Since I began reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: 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), I’ve been rethinking how I approach writing my stories. Usually, I get this random scene in my head and from there it branches out, but what always made storytelling interesting to me is a character’s backstory. Why is it the protagonist does what he or she does? What makes her tick and what caused it to think in a certain manner?
Suffice it to say that I was happy to read that Lisa is an advocate of backstory and to delicately embroider the story with flashbacks of the character’s past experiences.
I know that some readers will groan and say that agents dislike backstory because it pulls the reader out of the current plot line, but story, as Lisa points out over and over in Story Genius, is not about the external happenings (plot) but the protagonist’s internal struggle and how she changes by the external forces.
When I started the exercises in the book, I struggled because you do a lot of rehashing of the idea over and over again. This was even harder for me because I’ve been working on Julius for so long and I’ve been so attached to what I wrote. The exercises seemed more like drudgery, but I came to the realization that I had to do them so I could finally type a definitive “The End” and move on to the next story idea using Lisa’s blue print method.
Is her method the final word on craft? No. More writers will write about process and what makes an intriguing story. I know that I’ve taken the best from everyone I’ve read and have come up with my own system that works.
What is it?
It’s similar to Lisa’s premise with lots of backstory on the character that includes her parents, their world view and how that has perceived by the main character as a child. I’m a believer that history is what shapes our political, religious, social perspectives on the macro level and our parent’s personal history on a micro level. I know that’s a not an astute observation, but you’d be surprised when you talk to someone who has no concept of the past and how that has affected their world view.
Lisa, though, goes deeper. She wants us to explore the protagonist’s subconscious and that’s the misbelief that occurs at a very young age. For example, I discovered that Corinne’s biggest fear is lack of respect and acceptance by her peers (Marxist and non-Marxist). To nail down that misbelief, Lisa assigns us to write three different scenes where each time that misbelief reappears: when she’s ten and the librarian disapproves of her research on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When she’s sixteen her classmates mock her progressive outlook. And when she’s in her early twenties, she is denied an important grant to complete her graduate studies, shattering her self-esteem and interpreting her failure as non-acceptance and disrespect from her academic elders.
Once I discovered this about Corinne making her suffer as she tries her hand at a comeback of sorts into the Marxist arena, it opened my eyes to her internal self-doubt battling that external show of self-assurance. There’s only one entity, who knows of her suffering and that’s her guardian angel, Alvah Bessie.
It’s been a revelation and I am sure I’ll have more because Lisa recommends we do this with our antagonist(s) and secondary characters. It’s quite a bit of writing, but it’s all these discoveries that will improve the story and get readers turning the pages and talking about your book.