The protagonist’s world view

This month I want to look at some of the ideas in Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius.

In one of the quotes from the book, she says:

At its most basic, a story is about how someone grapples with a problem they can’t avoid, and how they change in the process…

Maybe that’s a little understated. The external problem they grapple with is basically the plot. And that problem has to be big enough, and the consequences of failure extreme enough, for the protagonist to be totally committed to solving it. But the element of the story that readers and audiences connect to is the protagonist’s internal struggle they experience during the course of the plot, how they change, and what they learn from the process. Not all stories are necessarily about transformation, but those which do are most likely to emotionally connect with the reader or audience.

The idea that stories are composed of a plot (the outer journey) and an inner story (the inner journey or character arc) is not new and features in the writings of many of the story gurus, such as Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler and have been covered in previous blogs. For example, Michael Hauge “Six Stage Plot Structure” he talks about the inner and outer journeys as illustrated below:

The approach that Cron takes in her book Story Genius focuses very much on the protagonist’s inner journey (sometimes referred to as character arc). She comments that many writers are advised to start their stories in medias res (in the midst of things) although this is not always necessarily a good thing if the reader or audience doesn’t quickly connect with the hero.

Action movies often start with a hook sequence (an action sequence to capture the audience’s or reader’s attention to keep them watching or turning the pages). A good example of a hook working well is first sequence from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indie snatches the idol and sets in motion that big rolling ball. The sequence had little to do with the underlying plot of finding the ark of the covenant, but it captured our attention and introduced us to the swashbuckling hero with his fear of snakes and his rival nemesis. All of which are important to grasp before the main plot unfolds later. But the reason this example works well is the audience quickly bonds with the hero, Indiana Jones.

However, Cron makes a good point that all stories technically start ‘in medias res’. That is the protagonist’s story only captures a small part of the protagonist’s life. And the protagonist’s view of the world, their hopes and dreams, fears and beliefs, at the start of the story are all determined by what has come before — their backstory. Now as writers we don’t want to distract the reader with a lot of back story in those opening scenes. And dumping backstory into a prologue is generally boring and to be avoided. So what a writer wants to do is to connect the reader to the protagonist as quickly as possible. But to do that the writer needs to understand the protagonist’s view of the world at the start of the story.

Cron makes a very simple but important observation:

You can’t write about how someone changes unless you know, specifically, what they’re changing from.

So although the reader or audience doesn’t need to understand the protagonists backstory, the writer does. Otherwise how can the writer present the protagonist’s point of view — the filter through which he/she sees the world as the events of the story unfold.

Does that mean you need to understand the complete backstory of the protagonist? No, of course not. But you do need to understand what they want in life, and what is holding them back from achieving it. Some writers will attribute this element that holds them back as their ‘flaw’ or ‘wound’ from the past. Lisa Cron uses a simpler description for it — a ‘misbelief’ that colours the protagonist view of themselves and the world.

Cron explains it like this:

So at the risk of being obvious, let me say that all protagonists stand on the threshold of the novel they’re about to be flung into with two things about to burn a hole in their pocket:

1. A deep-seated desire—something they’ve wanted for a very long time.

2. A defining misbelief that stands in the way of achieving that desire. This is where the fear that’s holding them back comes from.

Cron emphasises that every character filters the world through his or her internal logic, based on what the events in their past force them to face. Therefore it is important to identify those defining moments as they are the reason the character behaves as they do.

What I liked about Story Genius is Cron’s approach to story planning and her approach to the protagonists world view. Put simply, if you know the protagonist’s world view at the start of the story and more importantly why they hold that view, then it gives the writer a clue as to the type of plot events that have to take place to change that view. Think of Scrooge ‘s character from Christmas Carol at the start of the story and what it changes to at the end. And then think of the different type of events that might have been used to change it. You might come up with the idea of three ghosts, but you might just come up with something else that works just as well.

The approach Cron is taking is to look behind the protagonist’s character to determine what past events moulded their character into what it is at the start of the story in order to discover the future plot events that are needed to make the character change. Thus the protagonist’s inner journey is not something that just happens alongside the outer journey. The two journey’s are intertwined.

I have to say I enjoyed the fresh perspective put forward in the book. Too often plot and character are seen as though they are different elements of a story when in fact they are inextricably linked together. It reminds me of a comment made by Jill Chamberlain in her book the Nutshell Technique. In the book she comments that if you can replace the protagonist with another character without changing the essence of the story, then you don’t have a story at all, you have a situation. Story’s are therefore unique to a protagonist.

Tell me what you think.

Finding the story

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of writing is finding the story. Finding ideas is no problem: everyone has ideas. How many times have you been told that by someone that he or she has a great idea for a book? But an idea alone does not make a story. It’s the next stage that I find difficult: taking that idea and developing it into a story that is new and exciting.

If writers are to be believed about what they say of their craft, there are two very different types of writers: ‘pantsers’ and  ‘plotters’. Plotters plan their way forward with detailed written outlines/synopsis, character sketches, scene lists and other devices; whereas pantsers write organically by the seat of their pants not knowing where the story is going to take them. However, I suspect the real truth is that most writers probably fall somewhere  between these two extremes. Let me take a step back and explain.

Most writers that  call themselves ‘pantsers’ do so because they don’t produce a written  outline or synopsis of their story before they commence writing, and because they feel that such an outline would constrain their creativity.  But that’s not to say that they don’t think deeply about their story lines and their characters  before they start writing, that they don’t have notes, research  and jottings about their story, or that they  don’t have some idea of the direction where they want the story  to go.  I suspect that most ‘pantsers’ probably have a very good idea about what they want to cover in the next few chapters that they are writing, but have probably only a feel for what will happen beyond that point.

This is a kind of headlights planning: where the immediate chapters ahead are clear in the writers head, but beyond the writer’s plan is at best a little sketchy. Some pantsers claim that when they start writing they have no idea of how the story will end. But I suspect, if they are honest with themselves,  they will have probably at least considered some of the options available for the ending. What they mean is that they have a passionate desire to remain flexible and creative throughout the writing process. They want to enjoy the same experience as their readers as the story unfolds.

However,  many writers that call themselves plotters, myself included,   may well map out a sketch of the story to begin with, but will not stick rigidly to it. For me, outlining/planning is a process that continues throughout the writing process and as you write new ideas and questions arise that need to be answered, and the  plot evolves.  There are also different degrees of plotting depending on the amount of detail the writer wants to go into.  A plot outline might be a simple list of bullet points of the main story events,  a collection of scene cards; or it could be a 3 or  even a 50-page written synopsis of the story. Plotters come in all shapes and sizes.

Personally, I would describe myself as a plotter, but I’ve never written  a  formal synopsis before commencing a project. I prefer to map out the main events of the story using scene cards with one or two lines of description for each scene. For my current project, I currently have approximately 47 scene cards (22 cards for the first Act, 20 for the second Act  and 5 for the third Act). This may seem a little unbalanced, but it’s because I have completed writing the first Act and I am part way through the second. As the story develops, I will continue to add more scene cards to Acts 2 and 3 as the level of detail becomes clearer.

The point I am trying to make is that plotting is a flexible process. Most of Act 1 of my current book went to plan, with only a modest degree of changes. But I am now a third way through  Act 2 and I am already making major revisions to scenes:  introducing new scenes, changing the timing of scenes and deleting or re-writing scenes. It is part of the process of finding out what works and what does not.

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story wrote that if you are not sure whether to write a scene or not you should write it. It’s the only way you will find out if the scene really works. He’s right. Whether you’re an ardent pantser or a plotter, finding the story is a creative process, and both plotters and pantsers need to experiment to find it.