Become a Story Genius: How Your Character’s Misbelief Drives The Plot

We’re welcoming story coach Lisa Cron to the blog today. Her new book, Story Genius, released not long ago and is traveling toward me via drone, or spaceship, or whatever thing Amazon’s using these days. I can’t wait for it to arrive. 🙂

Lisa has some great thoughts on the inner struggle happening inside a protagonist, and how defining the why behind this struggle is the key to unlocking a powerful story that will capture your readers.

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story-geniusStory is not about what happens on the surface, but what goes on beneath it. It’s about what the protagonist has to face, deal with and overcome internally in order to solve the external problem that the plot poses. That means that the internal problem pre-dates the events in the plot, often by decades. So if you don’t know, specifically, what your protagonist wants and what internal misbelief stands in her way, then how on earth can you construct a plot that will force her to deal with it?

The answer is simple: you can’t.

That’s why a generally interesting idea, a dramatic plot and lovely language aren’t enough to capture the reader’s attention. What readers are wired to come for is insight into what people do when push comes to shove and, most importantly, why they do it. We’re looking for inside intel into human nature, the better to navigate this scary, beautiful world ourselves. That’s what my book Story Genius is all about. It takes writers step by step through the process of developing a novel that will do just that, and so at every turn, we ask why.

I’m here today to talk about the single most potent place to ask why, which is your novel’s Origin Scene – that is, the moment when your protagonist’s defining misbelief springs into being. The big question the Origin Scene asks – and answers — is: why does your protagonist so wholeheartedly believe something that is so wrong?

In order for this to make sense, enter novelist and book coach, Jennie Nash, who develops a novel from scratch within the pages of Story Genius so that readers can watch the process in action. I am going to use her examples so you can follow along and nail this key scene in your own work in progress.

Here’s Jennie breaking down her fledgling story idea:

“What if a woman – I’ll call her Ruby — who’s spent her whole life believing she’s successfully hedged her bets against love (of people, of things, of dogs) is on the verge of losing everything—the one person she’s felt close to, her lifelong career, and her grasp on reality? Mad with grief, she has one chance to set things right, but first she must convince those around her that she’s not suicidal. So she devises a scheme to steal a dog for an hour or two, believing that ‘getting’ a dog will reassure the people in her life (who are dog lovers) that she’s back on the path to emotional stability. But when she can’t get rid of the dog, she’s forced to confront the fact that the very thing she spent her life avoiding—connection—is what makes the inevitable grief of loss endurable.”

Now that we have a basic notion of the story Jennie is developing, the question is: What is Ruby’s misbelief? In other words, what does she believe about the world that the story will force her to examine? Jennie boiled it down to this: “Not only isn’t love is worth what it costs, it weakens you.” Now, it’s your turn!

 Step 1: Ask yourself, what is my protagonist’s misbelief? What one, defining thing does she think is true about the world that is going to be proven false?

Think in terms of bumper stickers here. Cheaters never prosper. Technology is evil. Pride goeth before the fall. Your protagonist’s “aha” moment at the end of your novel when she finally overcomes her misbelief, will be where your novel makes a point. Perhaps cheaters DO sometimes prosper, perhaps technology is not ALWAYS evil. In Jennie’s story, Ruby will come to realize that love IS indeed worth the cost.

Does EVERY story have a misbelief at its core? Absolutely, regardless of genre.

Step 2: Brainstorm possible scenes where the misbelief might have first taken hold in your protagonists’ life.

This step is about finding that moment in childhood when life forced your protagonist to embrace a belief that, even though it isn’t really true, saved them from a difficult situation. This misbelief doesn’t make your protagonist a dope, an idiot or evil. Back in the day when it first bloomed, the misbelief made them smart. It allowed them to adapt to what the world threw at them, and thus survive – but soon after that it began to undermine them. Only they don’t know that. As far as they’re concerned, it’s a hard-won bit of very useful inside info, becoming a seminal part of the lens through which they evaluated everything from then on — the lens that your plot will be constructed to shatter.

Once you’ve pinpointed your protagonist’s misbelief, your goal is to trace it back to its origin, which will then allow you to trace it forward as it takes root, becoming the foundation of the inner logic that drives your protagonist’s action.

Don’t be afraid to try many scene possibilities here. Here’s Jennie talking about her process:

           I knew that because my character’s misbelief is about love and loss and her struggle being around grief, that someone was going to have to die. So when I thought about where this misbelief begins, it seemed natural to me that it would be when she first saw somebody lose someone.  But I didn’t want it to be so up close and personal that she’d be devastated, so I came up with the idea that Ruby was going to watch her best friend lose her dad.”

Step 3: Write out your Origin Scene as an actual scene

Like all scenes, it will chronicle a single event. It will be specific. You will need to set the place, the time, the context. Don’t simply focus on what happens externally; let us know what your protagonist is thinking as she reacts, internally, to everything.

Let us see the protagonist change from a person who believes X to a person who believes Y, and make us understand why. Put her inner struggle right on the page so we can experience her internal conflict ourselves. This will help you find specific answers to the underlying WHY that drives your novel: why does your protagonist act the way she does, think the way she does, make the choices she does? This is where it all begins.

Download Jennie’s Origin Scene Here

In this heartbreaking scene, Ruby’s belief – that the love this family had was going to keep them strong – is shattered. Instead of saving them, she realizes, their love is what did them in. In that instant, her worldview shifted and she was left feeling lucky that she didn’t have the love she’d longed for. That misbelief is going to guide every decision that Ruby makes until the novel begins, 35 years later.

And THAT is why we ask why, because one specific leads to another, driving your novel from start to finish, yanking the reader deep into the heart of the story.

story-genius-workshopLisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. If you are interested in working through all the Story Genius concepts and getting feedback as you go, check out the Story Genius Novel Writing Workshop at authoraccelerator.com starting October 4 or in mid-January 2017.

Do you know what your character misbelief is, and have you written the origin scene to get a better handle on the inner struggle he or she will face during the story? Let us know in the comments!

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About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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39 Responses to Become a Story Genius: How Your Character’s Misbelief Drives The Plot

  1. Elodie Colt says:

    But is it really always a misbelief that drives the character? Let’s take Hunger Games for example. Katniss believes that the system is evil from the beginning, and that belief doesn’t change – if anything, it grows stronger throughout the story, and at some point so strong, she decides to fight (maybe that’s step2 you’re talking about?). I’m just asking because I have a dystopian story where the protagonist also knows that the system is bad but isn’t allowed to doubt the system that was put upon the people. Or do I have the wrong way of thinking here?

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  6. Carol Malone says:

    Does this original scene become the first part of the book, or is this just for your information, the backstory from which to draw all the characters’ problems and future hangups?

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Great question, Carol! The answer is that the Origin Scene is very often in the novel itself, either as an entire flashback, or in bits and pieces as the protagonist struggles to figure out what to do, given the curve balls the plot keeps pelting her with. It’s also a font of inside info in terms of why your protagonist does what she does, and how she’s reading the world, and the memories she uses to make sense of what’s happening in the moment. After all, the past is lens through which we evaluate meaning in the present. In other words: your protagonist’s story-specific past is the most seminal layer of the story you’re telling, and it’ll be laced into every page. As Faulkner so brilliantly said, the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

  7. mshatch says:

    I love reading about ways to deepen my characters and having read a bit about Story Genius on Writer Unboxed (awesome site btw) and now this, well, I may have to move this book to the top of my wish list. Now for a question (concerning my own hahaha complete novel which I’m revising. again): One of my characters overhears a conversation which leads to the discovery that she’s the true princess, and the girl wearing the crown isn’t. Her belief wasn’t faulty, necessarily, but it was untrue, and this of course leads to the journey. My question is, where would I find an origin scene?

    off to amazon now…

    what if the character discovers something about herself which changes who she thinks she is?

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Great question! If I understand correctly, what you’re looking for might be the moment in the true princess’ past when her world view was knocked out of alignment, and her misbelief took hold.

      My question is: What belief does the true princes (who doesn’t yet know that she’s the true princess 😉 need to overcome in order to actually assume her true role? I don’t mean an external misunderstanding (like the fact that she thinks the other girl is the true princess, but she’s wrong), but what does she believe about how the world works that’s wrong? What, if anything, does she believe about her inner self that’s wrong? Once you figure that out (and you very well may be sitting there going, YES, I know what it is!) the question becomes: what made her believe that? What happened in her past that taught her that lesson? That would be your origin scene. Does that make a lick of sense?

  8. Rahma Krambo says:

    I’ve been pondering this since I read it yesterday.

    Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out who the protagonist in my story is. I use the Hero’s Journey at lot and think in terms of the Hero as the Protagonist. But the character who has the biggest Arc in my book is the one I had thought was the Antagonist.

    His misbelief comes from believing his father didn’t love him, but did love his brother. His jealousy drives the plot, leading to seeking revenge against his brother. In the end he realizes his misbelief and redeems himself.

    So I’m thinking now that the Protagonist and the Hero are not always the same. This is a real game changer for me.

    • Lisa Cron says:

      What a great discovery, Rahma! Here’s another thought: I’ve often found that the Hero’s Journey doesn’t fit many, many very compelling stories. My advice is always, forget the story structure models, because ironically, they don’t focus on the story at all, but on the plot. It sounds like here you did focus on your story — and ended up with something very compelling but that doesn’t “fit” the model. Yes!!!

  9. Suzanne Lewis says:

    Ive been struggling with my WIP for years and finally THIS is so helpful. I know what my protagonist’s misbelief is– she’s a young 1960’s southern budding lesbian and learns early that she will be rejected for those feelings. She must decide whether pretending to be straight will help her survive or drive her into alcohol abuse and a nervous breakdown. Is that enough of a plot or am I still missing something? Thank you.

    • Suzanne Lewis says:

      Just ordered the book!

      • Lisa Cron says:

        That’s fabulous, Suzanne! It’s definitely enough to begin building a plot that will force her to make that choice. The question now is: what WILL that external plot be? In other words, what overarching plot problem will force her — scene by scene — to grapple with that very potent internal struggle? It sounds like you’re on your way — yes!!!

  10. Glynis Jolly says:

    This is brilliant! I’ve bookmarked this post so I can refer to it numerous times.

  11. Judi Ring says:

    Sorry. That should have been she thinks she can’t do anything right.

  12. Judi Ring says:

    How would you handle this if the origin of the misbelief has been an ongoing thing? My protagonist thinks she’s unloveable and can’t ever do everything right because was drummed into her all her life.

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Great question, Judi! What you might zero in on is the one moment — one scene — in which that message really took root, probably in childhood. The goal is to pin down the event in which it suddenly became clear to her, and her worldview shifted. I’m betting from what you’re saying here that it wasn’t the first time she was told she did something wrong. But it would be the moment when she made the connection: I never do anything right, and so I am not worthy of love. Probably a moment when she thought that she HAD done something right, and was about to get the love she longed for. Just a guess! Hope that helps, let me know!

  13. Thanks so much for visiting today, Lisa. This is such a trouble spot for so many, and it’s wonderful to have some light shed on it in a tangible way that is easy to understand. 🙂

    • Lisa Cron says:

      My pleasure, Angela! It’s such an honor to be here. One thing I’ve always said is that all story is emotion based — if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. In other words, the Emotion Thesaurus is indispensable. Here’s to the power of story!

  14. Jan says:

    Does the scene need to appear in the book?

    That is, can it be referred to in backstory without being developed as a dramatic scene?

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Jan, I love this question! The scene very often does appear in the book, but it doesn’t have to. However, yes, it needs to be developed as a dramatic scene regardless. It’s only by digging deep into the specifics — especially this early in the game, when you’re creating the live wire that will then run throughout the novel – that you can capture the essence of the protagonist’s misbelief. It’s not pre-writing, it is writing, and it pays off a thousand fold. What you discover in this scene is gold, and can be your novel’s north star. Take your time with it, and nail nuance, every layer. Hope that helps!

  15. Loved this! You helped me get past a big hurdle with my WIP. Thanks. Reblogging and sharing my experience.

  16. Rahma Krambo says:

    Wow. I read a lot about character motivation and what drives a story, but never encountered the concept of Misbelief as a tool to dig deeper. Thank you! This is definitely going to help!

  17. Dave says:

    This entire concept, outlook, and guided path through a complete novel using this process is intriguing. As far as my own story is concerned, I would say I was lucky to stumble upon my protagonist’s misbelief ~ success is always solely about what obstacles you are able to overcome in pursuit of your objective.

    I will definitely be checking out Lisa’s book. Thanks for bringing it to light!

    • Lisa Cron says:

      Wow, Dave, I love that misbelief — especially since it rings so true, and I haven’t heard it before. I’d love to hear more! That’s what I love so much about working with writers, I always learn something new that changes everything!!

  18. Wow . . . mind blown! This is amazing stuff, and I will DEFINITELY be popping over to Amazon for my own drone-delivered copy. 😉

    • Done! Copy has been purchased and I’m so excited!! Thanks for this awesome info, ladies.

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thank YOU Shannon! And can you believe that Amazon really is going to start using drones??? When I first read that I was sure it was an article from The Onion. Then again, these days I’m always thinking: I know truth is stranger than fiction, but I didn’t think it was THIS strange 😉

  19. Jack T. says:

    Unreal! After half a century of study, I thought I had incorporated every aspect of character building and development; I can go to sleep tonight knowing that I have learned something profound today. Headed off to link this at my writers’ group, Scribblers’ den.

  20. I went back and looked at my two protagonists using this as a prompt. Came up with this for my WIP that takes place in the south in 1950. Lillie, a light skinned black girl thinks being white is better. Kate, a country girl, thinks all she is good enough to do is work around animals. Interesting how this led me to think more of their needs too. thanks again.

  21. Carol Baldwin says:

    Awesome, thought provoking post. Many thanks

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