By Lisa Cron
Writers are the most powerful people on the planet. Yes, you! You have the power to change your readers in a more profound way than almost anyone else they encounter.
How? By allowing them to experience, first hand, the profound change your protagonist goes through in the pages of your story.
Sounds like magic, doesn’t it? It is in a way. Here’s the scoop: Stories are the world’s first virtual reality. They allow us to vicariously try out difficult situations that might paralyze us in real life, the better to give us useful inside intel on how to best survive should those situations befall us. So sure, your reader might be devouring your novel while sitting in her most comfy chair, but biologically, that story has catapulted her out of her own life, and into your protagonist’s. And as your protagonist’s worldview changes, so too does your reader’s.
But there’s just one caveat: for that magic to happen, you must actually tell a story. And the biggest problem with most manuscripts, as one freelance editor recently lamented, is that most of them “are just a pile of pages, not a story.”
Turns out that it’s relatively easy to write a pile of pages, but not nearly as easy to write a story. As the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once quipped, “most people know what a story is, until they sit down to write one.”
So, before you sit down to write another word, let’s first define what a story actually is. Then we’ll dive into three simple questions you can ask to ensure that you’re telling one.
What a story actually is – the nutshell version
A story is about one single external problem that grows, escalates and complicates forcing the protagonist to make a long-needed internal change in order to solve it (or not, if it’s a tragedy).
What is that one single external problem? The plot. What is the story about? The long-needed internal change the plot will relentlessly spur the protagonist to make.
That’s why at the heart of every story is an irony: what the protagonist thinks will solve the problem and get her what she wants is actually the thing that’s keeping her from it.
Here’s the secret: a story isn’t about whether or not that external plot problem is solved – Will the protagonist save her daughter? Rescue her brother? Keep the earth safe from evil intergalactic unicorns? Of course we care about those things, and we’re dying to know how they turn out. But what has us on the edge of our seat is how that external problem is gradually forcing the protagonist to change internally, giving her the insight and the strength to solve it. Readers are wired to track the internal change—the shift in how the protagonist sees the world, the shift in why they’re doing what they do.
This means that you can’t start by simply envisioning the plot. First, you have to envision the internal change that the plot will force the protagonist to make.
If you’re wondering, Wait, what change? Change from what to what? Why? That’s exactly what these three simple questions will unlock.
To be very clear: these are questions to ask about your protagonist’s impending internal change before you shove her onto page one of your novel. Right now, as far as she’s concerned, her life is probably going to go on just the way it always has; she has no idea about the deliciously dark and stormy night you have in store for her. In other words, you’ve got her right where you want her.
1. What does your protagonist already want?
Every change we humans make is based on one thing only: how it will help us achieve our agenda. This doesn’t make us selfish – heck, your agenda could be coming up with a cure for insomnia (please). Or to bring a smile to everyone you meet (that’s sweet). Or to create an ad campaign that would convince people once and for all that cellulite is actually quite lovely (please, please).
The point is, until you know what your protagonist will enter the story wanting, you can’t figure out what change she will have to make in order to get it. So ask yourself: what, specifically, does my protagonist already want – whether she’s aware of it or not? The more concrete your answer can be the better.
2. What external change does your protagonist need to make in order to achieve her goal?
Here’s a maddening irony: we’re often completely oblivious to the very changes we need to make to have a shot at getting what we want. In fact, we tend to instead embrace our current iffy behavior, thinking it’s helping us.
For instance, that ace copywriter whose dream it is to change how the world views dimply thighs? She really, really wants the big promotion that’s up for grabs because it means she’ll get the dimply thigh project, but she not only doesn’t tell anyone (even her boss) that she wants the job, she lets everyone else take ownership of her ideas, which of course they’re all too happy to do. If she doesn’t speak up soon, she’s going to get passed over again!
Bingo! The ability to stand up for herself is the external change she needs to make if she wants to have a shot at her dream. Now the question is: why doesn’t she just speak the heck up for goodness sake? What’s stopping her?
3. What is keeping your protagonist from making this change, internally?
This is where you’ll strike gold! Because we’re about to leave the surface world—the world of what your protagonist does—and dive into the world of why she’s doing it. This is the layer that readers come for, the layer that brings your novel to life, giving meaning, urgency and conflict to every single thing that happens. What mesmerizes readers is your protagonist’s internal struggle, the one that leads, scene-by-scene, to the change they’ll have to make.
The question to ask yourself is: what deeply held belief is causing your protagonist to take such misguided action? Because as far as she’s concerned, she’s not making a mistake at all—she’s doing exactly what she should do, except that for some reason she can’t quite figure out, it’s not working.
For instance, maybe that ace copywriter doesn’t dare ask for the promotion she so dearly wants because she believes that pride goeth before the fall. And so if she has to tell her boss how much she deserves it, it will not only prove that she doesn’t deserve it, but that she is arrogant to boot. To her, that’s not a “belief,” it’s a fact.
Aha! That is the misbelief that your plot must now force her to question and overcome if she’s going to get what she wants.
Now that you know the specific change your protagonist will have to make, and why it’s so darn hard for her, you can begin to create a plot that will spur her toward it every step of the way – whether she likes it or not.
And here’s the bonus: by digging deep into your protagonist’s past to answer these three simple questions, you’ve already unearthed the story-specific info you need to envision the single escalating plot problem you’re going to throw her into. After all, you’d never toss her into a pile of pages, not when there’s a compelling story to tell.
Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story and Story Genius. Her 6-hour video course Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at CreativeLive.com, and her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.