I recently finished reading STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, on the advice of a writer friend.
It was awesome.
It was always debilitatingly depressing. Never before had I read a writing advice manual and walked away realizing that I published four novels having known jack shit about what makes a good story.
Notice I said story there, and not book.
STORY GENIUS spends a lot of time decoding what makes a person’s brain crave story, and what writers need to do to harness that power over the reader. (We will use this for world domination, eventually. Don’t say you weren’t warned).
I FULLY recommend getting your hands on a copy to get the full extent of Cron’s amazing tips and exercises. But I will tell you the part that resonated most with me.
As a parent, it’s the question of doom. It spirals into realms terrifying and unknown and the only way to get out alive is to keep throwing out answers until there are none left. Amazingly, being a parent makes you uniquely adept at answering this question when it comes to plotting.
Most writers already know that something has to happen because something else happened. There’s a general understanding of cause and effect that most of us already adhere to when plotting the external forces that will propel our protagonist through the story and out the other side. What most of us forget is that this question of WHY has to answer questions internally of the protagonist, too. Each event has to have a POINT, and not just, “Well, she has to get from A to B so I’ll put her in a car and then I’ll get a chance to throw some setting in there.” (Real example of my former thought process, no lie).
Here’s an example from a WIP I’m working on now.
I have a scene planned where Gretchen (my protagonist) is picked up from the airport by her awful step-mother.
Enter the ‘why.’
Because her sister (who asked her to come in the first place) is at home with her kid.
Because he has pink eye.
Because the little shit can’t be bothered to wash his hands more than once a month.
Okay, so, we’ve got a perfectly logical reason for someone Gretchen hates to be picking her up from the airport. But what does that have to do with her story? Her character arc?
In this WIP’s case, Gretchen’s story arc begins with her desire to cut her family out of her life completely and ends with her realizing that she can’t establish any kind of meaningful relationship with other people unless she forgives her family their transgressions and lets go of the idea that People Will Betray You.
So. The step-mom.
She picks Gretchen up from the airport.
Because even as Gretchen gets off the plane, she feeds the delusion that she can deal with being back in her family’s orbit from a distance. Having step-mom, the person she hates most, gather her from the airport dispels that misbelief.
Since the reason pushes Gretchen toward her final goal (even only a little) the scene gets to stay. If, when you’re plotting, you can’t think of an internal reason why the scene should stay, it’s time to get out the axe.
Don’t feel bad. It’s easy to forget that a story isn’t just a collection of things happening to a person. They’re events that force the protagonist to change internally, which is where the real story happens.
So don’t write a book; write a story. Ask why.