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The Why

Lesson 8 from: Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius

Lisa Cron

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Lesson Info

8. The Why

Next Lesson: The Why Exercise

Lesson Info

The Why

The why, and the question is, okay, why is what might happen over here in the plot, you don't have the plot yet, you're going to be developing that, why is that gonna matter to your protagonist, because again, story's not about the plot, story's about how the plot affects the protagonist, meaning you have to create the protagonist before you can create a plot that's gonna affect her, and force her to deal with, with to go after what she wants, and deal with her misbelief, which is exactly what we're going to be talking about now because every protagonist enters the story with two things already fully formed. And that is a driving desire, something she has long wanted, and I don't mean that she starts to want what she gets onto page one, but something that she has long wanted. And a misbelief that is just as longstanding, that has kept her from getting it. Because without a misbelief she would've gotten it. And this wouldn't be a story, it would be something else. Those things happened ...

relatively early in her life. So let's take them one by one. The first question is what does your protagonist enter already wanting? Now sometimes writers will go, well wait a minute, what it's gonna be about is she wants to marry the guy who just moved into her dorm room, and he's not gonna move into her dorm room until the end of chapter two, so how could she want him over here before? She didn't even know him yet like she's got telepathy or something? No, but what it is is he then will be the manifestation of what she thinks she wants. You need to know what that is, and how that's been driving her from way before up until the moment that your story starts. That is what you're looking for, and the reason you need to know this, one of the main reasons anyway, is because what your protagonist wants is what is going to drive her story-long agenda. And it's something that writers sometimes completely let go of. I'll never forget, this was several years ago, I was teaching a class at UCLA, and everyone again in that class was in the midst of either a work in progress or was in the third or fourth draft and I thought, well here's an easy question, I'm gonna break the ice with an easy question. We'll go around the room and I'll ask each person what does your protagonist enter the story already wanting? And not one person could answer the question. And several were surprised that it was a question. But the truth is is that's what drives their agenda. And here's the thing, not just your protagonist, but every character has a story-long agenda that they step onto the page with. And scene by scene by scene by scene they are trying to move that agenda forward. If you don't know what they want, they can't have an agenda. Nobody has an agenda, an agenda is how to get what you want. You don't know what someone wants, how could they have an agenda? If they don't have an agenda you end up with a protagonist or characters who are merely reactive. Something happens, they react to it, something else happens, they react to it, but there's nothing driving them forward. But knowing what they want is not enough. You also want to know what do they want it. And that means what will getting it mean to them. What will getting it mean to them? What do they think it'll say about them? What do they think it will say to the world about them? In other words, it's never about the what, it's always about the why. Why do they want it, because that can change it entirely. The answer is never what does your protagonist want? They want a million dollars, why? Well who wouldn't, that is never the answer. The answer is why do they want the million dollars. What do they think that will say about them? Is it well I really feel like my entire life nobody's ever listened to me, but they listen to rich people so if I have a lot of money they're going to listen to what I have to say? You know, or is it those people next door are so mean to me the whole time, if I can get a million dollars I can buy their house and tear it down? I mean, why do they want it? That is the key question. Now here's the thing, your protagonist, you know, writers will often go, but my protagonist doesn't know what she wants, how can I write about what she wants, she doesn't know. It's like, that's totally fine. She doesn't have to know but you have to know because how else can you write a story that's gonna force her to get it? You know it's sort of like, it's like I can't tell you how often when you're reading a manuscript, and you go forward, and the character doesn't know, and what I always want to say to the writer is, it's like when you go to a therapist, right, and you've got a problem, and you want to reframe it, you're not sure what's going on in your life, and you tell the therapist what the problem is, and then they go, oh, and now they reframe it to you and you go wait that yes that's what I'm after. Now how did the therapist figure that out? It can't be mind reading, because you didn't know. And let's hope that they can't really actually see into your soul and they figured it out in some sort of you know, metaphysical way, it's because you were giving off tells. Because you were saying things that would clue someone else in to things that you didn't know. I can't tell you, and this is kind of hard to, I can't tell you in the course of my career, how many memoir manuscripts I've read where I've thought, if the writer knew what she was telling me about herself, she would jump off a building, because people reveal themselves when they don't think that they are. So you need to know so that you can write a story that then forces your protagonist to see it. Someone said to me the other day, a very smart person said, here's what story is on one level. You've got the plot, the goal of the plot is to make what is unconscious in the protagonist conscious. And when I say unconscious, I don't mean it in the Freudian or union sort of sense, collective unconscious or whatever, I mean things that have come down through us and that we believe in our cognitive unconscious, and we just see that as that's the way the world's, but we're not really thinking about it. The plot is now gonna force your protagonist to really think about it and it's gonna bring that unconscious forward so they have to deal with it. That is what you're creating now when you create the why. Because at the end of the day, is it what she really wants? Because really often stories are about how a protagonist enters wanting something, and they go all the way forward to get it, only to realize that's not what I wanted at all. So that is the next question you want to ask. Is it what they really want, and if not, why not? What do they really want? In stories, stories, (stuttering) this type of story is the story you've probably seen over and over your whole life, the example I like to give is the movie Some Kind of Wonderful. I tend to use movies rather than books as examples because more people have seen the same movie and it's way easier to pull the spine out from a movie than a book, and this is a movie, teen movies used to be my all time favorite. And this movie actually was like in the 87, which shocked me, I thought it was much later. But it's Some Kind of Wonderful, and the protagonist is, his name is Keith, it's Eric Stoltz, and he's a senior in high school, and his best friend is a tomboy, it's Mary Stewart Masterson, and the girl he wants to get is a pretty popular girl. Pretty comma popular, not pretty popular. Popular girl and her name is Amanda Jones, and she's played by Lea Thompson. And so why does he want her? Now we know, just to be very clear, because the reader is often way ahead of the protagonist, especially in romantic comedies. Because we know from the first scene, often you know from the credits, that he belongs with Watts. This is not what he's gonna want, not what should happen to him, so we're aware of it, Watt's is aware of it, he's woefully unaware of it. But he wants to get this girl, that's what he wants. That's his agenda all the way through. Why? And he says it at one point in the movie, the reason why is because he doesn't feel valued, and she's popular. Why doesn't he feel valued? He says it once in the movie, he says you people look at me funny, he says I like art, I'm a mechanic, my best friend is a tom boy, this does not fly in the american high school. So his desire is if he gets a girl who is popular, who people do like and she likes him, well then he must be worthy, right? And now he can feel worthy and now other people are gonna like him because she likes him, it's gonna be problem solved. So he spends the entire movie going after her and it's kind of a wonderful movie because it's a great Frederick Krieble quote who says in a good play everyone is in the right. It's not like often in those movies where the person's after the person who they shouldn't marry. Like you know from the opening scene, you think man if that guy got into an elevator with her, he'd get off at the second floor because there's no way these two people would even ride three floors in an elevator together, and yet they're engaged. And so of course it's never gonna work out. But in this movie we really like Amanda Jones. She's a really nice person, you know, it's great, but at the end it goes all the way forward and he gets her, and it's only once he gets her that he realizes wait a minute, this isn't what I wanted. So that's what you need to ask yourself. And we'll talk about, when we talk about that ah ha moment, we'll talk about that ah ha moment he has at the very end of that. But so that's the question you need to ask that about what your protagonist wants. Is it what they really want, why? You know, if not why not? What do they really want, what are they gonna discover at the end if they do? Once you know that, we've now reached the key question. We've now reached what your story is about. Which is what is the misbelief that's kept your protagonist from reaching their goal? Because we all have goals and some of us might meet them. You know we actually might so that thing, and that's boring. Someone has a goal and goes out and does it, you know, those are the people on Facebook we don't like because they can just do everything so damn easily. Things are hard so the question is, what is that misbelief, what is the misbelief that's kept them from getting it? Now to be very clear, a misbelief is always something about human nature, it's never factual. A misbelief is never something like I thought the world was flat and you are never gonna believe it, it's round, who knew? You know, or I thought she was my sister and it turns out she's my mother, uh oh. It's not things like that, it is something about the way the world works, about how we treat each other. This is what we come to story for. We come to story for inside intel about how to better navigate this mortal coil. When story first originated, it was also how to navigate the mortal coil like physically, but we've got that, we've kinda had that taken care of for a very long time. And for about the past 150 thousand years it's been how do we navigate the social world, how do we navigate the world of each other? How do we get what we need without sacrificing too much or stealing too much? That is what we come to story for. So let me give you a quick example of what a misbelief, like where a misbelief might come from. So you've got your protagonist and she's nine years old and she comes from a family that is really really really dysfunctional. I don't actually know what a functional family is, but this is a really dysfunctional family. You know, she's got feral brothers and sisters, her mom's a single mom, always working. And so she feels really like alone, and like nobody sees her and it's killing her. But at school there's this group of girls and they've decided that they're gonna form a club, and in order to get into it you have to buy this little Japanese anime doll, and she loves this character so she goes that's it, I will get the doll, I will go into the group, and I'll feel seen and heard. So she saves all of her money. They don't have much money she saves it and finally it gets to be the day before they're supposed to bring it to school and she opens her bank and moths fly out. Her money is gone and she's bereft. She's sobbing and at that point her older sister comes up and says you know, I know you didn't tell me about this, we don't really talk, but I know you. And I know what happened, I asked around at school and I know about this club, and I can see your money's gone, and it kills me to see you this hurt. So I took my own money and I got you an even bigger doll, and now at this point the protagonist is like who needs those girls at school? Oh my gosh, I feel seen, I feel heard, I've got what I wanted, we've got a bond, she gets me. But then her sister says, but you know, I used all my money for the doll, and I'm supposed to go out with Ralph tonight, and if I don't pay he's gonna dump me and mom hasn't given me my allowance since I wrecked the car and you know that want my fault. And she's in the kitchen and she's got that hundred dollar bill in her purse and I know it's for food but I'm not hungry, are you? You're so cute, she really likes you. couldn't you just go in and distract her and then, and in that moment, the protagonist has an ah ha moment. And it's like oh my gosh, you didn't do that because you cared about me, you did that because you're trying to manipulate me and you want me to go in and do something that's gonna get me in trouble. Now at that moment that was true, and again, not to make you even go back further past a moment that a misbelief might come into being, but she probably called on some past memories that supported that belief. And that moment, that was a very adaptive realization. Because it probably saved her a whole lot of heartache in that family, but what she would carry that out into the world as, which is the nicer someone is to you the more they seem like they care about you the more they're only trying to use you. Out there in the real world that's not true. At least I hope it's not true, but you can see that person is going to be misreading things from that moment forward. That is what you're looking for. And the desire, what does she want, she wanted, this is what I think most stories. No, watch, you guys see. Watch as you go out into the real world. You out in the real world, think about this. I think that most stories are about the same thing and that is the cost of human connection. What is it gonna cost me to connect with someone else? What do I have to show of myself? How do I stay safe, what do I do? That's what most stories are about. And so in that case, what she wanted was that connection, to be seen for who she was, but you know if you think that if you show someone who you are they're gonna use you, you're kind of in a bad place. So that would be an example of a misbelief. That is what we'll talk about. We'll then roll through someone's life. The thing to remember is, is that to your protagonist it's not a misbelief at all. It's a hard won piece of inside intel that they are lucky that they learned early in life. That's again talking about Catherine Schultz, and her great book on being right, she's a great TED talk by the way, if you don't want to read the whole book. She does a TED talk called On Being Wrong. And she says here's the thing about being wrong. When you're wrong about something, it feels exactly like being right. We don't know that we're wrong is the point. So that's really what you're looking for. And to be very clear and we'll talk about this as we go forward, to be very clear it's not like they get a misbelief like the nicer someone is to me the more they're trying to use me and then they just repeat it to themselves over and over and over, all the way through and then in every scene in your novel at all. By the time it goes forward it is absorbed into their lives, it is absorbed into the decisions that they make, it's personified by those. And as we'll discuss in a lesson, in the upcoming lesson, turning point, it grows, it escalates and complicates from this moment up until when your story starts. Nothing ever stays static. So let me give you an example of how knowing what a what the character wants, and knowing what that misbelief is can make a plot that would seem like even the most ridiculous unbelievably boring and kind of icky plot interesting. And so I want to talk to you about another movie. It's called Sparrows Dance. This movie most people have never seen. I wouldn't have seen it. We were up late one night back in the back in the day feel like its three years ago now, because things change so fast, right? But it was back in the days of pay per view. Before you could just stream everything. And so we were looking for something late at night to watch, and this movie came up and it was like it'll probably suck, and we'll watch it, you know for ten minutes and then turn it off and then, you know, watch a couple of episodes of Dick Van Dyke show and then go to sleep. But it was actually pretty good. It's an indie movie, two characters, and the main character is a woman. She doesn't even have a name, she's called the actress. And she's agoraphobic, that's what we find out. In the very beginning that's her misbelief. And again, books go deeper in terms of what a character's thinking and misbelief than you can in a movie. Because we're going deeply into a deeper into the why than you can ever do if you try to put that into a movie, you'd have endless voiceover and nobody would watch it because it would be deadly dull. So her misbelief is that she cannot leave the house. She's got agoraphobia. So we find that out in the beginning, before the plot kicks in, it takes place I believe it's in inner city New York. So she's in an apartment, and out her window somebody's getting mugged, and she you can tell it's really, like she doesn't want that to happen but she can't do anything about it. She can barely even yell out the window. She certainly can't go out and try to stop anything. That night she orders dinner, it's brought to her door, and she says to the guy, could you just like, put it down on the ground, I'm gonna slide the money under the door. Again, there's no Seamless or GrubHub at that point, so they were actually dealing with real cash money. Believe it or not, you know, I'll put the money under the door and then I'll open it. So can't face people. What does she want? We find that out too because she's watching a movie, we see her watching a movie, it's some old black and white melodrama, usually I can tell what they are, and I couldn't tell what this one was. But like a man and a woman are looking at each other very meaningfully and you can see the desire radiates, palpable, and then that night you know, she's going to sleep and it's paper thin walls, and the couple in the next apartment are having sex, and you can just see the longing radiating off of her. So that's what she wants, she want's human connection, she wants to have connection with somebody. So without a plot, with nothing to force anything to happen, because the one thing I didn't tell you is again she's the actress, so she's got enough money. She's get residuals, she's got money, she can keep her apartment in perpetuity, she can have everything delivered, she never has to set foot outside her apartment ever. She's totally got it made in the shade on that level. But so without a plot, what would happen? Well what would probably happen, and we've heard all those awful stories is shed never leave, and decades would pass, and the neighbors would go by and go there's a funny smell coming from that apartment. And then it would turn out that she's mummified somewhere because nobody came to look and she just stayed there forever. So we don't want that to happen. So you need a plot so ask yourselves what is the one thing that if you live in an inner-- or really anywhere, but especially in an inner city apartment, that you absolutely can't live without. And to be very clear, she's got money to buy everything and this isn't something metaphysical it's not like touch or connection or hearing somebody's voice. The one thing that you can't live without is working plumbing, you have to have a toilet or you are, let's face it, shit outta luck. So what happens is, she wakes up the next morning, no ick factor here, and like clear water is cascading out of the base of her toilet. And now she's got to do something. But in stories as in life, literature as in life, which is always true, we always do the least amount to solve a problem, especially we wanna solve a problem without having to deal with that hard thing for us. So you see her and she's on the phone and she's on her exercise bike, so that's I guess how she stays in shape, and she's got this big wrench and she's talking to a plumber and she even has the yellow pages, that's how long go it was, it's actually yellow pages. And she's saying you know I've got this big wrench and I'm really good at taking directions, like couldn't I just tell you what's and you could walk me through fixing it, you know, are you sure, couldn't we just try, no, and now, he's gotta come over, and the movie is about how these two get together and how she overcomes her problem. Two characters, one set, because I think that's all they had that money for. And it ends where she's finally overcome it and there's this kind of wonderful scene where the camera's like here, and here's her hallway, she comes out and you can see both the vestibule door and the street door are glass, and you watch her walk. Then she goes through the vestibule door and then she takes her first step out in the street and gets hit by a mack truck. No, just kidding, but wouldn't that be great? Just kidding, but so the point is is that without that, without that desire that she had, and without that misbelief, you would be watching a two hour movie about a woman getting her toilet fixed. Now unless you're an apprentice plumber or you have a thing about watching women get their toilets fixed, which you'd better keep to yourself, you're not gonna watch that movie. What makes a story is the protagonist's internal journey, the plot is then created. Because let's face it, there could've been a ton of different plots that would've forced her to do that, they didn't have any money. So it had to be something simple on that level. It's not about the plot, it's about how the plot affects the protagonist.

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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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