Story Genius red book cover and Lisa Cron author headshot in black sweater and glasses

How to use brain science to tell be stories: Story Genius

Your novel is only half the story. The other half already happened.

That’s from the 2016 book from literary agent and story consultant Lisa Cron called “Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).”

I love ‘writing about writing,’ and this book is one of the most commonly cited works among writer groups. Because of that, lots of writers have opinions on the book. For my money, it did just what it aims to do, and I appreciated Lisa’s approach. I’ll recommend it just like it was recommended to me.

This book includes a bigger concept that I found insightful: The reason stories attract so much attention is humans evolved to seek self-awareness and understanding from them. “The purpose of story — of every story — is to help us interpret, and anticipate, the actions of ourselves and others,” Cron wrote. “We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.”

Below I share my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • “Story is the language of the brain”
  • Flannery O’Connor: “Most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
  • A story’s contents: What a protagonist wants and what internal (mis)belief is keeping her from getting it (the internal struggle)
  • This internal struggle comes before the plot. Story first, plot second
  • Ursula LeGuin: “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
  • “Story was the world’s first virtual reality.” It helped us imagine a future and plan for it
  • “Stories feel good for the same reason food tastes good and sex feels good: without them we couldn’t survive” (12)
  • Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal: fMRI shows we don’t read story as an observer but as a participant — our brain rewards us with dopamine to find out how the story ends because we might learn something about survival (which can include culture)
  • “The purpose of story — of every story — is to help us interpret, and anticipate, the actions of ourselves and others… We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality.”
  • We don’t come for beautiful writing we come for insights into ourselves
  • “A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result”
  • Pretty writing and plot are the wrapping paper for your story not the present itself
  • Writing begins “in medias res” not “ovo” (of the egg) as Horace described the strength of the Iliad. That means your novel is only half the story, the other half having already happened.
  • Context free writing prompts rely on surprise events but have no reason to matter
  • The book uses throughout the book her friend Jennie Nash as example
  • The point of almost every story is a cliche because that reflects themes for an audience in our culture. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” (50)
  • Rather than creating plot and then deciding who would be in it; create the story-person-context first point, then a contextual “What If” and then whose story this will be (protagonist), what is she like before and how will the story change her (write about that protagonist before the story would even start)
  • “Your protagonist’s brain is your readers portal” the point doesn’t come from events but from the struggle these events create for a protagonist
  • Paul Harris’s research: between ages 2-4, kids ask 40k questions, by age 4, questions shift from primarily seeking facts to primarily seeking explanations
  • This reminds me of that Trey Parker clip in which he says a plot can’t be “this and then that” but must be “this because that”
  • What your protagonist wants (desire) and what misbelief keeps her from it (fear) (73)
  • What would be your protagonist’s worst fear, which that misbelief is protecting against?
  • When did your protagonist’s disbelief take hold?
  • Four pre scene writing questions:
    • What does protagonist go into this scene believing
    • Why does she believe it?
    • What is protagonists goal in this scene
    • What does protagonist expect will happen in this scene?
  • Write three scenes that take place before your story and all reinforce your protagonist’s belief — that will be turned over in your story
  • To develop plot on an internal level, what would protagonist’s belief and experience make them do in this situation, and for external plot, how will other characters and world react to these decisions?
  • Your story has one internal problem (the misbelief or third rail) and one external problem (not plot points but what forces protagonist to confront internal misbelief)
  • Goldwyn: A story that starts with an earthquake must end with a climax
  • How to choose your main problem, use 3 hurdles: can it sustain novel length, with build, consequences and time clock; does it force protagonist change (would even inaction cost greatly) (135)
  • To find “when” your story starts, write out the “ticks” or specific plot points that lead to your protagonist needing to leap into action. It could be 4-5 “ticks” until you hit one that compels action. That’s the start of “in medias res” (141)
  • Story genus story cards (150)
  • John Irving: “Whenever possible, tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence”
  • Write the ending (aha moment; doesn’t have to be literal ending): Will the protagonist reach goal, what will change internally and what will happen externally to force change? (173)
  • TS Eliot: “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time”

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