- About Story Genius
- PART I: WHAT A STORY IS, AND WHAT IT ISN’T
- Chapter 1: Story, the Brain’s Decoder Ring
- Chapter 2: Myths Galore: Everything We Were Taught About Writing is Wrong
- PART II: CREATING THE INSIDE STORY
- Chapter 3: The What if? Expectations, Broken!
- Chapter 4: The Who: Whose Life Will You Utterly Upend?
- Chapter 5: The Why: Why, Exactly, Does Your Protagonist Care?
- Chapter 6: The Worldview: Your Protagonist’s, That Is
- Chapter 7: What Next? The Beauty of Cause and Effect
- Chapter 8: The When: An Offer Your Protagonist Can’t Refuse (But Probably Wants To)
- PART III: CREATING AN EXTERNAL GAUNTLET TO SPUR YOUR PROTAGONIST’S INTERNAL STRUGGLE
- Chapter 9: The Opening: Of Your Novel and of the Story Genius Blueprinting System
- Chapter 10: The Real Aha! Moment: Where Will Your Story End?
- Chapter 11: Building Your Blueprint: How to Keep Track of All the Moving Parts
- Chapter 12: Going Back to Move Forward: How to Harvest the Past to Set Up the Plot
- Chapter 13: Story Logic: Making Sure Each “What” Has a “Why”
- Chapter 14: The Secret to Layering: Subplots, Storylines, and Secondary Characters
- Chapter 15: Writing Forward: Stories Grow in Spirals
- Ready to be a Brilliant Writer?
About Story Genius
This book changed my life as a writer.
As a child, I’d always dreamed of writing a novel, but after over a decade of trying, and failing…I finally gave up. Then one day a writer friend recommended Story Genius, and after reading it I finally realized that I had been going after the business of noveling entirely wrong.
You see, most people (myself included) don’t know what makes an actual story. We tend to think a story consists of a string of events (plot) that have a beginning, middle, and end. We hear about plotting devices like The Snowflake Method, or The Hero’s Journey, but when we try to use these devices to create a novel, we fall on our faces.
That’s because a real story is not about the plot, as Cron so astutely points out. A real story is about how a character responds to the elements of the plot and how that changes him or her internally as a result. Sounds simple, right? But how do you use that to actually write a story?
Thankfully, Cron has laid it all out in Story Genius, taking readers through the construction of a novel from the seed of an idea, through an outlining method that is far more helpful than simply listing events in order, to “The End.” What makes this book particularly effective is Cron uses a real-life example — one of her student’s works-in-progress, to illustrate each stage of the process.
The subtitle of Story Genius is: “How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere),” which basically sums up my experience with creative writing. (Except those 327 pages was more like 1,327). I would say I wish I had discovered Story Genius earlier, but on the other hand, my many years of failure allowed me to appreciate this book’s message much more when I finally did discover it.
Story Genius is clear, easy to read, and will change your (writing) life. It changed mine.
“We think in story…story is the go-to decoder ring for reality”
Cron starts by pointing out most writers’ biggest mistake: they don’t know what a story is. But then again, she adds, most people don’t know how digestion works either. Story is so intrinsic to our brains that we don’t understand how it really works.
What really drives a story is the way a protagonist makes sense of what is happening around her, how the plot affects the protagonist and their intenral struggle.
- Ultimately, all stories are character-driven.
- Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one.
- The internal problem predates the plot, often by decades.
- You have to know your main character (MC)’s internal problem BEFORE you create the plot. Story first, plot second.
- The Third Rail (the electrified rail on a subway train): your protagonist’s internal struggle.
PART I: WHAT A STORY IS, AND WHAT IT ISN’T
Chapter 1: Story, the Brain’s Decoder Ring
“When we’re under the spell of a compelling story, we undergo internal changes along with the protagonist and her insights become part of the way we too see the world.”
Stories can be scary — they bewitch and affect us every day of our lives. Story was the first virtual reality, allowing us to escape the present and envision the future so that we can plan for the scariest thing of all: the unknown.
Stories also give us pleasure. But pleasure is not its purpose. Stories are like food — they help us survive. Just as in life, story is emotion based. Humans biologically cannot make rational decisions without emotions.
- Stories help us survive the social world.
- The social world is invisible: we can see WHAT people do, but don’t know WHY they do it. Stories help us see what might make people tick. Stories help us navigate reality.
- Plot: What happens
- Story problem: a difficult goal
- Internal change: how the external dilemma causes the MC to change her worldview
- All stories are about how someone solves a single escalating problem they can’t avoid.
Chapter 2: Myths Galore: Everything We Were Taught About Writing is Wrong
“The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
The conventions of writing (voice, structure, etc) are servants of story, not the other way around. They’re the gravy. Great writing doesn’t always equal great story. Also, great writers often don’t give the best writing advice — because some of them do it instinctively and don’t know HOW they really do it.
There are several myths running around about writing: Pantsing, the Shitty First Draft, Plotting, External Story Structures.
- The initial job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it’s a story. When we’re caught up in a story, it doesn’t feel like a story, it feels like reality.
- Creativity needs a context, a leash. That’s what bestows meaning and defines what does or doesn’t matter.
- The writing myths:
- Pantsing: The past determines the present. And when you write by the seat of your pants, there is no past.
- Shitty First Draft: All stories need internal logic. Besides, someone WILL see your shitty first draft, and that someone is the most important person of all — you.
- Plotting: don’t just write a string of events. Each event must force the protagonist to make a SPECIFIC difficult internal change, which means you have to know what the internal change is supposed to be, before you start writing.
- External Story Structure Models: Whether it’s the Hero’s Journey, etc, these stories are too paint-by-numbers predictable. Form without substance. These structural models were based on existing stories — but do you think the original writers of these stories were thinking about these models when they were first writing? ‘Course not.
- The story you’re writing doesn’t start on page one. It started long before you got there.
PART II: CREATING THE INSIDE STORY
Chapter 3: The What if? Expectations, Broken!
Every story…begins with the question: what if?
Kindergarteners write random stories with lots of surprises. And stories DO start with a surprise, but there’s more to that. Readers have to know WHY things matter to the MC or else the plot is just a bunch of unusual things that happen.
All stories make a point, which means you need to KNOW the point before you start writing. But what is the point? The Point is born out of the MC’s inner struggle, whereas the What If is the external plot that triggers the struggle, leading to The Point.
- Stories are born of specifics.
- The unavoidable external conflict triggers the unavoidable internal conflict.
DO THIS: In less than 1 page, write about the instant the idea first grabbed you.
- Ask yourself why you care, why this Point matters to you. This is how you find out what things mean to you.
DO THIS: In less than a page, write down why you care about the story you want to tell. Everything is relevant, even if it seems silly.
- What do you want your readers to go away thinking about?
- At the beginning, basically every story starts with a cliche.
DO THIS: Try to nail the Point your story will make in a few concise lines. Reduce it to its essence.
- Your “What If” can’t be too abstract (eg: woman discovers too late the error of avoiding commitment). Instead go for a specific What If (eg: What if woman who avoids relationships is forced into a relationship with a dog?)
- The What If needs a context, surprise, and conflict leading to consequences that will spark the story’s Third Rail.
DO THIS: Write a What If that is as fully fleshed out as possible while being concise. Include context, conflict, a hint of surprise, something that will make your point.
Chapter 4: The Who: Whose Life Will You Utterly Upend?
“The glory of writing lies in the fact that it forces us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.” — Sherwood Anderson
Before you start developing the plot, you have to figure out WHOSE story this is. The story is born of one person only — the protagonist. And how powerful a story is depends on how deeply you dive into your protagonist.
- Without an MC, the reader has no skin in the game.
- Your MC must be specific: who is she before the story happens? Because the story is going to change her…the question is: change her from what?
- Remember: specifics beget specifics.
- Define your MC specifically to bring him into focus.
- What your story is about: It’s not what the world throws at the MC; it’s the meaning s/he reads into the events.
- The protagonist reins in the plot, not the other way around.
DO THIS: Write a thumbnail sketch about who your MC is before the novel starts. Ignore physical detail lists. Keep it short — who is the person on the inside? What do they believe/want? Where are they in life?
Chapter 5: The Why: Why, Exactly, Does Your Protagonist Care?
“Everything about your protagonist stems from her past. The past is the lens through which we evaluate meaning in the present.”
Why does the unavoidable conflict in your story matter to the MC? You need to know her plans before you can upend them — but more importantly, you need to know why they matter to her. Also remember that actions have future consequences — some immediate, some delayed, so whatever your MC did in the past will help you create events that will befall him in the future.
- Your job is to make sure the MC’s expectations aren’t met since we come to story for insight on how to handle the unexpected.
- Asking a lot of WHY questions drills down to the core of how you see the world.
- If you don’t know why your character is doing what he’s doing, how can you figure out what he might do next?
- ALL MCs need:
- A deep-seated desire they’ve wanted for a long time
- A defining misbelief that stands in the way of that desire
- So what does your MC already want? Make it specific. Real. external. Clear.
DO THIS: Write a paragraph about what your character enters the novel wanting, even if she doesn’t think she’ll get it; even if she can’t articulate it. YOU have to be able to close your eyes and envision it.
- Why does she want that? This is the question that piques readers’ curiosity because what we keep most hidden is what we’re dying to know about others. We are relieved to find we’re not the only one who feels this way.
DO THIS: Why does your MC want that? What will getting it mean to her? What will it say about her? Remember your MC can be wrong about what achieving her goal will mean to her — that’s often the point of the story.
- What’s stopping the MC from getting what he wants?
- What stops the MC is a deep misbelief that has been tripping him for years. He honestly believes it is true, but it is wrong.
- The reason the misbelief feels true is because, at a critical moment, it WAS true.
- The misbelief can be something that is usually true except when taken to an extreme. Example: honesty is the best policy.
DO THIS: Define your MC’s misbelief as concisely as possible: what fear is keeping her from her desire? Given her misbelief, what is the worst thing that could happen to her? Picture it.
Chapter 6: The Worldview: Your Protagonist’s, That Is
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” — William Faulkner
People use the past to decode the present. So you need to know your MC’s background — this is the raw material you use to create your novel blueprint. Most important, you need to understand his worldview. In a sense, there is no “real world,” but only subjective beliefs that cause different people to see the world in different ways.
- Go backwards in order to move forward.
- Stories aren’t created linearly.
- Worldview: the lens through which the MC sees and evaluates everything in the story
- Point of view: How your MC evaluates the world (1st, 2nd, 3rd person)
- Your MC is not a camera. Things have to affect her personally. Also the lens she views the world through is never neutral. she always interprets things through her beliefs.
- Everything we learn is learned subjectively.
- We ascribe meaning to everything.
- We never do anything “in general.” It’s impossible. You can’t “fall in love” in general or “go to high school” in general. You fall in love specifically, go to a specific school, etc.
- So far, your assignments from the last chapter are still too general.
- The goal isn’t to show that an MC is changing, but what, specifically, she is changing FROM and TO.
DO THIS: Envision the moment in your MC’s life when his misbelief took root. Write this defining moment from the past in one paragraph.
- Now turn this point into a scene. Before you start, ask these questions:
- What does the MC go into the scene believing? What is the belief that must be toppled for the Misbelief to take root?
- Why does she believe it? What instilled the old belief — what specific moment exemplifies this belief, what specific memory?
- What is her goal in the scene? The MC must have a goal in every scene. That’s life. We always have a goal. Even if it’s just that we want things to stay the same.
- What does she expect will happen in the scene? Make sure your readers understand this clearly. The MC will likely not get exactly what she wants, or will get it for the wrong reasons.
DO THIS: jot down answers to all four questions.
- This Origin Scene must be specific: place, time, context.
- Advice: write this scene in the 1st person, to help yourself experience the immediacy of the event.
- Take a moment and ask what EVERYONE’S agenda is in the scene. Always ask why people do what they do.
DO THIS: Write out the scene where your MC’s worldview shifted, and the misbelief that took root as a result. You can test several scenarios.
Chapter 7: What Next? The Beauty of Cause and Effect
“When life says no to our desires, it often stokes the desire.”
You must spend some time tracking how your MC’s misbelief has skewed his life, via three story-specific crossroad moments. These 3 scenes will establish the cause-and-effect trajectory that will guide your novel. Many of these scenes will appear as flashbacks in your actual novel. A plausible cause-and-effect chain illuminated by WHY is what makes readers care about your story.
- “Fiction is a simulation that runs on the software of our minds” — Keith Oatley
- In real life, all is never as it seems, and stories uncover what really is.
- 1st Law of Thermodynamics: There’s always a reason for everything.
- Cause and Effect Chain: Doesn’t predict what WILL happen, just lays out possibilities.
- Your scenes shouldn’t be linked by “and then” but by “therefore” or “but.”
- Your cause and effect chain doesn’t start from page one, but from your Origin Scene.
- Look for moments when your MC stood at a crossroads and had to make a decision that had escalating ramifications.
DO THIS: Zero in on at least 3 turning points that will produce story-specific info, fodder for the story. Be as specific as possible.
DO THIS: Now, write each scene, in chronological order. Put yourself in the MC’s brain, see the world through her eyes. Flesh out the scenes.
Chapter 8: The When: An Offer Your Protagonist Can’t Refuse (But Probably Wants To)
“Story is about change and we’re wired to avoid change.”
No one likes change. Which is why the only thing that causes us to change (internally or otherwise) is usually an unavoidable external force that we can’t dodge or deflect. But how do you choose your main story problem? A novel is about ONE problem that complicates everything else. Your internal problem is your story’s third rail, but now you need to figure out your external problem, which gets its power from coming into contact with the third rail.
- We like to put off change. As your novel starts, your MC has probably been procrastinating on the need to change.
- Another stumbling block to voluntary changes: We don’t think things are THAT bad.
DO THIS: Do some freewriting on your intended plot, and extract a list of ideas from it — as many as possible.
- 2 ways to gauge your external problem’s potential:
TEST ONE: Can your problem sustain the entire novel from page one to the end, picking up speed as it thunders forward?
- Is there a real-world, specific, impending consequence this escalating problem will give the MC no choice but to face if he fails or doesn’t take action? (If your MC can just give up, you have no story)
- Is there a ticking clock, a clear-cut deadline counting down to the consequence?
- A story is about how the MC inadvertently fans the flames as she tries to put out a seemingly minor blaze.
DO THIS: Run your potential problems through this test ruthlessly. It must pass all 3 subtests.
TEST TWO: Is the problem capable of forcing your MC to make the inner change that your story is about?
- Is the main ticking clock the right one?
- Does the problem continually touch the third rail?
- Will the consequences force MC to struggle with her misbelief?
- Will the consequences cost her big, emotionally?
DO THIS: Run your plot problems through Test 2 until you’ve found the overarching dilemma that touches the third rail.
- Now it’s time to find the seminal tick on your novel’s ticking clock. Usually it’s not until the 4th or 5th tick before you realize something’s wrong.
DO THIS: Sketch out clicks that lead you to your opening scene. Find the one that catapaults your MC into unavoidable action. You’ll know it when you get there because it will tug you forward strongly — your MC must act NOW. This is the opening scene.
- Diving into your protagonist’s past lets you know not only when the novel starts but why, what’s at stake, what it means to your MC, and what your story is really about.
PART III: CREATING AN EXTERNAL GAUNTLET TO SPUR YOUR PROTAGONIST’S INTERNAL STRUGGLE
Chapter 9: The Opening: Of Your Novel and of the Story Genius Blueprinting System
“You must always be keenly aware of the part the scene plays in the overall trajectory…make the scene that follows inevitable.”
Your story is made of scenes, but the scenes aren’t individual — they’re part of a cause-and-effect chain. So now it’s time to learn the story outline method called Story Cards. These track how each event is linked in a causal succession. You can then see which events you can move easily and which would collapse the plot. You can also see if there are logic gaps or inconsistencies when you change things.
- The Parts of a Story Card:
- Alpha Point: the key role that the scene plays in your novel’s external cause-effect chain. Ie: Why is this scene necessary? Must be concrete.
- Subplots: Scenes do more than one thing. Sometimes they move several subplots forward at the same time and cause several changes.
- Cause: This is what happens in the first half of the scene.
- Why it matters: This is why the thing matters to your MC, given his agenda.
- Effect: the external consequence that takes place in the scene itself, not in the next scene.
- The realization: the internal change the event trggers in the MC, or the internal change it triggers in the scene’s POV character and also the realization it will trigger in the MC when she finds out. This realization must lead to action — causes MC to shift game plan.
- Every scene has to produce a hard won external and internal change. Your MC’s worldview must change a little bit in each scene as she struggles with what to do.
DO THIS: Create a story card for your opening scene. Be specific about inner struggle and external events. The two are linked.
DO THIS: Now write your opening scene. But relax. This scene will plant the seeds for what will happen in the novel and you don’t know all the seeds yet, so just get the field ready.
Chapter 10: The Real Aha! Moment: Where Will Your Story End?
“If I see an ending, I can work backward.” — Arthur Miller
Unless you know where your story is headed, you’ll probably never get there. The “end” you come up with now may not be the actual end, but only because you will later discover a specific story reason to go in a different direction. The real end is not about the plot but how the MC earns her aha! moment because of what the plot has put her through.
- Often the first scene includes a glimpse of what the ending will be.
- Letting readers know where the novel is headed is actually the thing that lures them in.
- You want to capture the moment your MC’s internal struggle ends, her misbelief bites the dust, and she sees the world with new eyes.
- The Revelation Scene: Life experience led your MC to embrace her misbelief, so life experience must disabuse her of that notion.
- The Revelation Scene is where the MC must see the truth and come out battered but victorious, or “go down for the count.”
- Let the MC earn the revelation, so readers can viscerally experience the epiphany themselves.
- The Aha!/Revelation Moment comes late, but not always at the very end.
- Answer these 3 questions:
- In the end, how will your MC achieve her external goal? (Eg: What happens? Does he win or lose, live or die?)
- What will change for the MC internally?
At the end, your MC will return literally or figuratively to where she started, but she’ll see things differently (Ex: Wizard of Oz — “there’s no place like home”)
- What, in this scene, forces your MC to confront, and hopefully overcome, her misbelief?
DO THIS: answer the 3 questions above, explore. Take time to concretize and envision the scene. Then create a scene card for the Aha! moment
DO THIS: Review everything you know about your MC. Review the scenes you’ve written. Note memories your MC may recall during the end scene as he struggles to make sense of what is going on and how to respond. It’s now or never for him. Now write the scene. (You will likely rewrite it a few times by the end, so no stress)
- It’s only when you have a vast amount of info before you can effectively wing it. Luck favors the prepared.
Chapter 11: Building Your Blueprint: How to Keep Track of All the Moving Parts
“Story structure is a by-product of a story well-told, not something you can or should impose from the outside in.”
Your goal is to build a story by creating a plot that constantly forces your reluctant MC to change. To do this you have to dig ninto the past to uncover info about your character. In the process, you will be writing and developing your story at the same time.
You need to make a Story Card for each scene because concretizing specifics helps you keep your eye on the prize and avoid getting derailed. You don’t need to finish all the cards before you start writing your novel, though.
- The point of story cards is to balance the internal story and external plot so they keep spurring each other on.
- Every scene may require some digging into the past, and each scene sows seeds into the future (and past)
- Each scene gives the next scene meaning.
- Resist the urge to write scenes at random, or you’ll have lots of great scenes that don’t pull narrative weight and will threaten your story’s internal logic.
- How to organize everything: Make folders for the following categories and file scenes in them:
- Key characters: include story-specific bio. Scenes with more than 2 characters should be filed into each character’s folder.
- Rules of the world: for those writing fantasy/magical realism/historical novels. Keep track of what is possible/impossible and why.
- Idea list: for fuzzy ideas that aren’t full on scenes yet. No specifics and no alpha point. Keep this list in chronological order. Always think cause and effect. Once you’ve concretized an idea, move it into one of the following folders:
- Random scene cards: any scene you can envision which has an alpha point. But you don’t know how it connects to your cause-effect chain yet.
- Scene cards in development: story-specific cards. Your actual blueprint lives here. Once a card moves in here, it gets a scene number.
DO THIS: Take time to set up your folders. Follow the WHYs of your story until you have an answer to every question that pops up. Remember answers tend to lead to more questions. It’s a messy process, so you will be going in many directions at once, and keeping things organized through the Story Cards.
Chapter 12: Going Back to Move Forward: How to Harvest the Past to Set Up the Plot
Plot twists stem organically from your MC’s internal struggle which is what makes them dramatic and insightful. Righth now you probably have a general idea of how your novel goes, but concrete plot points are fuzzy. Even so, be careful because it’s easy for the novel to go off the rails and the plot to run away.
DO THIS: Jot a brief overview of your novel as you see it now. More specific and developed than what you did in Chapter 3. Think plot problem, how it escalates, why it is a problem, what it might cost the MC emotionally.
- Make a list of every potential scene/plot point/storyline. If you can’t close your eyes and picture it, it’s too general. Put those in your Idea List folder.
- Look for trouble (for your MC)
DO THIS: Make a list of ideas and make a scene card for anything specific that you think up.
- Now comb through your turning point scenes from Chapter 7 to look for other, less obvious plot points that may cause as much conflict as possible for the MC.
- What secrets does your MC have? What lies has she told others/herself? Secrets and lies go hand in hand. Out of sight is not out of mind.
DO THIS: Cull through your MC’s past and find some possible scenes you can use. File them.
- What external obstacles from the past will keep your MC from his current goal or help him attain it?
- Think promises, agreements, people wronged/betrayed by MC, feuds, etc.
- Continually dig into the past to discover the origins of obstacles you haven’t yet envisioned.
- Letting your imagination go in the context of the story = you’ll uncover gold.
DO THIS: Create cards for and file potential obstacles to thwart your MC. Don’t worry if the cards aren’t fully fleshed out/clear.
Chapter 13: Story Logic: Making Sure Each “What” Has a “Why”
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” — Mark Twain
How do you turn generalities into compelling specifics? By asking Why. The answer always lies in the past. Test every plot point for believability by asking why right out of the starting gate. Remember: specifics beget specifics.
- Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually the right one.
- Filtering a fuzzy plot point through at least 3 WHYs makes it stronger.
DO THIS: Go through your Idea List and Scene Cards looking for plot points with fuzzy logic. Explore them in chronological order and ask WHY three times.
- Remember the MC wants two things: 1) achieve his desire 2) stay true to his misbelief.
- Always make things harder for your MC.
DO THIS: Take the large empty swaths in your cause-effect chain that lacks concrete plot points and start bringing them into focus, making them specific.
- To move the plot forward, you need subplots and secondary characters.
- What looks like one step is actually several steps taken in unison.
- Everything affects everything else. You have to understand the web of connections.
DO THIS: Sketch out the scope of your story — time frame, size of stage, consider external plot and internal struggle. Keep it short. Look under the WHAT to find WHY. This will save you trouble later.
Chapter 14: The Secret to Layering: Subplots, Storylines, and Secondary Characters
Beware of tunnel vision. Subplots unfold right beside the main storyline, like layers in recorded music. What looks like one fluid step to the reader is several individual steps for the writer, made to appear like a single step. When creating subplots, remember that readers assume that everything is on a need-to-know basis. So consider how each subplot affects the main storyline.
- Subplots are found beneath the surface of the story. They’re not random, they shed light on surface meaning.
- Subplots come from 1) external events set in motion before the novel began, and 2) secondary characters.
- Subplots tend to revolve around one character. You can name them by character.
DO THIS: Look at your idea list and cards and identify anything that could be a potential subplot, list candidates in order of appearance and start playing with the most promising ones.
- Most people do things for what they believe are good reasons. Bad behavior isn’t always truly bad behavior.
DO THIS: Look at your list of subplots and ask why this matters to the MC. You’ll come up with several scenes for each subplot identified.
- Remember everyone is the MC of their story. A character without a clear, subjective agenda isn’t believable or interesting.
- Develop your secondary characters by thinking about them the way you think about your MC.
- But everything your secondary characters do is supposed to affect the MC, sparking the 3rd rail. They should naturally facilitate your MC’s story.
- You MUST know your bad guy’s agenda.
DO THIS: Pick a character to develop, who will challenge or reaffirm your MC’s misbelief.
- Write a character bio for your secondaries: must have a cause-effect chain, and be specific. Having constraints helps.
DO THIS: Create a bio for every secondary character and see if anything has scene potential
- The more you know your characters, the more your story begins to write itself.
DO THIS: Find the characters who play a big role in the MC’s past and shaped their worldview. They are the ones she will think of as she struggles to make sense of her present.
DO THIS: If any of your secondary characters have shared history with your MC, flesh it out and look for story-specific moments.
Chapter 15: Writing Forward: Stories Grow in Spirals
At this point you should have character bios and backstory for all secondary characters, a fledgling draft of the Opening and Aha! Scenes, a bunch of Story Cards and a list of vague ideas. Now it’s time to write your first five scenes.
- The first five scenes: Should plunge us into action while giving us enough insight into the MC to know what all this means to her.
- Action is meaningless unless it’s affecting someone.
DO THIS: Finish scene cards 2–5 by asking questions and filling in logic gaps until the cards are scene ready. Now write the scenes. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to do or why something happens, stop and review what you know, or dig into the story’s past.
- You will keep going back and forth during this entire process, layering in new information.
- Writer Harlan Cohen: Every 75 pages, he stops and goes back to the beginning.
- There’s a butterfly effect in the novel. Change is constant.
- Your MC must react to everything that happens in the moment, not abstractly.
- Show your reader how the MC feels, don’t say that they are feeling “sad.” Seeing something makes it FEEL true.
- You can read your MC’s mind. Show it to the readers.
DO THIS: Gather all you know about your MC and worldview at the moment. What does he most worry about? How does that affect this scene? Knowing why he’s struggling will tell you what conclusions he’s drawing.
“Riveting novels have been known to change the world itself.”
- Ask WHY of everything until you have a tangible origin and there’s no more WHY to ask.
- Ask SO WHAT? of everything — why does the reader need to know this? How does this move the story forward? What happens as a result? What’s the point of this?
- To Kill a Mockingbird changed people’s thoughts by changing their feelings.
- The only way to change how someone thinks about something is to first change how they feel about it.
- “You have the power. Now go and use it.”
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