Monday, December 19, 2016

"Story Genius" and the Art of Making the Reader Care

As 2016 A.D. nears its end, it’s probably only natural that one reflects upon the last 365 days and the events they held, and then begins to plan greater and better things for the next 365 days to come. I am no exception to this proclivity. Two Thousand Sixteen has been a roller-coaster of events and emotions in my life. It was the year I finally crossed The Pond and traveled to Europe, which has always been an aspiration. It was also a year of loss, of struggle, and of depression. And most recently, 2016 is the year that I changed employment again. 

When I interview for a new job, the questions are probing, and (like the change of a year) make me think intently on what my goals are for the future. And practical purposes for making a living aside, I came to the realization I cannot spend the majority of my life working at something for which I have no heartfelt interest. The idealist in me said, “Surely God gave me a love for writing for something more than just one blog amongst a multitude. Surely He meant me to do something more than simply write my life in a journal, and entertain myself with unpublished stories infrequently put onto paper.”

So, afraid as I am, I think that 2017 will be the year I actually try to get something published. I’ve tried my hand at poetry for magazines before without much success. But then, while I like to read poetry on occasion, it isn’t what I long to do with my writing abilities. It’s terrifying, but I think that this coming year’s goal will be to publish a novel. Whether through an agent, or independent, through a mainstream publisher or self-publishing, I don’t know yet. 

But with this in mind, I thought it would do me good to read up on the craft of writing. There is no shortage of material on the topic, so I simply picked a book that had been on my library account’s holds queue for who-knows-how-long. And so we come to the point of this blog entry: Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere).

Whew. That title in itself is longer than some Hemingway short stories!  What drew me to choosing this book was the idea of “brain science.” I’ve read tons of writing manuals in my time, including several times of reading Struck and White’s classic Elements of Style. But when I saw that Cron’s argument was possibly based more on the science of what hooks readers onto a story and keeps them enthralled until “The End,” I thought maybe this would teach me something new.

Basically this writing manual argues that in order to tell a good story, the readers have to be emotionally invested in the main character’s struggles. But the struggles must be more than external hardships or adventures. Throughout the course of the plot, the main characters must undergo changes internally. 

Since it’s Christmas, I’ll use a well-known character for illustration: Ebenezer Scrooge. At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol he is a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Over the course of five chapters he transforms from this to “as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the good old city knew.”

This, Cron argues, is what makes for a good story. Not only is stuff happening around Scrooge (because events happening to a character make them passive objects), but Scrooge himself is making changes to himself throughout the story, becoming an active participant in the story and therefore of much more interest to the reader. 

Another major aspect of storytelling that Cron touches upon is what is known as literary criticism as the Fatal Flaw.  Particularly hazardous in tragedies such as Shakespeare’s King Lear et al., this flaw is an aspect of the main character’s personality or psyche that causes them to make mistakes in judgement or action. Cron argues that this “Fatal Flaw” should be re-named, because often the protagonist is aware of this characteristic, but due to a misconception of the reality around them they believe this characteristic is acceptable, even good. 

With King Lear, his ego is what causes his delusional behavior and eventual downfall. But as a king, Lear thinks that having pride is part of his job of maintaining sovereignty over his subjects. 

To return to my previous example, I don’t think Dickens wrote in as psychological terms as Shakespeare. But, from what we see of Scrooge’s childhood, my assessment of his misconception of reality is a sense of “grasping” onto material comforts. A lonely childhood with only his little sister as a companion, and then losing her after she married for love and had a child, has made him focus on gathering material wealth rather than invest his heart into fragile, mortal relationships. But in doing so, he’s lost sight of what really causes happiness and comfort in life. He’s isolated or alienated himself from all humanity, including his one relative, his nephew Fred. And as the story continues, the reader sees how Scrooge opens up (he begins to interact, albeit invisibly, with the people the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present show him), begins to care about what happens to other people (the best example being Tiny Tim), and ultimately to take the risk of engaging in friendships. 

To conclude: Did Story Genius live up to my expectations? Frankly, no. But that’s because I feel like my expectations were too different from what this book was really about. I thought I was going to have to wade through various statistics, bestseller lists, and medical information about brain activity during the act of reading. Instead, Story Genius is mostly about making sure a writer gives their character an internal struggle between their misconceptions and reality, and making sure this struggle is identifiable and sympathetic. Cron’s challenge to writers is to ask themselves, “Why should the reader care?” and then give the reader an undeniable reason to do so.

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