Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (All stories make a point), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
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A mistake many aspiring writers make is that they only focus on the most visible part of the story, the plot. So they tell us a whole bunch of general things that happened, but it doesn't add up to anything. A summary of their overall story often goes something like this... (female speaker: My novel is about a guy who's been genetically engineered to have an amazing memory. Ever since he was a child he was groomed to become a CIA operative, so he's never had a normal life.
Now he's part of an elite group of spies that goes all over the world solving the toughest intelligence problems, but no one know he's been genetically altered. It all goes well--until he falls for a woman he's sent to spy on.) Which leaves me wondering, and so what's the point? Clearly, this example doesn't focus in on our three essential elements: the Theme, the Internal Issue, and the Plot. Let's see if we can help the writer dig deep and improve her summary.
First, theme, what might she be saying about human nature? (female speaker: My novel will show that our ability to genetically engineer humans has outstripped our ability to understand its ethical implications. The underlying theme is that we can't escape our humanity, because to the dismay of the scientists who created him, even a genetically engineered person will ultimately seek meaning and connection.) This theme gives us both a clue as to how the story will end and how the world will treat her protagonist.
That's why doing your homework before you start writing is so important. Just two sentences can shape the entire story. Now let's turn to the protagonist's internal issue. What's this guy really struggling with? (female speaker: My protagonist is a CIA operative who's been genetically engineered to have an amazing memory. His issue is that because he was created to do crucial top-secret work no ordinary human could do, he doesn't believe he has the right to feel emotions ordinary humans feel, or to question his destiny.) This is a great inner issue because it's something that the plot can then force him to deal with at every turn, causing him great internal conflict and continually compelling him to make really hard decisions.
Now that we know what his issue is and what the theme is, the writer can craft a plot in which far more interesting and important things happen. This gives us a foundation for the story that's infinitely more likely to engage a reader than the one we started with. Here's how it looks. (female speaker: My protagonist is a CIA operative who's been genetically engineered to have an amazing memory. He's sent on a top-secret mission to spy on a young foreign woman he's told is working to overthrow the government.
He finds himself drawn to her in an unsettling way he doesn't understand, which causes him to question everything he's been told--ever. He soon begins to suspect that she isn't trying to overthrow his government; she's trying to prove that the CIA is working to undermine hers. Even more startling, he realizes what he's feeling for her just might be love, something his handlers told him wasn't capable of. Now he must decide whether to finish the job he was engineered to do, or leave his genetics, his training and his security behind and open the door to something much more messy, confusing and satisfying--his humanity.) Now that sounds like an interesting story, the one I know I'd be excited to read.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots