We’re welcoming story coach Lisa Cron to the blog today. 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.
Story 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.
TIP: This misbelief is usually the result of an emotionally wounding event your character experienced before the story begins.
This Emotional Wound Database at One Stop for Writers dives into many types of trauma and can be a big help when it comes to brainstorming & understanding a character’s painful past.
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.
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.
Do you know what your character misbelief is? Let us know in the comments!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.