Why is story so important — no matter what genre we write? How can we use emotion to hook readers — and also tap into what matters in our own lives? Lisa Cron talks about these questions and more in this discussion about Story or Die.
In the intro, Ultimate Guide to Copyright [ALLi]; How do you see your book — is it a baby, is it art, or is it a product? [Jane Friedman’s blog]; The History Quill convention online; The Creative Penn Podcast Survey (by 21 Dec);
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You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
Lisa Cron is a story coach for writers and a story consultant for film and TV, as well as a professional speaker. She’s also the author of Wired for Story, Story Genius, and her latest book, Story Or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life.
- Why story is so important for humans — and why it’s present in every area of life
- What stories are really about
- The brain chemicals that a good story will activate — and how to write so they are triggered
- Story principles in non-fiction
- Emotion telegraphs meaning
- The three biggest lies that are taught about writing
You can find Lisa Cron at WiredForStory.com and on Twitter @LisaCron
Transcript of Interview with Lisa Cron
Joanna: Welcome back to the show, Lisa.
Lisa: Thank you. It is an utter pleasure to be here.
Joanna: I’m excited to talk about this again. So, quoting from the book, you say, “Story far predates written language, and evolved as an essential survival tool, long before it was mis-classified as fiction,” which I love.
Why does story matter in every book we write, no matter the genre?
Lisa: Well, because first of all, story is story, regardless of genre, regardless of the format, whether you’re talking about a two-word tweet or War and Peace, it is always the same.
And it predates, really, everything. It really goes back to, if you want to think about it, our brains’ last, as we’ve all heard, big growth spurt, which was about 100,000 years ago. What we were taught, what evolutionary biologists thought for a long time, was that the reason for that growth spurt was because that was when we got the ability to think analytically. That analytic thought became possible at that time. And that’s true, it did.
But what they know now is that that wasn’t the reason for it. The reason for it was because by that time, and we were, at that time, in the middle of the food chain. And by that time, if we were going to leap to the front of the food chain, which we did, we needed to learn to do that thing that we’ve been told to do since kindergarten, since primary school, which is, we needed to learn to work well with others.
At that time, the need to belong to a group became as hardwired as is our need for food, air, and water. You often get people who go, ‘I’m a lone wolf. I don’t need anybody else. I’ve done everything on my own. I’m totally self-made.’ And I always want to go, ‘Well, you do know the wolves travel in packs.’
In the wolf community, a lone wolf is a wolf that has done something that was so egregious to the pack that they’re ostracized and left to die. The point is, is that we really are wired to need to work with other people and to band together in order to figure out literally how to survive.
That’s where story comes in, because story is the thing that lets us step out of the present, so we can envision the future and think about what would we need to do in order to survive the next wolf pack attack or saber-toothed tiger attack, or how to bring food together. And that’s really what stories are about.
At that time, it really became wired that stories aren’t just about how to solve something logistically, like how to survive a wolf attack.
Stories are really about how to survive in the social world.
When I say in the social world, I don’t just mean the world of dating. I mean literally the world of other people. Because that’s what we come to story for.
Now, for the past 100,000 years, and in every story, what we’re wired to come for is asking that question, ‘How is this going to help me make it through the night?’ How is it going to help me achieve my agenda, given what I want? Is it going to help me? Or is it going to hurt me?
And stories are, again, about the internal workings, literally of the mind. Why is somebody doing what they’re doing? Story is never about what someone does, because what someone does on the surface, and the reasons we attribute to it, are almost always wrong.
Stories are about why they’re doing it, and how they’re making sense of it, so that we can really understand the meaning of the action, and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what it means to them. And that’s what allows us to empathize with them, which is what allows us to really understand other people, and also, to really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, especially if they’re doing something that we feel is counterproductive, shall we say, and we have a notion of what a better thing to do would be.
If we understand not just what they’re doing, but in their opinion, deep down, why they’re really doing it, that might lead us to understand what their, as I’m fond of saying, their misbelief is about it.
Then we can create a story, whether, again, it’s War and Peace, or a tweet, or a mission statement, that’s going to help them really see and understand and feel that the way that they’re looking at it is counterproductive to their actual belief system.
That’s what story is. Story isn’t about what happens on the surface. Story is about how what happens on the surface affects someone’s belief system, and how that belief system has to change in order for them to solve whatever intractable problem they’re facing on the surface.
All stories are about change. They’re about how we change. And all change is hard.
Again, change isn’t just some external change we make. It’s the internal shift in belief system that allows us to see the reasoning and believe the reasoning, given our own belief system, as to why that change is necessary.
That’s what story is. And, again, story is story, and has been from time immemorial. It’s just that, if I could just say real quickly, the difference is, and part of the reason I think we think of it as fiction often now, is because think about it in terms of the history of the world, and of the human race or of all life on Earth.
The time that we’ve had, what we would consider fiction, in other words, stories that we would read kind of because we want to, not because it’s something that we need to know in order to survive in this moment, is something that’s really new.
We tend to think of that as something completely separate from how we see the world, what we do in the world, from anything that actually makes us who we are, or gets us what we need.
We tend to think of story, sadly, as something that is entertainment. When we think of it as entertainment, because we love it so much, feels so good to get lost in a story, and therefore we think of story as optional, as if it doesn’t serve any actual purpose. And it does.
Again, as I’m fond of saying, and I know you guys have probably heard me say this before, story was more crucial to our evolution than our much-touted and admittedly beloved opposable thumbs. Because all opposable thumbs do is let us hang on. Story lets us know what to hang on to.
The thing to keep in mind is what we’re wired to look for in a story from time immemorial is the same, again, whether it’s a tweet or War and Peace, or whatever you’re writing right now. It is the exact same thing that pulls us in. And when it pulls us in, we’re toast.
We’ve all heard that old chestnut from, I think it was Coleridge who said, ‘To get lost in a story demands a willing suspension of disbelief.’ As if we have some control over it, as if it’s a decision. It’s not.
Once story grabs us, and there’s a literal chemical cocktail that immediately starts to surge through our veins, we’re literally catapulted out of our everyday reality, and we are within the world of the story.
Those functional MRI studies show, when you’re lost in a story, same areas of your brain are lighting up that would light up if you’re doing what the protagonist is doing. You really are there. And I know that’s a long way to answer your question, but there you go.
Joanna: You mentioned a bit about the chemicals, and of course, the book, the subtitle has ‘Brain Science,’ we’re talking brain science. This is not just you making this stuff up.
As you mentioned, there’s fMRI study. You talk about these neurotransmitters that activate during the story. Can you talk a bit more in detail about how that works, and why it’s so important, and maybe also how we hit those points?
How do we activate those brain chemicals in a reader?
Lisa: Oh, absolutely, because they come in unison. And again, yes, this is research. Look at the work of Paul Zak.
I do so much research. As we were talking sort of before we began this, there are great things about the internet, and then terrifying things about it. One of the great things is that it is so easy to do research.
I can be reading an article in ‘The New York Times’ or ‘The Washington Post,’ or in ‘The Wall Street Journal’ that mentions the study, and often, literally within three minutes, I can be reading the scholarly paper or Ph.D. thesis in which all of the research was done.
But anyway, so, what pulls us into a story? It is a chemical cocktail of three things. First, I’ll just say it in order. It’s not 1, 2, 3. It’s they come in unison. But since we’re speaking in a linear way, the first one would be dopamine.
Dopamine, we’ve all heard of dopamine these days. Dopamine is often said to be the pleasure hormone. But it isn’t, actually. It’s actually really stoked, what triggers dopamine is curiosity. ‘I’m going to go through this to find out what might happen, because it might be pleasurable,’ which is something I think we’ve all experienced in the past, I don’t know, 10 years or whatever, since all of us, or so many of us have smartphones.
You get that ding when you’ve gotten an email, and instantly there’s a dopamine, because you want to open it up because hey, maybe you did win the lottery or something.
Then comes cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone. Cortisol comes when I want to find out what’s happening, I’m curious, and there’s something at stake. There’s something that for lack of a better way of putting it, something bad might happen. Something is at risk here, and I want to find out what’s going to happen.
Those two things alone don’t do it. In fact, often, writers will make the mistake of having something, this is an oxymoron, objectively dramatic, happening. If it’s objective, it can’t be dramatic, because something is dramatic, it’s affecting someone, and that brings us to the third thing, which is, the third hormone, which is oxytocin, which is the empathy hormone.
In other words, there has to be someone who we care about, who has something at risk, that matters to them in a way that isn’t just generic. In other words, it would matter to them in a surface way that it would matter to all of us, like they’re running down the street, and someone’s chasing them with a baseball bat, and they’re about to hit them with the baseball bat, and they’re running because they don’t want to get hit by a baseball bat.
Well, who wants to get hit by a baseball bat? None of us. So, that isn’t the meaning. The meaning that comes from it is that there’s something at stake that matters to them.
Those are the three things that have to be there, literally on the first page. If you don’t have something that is going to instantly trigger that chemical cocktail, we’re not going to read forward. Why would we? We’ve got no skin in the game.
It’s that that catapults us out of the world that we’re in, and into the world of the story. That is the chemical cocktail. When that happens, we’re toast. You don’t stop and go, ‘Wait a minute. Do I really want to do this?’ You’re just, ‘Oh my god. I gotta find out what happened.’ You’re suddenly sucked into that world of the story.
And the scary thing, again, coming away from just talking, and I don’t mean ‘just,’ but talking about not only, this is only with a ‘just,’ novels and movies, and and all the TV shows we’ve been binge watching for the past 18 months while we’ve been at home.
Any kind of a story, we’re affected by stories, every minute of every day, whether we know it or not. Mostly we don’t and stories are really effective. As we can see, story pulls us into places where if we were just thinking about it, we’d never go, you know. Hello, QAnon, I’m talking to you.
There’s so many things that are out there in the world, back when we had actual facts, that are just painfully obviously untrue, and it doesn’t matter. We’ve been pulled into a story, and now, it’s really resonating with us, and we see it as true. It becomes part of the lens through which we read meaning into everything.
Joanna: This is important to touch on maybe a bit further, which is, as you said, we’re not just talking about fiction. I think in a way fiction’s easier, because you know that you need a character and they’re in a situation, and they want to achieve something, and you try and stop them, and they have to overcome it, and they change, and that is a story with fiction.
I feel like with nonfiction, and a lot of listeners write nonfiction books, you write nonfiction books, it’s the same principle, but in that case, is the character we’re using, is the character us, in a nonfiction book? And let’s assume people are trying to convince people, in good ways, about good and useful things.
How do we bring those principles of story into a nonfiction book?
Lisa: Again, it depends on the type of nonfiction you’re writing. If you’re trying to change somebody’s mind about something, and you know who your target audience is, which is a difference between writing a novel, where you have some idea of who your target audience is.
If you’re writing erotica in the romance vein, you know who your audience is, you know what they expect, you know what they want. But that’s a very wide audience.
If you’re trying to change somebody’s mind about something, you need to figure out who your target audience is, and then are they the protagonist in the story that you’re writing? Whether you’re writing literally about that particular person? Yeah, of course they are.
You’re in their mindset, and you’re looking for the situation in which you can show them, by taking them through that, again, in a story form, the thing that you have identified as their misbelief.
In other words, the reason why, in their opinion, they believe that something is a particular way, and then diving into it and creating that external situation that is going to force them to really re-evaluate their belief in order to solve whatever the problem is that they’re going to be facing.
Stories are about how we solve a problem that we can’t simply walk away from.
That’s what, whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or anything, that’s what stories are always about.
The point is, in order to write anything in nonfiction, whether we’re talking about a mission statement or a pitch letter, you’re trying to sell yourself, or a resume, you really need to put yourself into the mindset of the person who you’re trying to convince first and foremost.
And that is really hard, because the two things that people do when they’re trying to convince people of something is number one, they’ll give the same reasons why it would convince them. That absolutely doesn’t work, because if that worked, you wouldn’t be trying to convince them, they’d already be on your side.
The problem when you give people reasons that would convince you is that they often also tend to be things that the people out there can’t even unpack. Because you’re using facts that you understand, you’re using facts that you can unpack. And often, they don’t even know what those facts actually mean, nor can they see how they would affect them in their lives.
If they can, and if you are asking them to change, that is going to bring up that part of our brain that wants to argue back. Because whenever anybody says anything that goes against what we already believe, even if it’s that I believe my toothpaste is the best in the world, and in fact, it is, that becomes, literally, it’s taken by our brain as a personal attack.
Once we believe something, it becomes not only part of our self-identity, but it becomes part of how we hew to our — for lack of a better term — tribe.
In other words, it’s the group that gives us meaning, and that if we go against them, or do something that’s going to cause them to look at us and ostracize us, we really process that the same way as we would process physical pain.
This is something I think that we’re all going to go through soon, because a lot of the restrictions have come down and the holidays are coming up, and we’re going to be back out there with our families. That means that considering how polarized everything is, everybody’s probably got that Uncle Joe out there who believes the opposite of what you do.
Over the holidays, he’s probably going to sit you down and try to tell you why everything you believe is wrong and why what he believes is right.
When that happens, think about you when you’re reading stuff and it goes by on social media. This is a perfect metaphor, your blood starts to boil, right? It starts to boil. You don’t decide to boil it, you don’t consciously decide to turn up.
It boils, and it boils because to your brain, those beliefs come in as a personal attack. It’s not because we’re stubborn. It’s not because we’re quote-unquote…and I’d love to talk a bit about emotion and being, ’emotional,’ which is so deeply misunderstood.
It’s because literally, as far as our brain’s concerned, and this is, again, the way we’re wired, and the way we were wired 100,000 years ago, is because that threat is wired to come in as the same thing as literally a physical threat.
Fun fact: When someone attacks your beliefs, your blood rushes to your thighs in case you need to make a quick getaway. The brain does not distinguish between those two things. And the problem is we’re taught that it can.
We’re taught that it’s a weakness to do that. It isn’t. The sad and interesting and fascinating truth is we’re wired to live in a world we don’t live in anymore. And so, the goal is to really understand that, and then figure out hacks around it. And that’s what story is about.
Joanna: I think that’s really interesting, that you said we’re wired to live in a world that doesn’t exist. You also said that you wanted to maybe talk a bit about emotions, because I definitely feel like we have access to all this information.
Again, you and I were talking about this. We have access to all this information. So, I have all these opinions and emotions about things that I don’t know enough about, but I think are really important.
This can be absolutely massive things like climate change. It can be political issues, Brexit, American politics, the health issues, the pandemic, these things all feel so enormous.
We have these stories that we all believe. Then we have emotions that are attached to those stories.
Even though logically, I know that I, how can I have an informed opinion on this? But I certainly have emotion. You mentioned there about hacks. What did you mean by that?
Lisa: Two things. One, just as we were talking before we began, it’s true, because there is so much deeply technical information, when you talk about climate change, for instance, that it literally does become impossible to have an informed decision unless you have a Ph.D. in it.
So we have to take what’s up there on top and figure out literally as we do, okay, given that, and once it actually is explained, not explained, but put into story form so that we understand how those things will affect us, then we can decide what we want to do about it.
The problem with the way that we look at it, and the way we’ve been taught just to process information, is literally biologically wrong. The cornerstone, truly, of Western thought is biologically wrong, from Plato on down, because we’ve been taught that there’s logic, and there’s emotion, and they’re binary, and that the goal of emotion is to subvert logic.
In other words, my metaphor these days for that is we’re taught to think of emotion as mold. I don’t mean any mold, but you open your refrigerator and you look at that thing in the back, and like, ‘Oh my god. What’s that green stuff growing on the yogurt?’
The thing about mold, when you think of it as mold, it’s not yogurt mold, or steak mold, or carrot mold. Its goal is to just destroy whatever the food is. It doesn’t have any goal other than to destroy that.
That’s how we’re taught to think of emotion. And that literally is not what emotion is. What emotion does is —
Emotion telegraphs meaning.
In other words, from the time that we’re small, we have what’s known as an avidity for patternicity, which is a perfect reason why you never want to use $25 words, because, like, what is that?
Joanna: I was going to say, what does that mean?!
Lisa: What it means is literally from the time we’re born, and I mean, from the minute that they’ve wiped us off and given us to our mom, we’re looking for patterns, causality. If this, then that.
If I cry real loud, that nice person is going to come in and give me milk. Got it. And once there is a pattern that’s established, it gets relegated to what’s known as our cognitive unconscious, which is where we make almost all the decisions that we make.
I think studies show we make 35,000 decisions a day. And of those decisions, we’re only consciously aware of about 70 of them. And those decisions, I think so many of them are on the level of, ‘Do I wear the blue socks, or the green and pink paisley socks?’ In other words, things that don’t really matter.
Most of our decisions are made by our cognitive unconscious, and its way of letting us know what we should do is through emotion. We feel something.
There is nothing that ever happens in our lives, whether we think about or experience or read about, that doesn’t bring with it a chorus of emotion, which is a chemical reaction, that our brilliant brain and nervous system then translates into feeling, lets us know what we should do about it.
In other words, emotion isn’t some free-floating thing that’s going to cloud your judgment. It literally lets you know what is important to you and what isn’t.
We’re terrified of emotion. I actually think we’re terrified of emotion in a very gendered way. And this isn’t anything that we would feel out of the bat. As babies, we are all the same. But men are taught to be afraid of emotion. You’re supposed to be strong, and emotion is weakness, and if you show emotion, it will make you feel weak.
Very early on, we learn that if we even feel emotion and we’re trying not to show it, it leaks out, so I’m not going to feel emotion. Men are terrified of emotion. Women are terrified that if they show emotion, they’re going to get clobbered by men.
Joanna: Or other women.
Lisa: Right, exactly, because we’ve all been told, ‘Oh, they’re so emotional,’ meaning showing emotion. If you couldn’t feel emotion, you couldn’t make a single rational decision.
Now, I’m not saying that it’s binary the other way, it’s all emotion and not thought. It’s definitely both. It’s a both-and, but emotion is the final decider. In other words, if you couldn’t feel emotion, you couldn’t make a single rational decision.
I could go into the story of, and if you want to take a look, Antonio Damasio, who’s a neuroscientist, frequently writes about a patient, he had a man by the name of Elliot, who, through an operation, had lost his ability to feel and process emotion. Should I tell the story quickly?
Joanna: Yes. Sure.
Lisa: Elliot was a really successful guy. He had a great job. He had a great family. He was one of those guys you would call a pillar of the community. But he also had a benign brain tumor, and they were able to get all of it, but to get all of it, they had to take part of his prefrontal cortex.
When he recovered his body was hale and hearty. But he had lost his job, he lost his family, he lost all his money to con men. He was home living with his parents. The government was cutting off his disability checks because they said, ‘Dude, you were this productive member of society. What are you now a malingerer? Why aren’t you out there doing what you did before?’
So, his parents called in Damasio to run this long and large battery of tests. And what Damasio discovered is that Elliot had lost the ability to feel and process emotion. Keep in mind, he still tested in the 97th percentile in intelligence.
He could enumerate every possible solution to any problem you could pitch at him. He just couldn’t pick one. He’d come into his office in the morning and go, ‘Should I do that thing my boss seems to really want me to do? Or would it be a better use of time to re-alphabetize my file folders again today? And if I do the file folder thing, would it be better to use the blue pen or the black pen?’
At lunch, he’d go from restaurant to restaurant looking at menus, but he never went in because he didn’t know what he felt like eating.
Can you imagine that? If everything really was six of one half a dozen of the other, how would you ever make any decision about anything? Think about it now, because as you guys probably saw the other day, it won’t be the other day now when this comes out, but right now the other day, I think the U.S. finally is letting people come in.
They’ve relaxed the controls because of COVID. And we see all these wonderful stories of people who, for the past 18 months, haven’t been able to see their loved one. Imagine if now that’s happening, and the loved one is finally coming in, and they get off the plane and they’re there at the airport, and they’re walking toward the person who hasn’t seen them in 18 months, and that person feels nothing.
It’s like, ‘Uh-oh.’ In other words, emotion’s what telegraphs meaning. If we couldn’t feel emotion, we couldn’t make a single rational decision. And that comes back to story.
Story, like life, is all emotion-driven.
And my goal in life, my two goals in life, are one, really to get people to understand the power of story, the power that story has over us, and the genuine role that emotion plays, so it stops being vilified, and also, overturn the patriarchy. That’s my other goal!
Joanna: Just some small goals! I want to bring it back to the writers listening, because, when you think about it, our job is to elicit emotion in the reader. In order to do that, we actually have to manipulate them with story.
We have to become masters of story manipulation in order to elicit emotions and spark off these neurotransmitters in people’s brains. We have to control that through our writing.
Joanna: So, it really is focusing down on the emotion first. I know I struggle with this. I get so excited about all kinds of different convoluted plots, and historical details, and interesting locations.
Do you suggest we start with what emotion do I want to elicit, and how do I get there?
Lisa: It depends on what you’re doing. If you’re writing to convince someone of something, that’s different, and there is part there. But let’s talk to writers, because that’s who our main audience is, right?
Lisa: Okay. Here’s the thing. The answer to what you just said is absolutely not. No. Do not think about what we want to elicit.
Let’s talk about how to get emotion onto the page. I think that would be the most valuable, because, as I’m very fond of saying, and I truly believe this, I think writing is taught wrong everywhere. I really do. Hundred percent.
Because the way you get emotion onto the page has nothing to do with thinking about what emotion you want to get onto the page. You do want to think about what point are you making overall.
You do not get emotion onto the page by writing about emotion. You never need to name an emotion. You do not get emotion onto the page through body language.
Body language is vastly overrated in fiction, because body language is literally speaking body-to-body, not description of body language to someone’s brain. Completely different.
Besides the fact that body language is blunt force. You could write some beautiful metaphor about what someone looks like when they’re crying, but so what? I know they’re crying. I want to know why.
The way emotion gets onto the page is via the internal struggle that your protagonist or point-of-view character is going through, in the moment, on the page, as, in each and every scene, they are forced to make a difficult decision. All we need to do is to be in their head as they’re trying to figure out what to do.
Not only in every scene that they’re making a difficult decision, but think of it this way. You’ve got the this versus that. This meaning, in this scene, ‘I need to do,’ blank. I’m being asked to do blank, or to consider blank, or to change about blank. And that’s going to cost me this other thing that really matters to me.
This versus that, and the this versus that is always specific. It’s not, ‘I’m being forced to consider this and I might get shot,’ and the that is, ‘I don’t want to get shot.’ Because nobody wants to get shot.
But it’s, what are those two things? And also, within the V of that, if you kind of think of it as a V, and then you’re going to pour something in, think of a martini glass shaped like a V. Within that is that I’m vulnerable, and I want to give away as little as I possibly can to let someone know what I’m really feeling. Within that struggle, that’s what elicits emotion.
In other words, that struggle lets us know what the protagonist is feeling, not because we’ve been told, not because they’re shivering or sweating, or their heart’s pounding or they’re sobbing. But because that struggle elicits the emotion in them.
And guess what? That is what elicits the emotion in us. What you’re looking for from beginning, as I’m fond of saying, all stories begin in medias res. And where that comes from, comes from all of your protagonist’s backstory, because the biggest lie, that the writing world tells, the biggest lie, I think… Well, there are three of them.
Joanna: Big three lies, wow.
Lisa: Almost every writing myth is wrong. The biggest lie is, use backstory sparingly, and then only when the reader needs to know something.
First of all, you never put anything in because the reader needs to know it. They might. Hundred percent. But that’s not why it’s there. Backstory is the most fundamental layer of story. It is laced into every page.
Backstory is what gives meaning to what’s happening now. When we’re talking about, when I said before, what pulls us in to that, and unleashes that chemical cocktail, that, the oxytocin of empathy, and the cortisol of, ‘Oh, my god,’ stress, is, ‘What does it mean to the character? Why is what they’re being asked to do? What’s at risk?’ comes from the past, by definition, because that’s how we work as humans.
I just finished reading a book called Your Brain Is a Time Machine, by a neuroscientist whose name I can’t pronounce, so I’m not going to try. And he said, basically, and he’s not the only one who says it, obviously. The sole purpose of your brain, and memory, is to record past events in order to predict the future.
Your brain is a prediction machine. The predictions come from what we’ve run into our past that gives us the meaning of what’s happening now. And how does it give us that meaning? Through emotion.
And then, that triggers these thoughts. So, backstory’s the most fundamental layer of any story. And watch, as I’m fond of saying. I was working with a writer a while ago, who said, ‘I want to see that. I hear what you’re saying, but I want to see it.’ And she was reading Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl.
Joanna: Ooh, I love that book.
Lisa: Great book. And so, she said, ‘I took a highlighter,’ she said, ‘I’m halfway through the book, and I’ve highlit 60,’ that’s six zero percent, of what’s in the book. Sixty percent was this internality and backstory.
That’s where story lives and breathes. If you don’t create that first, you don’t have a story. You just have, very sadly, what most manuscripts end up being.
As I’m fond of saying, you know, for most of the manuscripts I’ve read, and I’ve read thousands, if you ask me what it’s about, I’d go, ‘It’s about 300 pages. I don’t know. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.’
Story’s not about the plot. It is not about the plot. That’s why if it was up to me, I’d take every story structure book, from The Hero’s Journey up to, and I’m not going to name it, but it’s in my head, the most popular one now, that is so deeply wrong it makes me want to pull my hair out.
Because first of all, it’s a misnomer. It’s not story structure, it’s plot structure. And the story’s not about the plot. The story’s about how the plot affects the protagonist, and is driven by that internal consequence that causes the protagonist to see it differently and then take action.
If you come up with just a plot, you’re going to end up with nothing but a bunch of things that happen, because then the protagonist is going to, scene by scene, going to have to ring a particular bell in order to make the plot work.
Usually what’s happening on page one, what the protagonist does, means that person would never do the thing that they’ve gotta do on page 50. But oh, well, they’ve gotta do it, and now you have destroyed what’s really pulling us through, because when writers talk about what’s the narrative thread, again, they mistake it for the plot.
Narrative thread is not the plot. The narrative thread is the internal, subjective narrative that the protagonist is using to make sense of what’s happening in the plot, and then deciding what to do. That is the narrative thread.
When you’re lost in a story, you really are lost in that protagonist’s world. They’re your avatar. You are that person. That’s why story works. Story is the world’s first virtual reality, literally, as I said.
This functional MRI studies showing the same areas of your brain light up, as I said earlier, that would light up if you’re doing what the protagonist is doing. You literally are there. But not because you’re watching them externally do something, because you’re in their head, experiencing the subjective ‘why’ they’re doing it, and what it means to them. And because you’re there at what it means to them, you are feeling something.
Joanna: It’s really good to come back to these basics, I think. We’re almost out of time, and you mentioned there were three big lies, and you only gave us one. I just know everyone’s going, ‘Wait, what are the other two lies?’
Lisa: One of the other ones is, hold things back in the beginning for a big reveal, and that’s going to pull people in. And it does the exact opposite.
Give us all of it right there in the beginning.
What happens is people end up holding back the very thing that would pull us in. We literally see the writer when they do that. They feel like the writer’s saying, ‘I know something you don’t know. And if you read forward, maybe I’ll tell you,’ which is as annoying as my voice just was. I can hardly say my voice that way, because it creeps me out.
But we’re looking to be able to put things together. We’re looking for the deeper why. When people hold things back for a reveal later, that means that everything that is there, especially in the beginning, is very general. And the general has no legs. We can’t try to figure out what’s going on, we can’t try to figure out what matters, we can’t try to figure out what it means for people.
Okay, now let me tell you the other one. And this kind of does, too. And this is super incendiary. The biggest lie, in my opinion, that the writing world says, beyond this thing about backstory, because you must create the story-specific backstory first, or you have no story.
It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to write a 327-page novel about the most important turning point in someone’s life, whom I know absolutely nothing about.’ And that delivers us to this third thing, which is, back in the day, when we could go to actual writing conferences.
If you ever went to one, you go and you can get your badge, and really often, and they do this to be nice, I totally get it, but the person that’s giving you the badge will go, ‘Okay, are you a pantser or a plotter?’ And then we’ll put a little thing on your page.
A pox on both your houses. Neither one works. Pantsing is the absolute worst way to ever write anything, because stories are layered. Because without the backstory, without story-specific backstory, for your protagonist, and other characters, you have no idea what’s going on. Everything is generic.
And then writers start writing really, really pretty, because they’ve been told it’s about wordsmithing and writing beautiful sentences.
And this is why 99% of what comes into agents and editors, in publishing houses, gets rejected.
Because it literally doesn’t work.
I think it’s also why the statistic is that only 3 out of 100 people make it to the end of just any kind of a first draft, because they start writing and they have no idea what they’re doing. And the thing that kills me is, it’s that notion of if you learn all of these techniques of writing, and then you unleash your creativity, a story is going to appear. You know, ‘if you have the talent. And if you don’t, oh, well.’
I cannot tell you how many people I’ve worked with who seemed to have nothing, but once they started to do this, oh my god. That has nothing to do with talent. It is just a complete and total, literal lie.
The other is that plotting works. And that is that you’re going to sit down and come up with a plot and external series of things are going to happen, and you’re going to use, you know, ‘The Hero’s Journey,’ and we talk about how misogynist that was. But I mean, all of whatever the most recent book is, again, I won’t name it, but I’m thinking it.
You have 10% of the book is this, and 20% is this. And by this time, you’ve got to do that. And so, you’ve got some external generic grab bag of, as I said earlier, objectively dramatic things that you start throwing in, in order to amp up the tension and make things happen. And it is all, literally, from the outside in.
Story is not top-down. Story is bottom-up, meaning it comes from your protagonist. And without creating that, you’ve got nothing. So, yeah, I can’t tell you how strongly I feel this.
Joanna: Oh, you have told us how strongly, Lisa!
Lisa: I know.
Joanna: I love talking to you because I feel like you bring some good challenge into some of the established ways of doing stuff. And of course, you’re a story consultant for film and TV, and you do all this stuff, so you know what you’re talking about.
If people want to check out your books, and everything you do and your consulting and things, where can we find you online?
Lisa: I am at wiredforstory.com. I’m there. My books are everywhere. Amazon, any place that sells books online, I’m pretty sure they would be there. Yeah, on Twitter, I’m just, you know, @lisacron. Just, my name. That’s it. And that’s the only social media I’m on. I feel safe there. I didn’t feel safer anywhere else, really.
Joanna: I know how you feel. Well, thanks so much for your time, Lisa. That was great.
Lisa: Oh, my utter pleasure. This was super fun. I love talking to you, Joanna. I hope we get to do it again soon.
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Author: Joanna Penn