How stories work

Story genius book cover

“I thought you’d write a book when you retired” someone remarked recently.

I did too, I think to myself, I just haven’t worked out what it’s going to be about yet…

But the reality is that I really have no idea how to write a book. The advice is to just start writing and see what happens, but this is a scary proposition. I’m concerned that my efforts will be clumsy or sub-standard, so I don’t do anything at all. Better to have tried and failed is a great adage, but the reality is that no-one really likes failing.

So I was delighted when a friend recommended a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It’s just what I needed at this point in my writing life because it lays out some foundational skills about how stories work.

Cron says that you should always try to jump into the middle of the action and then fill in the backstory. This helps to set the scene and pique the reader’s curiosity about how the protagonist (main character) got themselves into that situation.

I was thinking about this advice when I read the opening pages of The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. The opening is set in a scary motel where a young woman is working alone on the night-desk. She hears a lot of strange noises and next thing you know, she’s disappeared. Already I’m filled with curiosity. Why is she working alone in this creepy place which is far away from her home, and what on earth happened to her?

Next we jump forward in time to another young woman arriving at the same motel. Immediately we want to know what she’s doing there. Is she related to the first young woman? Why is she interested in the disappearance of the first young woman and why now? All this is explained in the first 50 pages, by which time I’m hooked and want to read the rest of the story.

Cron suggests that stories fail when they are merely a series of events. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. It’s like you telling me in boring detail how you drove to my house. Quite frankly, I don’t care how you got here, I just care that you’ve arrived safely.

Good stories keep moving you forward because something happens that leads to something else happening. There’s a causal relationship between events that connects them and makes sense to the reader. Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it takes a while for that reason to be revealed.

The author’s job is to make you wonder what happened and why it happened.

You might think that this is only true of mystery books, but this is not the case. Take the example of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. After the famous opening lines about happy and unhappy families, we immediately jump into the situation as it stands right now.

Everything was confusion in the Oblonsky’s house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been the governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

Leo Tolstoy

Do I want to know more? Why yes, I do.

In his weekly newsletter The Maven Game (which I heartily recommend if you’re an aspiring writer), David Moldawer claims that people are either born with the knack of storytelling or they aren’t. He doesn’t think that it’s something you can teach, but I’m hoping that he’s wrong and that I can learn to tell a good story.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Lisa Cron’s book and hope that an idea for a book will pop into my head very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

8 thoughts on “How stories work

  1. This sounds like a great book with helpful advice. I disagree with the proposition that you are either born with a storytelling skill or not! If that were true, people like Lisa Cron wouldn’t write books like the one she wrote.

    1. Ha, that’s very true! There’d be no market for any kind of ‘how to’ books. One point that Moldawer and Cron do agree on is that there’s no point in creating finely crafted sentences if there’s no story.

  2. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve never heard of this and am always excited to check out books on the craft.

    The therefore-but rule is amazing, and it’s helped me see my stories in a different way. I’ve written entire manuscripts as a series of events, and it took making the mistake to learn from it. So I can vouch for the age old advice: Just write.

    Wishing you all the best!

    1. Thanks for your encouraging words. Let me know what you think of the book if you get a chance to read it.
      I agree that we learn best by doing but sometimes it’s hard to do that publicly.

  3. I don’t think you need to be born a storyteller to be a writer but you need to have a sense of the structure of a story and since you are learning all about how to do it, soon you will be producing a best seller!

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