Summary of Lisa Cron's Story Genius
If you’re looking to write a compelling novel, plot out a perfect screenplay, or refine your life story into a beautiful memoir, Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is one of the first books you should read. She boils storytelling down to a simple, step-by-step method. This approach helps unlock your idea and develop it into a full-fledged novel. Here is a quick summary of Story Genius.
What is a Story?
As the first order of business, Cron discusses why humans read stories in the first place. The reason: to learn. Humans use stories as maps to help them navigate their own lives. If someone is struggling with, say, unrequited love - a timeless subject in literature - and they read a story about a stalker whose unrequited love ruined their lives, then that reader will have learned of a scenario that might help them not make the same set of mistakes, i.e. becoming a stalker. It’s in this way, Cron says, that stories are one of the most useful tools found within the strange workings of mankind.
She then takes the time to make the distinction between story and plot. Story is the main character’s internal change throughout the book, whereas plot is the series of external events of the narrative. This distinction becomes one of the key characteristics of her method. The first step, she teaches, is to turn a what if - a starting idea - into a story. Then, the rest of her method centers around turning this basic story into a plot.
The Third Rail
Acting as the Rosetta Stone that translates stories into plots, Cron discusses the Third Rail of a novel. This is the emotional driver of the book. From the readers’ perspective, it’s what keeps the novel’s plot ever-connected to the underlying story. For writers, it’s this third rail that helps us create plot points that matter.
One of the crucial themes highlighted by Story Genius is the idea that everything should mean something. It’s a vague and broad sentiment, but it has a lot of implications. For one, it means that no event or plot point should be random. It should always be based on the emotional change you want your characters to have. Everything that happens through the course of your novel should be born from the emotional third rail. If your character’s third rail is that they need to feel accepted, then each event should illustrate or lead them to that ultimate acceptance. Under this idea, you wouldn’t include a chapter of them relaxing because work has been stressful. It’s unrelated to the third rail.
After helping you discover your novel’s story and its accompanying third rail, Lisa Cron discusses developing a protagonist. From her perspective, stories are character-driven by nature. So, the protagonist is inseparable from the story and third rail. Main characters are essentially the exaggerated embodiment of the two. It’s here she goes through a step-by-step process of finding and developing the perfect protagonist for the story.
Much of this character development process hinges on a character’s worldview. A worldview is a character’s defining belief about how some aspect of the world works. It’s a filter or a lens that your character will use to interpret every piece of incoming information. If they believe that people are untrustworthy, then their interaction with even a simple store clerk will be quick and curt. One important property of a worldview is its elasticity. It can change. It’s this elasticity, she discusses, can be used to create backstories, influence plot decisions, and illustrate a character’s inner change at the end of the story. Cron explains that every story starts with an incorrect worldview - a misbelief. The plot, then, comprises events aiming to change this worldview.
From here, her method is all about the ins and outs of developing scenes. She includes tons of information on raising stakes, making sub-plots, organizing scenes, etc…
A Quick Example of Lisa Cron’s Method
I want to make a story about someone who overcomes the loss of their fiance. Sad. Sorry.
My character’s third rail may be that they need to become more independent and have for a long time. My main character is a man named Sergei whose worldview is that dying alone is the worst thing that could happen to someone. Let’s say this worldview came from him seeing his uncle, who he was extremely close with, die alone. This affected him a tremendous amount and made him the co-dependent main character we know at the start of the story.
Notice how the third rail and worldview are related to the story. Also, notice that creating an event where his worldview came from gave us Sergei’s backstory. With that ground information laid out, I can brainstorm and create scenes.
One scene may be Sergei calling people to try to reconnect with old friends and no one responding or wanting to meet for coffee. This would do the job of illustrating how his co-dependence with his fiance may have ruined his other relationships. Another scene may show him trying to pursue a hobby that his fiance always encouraged him to try. He hadn’t done so before because it would have required some level of independence. Sergei could meet and develop a crush on someone who is overly independent and decide he wants to change who he is to be with them. This concept could be illustrated in many ways. One could be him going on a camping trip with some friends. There, he may meet an adventurous girl and they have the time of their lives.
The important takeaway from this example, and from Lisa Cron’s book, is that every novel starts with a core story. Then, every character, event, or symbol is spun off and developed from there. Each plot point is created to illustrate some emotional change. We use things like the third rail and a character’s worldview to help us translate our novel’s basic story into specific events that are our novel’s plot.
Writing a novel is a huge undertaking but Lisa Cron’s Story Genius helps break things down into a manageable process. If you are a budding writer looking to plot out a novel or, one day, write a bestselling fiction, then I can’t recommend this book enough.