What Is a Story
Let's talk for a minute about what is a story. What is a story actually if the story's what gives birth to each and every scene? I'm gonna say it twice, I'm gonna try to say it slowly. I know I talk fast. A story is about how what affects someone, a story's about what happens, and what happens is the plot. That is your plot, so a story's about how what happens affects someone, that someone is your protagonist who's in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, that is your story problem or plot problem, and how that changes internally as a result. Let me say that one more time. Story's about how what happens, that's your plot, that is just the surface of the story. It's about how what happens affects someone, that is your protagonist, that is your avatar within the story. That someone is in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, that is your story problem or plot problem, and how that person changes internally as a result. And that, my friends, is what your story is actually about. In ...
other words, the story is not about the plot. The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. Story is internal, it's not external. Story is not about that external plot change that's gonna happen, which is why you can't just figure out a plot to begin with. Story is about the internal change that your plot is going to force your protagonist to make. And if you're thinking, wait a minute, what do you mean my protagonist needs to change? Change from what to what? Aha, all protagonists enter the story with two things already fully formed, and to be very clear, when I say enter the story, I mean long before they have any idea of the dark and stormy night you are cooking up for them, or more likely, if you dig deeply into these two things we're talking about, that they have brought on themselves, because all stories begin en medias res, which is a fancy Latin way of saying in the middle of the thing, the thing being the entire story. The first page of your novel is the first page of the second half of your story. So, over here in the first half is your protagonist, and she will enter the story with two things fully formed, and that means fully formed from way in the past up until that moment where you're gonna shove her onto the page. The first thing is all protagonists enter the story already wanting something very badly, something they've wanted for a long time, not something that they decided they wanted while sitting in the waiting room, thumbing through a catalog, waiting for you to call them onto the first page, but for a very long time. And the reason, one of the reasons anyway, that you need to really figure out what it is they enter wanting is because that is what's going to set and define your protagonist's story-long agenda, because protagonists enter the page, I mean enter page one, so they do, they enter the page, page one, already wanting something, and that's what sets their story-long agenda. It's not an agenda that gets set once the plot is in motion, but the agenda that they step onto the page with already fully formed, and with a plan to put it into action. But if that's all there was to it, if it was something they really want and that set their agenda so they've got a plan to get it, why wouldn't they get it in chapter one? And that might be great for them, but not for us, because then you've got no story, and that brings us to the second thing that your protagonist enters the story with fully formed, and that is a longstanding misbelief that has kept her from getting that thing she wants. Ah, now we have some notion as to why she hasn't gotten it. A misbelief is something that comes into your protagonist's life early, late childhood, early teens. It 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 work well with others and to get what we need. A misbelief is never something that is factual, it's never something like, I thought the world was flat, and I hope you're sitting down 'cause it's actually round, you wouldn't believe it. Or, I thought she was my sister, turns out she's my mom. Wow, someone's got some 'splainin' to do. Now, that isn't to say those things wouldn't be true, but those are not a misbelief. A misbelief is something more like, wow, I was really hurt early in life when I let someone know how I felt, so I've decided that I can never show how I feel ever again, because if you show how you feel, it makes you weak, and to be strong means to hide your emotions, so not only am I gonna hide my emotions, I think I won't even feel an emotion because then I would have to worry about it slipping out accidentally when I'm not looking. So, to be strong, don't show or feel emotion. Okay, that would be a misbelief. Or, the one that I tend to use all the time is a misbelief might be something like the nicer someone is to you, the more they wanna know that vulnerable part of you, the more they're actually trying to use, and abuse you, and con you out of something. And again, a misbelief comes into life early in life where something has happened to you protagonist in their lives that has taught them that truth, they trusted somebody who then betrayed them. The reason that misbeliefs come early is because that is when we are trying to make sense of the world and figure out how the world works, and how people work, and what makes people tick. I mean, because think about it this way. Take that notion of the nicer someone is to you, the more they're trying to use you. Now, sadly, I think most of us have had this experience in our lives. I mean, you meet someone, I'm not talking about a romantic relationship, but you meet someone and you've got comradery, you've got simpatico, you feel like, wow, this person could be a friend of mine, this person really could be a friend of mine, we're in the same tribe. And then, all of a sudden, they ask you to invest your life savings in a Ponzi scheme, and at that moment, you're like, okay, you are out of my life, and you think, okay, that guy is a jerk, but there's all sorts of other people in my life who are wonderful, and that's good. When that happens to you when you're a kid and you're trying to figure out how the world works, you don't think, oh, that guy's a jerk, you think, oh, that's how people are, that's what happens. In other words, when these misbeliefs come in, and it's during some sort of childhood traumatic experience, when they come into being, they're adaptive. Probably when that would've happened to that person who thinks the nicer someone is, the more they're trying to con them, probably that was true in that moment. So, to cut that person out of their lives was an adaptive thing to do. But to take that belief wide and take it out into the world, well, that's maladaptive, maladaptive. That is a misbelief. So, a misbelief like that, let's say that that protagonist, what they wanted was to be able to open up and show people who they really were, just one person to really like them, and resonate, and show them, really, all that stuff that we don't show other people 'cause we're afraid they won't like us, or they'll laugh at us, or they'll use it against us. We wanna be able to find that one person you can show it to who's gonna go, wow, me too, I feel that way too, yeah, this is perfect. But, of course, if you feel like the more someone wants to know that part of you the more they're actually trying to con you, well, you're gonna push people out of your life who are exactly who you wanna have in your life. And so, what happens is that misbelief which comes into being early in life then keeps your protagonist from getting what they want, they don't realize it, because when a misbelief is born, we don't think of it as a misbelief at all. We think of it as a very savvy piece of inside intel. This is how the world works, I'm lucky to have learned it early in life. So then, it and what your protagonist wants ricochets through your protagonist's life, causing her to make story-specific decisions that very well might've landed her in the problem that she's facing on page one. And when I say landed her in that problem, I don't mean in the sense of, that finger-waggy sense of, you know, oh, look what happened, you brought that on yourself, shame on you. I mean it in a sense of our decisions tend to have unexpected consequences almost always, and often that's what lands us in whatever that problem was that we have to face on page one. So, what happens is that that misbelief and that desire are right there on the first page, and your plot, which is one problem that grows, escalates, and complicates, plot is one problem, external problem that grows, escalates, and complicates, and it forces your protagonist to go after that thing she wants, but in order to get it, scene, we're talking about scenes, right, scene by scene by scene by scene, she's gonna have to struggle with that misbelief. Now, to be very clear, it's not like she is aware of the misbelief. In fact, she thinks it's a belief. By that time, it has been so deeply inculcated in how she sees things that she doesn't see it as a misbelief. I doubt she'd even think of it. It's been absorbed and personified in the decisions that she's made. I've heard it said that what a story is is a story, the present and the story problem forces your protagonist to make the unconscious conscious. This is what happens scene by scene by scene by scene. The protagonist is forced to question why they believe what they believe, what's going on, and scene by scene by scene by scene, they're confronted with that misbelief and sometimes they overcome it, some scenes two steps forward, one steps back. That is the way that it works. Those two things together, the misbelief and the desire, or what I call your novel's third rail, that internal struggle. And everything that happens up there in the plot is going to get its meaning and its emotional weight based on one thing and one thing only, and that is how it is affecting your protagonist in this struggle. So, that, those two things together are the novel's third rail. They run all the way through your story from beginning to end, they give meaning to everything in the plot, because in each scene, the plot touches that third rail and forces your protagonist to make this internal struggle, one way or the other. Third rail, just to be very clear for anyone who doesn't know, third rail is the electrified rail in the subway. It is where the electricity flows. If you cut that rail, the electricity is gone, and that subway train just stands there idling at rush hour, annoying everybody. Same thing is true of your story. You cut the third rail, and now you've just got a bunch of things that happen. You might've heard writers say that, ask you, like, well, what's your novel's narrative thread? And they imply that the narrative thread is the plot. The narrative thread is not the plot. The narrative thread is your protagonist's internal struggle. It is this third rail, it is this third rail. If you wanna think of it that way, narrative thread that way, think of it this way, is that the narrative thread is the narrative, the internal narrative that your protagonist is telling herself as she tries to make sense of what's going on and struggle with what the heck she should do in order to be able to get what she wants, but not to have to give up that misbelief, because she thinks that's what's protecting her. What she doesn't realize is, in fact, that's what's keeping her from getting what she wants.