Five Star Reviews: Story Genius

A few days ago I got an email from a friend who was having trouble with a story. He has an interesting world and characters and exciting things happening all the way up to an epic climax…which he can’t resolve. Or rather, he has like five resolutions in mind, but can’t choose between them. The story just feels murky and confused, with no clear path through its events. No sense of rightness.

I asked him some question: what is the protagonist’s desire? What is stopping him (the protagonist is a him) from getting that desire? What events in the protagonist’s past caused him to pick up this impediment? What terrible events in the future will teach him to discard it, and become the person he needs to be?

The right answers jump out. Emotion connects character to reader to plot. Events start to matter and bam. Story.

And that’s like the third time I’ve used those questions this week. (the other two times were on myself)

The questions aren’t mine. They comes from Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which I’ve spent the last year reading, implementing its instructions one by one, much to the benefit of my current novel.

Cron’s thesis is that the main character of a novel invests its events (plot) with meaning, and thereby turns a bunch of stuff that happens into a story. While plot might give a novel tracks to run down, the book doesn’t actually go anywhere without the energy imparted by the emotions, reactions, impressions of the main character.

With pursuit of story in mind, Cron leads us through step-by-step instructions (as well as a case study novel about a dog) from inception to the end of the first draft. She is not shy about telling you that this technique works and that one doesn’t. And, for me at least, her techniques do work. I’ve uses them many times in the past year, and fully expect to use them for the rest of my writing career.

There was some digressions into postmodern ontology, and most of Cron’s jokes fall flat, but I didn’t read Story Genius for philosophy or humor. I read it to learn how to write better, and it worked. It gave me tools to diagnose and fix problems in my prose and process. It showed me how to find the electric core that runs through the heart of any functioning story and how to build such a core for my own work.

Story Genius is essential for every author who, like me, cares more about the design of the monster than the person its eating. Story (rather than plot) is something we need to master, because just as the tree falls silently in the deserted forest, a monster doesn’t start to live until someone looks at it and feels afraid.

Read Story Genius, follow its instructions, give your monsters something they can really chew on.

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