Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (What is a story?), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
Before we dive into what a story actually is, I'd like to tell you something that just might knock your socks off, because it reveals the amazing power that writers actually have. You see, although story is universal, until very recently, stories were primarily seen as just another form of entertainment. Sure, we thought they make life much more enjoyable, but they don't really play a necessary role when it comes to survival. Wrong. Turns out that story has been crucial to our survival from day one.
Story is what allowed us to envision the future and to prepare for the unexpected. As a result, story in our brain evolved in tandem. Story is how we make sense of the world. But for writers, the real breakthrough is the discovery of what triggers that sense of pleasure we feel when a story hooks us. It's not lyrical language, great characters, realistic dialogue, or even vivid images. Nope, curiosity is the trigger.
In other words, the desire to find out what happens next. That feeling of pleasure, it's actually the rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It's our brain's way of rewarding us for following our curiosity until we find the answer. This information is a game changer for writers, especially given how often we're led to believe that having a way with words is what hooks readers. In fact, words are the handmaiden of story. Story is what captivates the brain.
Now, I'm not saying that great writing isn't a huge plus, obviously it is. But without a story, great writing just sits there like a beautifully-rendered bowl of waxed fruit. So, what are the brain's expectations when it comes to story? And how can you make sure your story delivers them? That's exactly what we will be exploring in this course, beginning right now with a definition of what exactly a story is. Here goes: a story is how what happens affects someone who is in pursuit of a difficult goal and how he or she changes as a result.
Let's take a closer look using language that you might already be familiar with. What happens, that's the plot; someone, that's the protagonist; the goal is what's known as the story problem or story question and how he or she changes as a result, that's what your story is actually about. A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. In other words, story is internal, not external.
All the elements of a story are anchored in this very simple premise where they work together to create what it appears to the reader as reality, only sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining. This is because stories filter out everything that would distract us from the situation at hand, which is what does your protagonist have to confront and overcome in order to solve the problem you've set up for her? Is discovering what the problem is that ignites the reader's curiosity, which means that we have to have a sense of it, beginning on the very first page.
Let's explore this a little further by seeing how it works in action in the next movie.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots