Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (What is a story?), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
Let's take a look at the kind of idea that writers often start with, and I'll show you how with just a few tweaks we can take it from not so great to really stellar. It's all a matter of following our definition of story. Here's an example of the first draft of a story idea. (female speaker: My novel is about an aspiring actress who doesn't think that her father ever loved her. He was a famous actor, and all he ever cared about was his work. He was always gone throughout her childhood-- he was almost never there for birthdays or when she was in a performance herself, and worse, he started to get all these plum roles for older men, but he's made her so insecure, she can't get a job at all.) Let's run this through our story definition to see how it holds up.
A story is how what happens. That's the plot. What's a plot? A plot is what happens in the story. And what's happening in this story? Nothing, no plot, no story. So let's check the next part of our story definition to see if that works. Even though the writer told us the actress is the protagonist, you can't be a protagonist unless you actually do something, otherwise you're just a character standing around waiting, no story in that. I think we might be in trouble. Let's check the next component.
We need a protagonist who is in pursuit of a difficult goal, that's the story problem. The trouble is the writer hasn't told us what the actress' goal is, so there is no story problem here. Sure, we could probably do our work for her and guess what the actress' goal is. To win her father's love, to land a major role, to hire a thug to break up her father's legs maybe? We don't know. And if there is no goal, there's no story problem, which means there's no story.
So when it comes to how the protagonist changes as a result, that's what the story is actually about, in other words, what the protagonist learns. Well, as far as we can see, she doesn't change at all, because so far the story isn't about anything. So, how can the writer improve this? By going back in and adding the specific motivation, details, and action that pin the story to the page. Let's give the writer another chance.
(female speaker: My story is about an aspiring actress whose father, an iconic actor, has done everything he could to undermine her career. Her biggest fear is that he is right. And she really is making a fool of herself. She's about to give up when her agent sends her on one last audition: a hot young director is looking for an unknown to play the lead in his next film. Believing that if she gets the role she can finally show her father that she's got what it takes, she ups her game and lands the part.
But she soon begins to see how life in the limelight can change a person, realizing that beneath her father's bravado, there's a fearful man who is probably just as insecure as she is.) Let's put this new version to the same test. What happens? Our aspiring actress pulls out the stops to land a lead role against all odds. But when she does, she begins to experience how different success is than how she envisioned it. Who does it happen to? An aspiring actress who find herself in the midst of actual events that we can actually envision.
What's her goal? To show her disapproving father that she really does have the chops to make it. How did she change? She realizes that making is a very different experience than she thought it would be. And that gives her something she never thought she'd feel, empathy for her father. And there you have it, with all of the elements in place, the writer has created a foundation on which you can build a very compelling story. In the next movie I'll give you a checklist of questions that you can use to make sure your story stays on track.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots