bring them back again and again, it behooves us to keep in mind what is happening for our readers when they approach our work. We focus on what our characters want, but we must also focus on what our readers want, even beyond the goals they have in mind. Understanding what is happening inside of our readers is as important as understanding what’s happening inside our character’s heads.
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