Jul 10, 2012

5 Questions with Lisa Cron, Author of "Wired for Story"

Do you know the 3 dreaded C’s? Three wicked, wicked step-sisters that will ruin any plot?

Their names are Convenience, Contrivance and Coincidence.

Lisa Cron’s new book, Wired for Story, will strike you as a natural step forward if you already knew her excellent blog for writers. Lisa does more than instruct you to do this and not that; she builds her case through concrete examples, shows you the path to failure and then suggests a better direction. The three wicked step-sisters aren’t the only storybook villains she exposes along the way.

This is a myth-busting book. Lisa begins: “Once upon a time really smart people were completely convinced the world was flat. Then they learned that it wasn’t.” That’s the book in a nutshell – enunciate the myth, cast a new light on it, understand it, move on.

Wired for Story, out today from Ten Speed Press, won’t just help you navigate the treacherous waters of plotting. The most remarkable thing about the book is how it grounds storytelling conventions in hard facts about the human brain. Lisa draws on recent work by Lehrer, Pinker and Damasio, among others, to show you the connections between words on the page and the workings of the brain.

I don’t recommend a great many writing books to people who haven’t started a novel yet. Usually I stick to a couple – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and How to Write a Damn Good Novel, Part II, by James N. Frey. They’re solid. Having said that, Wired for Story is a book you’ll want to read, underline, re-read and highlight obsessively. I used to recommend two books on craft. From now on it’s three.

Lisa was generous enough to answer some of my questions on her book, the importance of writing, and to speculate on the outcome of a cage-match between two exuberant personalities. Read on.

1. Lisa, we’re starting out with a terribly difficult question. Why do we write? What is writing for?

Great question – make that, two great questions. First, why do we write? We write because we want to matter. I know that can sound pejorative, as if it’s simply ego. But I don’t mean it that way at all. I believe that central to our sense of well-being is the feeling that our lives are purposeful, that we’ve made a difference. And that’s why we write, to make that difference, and in so doing, to connect with other people on a fundamental level: that of storytelling, which is how we make sense of the world around us.

This brings us to the second part of your question: what is writing for? Storytelling is the most powerful tool for change and insight in the world. We’re wired for story, because by slipping into the protagonist’s skin, we are able to vicariously experience things that we haven’t yet in real life. This not only gives us insight into how the world works and what makes people tick, it can literally rewire our own brain, instilling empathy, better preparing us for the future. In other words, story is what shapes our sense of self, how we see the world, and what actions we therefore take. That’s why writers are in fact the most powerful people on Earth. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. It’s not a metaphor. It’s a fact.

 2. There’s a great insight in the book, “[E]verything we experience is coated in emotion.” Could you elaborate? 

This was one of the most eye-opening revelations to come from neuroscience. Of course, when you think about it, it’s totally obvious. Even more interesting is that those “feelings” aren’t ephemeral at all, they’re physical, a literal biological response to stimuli that we then experience as emotion. Think of it as the brain’s shorthand way of telling us how something will affect us, enabling us to decide what to do about it. 

For instance, the feeling you get when your beloved suddenly comes into view alerts you to the pleasures that await; but should your beloved walk right by without so much as a hello, a decidedly different feeling would set off warning bells.  However, it’s important to realize that we’re not just talking about “big” emotions; emotion guides everything. If you couldn’t feel, you couldn’t make a single decision, down to what to have for breakfast. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says, “Indeed, feelings don’t just matter. Feelings are what mattering means.”

In a story, this is precisely what readers come for. They want to know what it would feel like to go through the trial and tribulations that the protagonist does as he wrestles with the story question. In other words, they’re hungry for the emotional cost of the protagonist’s actions. It’s not what he does, but what it costs him emotionally to do it.

3. What’s the one thing that defines a protagonist?

The one thing that defines the protagonist is that he or she is the person who gives everything else in the novel its meaning and emotional weight.

In a nutshell: the protagonist is the person who must overcome a longstanding internal issue in order to solve the story question. This isn’t to say she must succeed, but the story is about her struggle, and what she must learn in order to earn her “aha” moment, or, as Proust so aptly said, “to possess new eyes.” Thus everything in the novel will get its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects her in this struggle. The fine print is that everything in the novel must actually affect the protagonist’s struggle.  The beauty of this is that it’s like a mathematical proof writers can use to gauge whether something is relevant to their story, or a darling in dire need of dispatch. 

4. In chapter 7, ‘Courting Conflict,’ you mention a couple of cases where writers crippled their stories by withholding vital information for too long. Do you agree with Vonnegut’s dictum that you should tell the reader as much as possible, as soon as possible?

Yes, I agree with it wholeheartedly. One of the biggest, and sadly, most common, mistakes writers make is withholding information. Whether it’s because they’re holding it back for a “reveal” later, or because they’re afraid of “giving too much away,” the effect is the same: readers lose interest. Why? Because the writer made the mistake of thinking that the reader will be committed to the novel from the second they begin reading – almost as if they’re obligated to read through to the end. Not true.

Interest must be earned -- the writer has to make the reader care about the protagonist and the problem he’ll face. Ironically, it’s almost always the very information they withhold that would do exactly that. 

Sometimes it even reads as if the writer thinks of the reader as the enemy, and the goal is to keep them in the dark for as long as possible. Or worse, the writer drops opaque hints that there’s a big secret coming, but never actually lets us in on it until it’s far too late.  This gets annoying very fast.

After all, the joy of reading is in figuring out what’s going on, and often readers are miles ahead of the protagonist, and that’s a good thing. Let me give you an example. Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her opens with this sentence:

“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.”

Now, many writers would never dream of telling us that because it “gives away” what’s going to happen. Which is actually what makes it a perfect opening sentence. It instantly gives readers a yardstick by which they can measure the meaning of every event, asking themselves, “Is this bringing Joel closer to murder, or further away?”

The interesting thing is that the novel is 736 pages, and the murder in question isn’t referenced again until it occurs well over 600 pages later. But that single sentence changes how the reader experiences every single word up until then, because it gives us a reference point, and tells us what the book is about: What it would take to turn a hapless, brave, poverty-stricken boy into a killer? As neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak notes, “Within the brain, things are always evaluated within a specific context.” Elizabeth George’s one short sentence gives the reader the context within which we can evaluate everything that happens to Joel.  Brilliant, isn’t it?

5. Who would win in a fight – Truman Capote or Dorothy Parker? (No holds barred.)

I don’t know who would actually win, but I’d wager that the next day both would claim victory, and then dine out on the story for years to come, continually denying rumors of a possible rematch that they, themselves, had secretly floated.  

Lisa Cron spent a decade in publishing—first at W.W. Norton in New York, then at John Muir Publications in Santa Fe, New Mexico—before turning to television, where among other things she’s been supervising producer on shows for Court TV and Showtime. She’s been a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency in NYC, and for Village Roadshow, Icon, The Don Buchwald Agency and others in L.A., and a literary agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency. 
She’s featured in Final Draft's book, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle, 2004). Her passion has always been story, and she currently works as a consultant helping writers wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. Since 2006 she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Ten Speed Press).

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