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The Who

Lesson 7 from: Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius

Lisa Cron

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Lesson Info

7. The Who

Next Lesson: The Why

Lesson Info

The Who

And now that you've done that 'What-if', like right here with that immediate thread, What if, kinda going that way You pulled back a bit and you thought: Okay, why is that gonna to matter, who's it gonna matter to? Now, we're going to dive more deeply into that. And now the question is: (Pause) Who? Whose story is it? Because you'll notice, like when you're telling somebody about a movie that you saw or novel that you read nobody ever says to you 'Wait, wait, whose plot is this?' (laugh) Everybody says 'Whose story is it?' Because that's what its actually going to be about. That is, again as we said earlier, in a prior lesson that is your reader's avatar that is where all meaning comes from. And so now, that's what we're asking: Whose story is it? And interestingly, it's something that writers will sometimes forget to ask, especially if they've got a great big giant 'What-if' like: What if the sun didn't come up or What if, you know, if the Internet went down and we had no Internet and...

they wanted to sort of write forward and see where it takes them and see who emerges. And you don't want to do that. I'll never forget the first writing group I ever talked to and I was REALLY nervous cause I'd never given one-on-one feedback. And I drove up to this house. And like, my heart was pounding. And I was sitting in the car. And it was really hot, so I felt like a- I will actually go in. And I went in and it went, you know, really well. There was a nice camaraderie with the group and I wished I'd of had something to say. And so we were kinda going back and forth, and I was supposed to be relaxed And then I got to the last woman. And it was her house. And she starts to read her pages. And they were all over the place. I mean, talk about a bunch of things that happened. Nothing was connected. There were all sorts of people doing all sorts of different things. And now my heart is pounding again, because I can't even grab on to anything to say anything. So she stops reading and she looks at me with that, you know, expectant look. And so I said, "Ok, I might be a complete dolt. But, I'm not sure who your main character is." Can you tell me Who's your Protagonist?" Because I figure if she told me who the Protagonist was, I could maybe grab on to something and at least see what she was trying to do. But she just looked at me. And now they're all looking at me. It was a dead silence. (laugh) Here I am thinking, 'Ohmigod, I am a complete dolt, because it was totally obvious it was Roger, or Sidney, or Sonya or that parrot that kept flying across who was obviously a Protagonist and I am the only person who didn't get it. And then she said, "Well, I have so many characters, do I really need a main character?" And the answer is 'Yes, you do, because that is who your reader is going to root for.' Your reader's going to be in that skin. Everything, they're going to see everything based on how it is going to affect that person. You need to know who your Protagonist is from the starting gate. And to be very clear, however, we're talking about Who your protagonist is before the story starts. Cause remember, we've got that immediate draft of that right here. Here's page one. Where over here? Where over here? Your protagonist, at this moment, has no idea the dark and stormy night that you are thinking of shoving them into. And it is really important to ask yourself that question. It's really, what's sad about a year ago, I was teaching a class, a workshop at UCLA, and we were doing exactly this. Every person in the workshop was in the midst of either a work in progress or they were on their third or fourth draft. And there was this one woman who had been working for four years on--it was a young adult fantasy. And so, I had her do this this exercise that we're gonna do at the end which is to write, Okay, who is your protagonist? Where are they before your story starts? And so they're all writing and you know, I'm standing there kind of looking around at the room. And I see her and I watch all the colors draining from her face. (laugh) And I started thinking, 'Is she having a heart attack? Do I know Do I know CPR? Is it a blood sugar thing? Is she gonna pass like what? And she looked up and she went, "Oh my gosh. I've never asked myself that question before. And when I look at who my protagonist is, I don't like her. She's really annoying." Just like, this kind of collective 'Awww', you know went to the class and we all wanted to giver her a group hug. I mean, it was really a profound moment for her. So, you really want to ask yourself is: Who is your protagonist before the story starts? But, another place where writers sometimes go wrong, is that they'll think about like what she just said , 'I don't like my protagonist' and they'll think Okay, here's who my protagonist is and my protagonist needs to be likable. And it's absolutely true that, from the first page forward, we have to care enough about your protagonist and what's happening to go all the way through the story inside their skin. But the term 'likable' is often really misunderstood. (Shows slide) People will say the protagonist needs to be likable and they mistake likable for 'completely socially acceptable.' In other words, perfect. And so you get these characters you know when we talked about the surface world, we get these characters who are perfect in the surface world. You know they are people that like, um, you know they would never swear even if it stubbed both toes. If a dog, you know, bit them and then sunk his teeth into the side. It wouldn't kick it or hurt it or anything. They'd ask it "nicely" to let go. They'd never steal anything even if they're starving, they wouldn't take as much as a loaf of bread. This is the kind of person you can invite over to Thanksgiving and you wouldn't have to worry about any family member getting upset about anything. The problem is, is that not only are those characters surface, they're boring and they're dull, and they're unbelievable. Because we come to Story looking for what goes on beneath the surface and we all know that a lot goes on beneath the surface. So when you see somebody who's picture perfect up there you don't even believe that they are a real person. They are just somebody who is a complete, shallow, uninteresting person and if the goal of a story is to force your protagonist to come to grips with a misbelief, well if they're perfect, what kinda change do they need to make? They don't. It's sort of like, think about, we hear about this all the time in Facebook. People are always complaining about 'Yeah, everybody on Facebook. They put their perfect life out there. We all know those people. Liked on Facebook and like they go on vacations and everything is picture perfect and they've got the world's greatest job and they've got the best marriage and they always have Date Night with their spouse and their kids are always doing well in school. And their house is always clean. And they'll always be perfectly well-dressed. And they're getting awards for everything. Think about those people in your life. You don't like those people. You hate those people. You want them to stop. Look at the people we block on Facebook cause they make us feel terrible. And the truth is when somebody thinks they're perfect, what does it really leave you thinking? It leaves you thinking, 'What are they hiding?' 'What's going on in the basement over there?' because nobody is that perfect. So, you wanna be really careful. The truth is, and I kind of loved this novelist, Elizabeth George said (slide) she said: "Characters with the most edge are the most interesting to write about and to read about. And I think that is so deeply true. I see it a lot. Where someone will, I had just recently, a client sent in what she was working on and the protagonist was a person like I'm just talking about. It was just perfect. And of course, nobody's that perfect because if you're always doing what other people need you to do and you've got no inner needs EVER, then that person isn't even realistic in any way. So, what we're really thinking is it's a good thing nobody wiped out on the face of the earth. And plus, she's boring. But when she got to the villain cause this has an actual antagonist in it? OhmiGod, he it was like a different person wrote it. He leapt off the page, the horrible stuff he did in the way he twisted it in the way he saw the world and what he was after. You know, she says she says to me. Yeah, it's way more fun to write. It's like "Yeah, because that's what we come for is that internal-- we want to be able to relate to the character. We don't want them perfect. And we kind of want them screwed up. I mean, imagine, if when Edward Albie wrote 'Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" He wrote about George and Martha after they'd gotten a lot of marriage counseling (laugh). It's like they've overcome all their problems and they have Date Night, and he always listens to her and they go down and they volunteer at the local Y. I mean, it's really good for them. But totally boring for us. You really want to give your character that kind of- just think, my favorite book on that level is The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith which is a wonderful book. And Ripley, I mean, isn't he really Dickie Greenleaf? He killed Tom Ripley and he becomes. But, you don't want him to get caught. Even as he's doing these awful things, you're so deeply inside the Why he's doing what he's doing, that you want him to get away with it. It's very easy to question himself afterwards and now you can (laugh) have that old dark knight of the soul for yourself. But, that's what we come for. That's what we're looking for. So, when you've got that character and you're standing right here and here they are on the other side. Page one is here. They have no idea the dark and stormy night you have in store for them. They're completely clueless. And protagonists tend to be kind of in one or two places before you shove them on to the page. One of two attitudes. Again, this is not, 100%. Nothing's 100%, but it tends to be. And they are this (slide): Either they're in a place where they're thinking 'My life is perfect.' I've gotten everything I want. It's come to me. It's gonna go on in this way to the horizon and beyond because there's a psychological term, I don't know, I have to look this up and figure out exactly what it is. But, it's for the fact that the way that things are in our lives, we tend to think it's going to be that way forever. Like, whatever it is, it's going to be like this. We just assume that from now until forever, this is what its gonna be. So they sometimes come in-- my life is perfect--I'm so lucky--and now your plot is about to shove them into the fray and teach them that maybe they're not so lucky and it's that maybe that thing that they thought they loved. They kind of really don't. The other place has two variables: It's either my Life is not where I hoped it was but, and its either, but I'm trapped. And there's nothing I can do. And I'm just stuck in this rut forever and I'm lost. Or, my life isn't exactly the way that I thought it was. I thought it was gonna turn out, but you know, I've learned to make lemonade out of lemons as opposed to like freezing the lemons and throwing them at everybody who annoys you which would be my way of dealing with it. But, and they're gonna go forward that way, you know, forever. And now, your story is going to show them that they're not really trapped or that it wasn't (slide) as good as they thought. In fact, it was worse, and they're gonna be shoved into the fray. So, that tends to be kind of the two, in general, we're gonna dig way back, but in general, places where people are before they get shoved onto Page One. You might also be thinking at this point: 'But, wait a minute! What if I have more than one protagonist?' Isn't that possible? Aren't there actually dual protagonists? Aren't there some novels that have multiple protagonists? Yeah, sometimes. My advice to anyone who's writing, either a debut novel, or a breakout novel, is stick with one protagonist. Stick with one because the work that we're doing here on your protagonist, which is work that you're kind of willing to do, to some degree, about with every character. But, if you have more than one protagonist, you have to not only dig as deeply into both of them as you would with just one, but because the story is--and I can't say this strongly enough--one problem, the growth escalates and complicates, they gotta be both part of that. And their misbelief has to play into that so it's gonna dovetail all the way through. It's hard. In other words, and the truth is, that even when you think you have more than one protagonist, (slide) really often is what I call the "alpha" protagonist. In other words, when you come down and you dig deep, it really is one person's story. And you really want to ask yourself that because often, you know, when you think you have dual protagonists, it turns out to be one person, so I remember noticing that like back in the day, I would watch a lot of romantic comedies. Have you ever noticed, when you watch a romantic comedy, and it feels like dual protagonists, right? There's a man. There's a woman. And you, you know, their, you're rooting kinda for both of them. But now, let's see you in the man's story and something's about to happen. It's not so good for him. It's not like he's going to die or anything but it's not so good. But, if it happens, it's going to be better for her. And, even though you like him, you're kinda rooting for the bad thing to happen to him cause then, and then you think, well wait a minute. If I felt a bit more strongly about him, I would want the good thing to happen and I wouldn't care as much about her. And what that's told you is, well she was the alpha protagonist. So, really ask yourself, who is that alpha? Cause it really pays to know the answer to that question. I could even, umm, even in novels where there's several point of view characters. Almost always. If you add, I do this all the time when I'm reading novels that have several point-of-view characters and I'll say to you: 'Which one? Whose story is it really?' And almost always, you can figure that out, so that's my advice. When you're reading books, where you think 'Oh, there's not one protagonist, there's more than one. Ask yourself as you read, 'Wait a minute. Is it one person's story And almost always, you'll go 'Oh yeah, that's who's driving everything. Everything is being driven by what happened to that person, what that person is doing. You might also wonder, well wait a minute. What if I'm writing a mystery? Am I a protagonist? He isn't really going to change. It's not about this change my protagonist is making, you know, it's a, you know it's Jack Reacher or Kinsey Noholm like do I really need to do this? Cause you're looking for an easy way out. (laughs) I'm not going to give it to you. Because the answer is yeah, you really do. Because again, the path is the lens through which we make sense, of everything, and the Weight of those characters are able to analyze what's happening and why they're doing what they're doing. They all have paths. One of the things, that as readers, we come in we've got paths of expectations as readers and one of them is that we expect every character to actually have a past. Because, we all do. So, yes, you need to figure that out, because you need to know how are they making sense of the world. I think, in the best mysteries, they do have something that they're struggling with all the way through. They do get deeper and mystery writers often say that (slide) There's a quote from Sue Grafton. Kinsey Millhone is her detective and she says: "Kinsey doesn't change so much, but the reader learns more about her. And this is the key line. And how she sees things. And as we said, How will you see something, that doesn't just, isn't just borne in the moment. It comes from all of the assumptions and all experience you bring from the past. That's what makes them interesting and even with Jack Reacher right? Here's Lee Child. I found this in an interview. When someone asks, and I say Okay We get what Reacher is like now but how did he become that person? Lee Child was saying he's often asked that by readers. That readers will come up and ask him that question. And he hasn't done all that much backstory I think he said there are three or four books that really do go into this. And he said, yes he said Writing, you know in writing Reacher's backstory it's interesting for me to do it. I really like it. These are the things that molded his life. So yeah, you really really need to know this because again, your protagonist isn't gonna step on the page some empty cipher who can solve crimes. They're gonna bring their past with him as we all do. That's what makes him interesting. So, you do need to (laugh) ask these questions. No matter what you write, nobody gets off the hook is the point here. So, the questions that you're asking yourself are: Where is your protagonist before the novel starts? Now think about the exercise that we did in the Amedias Rouse lessons the Hugeot. That's what we're doing now for this person. Your protagonist is standing right here just like you did, and this is not my goal for than a year. But, this is how do they see their life? Where are they before the novel starts? Where are they? Don't forget, I can't say strongly enough, at this moment, they do not know what you have in store for them. At this moment, they think that kind of whatever has gone on in their life, will go that way forever. They've got balls in play that they're waving and hoping are gonna happen. And you need to ask yourself: Where do they see their life going? What do they want to have happen? What is that desire? What do they want to have happen, as it goes forward? And What are they most afraid of? What is that thing? And, the thing to think of here, and I'll say this over and over and over again. I'm just gonna do this one time. I'm gonna say it now. Which is: you don't wanna try to write this well. You're not looking to write pretty. You don't need to tell us stuff about your protagonist that we don't need to know, that you don't need to know. We don't need to know that she's got raven dark hair and soulful brown eyes and she's 5-foot-7 and she loves to wear leather. We don't need to know that unless there's some story-specific reason that she's thinking about it. What you're looking for is that internal Who is she and Where is she in her life? That is what you're looking for. Do not try to write it well. Because when writers come in and they try to write well, and when I say write well, I mean with beautiful, lovely, lyrical sentences. I mean, with all that stuff that they tell you, is gonna make your story come to life. That is not what makes your story come to life. Doing this is what makes your story come to life. So it's not like I need you to write something beautiful, totally fine, (laugh). But otherwise, that's not where your attention should lie. Your attention should lie in this depth. Where are they in their life? Where do they think they're gonna be? How/What do they think the future is gonna hold for them? What do they want? That's what we're gonna dive into next. They're starting that now. Again, it's not as if- do not make this mistake- that now that you know who your protagonist is, right before the story starts, now you can start going into the story, that's not why we're doing this. We're doing this for the same reason we did the other because it's going to give you enough that now you can start asking more questions and dig more deeply. I'm gonna go out of the frame (laughs). I'm gonna dig in this direction now (laugh) and dig more deeply. Um, so that you can really get, from the general to the specific. Because the general and simple declarative sentences will lead you astray. Story is in the specific and the problem that writers have when they would write forward from something exactly like this would be they would know in general why the protagonist wants this and in general why they're afraid. They would've summed it up even maybe very nicely here. But, if someone said okay well, give me the specifics, there aren't any. Because writers, this is a trap that writers fall into. They'll give you the summation of something, but they got nothing beneath it that they've summarized (laugh), so there's no actual There-there. So this is gonna allow us to dig into the There. And then dig even deeper into the There. Off-frame (laugh)

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Wired for Story Workbook

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

A woman with a wealth of information to share and who is totally engaging. Lisa was like a really good book that you didn't want to put down. I watched this course over two days, eager to press the play button on the next lesson. Passionate but to the point, everything Lisa had to say was interesting and meaningful. I am just starting on my first novel and her knowledge and insights are invaluable. Highly recommend.

Lacey Heward

This was hugely influential to my writing. I don't actually think I knew how to write until this class. Lisa Cron is a great speaker and teacher. She is well prepared and does an excellent job getting through all the important material. Everything I learned in this class could be applied to a book, essay, and even possibly one's own self-reflection. Who doesn't want to understand the point of life's story? Cron does an excellent job of getting to THE POINT. I have already recommended this class and will reference it again and again as I write. Thank you!

Tracy Holczer

I'm going to go back and watch this course every time I begin a new novel. It took me six years to figure out how to write my first novel, discovering many of these concepts as I went. I can't imagine the time I would have saved had I been able to consider them more carefully before I began. I recommend this to anyone who is just starting out, but also, to established writers. Every book is a different house to build and this course really helps set down a good foundation.

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