Remember the Jetsons?
Remember The Jetsons? That ‘60s cartoon – now so hilariously retro – that projected what the future would be like. It was a world dedicated to getting things done so easily that you didn’t have to expend any physical exertion at all. You flew everywhere, and when you got out of your flying car (hoverboards don’t count), a conveyer belt took you to your office and deposited you in your desk chair -- that is, if you were George Jetson, let’s not talk about the sexism in the show, or we’ll be here all day. So, ahem, if you were “his wife” Jane, you pressed a button and lunch appeared up through a trap door in the table, and if the bed needed to be made, Rosie the Robot did it.
The point is, in the ‘60s, society was premised on the notion that the goal of humanity was to make everything easy. Which was taken to mean, we’d have to spend no time, thought, or energy on doing, well, anything. Sounds kind of awful, doesn’t it? And cartoons aside, we’ve barreled hell bent in that direction ever since.
But – and here’s the really interesting thing – given how we’re wired, the near-irresistible lure of “quick, easy, effortless” makes total sense.
As neuroscientist Antoinio Damasio says, “Smart brains are also extremely lazy. Anytime they can do less instead of more, they will, a minimalist philosophy they follow religiously.” In other words, we’re hardwired to want to do what’s easy. This is not a negative. It doesn’t make us weak, slothful, or slackers. It’s just that thinking hard takes a whole lot of energy— after all, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet it consumes 20 percent of its energy. Thinking actually burns calories. (Not enough calories, but still.) So the urge to find the easiest way to do something is a built-in survival mechanism, the better to conserve precious energy for handling the decidedly unexpected, the truly dangerous, the unavoidably challenging—you know, all the things that stories are about.
Ah yes, you knew we’d get to story sooner or later, which of course brings us to the point: The technology we’ve created has evolved exponentially faster than our neural wiring is capable of evolving. And so these days, instead of steering us in the right direction, searching for what’s easiest often takes us bounding in the wrong direction.
That’s especially true when it comes to writing. Because writing something that will captivate the reader’s brain from the very first sentence is hard. Period. There’s no way around it. There is no easy method, no way to cut down on the blood, sweat and tears it takes to write a novel, no way to do it in a month, or in ten minutes a day. There’s no system to follow that will allow writers to create a story fast, easily or effortlessly.
That’s the problem with the “story structure” methods that tell writers what “should” happen, in general, every step of the way. It’s a formula, which means that it’s surface, cookie cutter, and the antithesis of story.
But might a story – once it’s written – follow a familiar pattern? Absolutely, it might, or it might not. But even if it does, the shape, by itself, has nothing whatsoever to do with the story. Because the shape doesn’t create the story, the story creates the shape. So, even if you rigorously follow the external pattern of successful stories, chances are all you’ll have done is ape the shape.
The sad truth is: following a formula almost always leads to stories that are surface and yes, formulaic, because rather than digging deep into how and why the protagonist would do any of the things they do, you’re primarily focusing on the external things they do, and worse, trying to make them happen from the outside in.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially since you can see the external things – they’re things that happen – so it’s logical to believe that they’re what matters most. The truth is, they’re the just the surface; the story is about what goes on beneath the surface. In other words, they’re the “what” – completely separate from what we come to story for, which is insight into the why. Story is about an internal transformation, not an external one. It’s the protagonist’s internal evolution that drives the external events.
And so, worst of all, the resulting stories don’t tend to be stories at all, but just a bunch of surface things that happen. In a nutshell: complete formula.
How do you avoid falling into the seductive trap of aping the shape – no muss, no fuss, no reader? By embracing your story: you want to write something that will transform the world (that’s what stories do). And that’s precisely why your “lazy” brain has been saving up all that energy: so you’ll be able to really dive into the story you want to write, and yes – expend the blood, sweat and tears to get it onto the page.
Here’s what does help in that process: knowing precisely what it is that you’re looking for in the story you want to tell, and then digging down to it, so that the external events of your story (the plot, aka the structure) is there to serve your protagonist’s inner transformation. And the beauty of this method is that your novel will then have genuine story structure, because structure comes from the inside out.
So, if Jane Jetson decided to write a novel about how soulless a life of total ease would be, would she expect to push a button and have it instantly appear on the page? Nope. She’d know that taking the easy way out doesn’t work, because that would be her point. My guess is that she applied herself, she’d write something along the lines of Wall-E – and hey, she could call it Rose-E.
Here’s to doing the work and writing something that will change your reader’s world. I’m not saying it’s easy, but boy is it satisfying. As Dorothy Parker so astutely said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Who’s with me?