In 2020 I resolve to be a better storyteller. A lot of writers I admire say that there is nothing wrong with being a pantser – a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of author. But it’s not working for me, my story is not as clear cut and I always have problems writing the ending. I tried outlining, but it limited me (cue that Wicked song). My story did not want to go in the direction the outline directed. So, I picked up Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel – it sounds like one of my User Experience books. And it actually is.
A Novel’s UX
A novel has a user experience. Lisa Cron describes a story as the earliest form of virtual reality. It is a safe avenue to explore what we won’t usually do in real life. The user experiences the story through the eyes of our main character. So to deliver a more engaging UX, you need to know your protagonist inside and out.
And as though by fate, I was reading Robin Hobb‘s Royal Assassin when I stumbled upon Story Genius. This is the second book in her Farseer Trilogy and the perfect example of a character-driven tale. Fitz Chivalry was six years old when his grandfather turned him over to the Farseer household. He was the bastard son of the king-in-waiting. Delegated to the care of the stable master, he was then trained as an assassin. His misbelief and internal struggles drove the whole novel. Falling in love with a girl beneath his station, giving his life in service to his uncle, saving his grandfather, his uncle’s wife and unborn child, then coming to terms with his beast magic in conjunction with his skill – all experienced through a beloved main character’s eyes. And what a wonderful experience it was.
Another issue I struggle with is having too many characters and bringing too many issues to the table – in other words, clarity. The Story Genius solution is to have one main character, the alpha. Even if you have several protagonists, have them center around the alpha’s story. And edit out any back story or character trait that is not important to the main internal plot you are trying to capture. The second book I finished this year, Tarnished are the Stars by Rosiee Thor, has three protagonists with three different set of problems. But in the end, they focused on Anna’s problem and supported her in her battle while resolving their own. The clarity of the external problem was due to the clarity of the internal problem each of the characters had. But also due to the way the two other protagonists’ issues seemed not as major as the main character’s.
I will not elaborate on all that I have learned from the book (considering that I am only about 67% into the exercises, I really can’t), but one of the most awesome lesson in it is the Scene Cards. I’ve tried using index cards before and they are too small to contain everything I need them to. So just type the Scene Cards out electronically. For every scene card there is a cause and an effect, but the genius in Ms. Cron’s version is that these are subdivided into two vital parts – external plot and internal struggle. To train yourself to think of a scene in this way before writing the chapter, in my opinion, will improve your storytelling prowess immensely. Every scene must have a purpose to reach your desired conclusion.
A very wise author, once tweeted that the right time to tackle that dream project is when you’re good enough. When you have acquired the right skills to give justice to the story. And this year, I hope to become good enough for this story in my head that I have written ten different ways yet still come up short. I will make the time and do the work – to improve the craft I’ve always enjoyed (I have to thank my elementary school friends for remembering my early stories and choose-your-own adventure notebooks). This is my first step – among many more I’m sure – to get to the finish line I’ve always dreamed about, but set aside so many times.
Wish me luck and hopefully I will have a book for you to read soon.