What IS a story?
I go into this in much greater depth in my much longer Creative Live course, Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius. But we're gonna dive into it a bit here because it's really important for us to be able to go forward and figure out where emotion comes from. So what is a story? I'm gonna say this twice, by the way. We'll say it twice, and I'm trying to say it slow on top of that. A story is about how what happens, that what happens is the plot. Merely the surface of the story. So it's about how what happens, that's the plot, affects someone. That is your protagonist, your reader's avatar within the story, who's in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal. That is that story problem or plot problem that you're going to throw at them. And how that person changes internally as a result. Let me say it again. A story is about how what happens, that's the plot, affects someone, that's a protagonist, who's in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal that they can't get out of. That is t...
hat story problem. And how that person changes internally as a result. And that internal change the protagonist goes through, that is what your story is about. In other words, the story is not about the plot. The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. Story is not about an external plot change or anything that happens on the surface. Story is internal. It is about the internal change that your plot forces your protagonist to make. And if you're thinking, okay, wait a minute, what do you mean my protagonist needs to change? Change from what to what? Why on earth would my protagonist need to change? Aha. All protagonists enter the story with two things already fully formed. And when I say enter story, I mean before they have any idea of that dark and stormy night that you are about to catapult them into. Or more likely that they've catapulted themselves into. So look at it this way. All stories begin in medias res, which is a fancy Latin way of saying in the middle of the thing. The thing being the entire story, and page one of your novel being the first page of the second half of the story. So over here, before we've even gotten to page one, your protagonist enters with two things already fully formed and long formed. The first of those things is your protagonist enters wanting something, and they want something very badly, and something that they've wanted for a long time. This is not something that they decided they wanted leafing through a catalog sitting in the dressing room waiting for you to shove them onto page one. This is something they've wanted for a very long time. Reason you need to know what that is is because that is what is going to set your protagonist's story-long agenda. Because protagonists step onto the page with a story-long agenda already fully formed. What they want and their plan for getting it. And then scene by scene by scene by scene, they're going to try to bring that to fruition. But here's the thing. If it's just something they want very badly, and they've already got an agenda for getting it, why wouldn't they just get it in chapter one? Why don't they even already have it? And if they get it in chapter one, it's great for them, but it kind of sucks for us. Because now there's no story. There's nowhere to go. So there's the second thing. What is the second thing that your protagonist enters with? And that is a longstanding misbelief that has kept her from getting what she wants for a very long time. And when I say longstanding misbelief, I mean this is something that probably came into your protagonist's worldview during their late childhood or early teens, really not much later than that. A misbelief is a misbelief about human nature. A misbelief about what makes people tick. A misbelief about what is expected of us in order to be able to live, oh, I don't know, with other people. That's what you're looking for. Misbelief is never a misbelief about something logical or factual. It's never something like I thought the world was flat, and you're never gonna believe it, I hope you're sitting down, 'cause it turns out it's actually an octagon. Or I thought she was my sister. Turns out she's my mom? Wow, someone's got some 'splaining to do. I mean, that could be in a story, but that is not a misbelief. A misbelief is a misbelief about human nature. Something along the lines of, just for example, I learned early in life that if you allow people to see how you feel, they're going to think that you are weak and I wanna be strong, and the way to be strong is to never show emotion. Never let anyone know how you feel. In fact, the best way to do it actually would be to feel no emotion, because then you couldn't accidentally let people know. So that is what I believe. To be strong, you can't show any emotion. That would be a misbelief. Or the misbelief I like to use which is the more somebody really seems to want to get to know that real you, the vulnerable you, the more they're really just trying to manipulate you and use you. Now, the reason that misbeliefs come in early in life is because we are trying to figure the world out when we're young. That's how brains work. We don't come in already knowing a priori who to trust and who not to trust, or how people work. We learn that going forward. So think about that example that we were just talking about. Imagine that misbelief of the nicer someone is, the more they're trying to use me. Now, were that to happen to us, were we to have an experience with that as an adult, and I think all of us probably have had some experience kind of like that. You know, where you meet someone, and you have some patico, you have comradery. We're not talking about a romantic relationship. But you really feel like this person could be my friend. We could really go on. I really feel like I really wanna get to know this person even better. And then you find out that they want you to sink all of your life savings into a Ponzi scheme. Now, at that point you're gonna go, okay, you know what? That person is a jerk. I know all sorts of other people who aren't and don't want me to do that. They are my friends, but that person is a jerk. If you have an experience early in life that teaches you that, you don't think, oh, that's how that person is. You think, oh, that's how people are. So misbeliefs come in early in life. Something happens to us. We've got skin in the game. We go in believing, oh, everybody is wonderful, and we learn, uh oh, no, they're trying to manipulate us and then we carry that forward. In the situation in which that misbelief is born, it is true, you're being very adaptable. The problem is when you carry it out of that situation and make it general for the world at large, now it's maladaptive. Now it's hurting you. And so that particular misbelief coupled with, and we'll say that what this character wants, and again, we're doing something really simple in order to be able to make the point. Let's say what the character wants is they want somebody to really get to know them. They want to be able to show the real them to someone and not have that person go, ew, or really? Or I'm blackmailing you now. You want the person to go, wow, me too, yeah. Let's really get together. But, of course, coupled with a misbelief, the more somebody wants to know that part of you, the more you have to be careful 'cause they're trying to use you and abuse you. Well, those two are not gonna go very well together. So in other words, the misbelief, the thing that the character thinks is protecting them is actually keeping them from getting what they want. They think it's a really savvy piece of inside intel that they're very lucky to have learned early in life. So what happens then is that misbelief and the desire ricochet through the person's life, causing them to make story-specific decisions that then land them right there on page one. And again, remember we said that the story problem you're gonna throw at your protagonist, or more likely that she's brought on yourself? And when I say brought on herself, I don't mean in that finger-waggy, like, you should have known better way. But just in the way that our decisions tend to land us in unexpected places. Places that we did not anticipate when we made those decisions. So often that is what has landed your protagonist on page one. And that story problem, plot problem, which is one problem that grows, escalates and complicates from beginning to end is there to force your protagonist to go after what she wants. But scene by scene by scene by scene, she is going to have to struggle with her misbelief in order to have a chance to get it. Now, that internal struggle. Aha, emotion, right? The internal struggle and the meaning in your story come from exactly that. And I call the combination of those two things, the desire and that misbelief that's holding your protagonist back, your novel's third rail. That internal struggle is your novel's third rail. Third rail because after the subway, you may know that the third rail is the electrified rail in a subway system. It's where the electricity flows. And if it's cut, the train just sits there, idling, annoying everybody, same thing with your story. This third rail, which is where all meaning and emotional weight comes from, and it runs from the very first page all the way through to the last. This is what readers come for. They don't come for what's happening on the surface. They come for what's happening beneath the surface and how it is affecting someone based on their agenda, what they want and what they're afraid of. You may have heard writers talk about the narrative thread. Like, what's your novel's narrative thread? You've probably even asked that many times. Here's the thing. Writers will make the mistake, and they'll think the narrative thread is the plot. That's the plot. Could not be less true. Narrative thread is this third rail, is this internal struggle. Think of this way. I think this is great language for it. The narrative thread is the narrative that your protagonist tells herself about what things mean, what she should do, and why. Because we don't come to story for what your protagonist does. We come to story for why they're doing it. And that's what lives on this third rail.