Watch a Novel Grow From the First Spark of an Idea
We all live for the “me too” moments – when you realize you’re talking to a kindred spirit. That happened to me earlier this week. I’m on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA Visual Narrative program, and my fellow professors and I were giving feedback to the brilliant class of 2017 on the stories they plan to develop over the coming school year.
One professor, a man who’s had a long and successful career as a TV writer and playwright, lamented that screenwriting is taught as if it’s all about the plot.
“YES!” I chimed in, “and all those story structure books lead writers so far astray that I’d burn them all if I could!”
“Me too, me too,” he said. “We could have a bonfire.”
“I’ll bring the marshmallows!” I yelled (I was a tad hungry).
“I’ll bring the matches!” he answered.
It was a genuine bonding moment. But what, you may be wondering, is really wrong with all those story structure books (not to mention story structure classes)? And what does this have to do with Story Genius? Never thought you’d ask.
First, let’s tackle the myth of “story structure”:
Story structure is a misnomer – it’s really “plot” structure. And it’s premised on the notion that if you come up with an external plot, the story (meaning the internal transformation we’re tracking as we read) will appear. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Story must come first – what your protagonist will change from and what she will change to. The plot is then constructed to force that character to make that specific change. Without that internal truth, even the most perfectly “structured” plot is just a bunch of things that happen – which is why so many writers unwittingly produce utterly boring novels, regardless how beautifully written.
So how, then, do “story” structure models fool writers into believing that they work?
“Story” structure books and methods use already existing very successful novels, movies and myths as examples.
Why is that a problem? Because those novels, movies and myths are already built around a compelling story – and that is what makes them successful. And so when you – the reader – watch the writer deconstruct the “plot” you are supplying the internal story, because you’re already familiar with it. Whether it’s Titanic, The Wizard of Oz, or Romeo and Juliet, you already know why what’s happening in the plot matters to the protagonist, so you understand – in other words, you feel – what those events mean. Without that knowledge, it would just be a bunch of surface things that happen -- which, heartbreakingly, is what happens when writers try to use “story” structure models to write a novel or screenplay. They end up with plot points that have no internal resonance, no meaning other than the utterly obvious: if you slug the protagonist, it will hurt.
Story comes first; and if you want to write a novel that captures your reader’s attention, it’s what must give birth to the plot. After all, if a novel is about how the protagonist changes internally then how can you create a plot to spur that change if you don’t know what the change is? Or why the protagonist needs to change? Or why anything matters to the protagonist?
The answer to all of the above is simple: You can’t.
But that lands us in a pickle. Because while we could talk about this forever in a conceptual way, how, then, can we see it in action? Where are the examples? After all, it’s very, very easy to deconstruct something that has already been written, but how can you imply, unearth or even infer the specific steps the writer went through that resulted in said finished novel?
Again, you can’t. Which brings me to the first, major, near-derailment of my new book, Story Genius. How on earth could I write a prescriptive book without examples of what writers need to actually do in order to write a novel? And where on earth could I get those examples?
Enter the brilliant, savvy, courageous Jennie Nash, who volunteered to begin her next novel – utterly from scratch – within the pages of Story Genius so that my readers could watch the process in action. It’s not a pretty process (which is a reassuring part of the point), but watching it unfold is priceless because we can see how a writer starts with the story and builds everything else from there.
I should explain, because it is a fascinating truth, that Jennie was also shepherding me though the writing of Story Genius as my book coach. So we had an Escher-like reality where she was coaching me on my book while I was coaching her on hers, and all of it ended up in the pages of Story Genius. It’s a rich mix and we are both proud of the result and ready to share it with the world.
To get a sense of what it was like for Jennie to build her novel according to the Story Genius method, I thought I would bring her on to answer a few questions:
Lisa: Why did you volunteer in the first place?
Jennie: Ha – well, first off, I thought it wouldn’t be that hard. I thought it wouldn’t be that different from the way I have written my four existing novels. I turned out to be very wrong about that – as you will see in my answers to questions below.
Second, I knew that there had to be a better way of approaching a novel than the way I had done it in the past – which was to write a ton of pages, throw out a ton of pages, and use that process to aimlessly search for the structure and the point. That way of writing had sort of worked for me – in that I did pretty well with it. I mean, I’m a midlist writer, which is to say that my books are on the middle of the list. They are not shiny new debuts and they are not bestsellers. They are in the middle of the list. And while I am grateful to have been by such fine houses, middle is not any writer’s goal. We want to wow our reader. We want to move them. I wanted to learn how to do that better than I had been doing it.
And, third, being your book coach, I wanted to help you write the best book you could, and I thought the idea of letting your readers following along with the process would be powerful.
Lisa: What is the biggest difference between the Story Genius method and how you wrote your previous novels?
Jennie: The Story Genius method asks you to go back before you go forward – and to REALLY go back. I felt a little bit like a racehorse being held back at the starting gate. I had my story idea and my structure and timeline and I wanted to GO, but your method says, “Oh no: no running. Not until you know exactly what this story is about and exactly where it’s going. In fact, racehorse, how ‘bout going back to the barn to visualize the race for awhile and think about how you want to run.” And by exactly where it’s going, I mean EXACTLY. Not a vague notion, not a fuzzy picture. That is very different than what I was used to, and it was insanely more helpful than I thought it would be.
I should say here that I am in no way a total “pantser” who just sort of wings it. Nor am I a plotter who works with a massive grid or an external story structure to try to control the whole writing process. I am somewhere in between.
Lisa: What was the hardest part about the Story Genius method?
Jennie: A few things. Not writing forward when I wanted to, for sure. That was the only way I knew how to find the story and it was hard to be asked not to do that.
Also the concept of the misbelief – which is your term for the thing the protagonist believes about the world that at the end, she will learn is not true. It seems so darn simple, but like most important things in life, it’s really not simple in the least. It’s a deep psychological exercise in understanding how people go through the world – the ways in which we tell ourselves a story about the world that is so often not true. But we tell that narrative to survive. The Story Genius method forces you to look at that act of narrative-making, and to see how very often the thing we do in order to survive is the thing that keeps us from getting what we most want.
So, like all writing, it’s emotionally challenging work. But your method forces you to do it in one fell swoop right at the start, rather than easing into it.
Lisa: That’s because you can’t “ease” into it. Just like us out here in real life, the protagonist – any character – steps onto page one already fully formed as a human being, who sees the present based on one thing and one thing only: what their past experience has taught them things mean. If you don’t know what that is, how do you know what they want, what’s holding them back – and even more important: why -- how can you have a clue as to what they’d do? You can’t. So unless you are prepared to throw away everything you’ve written before you have nailed that down, writing blind is not a good idea. Instead you have to dig into that first, which takes real focus and real work.
Jennie: So true. It’s not for the faint of heart. And that is not in any way a bad thing! It’s for writers who are serious about their work and serious about wanting to hold a reader’s attention.
In my experience (which is quite extensive, since in addition to being an author, I am a book coach to fiction and non-fiction writers, and a writing instructor), there are a lot of writers who want to TALK about being a writer, or want to skip ahead to the talk show part (you know, telling Oprah your life story….) but there aren't as many who are serious about doing the hard work that is required of writing something resonant that strangers want to read.
If that is not what someone wants – if , say, writing 55,000 words in a month is their idea of success – Story Genius is probably not for them.
Lisa: What did the Story Genius method allow you to do that your previous method didn’t?
Jennie: Articulate the deep truth of the story right from the start so that there wasn’t as much fishing around for it. And by fishing, I mean sometimes more than 20, 30 50, pages at a time that would have to be thrown out, and months and months and months of wasted time.
Lisa: Plus, for anyone who’s tried actual fishing, it’s not like you always catch something. In other words “fishing around” for your story often produces nothing, no matter how many pages you write.
Jennie: Sad but true.
Lisa: So, how did the Story Genius method change how you see story?
Jennie: You’ll love this answer: I think the biggest change for me was understanding the question, “why?”
Why? is at the heart of pretty much every part of the Story Genius method, and I have been asking my students and clients why? for years. I have no doubt asked YOU why? about a million times, and when Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why came out a few years ago, I was like, “Preach, Simon!” He was talking to businesses, but he may well as been talking to writers, too…. I intuitively understood that the why? is very often the critical thing missing in a piece of work – both in a single line (why did that character do that?) as well as on a much larger scale (why are you even telling us this story?) – and I use that question more than any other.
Story Genius taught me what that why? is really about, when it comes to story. It helped me see why asking why? is so powerful and how to better utilize the question in my writing work and my coaching work. I feel so smart now!
Lisa: How did the Story Genius method change how you see writing?
Jennie: Well, to be 100% truthful, it at first threw me into a bit of doubt about my ability to write anything at all – which is par for the course for pretty much any writer. Doubt is the water we swim in.
But once I got deeper into it, the Story Genius method gave me comfort. It’s like a system of checks-and-balances you can use as you write forward. You use the term “yardstick” in the book – and that is apt. It gives you a yardstick you can use to measure the story as you are writing it, to test it, and to see if it holds up.
Carpenters say, “measure twice, cut once.” That is what Story Genius is to the writing process – a way to measure before you commit, before you waste resources.
Lisa: Oh come on Jennie, it was easy, just admit it!
Jennie: I know you wish I would say, “Story Genius made writing a novel super simple and easy and fast.”
Lisa: No, actually that’s not what I want. What I meant was: the Story Genius method helps writers zero in on the story they are telling, and that gives them a clear yardstick, showing them exactly what, where, when, and why to dig for more information, so it makes writing a compelling story much easier. I didn’t mean simple and I never meant fast. Writing itself is hard, digging deep is hard. That’s the first thing I tell writers, and I know you do too.
Jennie: Yep! The problem is that super simple, easy and fast is what so many writers PROCLAIM they want, and because super simple, easy and fast is an easy sell – like offering cold lemonade on a hot day. Who wouldn’t want that?
But I have been in the world of books for a long time, on many different sides of the equation and I know this to be true (speaking of Oprah): no one really wants simple, fast and easy. What makes writing a book deeply satisfying – more satisfying than anything else in the entire universe that I know of, save for long-standing love and raising children – is that it’s hard. It forces you to wrestle with your soul, with your place in the world, with the philosophies you hold dear and the ones you vehemently oppose. And that is true, whether you are writing a middle grade novel about fairies or an epic saga about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
Hard is actually the whole point – the deep why? of writing. It’s what attracts us—the same way that love attracts us and the task of raising children. It’s the work that has no easy answers that we most want to enter into. It’s where we can prove ourselves to ourselves.
So no, in my estimation, Story Genius doesn’t make it easy – because nothing could. It is not easy to write a novel, period. What Story Genius does is makes it more logical. And more understandable. More genuinely doable. It’s like a field guide for a very intense journey.
And that is a deep service you have done for writers who are serious about taking that journey.
Lisa: Oh, thank you! It was such a . . . well, hard journey, wasn’t it? Not easy, not fast, not simple. But being here on the other side of it is humbling, thrilling and a bit scary. Especially since on August 9th Story Genius will be catapulted into the world. Are you ready Jennie?
Jennie: As I’ll ever be!
Lisa: Me too!
Plus, these days my motto is: You’re a fool whether or not you dance, so you might as well dance. Here’s to dancing!