Story Genius
Story Genius

Story Genius

Humans are wired for story. We hunt for and respond to certain specific things in every story we hear, watch, or read—and they’re the exact same specific things, regardless of the genre. Why is this so? Because story is the language of the brain. We think in story. The brain evolved to use story as its go-to “decoder ring” for reality, and so we’re really expert at probing stories for specific meaning and specific info—and I mean all of us, beginning at birth. (Page 6)

Story is how we make sense of the world around us; it’s a system that predates written language by eons. Heck, before spoken language, we grunted and signed in story. I’d wager that early in the morning, the cranky among us still do. (Page 6)

We don’t have a choice. The power story has over us is biological. But while responding to story is hardwired, creating a story is not. (Page 6)

What drives a story forward is, at first blush, invisible. It’s not talent. It’s not voice. It’s not the plot. Think electricity. The same way even the most powerful lamp is useless unless it’s plugged in, a story can’t engage readers without the electricity that illuminates the plot, the voice, and the talent, bringing them to life. The question is: what, specifically, generates that juice? The answer is: it flows directly from how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening, how she struggles with, evaluates, and weighs what matters most to her, and then makes hard decisions, moving the action forward. This is not a general struggle, but one based on the protagonist’s impossible goal: to achieve her desire and remain true to the fear that’s keeping her from it. As we’ll explore in detail, story is not about the plot, or what happens. Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes internally as a result. (Page 7)

Think of the protagonist’s internal struggle as the novel’s live wire. It’s exactly like the third rail on a subway train—the electrified rail that supplies the juice that drives the cars forward. Without it, that train, no matter how well constructed, just sits there, idling in neutral, annoying everyone, especially at rush hour. Ultimately, all stories are character driven—yes, all stories, including 50 Shades of Grey, A Is for Alibi, Die Hard, War and Peace, The Goldfinch, and The Little Engine That Could. (Page 7)

In a novel, everything—action, plot, even the “sensory details”—must touch the story’s third rail in order to have meaning and emotional impact. Anything that doesn’t impact the protagonist’s internal struggle, regardless of how beautifully written or “objectively” dramatic it is, will stop the story cold, breaking the spell that captivated readers, and unceremoniously catapulting them back into their own lives. (Page 8)

Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one. It’s about what the protagonist has to learn, to overcome, to deal with internally in order to solve the problem that the external plot poses. That means that the internal problem predates the events in the plot, often by decades. (Page 8)

We’re going beneath the surface to where the real story lies—the story that the reader’s brain is wired to find irresistible. (Page 9)

The blueprint we’re talking about in Story Genius is not a general outline of the things that happen in the plot; it’s a fully realized synthesis of the internal and external layers of your story from beginning to end. (Page 9)

an effective story is, literally, an offer your brain can’t refuse. You didn’t decide to keep reading—it was a biological reaction. (Page 11)

Story was the world’s first virtual reality. It allowed us to step out of the present and envision the future, so we could plan for the thing that has always scared us more than anything: the unknown, the unexpected. (Page 13)

Stories let us vicariously try out difficult situations we haven’t yet experienced to see what it would really feel like, and what we’d need to learn in order to survive. (Page 13)

Stories feel good for the same reason food tastes good and sex feels good: because without them we couldn’t survive. (Page 14)

It turns out that great feeling you get when you’re lost in a good story, the feeling that can keep you up all night reading, is not ephemeral, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not pleasure for pleasure’s sake, it’s not even the point. It’s actually the biological lure, the hook that paralyzes you, making the real world vanish so you can experience the world of the story. That feeling is what compels us to drop everything and pay attention. (Page 14)

What actually causes that great feeling is a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s a chemical reaction triggered by the intense curiosity that an effective story always instantly generates. It’s your brain’s way of rewarding you for following your curiosity to find out how the story ends, because you just might learn something that you need to know. (Page 15)

Note: Not by telling what is right

When we’re under the spell of a compelling story, we undergo internal changes along with the protagonist, and her insights become part of the way we, too, see the world. Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does—not by telling us what is right, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves. (Page 15)

In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning, thus emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit, straight from the protagonist to us. (Page 15)

Our brain registers an effective story the same way it registers the things that actually do happen to us out here in the good old analog world. (Page 16)

We’ve long assumed that our big brains evolved to enable abstract reasoning, but science is now discovering that growth wasn’t simply to make room for analytic ability. It was to expand our social cognitive skills, thus enabling us to do that thing we’ve all been encouraged to do since kindergarten: work well with others. (Page 17)

But when it comes to survival in the social world, the terrain is largely invisible. Sure, we can see what people do, but knowing why they’re doing it—which is what matters most—is elusive, for the obvious reason that the answer is tucked into the one place that not even the NSA (or Mark Zuckerberg’s minions) have yet found a way to tap: what someone else is actually thinking. What do they believe and why do they believe it? That’s what we’re dying to know, and what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear, especially novels. (Page 17)

Understanding the motivation behind what someone does is what gives it meaning. (Page 18)

we can sharpen our mind-reading skills by devouring a ton of novels. (Page 18)

The purpose of story—of every story—is to help us interpret, and anticipate, the actions of ourselves and of others. (Page 18)

The takeaway is: We don’t turn to story to escape reality. We turn to story to navigate reality. (Page 19)

Note: Inside info

We don’t come for beautiful language, poetic writing, or even dramatic plot points. We come for something much deeper, much more meaningful: inside info on how to survive in this glorious, cruel, beautiful world, and in style no less. (Page 19)

A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result. (Page 20)

What happens in the story is the plot, the surface events of the novel. It is not the same thing as what the story is about. Not by a long shot. The someone is the protagonist, and as we’ll see, everything that hap pens in the plot will get its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects her—not in general, but in pursuit of a difficult goal. The difficult goal is, at its most basic, what’s known as the story problem. All stories revolve around how someone solves a single, escalating problem they can’t avoid. (Page 20)

And that internal change? That, my friends, is what the story is actually about: how your protagonist’s external dilemma—aka the plot—changes her worldview. (Page 21)

Not fully grasping the importance of this is what tanks countless novels. We don’t come to story simply to watch the events unfold; we come to experience them through the protagonist’s eyes, as she struggles with what to do next. (Page 21)

What undoes so many writers right out of the starting gate is something that seems so totally reasonable that it never occurs to us to question it: we decide that the first thing to do is to learn to write well. The trouble is, in learning to write well, we completely miss the boat, storywise. (Page 23)


The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean. — ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

To hook a reader, you need to learn to write well. That’s what we’re taught in great detail from kindergarten on. The tacit promise is this: become a wordsmith and you automatically become a storyteller. Over and over we’re told that the mechanics, conventions, and techniques of writing are what good writing is all about. How could you not believe it? Beautiful sentences are constantly praised. Misplaced commas are criticized. No one talks about story—which, as we have just seen, is the very thing that readers are hardwired to respond to. Story is treated as something elusive, something that magically appears when you nail the mechanics and learn to “write well.” (Page 23)

The conventions of writing—voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it—are the handmaiden of story, not the other way around. It’s the story that gives those beautiful words, those interesting characters and all that drama, their power. (Page 24)

Once we’re securely hooked, it’s the story that has the power to change how we view the world, and therefore what we go out and do in the world. (Page 24)

Here’s a sobering question that might shake up many a literary circle: If great writing is what the brain’s hungry for, if it’s the thing that captivates readers, then could the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy really have sold—are you sitting down?—100,000,000 copies and counting? (Yes, that’s a hundred million as of this writing, which means that by the time you’re reading this, that number has risen as steadily as . . . well, you get the picture.) Confronted with this fact, the skeptic has two choices: Simply dismiss those hundred million people as readers who just don’t know any better, poor saps. Or wonder what the hell is going on. (Page 25)

After all, what do readers say about Fifty Shades of Grey? “It’s horribly written, but I can’t put it down.” (Page 26)

And yet when we hunker down to write, given what we’ve been taught to focus on as writers, the power of story is rarely on our radar. Instead, we put our faith in the power of the beautiful words themselves to lure readers, thus mistaking the wrapping paper for the present. (Page 26)

But if it’s not about beautiful writing, why do we so wholeheartedly believe that it is? There are two main reasons.

Biology Has Us at Hello

The first reason takes us straight back to biology. The initial job of an effective story is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it is a story. (Page 27)

Writing tends to be taught by very accomplished writers, many of whom have a natural aptitude for story from the get-go, the way some athletes are born with a physical prowess that the rest of us couldn’t come close to no matter how many boxes of Wheaties we scarf down, or how much cross-training we sweat through. But as counterintuitive as it may sound, that doesn’t make these writers good teachers. In fact, often the opposite is true, because we’re much better at teaching something that we’ve learned through experience than we are at teaching things we innately know. (Page 28)

It’s the same with natural storytellers. They’ve never had to deconstruct what they’re doing, or pinpoint what it is that the reader is really responding to. These lucky pups have such a natural sense of story that often the novel merely unfolds as they write, delightfully surprising them at every turn. It’s not talent, or “the muse.” It’s that their cognitive unconscious has the innate knack of offering up prose in story form. They can write automatically, and so they think that’s the nature of writing itself, rather than their nature. (Page 29)

The belief that a story will appear if you write blindly into the darkness is extremely damaging, because it has given rise to one of the most seductive, widespread, and undermining concepts in the writing world: pantsing. The Myth of Pantsing There is a school of writing that believes the best way to write is to sit down, clear your mind, and write by the seat of your pants. Hence the term: “pantsing.” (Yes, I know there’s another meaning out there for pantsing; this is the writing one.) In some circles it’s been dubbed the most authentic way to write. (Page 30)

But if pantsing leads to failure, why is it so damn seductive? Why are we so tempted to sit down and “let it all pour out”? Simple: We’re hardwired to do what’s easy. This is not a negative. It doesn’t make us weak, lazy, or slackers. It’s just that thinking hard takes a whole lot of energy—after all, the brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s volume, yet it consumes 20 percent of its energy. Thinking actually burns calories. (Not enough calories, but still.) So the urge to wing it is a built-in survival mechanism, the better to conserve precious energy for handling the decidedly unexpected, the truly dangerous, the unavoidably challenging—you know, all the things that stories are about. (Page 31)

Here’s the thing: creativity needs context. It needs a leash. Context is what bestows meaning and defines what matters, what doesn’t, and why. (Page 32)

In a novel, the past—the things that happened before it began—are what provide context. (Page 32)

So rather than unleashing your creativity, you want to harness it to the past from which your story arises. Without the past to anchor the present, everything will be neutral and nothing will add up, and so it will come across as random to the reader. (Page 32)

The Myth of the Shitty First Draft

Wait , you may be thinking, isn’t that par for the course? Rough drafts are supposed to be shitty; Ernest Hemingway said so. And he’s absolutely right. But it’s easy to misunderstand exactly what he means, a mistake even the otherwise brilliant Anne Lamott makes. She wholeheartedly embraces the notion of “really, really shitty first drafts,” but then she defines them as “the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” 2 Whether we’re talking about your blueprint, or the entire first draft of your novel, she couldn’t be more wrong—someone is going to see it, and that someone is the most important person of all: you. (Page 33)

The very fact that you can move things around is a telltale sign that the novel has no internal logic. (Page 33)

Will your first draft be shitty no matter what? Probably. It’s kind of a badge of honor. But make no mistake: there’s a massive difference between the shitty draft of an actual story and a shitty first draft that randomly romps all over the damn place. (Page 33)

Plotters come so close to being right. Developing a blueprint of the novel you’re writing before you tackle page one is essential. The trouble is, they’ve focused on developing the wrong thing—the external plot—rather than the internal story. Their focus is on the external “what,” rather than the protagonist’s preexisting, internal “why.” (Page 34)

Plotters have it backward: the events in the plot must be created to force the protagonist to make a specific really hard internal change. And that means you need to know, specifically, what that internal change will be before you begin creating a plot. (Page 34)

Outlining the plot first is like saying, “I’m going to write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.” (Page 34)

Successful stories often do follow the external pattern these guides set forth, so it’s deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape and you’ve got a story. I’ve read a surprising number of manuscripts that fall into this category. You can always spot them early on; they have a paint-by-numbers predictability—it’s all about form, with very little substance. Here’s the thing: every one of those models is based on tons of finished novels, myths, or movies. Do you think the creators of those original myths were cribbing from external story structure models when they came up with their tales? Sheesh, it would’ve been kind of difficult, since many of them originated long before there was written language, let alone a slew of handy guidebooks. They told stories built on content, not on structure. (Page 36)

Story structure is actually born of a story well told. It’s not something you can create from the outside in. (Page 36)

Rather than inviting us in, the beautiful language is more like a waterproof sealant, locking us on the surface where all we can do is admire the words, rather than absorb the story that they’re meant to tell. And while this is the last thing the author meant to do, now we’re kind of annoyed. Because it feels a wee bit like the writer is showing off. Like he’s saying, “Look how well I write!” rather than “Forget about me; lose yourself in my story!” (Page 37)

But if these three techniques—pantsing, plotting, and following external “story” structure models—don’t work, what does? The solution springs from what we’ve learned about story’s effect on the brain, and it starts, proceeds, and finishes with your protagonist’s inner struggle—your story’s third rail. Creating the inside story comes first, because without it you can’t create your plot. Let’s take a look at what this actually means. (Page 37)

You can’t write about how someone changes unless you know, specifically, what they’re changing from. (Page 37)

The story you’re telling doesn’t start on page one. It started long before you got there. (Page 38)

The trouble is that writers often misunderstand the notion of what beginning in medias res means, taking it to simply be a device to plunge us into current action and explain it later. Not only is that not what it means, but to do so is a tragic mistake. Because by leaving the “why” out of the picture, the action often reads as a bunch of things that happen. Worse yet, writers are often so focused on getting the “what” onto the page that they, themselves, don’t even know the “why.” (Page 38)

Here’s the real truth: your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, when the plot kicks in. The second half—the novel itself—will contain large parts of the first in the form of flashbacks, dialogue, and snippets of memory as the protagonist struggles to make sense of what’s happening, and what to do about it. It bears repeating: nothing in this process goes to waste. But the simple fact remains that without the first half of the story, there can be no second half. The first half establishes where the problem came from and who the protagonist is to begin with, so that the plot you then create can force her to struggle with that problem and, in the process, change. (Page 38)

That’s why we’ll always need stories—because the unexpected keeps being so darn unexpected—and it’s why we’ll always need writers to explore those What If scenarios for us. (Page 41)

The idea that sparks a novel can be the briefest snippet, the most gossamer notion, a single arresting image, yet it has the power to take hold and catapult you out of the familiar world of What Is and into the intriguing, unexplored world of What If. (Page 41)

The first step is to transform that initial slip of an idea into a potent What If question. (Page 41)

In this chapter, we’ll explore the danger of a neutral What If; we’ll delve into why a What If must revolve around something unexpected that throws a monkey wrench into someone’s well-laid plans; we’ll learn that behind every successful What If is something even more seminal: the point you want it to make. Finally, we’ll learn how to create a potent What If from the merest wisp of an idea before it evaporates. (Page 41)

Surprises make us curious, which is why these prompts seem like the perfect place to start a story. The problem is, these surprises don’t lead anywhere, because they lack the essential element we were talking about earlier: context. (Page 43)

A broken pattern forces you to reconsider something that, up to that moment, you tacitly assumed you could count on. (Page 44)

Thus it makes total sense that a What If revolves around a pattern-breaking surprise. So what’s wrong with simply speculating, “What if the sun doesn’t come up?” and starting to write a story? A lot, as it turns out. (Page 45)

The trouble with these What Ifs is that although something odd and externally dramatic happens in each one, an unexpected problem alone cannot drive a story. By itself, it becomes nothing more than an in-the-moment external problem that, at most, demands a bit of surface derring-do to solve. This is because, inevitably, the plot will focus solely on the strange event, rather than the effect said event might have on a specific person. They are just—say it with me—a series of big, eventful, unusual things that happen. And that, my friends, is how we end up with novels that go nowhere. (Page 48)

What’s your point? It’s easy for writers of all ages to lose sight of one very simple, grounding truth: all stories make a point, beginning on page one. Which means that as a writer you need to know what that point is, long before you get to page one. (Page 49)

Here’s the key: 1. The point is what is borne out in the protagonist’s inner struggle. 2. The What If centers on the external plot that will trigger that struggle, ultimately making the point. The point is what transforms a neutral What If into one with the power to begin bringing a story to life—and the operative word here is begin. (Page 50)

Let’s go all the way back to the beginning, to that first moment when that wisp of an idea struck you. Take a deep breath, feel it in your bones. Close your eyes even. Now, can you zero in on the instant that you first felt the pinprick of the idea? (Page 54)

WHAT TO DO Now it’s your turn. In no more than a page, write about the instant the idea that you’re working with—the one that won’t seem to leave you alone—first grabbed you. As Jennie did with her fledgling protagonist who doesn’t like dogs, try to zero in on the very first glimmer. (Page 56)

Step 2: Why Do You Care? Now the question is, why have you even gone this far with it? Ask yourself, why does this stick with me? Why do I care about it? The goal is to burrow into what it is about this idea that intrigues you. Don’t worry if your answer is still kind of fuzzy, or if your first thought is, Um, now that I think about it, what really strikes me is that I need a nap. There is no right answer. You might even find that what you originally thought drew you to the idea was wrong, and that it’s something else altogether. It’s all exploration at this point. Your goal with all these questions is to zero in on the heart of the story you want to tell. (Page 56)

As Joan Didion so famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” 3 And that’s what all this digging is about. Because as writers, there is one thing we all want: to communicate. To reach other people. To be part of the great conversation of the human race. (Page 56)

Step 3: What Is Your Point? The real question here is, what do you want your readers to go away thinking about? What are you trying to say about human nature that will help us keep from getting trounced in the future? (Page 57)

The goal isn’t to nail the specifics now, it’s to let you know where to look for them. Because in this as in all things, the deeper you dig, the more grist you have for the mill. (Page 58)

In fact, writers often secretly confess that their biggest fear is that what they’re writing about is so common, so small, that no one will be interested. Ironically, that is exactly what people are interested in. Why? Because those common, everyday things like love, loyalty, and trust are things we all experience, and we’re always looking for new insights that might help us navigate our everyday lives in a new and fresh way. While none of us will ever be a robot on Mars battling intergalactic warriors (I don’t think), just about all of us have a tricky relationship with someone that we’d love to have help figuring out. Which is why an effective novel about a robot on Mars would probably center on love, loyalty, and trust, too. (Page 58)

As Samuel Johnson so aptly pointed out, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.” 4 (Page 59)

See if you can nail the point your story will make in a few concise lines. Don’t worry if in the beginning it splashes all over the page. Just keep focusing in on the single driving point it will make. The goal is to reduce it to its essence. (Page 59)

The goal isn’t to nail it perfectly in the first attempt. In fact, trying to do just that is the number one reason writers give up, largely because it’s like trying to lay the foundation, build, paint, and sell a house all in one fell swoop. Instead, you end up buried under a ton of bricks. (Page 59)

The immediate goal of your What If isn’t to tell strangers what your book will be about, or to hook readers. It’s to tell you, yourself, what you’ll need to discover before you can begin to craft your plot. (Page 61)

The question you need to answer before you can develop the plot is the one writers are always asked: “Whose story is it?” (Page 62)

As we know, the story and the plot are two very different things. The story comes first, and it is born of one person, and one person only: the protagonist. Everyone and everything else will be created to serve his or her story. A novel’s power depends on how deeply you dive into your protagonist—that’s what will bring your plot into being and give it life. (Page 62)

It’s a very common mistake, one born of the understandable misbelief that a story is about the things that happen in it, which would definitely affect a whole lot of people. So why is it necessary to pick one person to be your protagonist? Your Protagonist’s Brain Is Your Reader’s Portal The answer brings us right back to why we’re wired for story. The world is teeming with things that happen, and on most days, especially before that first cup of coffee, it sure looks like chaos out there. Our survival depends on making sense of the particular chaos we call home—not in the general “objective” sense we hear so much about, but in the much more practical, subjective, how-will-this-affect-me-personally sense. Thus the evolutionary job of story is to funnel said chaos through one very grounding filter: the specific effect that chaos has on the protagonist, who becomes our avatar. (Page 64)

Remember, when we’re lost in a story, we’re not passively reading about something that’s happening to someone else. We’re actively experiencing it on a neural level as if it were happening to us. We are—literally—making the protagonist’s experience our own. Without a main character, the reader has no skin in the game, and everything remains utterly neutral and surprisingly hard to follow. (Page 64)

That invisible, internal struggle is the third rail we’ve been talking about—it not only connects the novel’s surface events to the protagonist’s internal progress, giving those events meaning, but it’s also what ultimately lets you know what those surface events will be (read: the plot). (Page 65)

So before you can begin to figure out what that story is—let alone the plot—it stands to reason that first, you really need to know who your protagonist is. (Page 65)

You’re not looking for a general anyone, you’re looking for a specific someone. A someone whose past will make what happens to them the moment they step onto the first page of your novel, inevitable. (Page 66)

Most of the time we’re unwittingly complicit because, as we’ll discuss in depth in the next chapter, we fell prey to a misbelief early in our lives that puts us, and keeps us, on the path we’re on. However, sometimes, as with poor R& J, it’s the situation we were born into that hurls us into big trouble. But even then it’s our preexisting desires and fears that guide our action. That’s why the question isn’t what will happen to your protagonist now. It’s, Who is she, really, just before it happens? Because your novel is going to change her. The question is, change her from what? (Page 66)

The question now becomes, who is the person whose transformation—whose inner change—will embody that point? It’s his or her internal struggle that will trigger the decisions that drive your plot. It’s not what the world throws at them; it’s the meaning they read into those events that your story is actually about. (Page 67)

The thing to keep in mind when you’re considering dual protagonists is that you’ll then need to unearth each protagonist’s third rail—their internal struggle—which will ultimately dovetail to make a single, potent point. It can be done, absolutely. But it’s hard, and it can be messy. That’s probably why, even in novels that seem to have dual protagonists—sometimes even three or four—there is almost always what I like to call an alpha-protagonist. (Page 70)

It always comes back to this: the story belongs to the protagonist. (Page 73)

Note: Deeply held beliefs

The goal is to envision your protagonist as he is on the day before your novel begins. Chances are at this moment your protagonist feels that he has things under control—his life might not be exactly the way he’d want it, but it’s working. Life, up to now, has taught him what to expect, and he’s pretty much figured out how to safely navigate it. What he doesn’t know is that you’re going to make sure his expectations aren’t met, catapulting him out of his safety zone into the world beyond his trusty map. But remember, the novel isn’t simply about how he navigates that uncharted world; it’s about the quest he’s spent most of his life suiting up for. He just doesn’t know it yet. (Page 73)

The point is, your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral.” He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question. (Page 73)

The goal is to write a paragraph or two that sums up who your protagonist is at that very moment—just a short thumbnail sketch. Think of this sketch as a loose outline that you will be filling in as we move forward. As with your What If, it will tell you where to dig for the specifics that will bring your protagonist to life. (Page 74)

THE WHY: WHY, EXACTLY, DOES YOUR PROTAGONIST CARE? The essence of drama is that man cannot walk away from the consequences of his own deeds.—HAROLD HAYES Y ou have a potent What If and an unsuspecting protagonist whose life is about to be forever changed as a result, so the answer to the next question can seem blindingly obvious: Why will the unavoidable conflict that’s going to blossom on page one matter to your protagonist? (Page 76)

The deeper question, the question the story is actually about, is this: What will those things mean to her? What specific plan will they topple? What internal fear will they force her to confront? What long-held desire will they give her no choice but to go after? Because your novel isn’t about the external change your What If is going to put your protagonist through; it’s about why that change matters to her. There’s only one way to answer that question, and 65 that is by digging deeper into the treasure trove where the heart of your story is buried: your protagonist’s past. (Page 77)

Every protagonist—every human being, for that matter—has led a very full life from the second they took their first breath until now. (Page 77)

Look at it this way: your protagonist is not like an actor who’s hired to play a role in a plot that’s already been devised; rather, she’s about to walk into the next day of her life, which she believes will go according to plan—her plan, the one based on all that past experience. But it won’t. (Page 78)

Which brings us to the one unalterable fact that this chapter will explore: before you can upend your protagonist’s plans, you need to know what those plans are—and, more important, why they matter to her. Otherwise, how will you know what she might do when said plans go awry? (Page 78)

But fear not; although we’ll be digging into her past to unearth this info, rather than tearing up her entire backyard, we’ll be searching for very specific moments in her life, guided by what your What If and your Who have already revealed. And the shovel we’ll be using is the most gloriously, deceptively brazen word in any language: Why? (Page 78)

The human brain is a meaning-seeking machine; rather than taking everything at face value, we’re wired to try to figure out what’s really going on. Because understanding the why fundamentally changes our perception of the what. This is what sets us apart from most other critters, who simply accept the surface world as they find it. (Page 79)

Note: Survival tool

We constantly dive beneath the surface, searching for info to help us anticipate what might happen next, the better to navigate whatever life may fling at us. To that end, continually asking “Why?” has proven to be one of the most precise, compact, and useful survival tools that evolution has bestowed upon us. (Page 79)

The good news is that as soon as you begin to zero in on these first few specifics, they will start to multiply of their own accord, and since the present springs from the past, the deeper you dive into your protagonist’s past, the clearer his future—aka your plot—will become. Why? Because, as our parents were so fond of pointing out back when we were kids, our actions have future consequences. Sometimes those consequences are immediate, and sometimes they don’t come home to roost for years. Which is why you can count on the fact that what your protagonist did in the past will help you create the events that will befall him in the future. (Page 81)

Note: Consequences

You’ll be glad to know, however, that all this digging into his past will be strategic rather than global, allowing you to neatly sidestep the trap that so many writers inadvertently stumble into: painstakingly chronicling their protagonist’s entire biography in intricate detail, (Page 81)

The problem is that lengthy character bios are chock-full of surface “what” with almost no internal “why.” (Page 82)

So, how do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear). It is from those two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame. It is this struggle that becomes your story’s third rail. (Page 84)

Sometimes the most obvious, simple thing proves the most elusive. (Page 85)

Note: Daarom mag je een boek schrijven over iets dat evident lijkt

So at the risk of being obvious, let me say that all protagonists stand on the threshold of the novel they’re about to be flung into with two things about to burn a hole in their pocket: 1. A deep-seated desire—something they’ve wanted for a very long time. 2. A defining misbelief that stands in the way of achieving that desire. This is where the fear that’s holding them back comes from. Taken together, these two warring elements will become your novel’s third rail, the live wire that everything that happens must touch, creating the emotional jolt that forces your protagonist to struggle as he tries to figure out what to do. This is what lets us know what matters most to him; it’s the emotional yardstick by which readers will measure the meaning of every event, every plot twist, every turn, allowing them to anticipate how he will react. (Page 85)

In real life if your significant other swore that all he or she wanted was to be happy, chances are you’d instantly pounce on it, asking, “What do you mean, happy? Are you saying I don’t make you happy?” And you’d be off to the races, searching for the answer to the real question: What is it, specifically, that you think would make you happy? (Page 86)

Note: Deeply held beliefs

What would have to happen—literally—in order for your protagonist to get what he wants and thus be happy? The goal here is to go from the universal to the specific. The universal is “I want to be happy”; the specific is, “Here’s exactly what would make me happy. I think.” Point being, whether or not he’s right about what would make him happy, your goal is to concretize his desire, so you can see it—it’s real, external, and clear-cut. Meaning, he can take specific action to specifically achieve it. (Page 86)

What your protagonist wants doesn’t have to be possible, it just has to be concrete. (Page 88)

Now it’s your turn. Write a short paragraph about what your character enters the novel wanting, even if she doesn’t think she has a chance in hell of getting it. The sketch of your protagonist that you wrote in the last chapter may very well have touched on the question. And, yes, even if your protagonist couldn’t possibly articulate the answer, you must be able to do so. Be as specific as possible. Use the “eyes wide shut” test—if you can’t close your eyes and envision it, it’s not there yet. (Page 88)

Stories are about sweating, and exposing the things we keep cloaked, both for decorum’s sake and because we’re terrified of what people will think of us if they only knew. That’s what decorum is for: hiding what we really feel. The irony is that what we keep most hidden about ourselves is exactly what we’re dying to know about others. Not because we’re snoops (even if we are), but because it’s such a relief to find out we’re not the only one who feels that way. (Page 89)

Note: Decorum

Now it’s your turn. The question is, why does your protagonist want what she wants? What will getting it mean to her? What does she think it will say about her? Remember, to the outside world it might say something quite different about her. Not to mention that, very often, what your protagonist thinks achieving her goal will mean to her turns out to be very wrong. Often, that is the whole point of the story. (Page 90)

Now that you know what your protagonist wants and why it matters to him, the question is, what’s stopping him from getting it? Why doesn’t he, as Nike so famously advises, “Just do it”? Or, if it’s something he wants to stop doing, there’s Nancy Reagan’s equally infamous “Just say no.” As if ! Sheesh, if all we had to do was decide to do something because we know it’s good for us, we’d all eat sensibly, exercise every day, and never, ever stay up past our bedtime. In other words, life simply doesn’t work that way. Why? Because, as we’ll discuss in depth in the next chapter, our cognitive unconscious—that underground warehouse where the lessons that experience has taught us are continually kept at the ready, should we need instant guidance—often steers us in the wrong direction, all the while thinking it’s doing us a favor. (Page 91)

Note: Zeggen hoe het moet is makkelijk. Het doen voelt soms onmogelijk

Instead, let’s take the judgment out of it and call it what it actually is: a misbelief—which is to say, something your protagonist honestly believes to be true. How your protagonist overcomes this misbelief is what your story is about. (Page 92)

What is a misbelief, exactly? It’s the same thing as a belief, only it’s wrong. I know. Duh. The point is, a misbelief feels identical to a belief that’s spot on. That is, it feels right, not to mention true. And here’s the key thing: it doesn’t feel right because the protagonist is a big fat idiot or so flawed he or she can’t tell the difference between what’s right and what isn’t. It feels right because at a crucial moment in your protagonist’s life, it was right. Right, that is, with an asterisk. Defining misbeliefs tend to spring up during difficult situations, and when they do, they rescue us from something that might otherwise harm us. (Page 92)

Only by knowing your protagonist’s defining misbelief can you craft a story that will test it to the max, opening his eyes along the way (or, depending on the point you’re making, tragically not). (Page 93)

Ira Glass recently examined in his radio show This American Life. He interviewed a guy named Michael, whose parents had taught him never to tell a lie, ever. So, as far as Michael was concerned, if someone asked you a question, you absolutely had to answer honestly. Not only that, you had to tell them the truth when it was unsolicited as well, otherwise you’d be lying by omission. As a result, Michael told his dates up front everything he thought they needed to know about him so they could make an informed decision about a second date. You can imagine the result. He answered every potential employer’s standard question—tell me about your biggest flaw?—in vivid detail. Ditto. And for a long time he thought that other people’s reactions to his honesty proved that something was wrong with them. As far as he was concerned, “They weren’t supposed to get upset. They were supposed to just hear what I said and go, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. That’s cool. You were honest. I value that.’” 3 Until, at long last, it occurred to Michael that his “honesty” was getting in the way of his noticing other people’s feelings. He realized that a world where everyone is honest all the time is “almost a world where people don’t have feelings.” It turned out that unchecked honesty had robbed him of the ability to read other people, and so he was unable to connect with anyone. What’s more, it implied that what he thought was true, was in fact inherently true. So he tacitly saw himself as the ultimate arbiter on whether or not those pants actually do make you look fat. Don’t ask. What did he learn? That when it comes to other people, he has to “Remember their minds are chaos . . . meaning that there’s lots of stuff going on that leads to why people say what they say and that I can’t know what those things are.” What Michael is really saying is that other people’s minds seem to be full of chaos. But to those people—to you and me—our minds don’t seem chaotic at all. (Page 94)

Okay, here goes . . . Ruby’s misbelief is that genuine human connection actually weakens you. It erodes your true self, for one thing (since connection always demands some kind of compromise when you bring someone else into your orbit), and it leaves you vulnerable to pain (since the person can leave you or stop loving you or die—there are no guarantees), and it creates a power imbalance (you are beholden to the person you love, and they can use that against you—and you can use the same against them). Ruby craves connection, but she fears it in equal measure. Ta-da! (Page 96)

Note: Capture the conflict

Try defining your protagonist’s misbelief. As concisely as you can, write down what she wants, and what the fear is that’s keeping her from achieving it. One question to ask yourself as you work this out is, Given her misbelief, what does she think the very worst thing that could happen would be? (Page 96)

Try to picture it. Spend time exploring it, and don’t worry whether you’re “writing well.” Turn off the part of your brain that’s always nitpicking about your prose (if it gets too loud, mentally duct tape it to the chair). It might take you several rambling pages to strike gold—don’t worry. Dig deep, because you are going to capture the conflict—the yin and the yang of the misbelief—that is going to drive your whole novel. (Page 96)

Hold onto your hat; we’re about to leap into your novel’s command center, the place from which all meaning flows, the place where your novel’s third rail is always up and running: your protagonist’s brain. (Page 97)

What you’ll be uncovering from here on out is not simply background material. It is the raw material that you’ll use to create the blueprint for your novel, and any actual scenes you write during this discovery process will almost always end up being part of the novel itself. Going backward 82 in order to move forward can sometimes feel counterintuitive. After all, when you read a novel, it (usually) moves forward in such a seamless continuum that it’s hard to resist the illusion that the writer began on page one and didn’t stop typing until she reached The End. But stories aren’t created in linear form. (Page 97)

Note: Counterintuitive. Non-linear

The very specific worldview you’re going to unearth is the lens through which your protagonist will see and evaluate everything in your novel. It’s her story-specific subjective point of view, which neatly delivers us at the doorstep of the second misconception we need to overturn. (Page 99)

But in this book, when we talk about your protagonist’s point of view, we’re not talking about whether you’re going to write, “I said” or “she said,” we’re talking about how your protagonist evaluates the world you’re going to toss her into. (Page 99)

Misconception #3: Your Protagonist Is a Camera I once worked with a young writer so brilliant that she later got a seven-figure advance for her debut novel. When she came to me, however, she had a big problem: she had inadvertently fallen into the trap of treating her protagonist’s POV as if it were a camera lens, passively recording the things that happened, separate from any effect they had on her. (Page 100)

Make no mistake, the lens through which your protagonist sees everything is never neutral, but always encoded with inside info—beliefs—that help her interpret everything she sees, and therefore what she does as a result. And here’s the surprise: every one of those beliefs is subjective, not because she’s so caught up in her own world she can’t see the “real” world, but because there is no “real” world. (Page 100)

Note: No real world

Most of us were taught that there is a general, objective reality out there, and that even though each of us has different experiences, we all see the same basic world (except for people who are really, really screwed up, and we hope they get a lot of therapy so they can join us back here in real reality very soon). Not so. (Page 101)

Note: alle perspectieven als deken over werkelijkheid

As cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen points out in his revelatory book Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, each of us assigns different significance to things because we all use our own subjective mental perceptions to construct meaning. He writes: “We all have different experiences, expectations and interests, so we paint the meanings we create for the language we hear in our own idiosyncratic color” (italics mine). 1 (Page 102)

Note: We create language

Completely abstract terms like love, loyalty, hate, or trust are even more fuzzy, because they’re completely, totally conceptual. Each of us is going to have a different interpretation of what they mean, different images, different rules of engagement, different beliefs, and different conclusions. These concepts—which writers are often encouraged to offer up as their theme—are only general categories, placeholders. By themselves, they’re a big, empty “yeah, and so, what’s your point?” Because the story, as I’m very fond of saying, is in the specifics. And the specific always comes back to your protagonist. The question isn’t what does loyalty mean in general, but what does it mean to her? (Page 104)

Specific refers to what happened—literally. Not a general summation or overview of it, but the event itself, moment by moment, as it unfolded. The problem is that it’s very easy to think you’ve nailed the specific when what you’ve really created is a convincing facsimile—or what I like to call a “general specific.” (Page 104)

The goal isn’t to show us that she’s changing; the goal is to show us what, specifically, she’s changing from and what she’s changing to—internally. (Page 107)

Just as the protagonist’s POV isn’t like a camera lens, neither is a scene written as if you’re narrating something that you’re watching on a video screen. Instead, you want to plant us inside your protagonist’s head as the event unfolds. Here’s the secret: being able to see it through your protagonist’s POV means letting us hear what she’s thinking as it happens—and not what she’s thinking in general, but her struggle to figure out what’s going on and what the hell to do about it. (Page 107)

Your main job is to track how her viewpoint changes throughout the scene. (Page 110)

So, yes, even as you create this defining moment, you’ll still be reaching into the past and gathering a handful of specifics in order to set it up. That’s why before you begin writing the scene, you need to answer four questions. These are the same questions you’ll ask yourself when writing—or envisioning—any scene. They are • What does my protagonist go into the scene believing? • Why does she believe it? What is my protagonist’s goal in the scene? • What does my protagonist expect will happen in this scene? (Page 111)

You’ve already identified the misbelief that your protagonist will struggle with throughout the novel. The question is: what existing belief did it topple in order to take root in the first place? Remember, your protagonist isn’t going from “neutral” to a new belief. She enters already believing something, a belief she will struggle mightily to hold onto during the scene. (Page 111)

Why Does She Believe It? The question is, What, specifically, instilled your protagonist’s old belief ? Since it’s probably something she never even thought about, you, as sleuth, must dive into her life and extract one moment that exemplifies this belief to her. (Page 111)

Ask yourself, what does my protagonist go into this scene wanting to achieve by the time it ends? It helps to keep in mind that in every scene you ever write, the protagonist must enter with a goal. This isn’t a writing convention; it’s life. Without a goal, we’d slip into stasis, and hey, even stasis has a goal: to keep things exactly as they are, forever. Which, let’s face it, takes work. (Page 112)

The question now is, What does your protagonist want the outcome of this scene to be, not in general, but specifically? This means nailing down more specifics about the scene. What does Ruby want? (Page 112)

Regardless of what we humans want to happen, we go into every situation with a clear set of expectations of what we think will happen. How else could we gauge the meaning of what does happen? In a scene this is often where the real conflict and tension come in, as we watch the protagonist struggle to reconcile what she expected would happen with what’s actually happening—while trying not to let anyone see her sweat. (Page 112)

It’s now time to write the scene in which your protagonist’s expectations will most definitely not be met, and in which his worldview will be skewed. (Page 114)

The origin scene will chronicle a single event. It will be specific. You will need to set the place, the time, the context. Don’t simply chronicle what happens externally; put us in your story’s command center by letting us know what your protagonist is thinking as he reacts, internally, to what happens and to what other people say. Often, what he’s thinking and what he’s saying out loud will be two very different things. That is the point. (Page 114)

And speaking of diving deep, my advice is to write this scene in the first person, because it’s the best way to truly experience the immediacy of what’s happening from your protagonist’s point of view. In fact, even if you are planning to write your novel in the third person, I would advise you to write every backstory scene in the first person—whether it’s your protagonist’s backstory or that of a secondary character. You can switch back to third person when you start writing the first scene of the novel itself. (Page 115)

Now it’s your turn to capture the moment when your protagonist’s worldview shifted, and her misbelief took root in her brain, where it’s been coloring how she’s seen the world from that moment on. Write a full-fledged scene. Don’t be worried if it takes several tries to nail it. Feel free to test several scenarios until you hit on the one that feels right. As you saw with Jennie, chances are there will be moments in your own life that will leap to mind, providing evocative material just waiting to be mined. After all, what “write what you know” really means is, write what you know emotionally. (Page 121)

it’s incredibly tempting to gloss over how your protagonist’s desire and his misbelief have affected him since their inception, and instead leap to the start of the story. Which would mean that if, say, at thirteen your protagonist had decided that girls are bad news, then he never once would’ve been affected by his impetuous resolve to steer clear of the opposite sex from that moment until the novel begins when he’s forty-two. (Page 123)

Unlocking Your Plot Here’s the brilliant part about this: writing these scenes will give you potent, specific, and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but in the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies that will drive his action, and thus the plot, forward. What’s more, these scenes will help establish the cause-and-effect trajectory that will guide your entire novel. And just as important, you’ll begin creating the key players—the people in your protagonist’s past who, for better or worse, helped facilitate his worldview. (Page 124)

By establishing the moments in your protagonist’s past that are relevant to the story you’re telling, you’ll have the material from which to build a solid blueprint. (Page 125)

The other added benefit of this exercise is that your ability to write compelling scenes will also begin to soar. Because by focusing on how what’s happening is affecting your protagonist internally—what she’s thinking, how she makes sense of it, and what then spurs her action—you’re mastering one of the most elusive, least-taught facets of storytelling. Ironically, it’s also the most important facet—the one that will actually capture your reader’s brain. Literally. (Page 125)

What your reader’s brain craves is to synchronize with your protagonist’s brain as she struggles with a difficult decision, one that will have a clear-cut consequence—that is, a consequence that we can envision and so anticipate. (Page 126)

who could blame Wincelberg for seeing life as hands-on, and thus missing the nuances of how information is actually transferred from one brain to another. To figure that part out, we had to wait for something that even Doc “Bones” McCoy didn’t have access to—fMRI technology, which reveals that when we’re really engaged in listening to a story, our brain synchronizes with the speaker’s brain—literally mirroring it. In other words, we really are on the same wavelength, and their experiences quite literally become ours. The exact same thing is true when we’re reading a novel. We become the protagonist as our brain waves synchronize with hers, allowing us to viscerally experience what she’s going through as she tries to solve the story problem and achieve her driving goal. (Page 126)

Remember when we said that a savvy writer relentlessly asks why? Well, the answer to why something happened always takes us back to its underlying cause. In other words, as you are writing specific scenes in your novel, you’re continually searching for the real reason your protagonist did what she did, rather than what it looks like on the surface. In real life, all is never as it seems, which is why a story’s goal is to uncover what it actually is. (Page 127)

Stories are not just entertainment. Stories are the tool we use to navigate life— (Page 128)

When it comes to blueprinting your novel, the law of cause and effect is one of your most useful tools. Like a very strong flashlight on a very dark night, it reveals the logic behind, well, everything. It’s a mathematical proof that you can, with surprising ease, apply to both levels of your novel: the internal story level and the external plot level. On the internal level, the question is, what would my protagonist’s belief/ past experience cause him to do in this situation? On the external level, the question is, how will the other character( s) and the world react to what my protagonist will do? In other words, cause and effect supplies both the internal and the external logic that underlies and orders your blueprint, ensuring that each event triggers the next. (Page 128)

By tapping into the supreme (and comforting) logic of cause and effect, that feeling vanishes, giving you wonderfully specific questions to ask, which lead to surprisingly specific answers about what might happen next. This is at the heart of what we will be doing when we start the blueprinting process. (Page 129)

A cause-and-effect trajectory doesn’t predict what inherently will happen; it just lays out the possibilities of what might happen. But—and this is the point—it’s essential that each one of those possibilities could legitimately be caused by what came before it. (Page 129)

It is the knowledge your protagonist walks onto page one already in full possession of, and that guides her action from the second she appears. (Page 132)

So you won’t inadvertently give your protagonist amnesia, your goal now is to write three in-depth scenes that helped create, perpetuate, and escalate the problem your protagonist will be forced to deal with when your novel starts. Because the story-specific cause-and-effect trajectory that will propel your novel from the first page to the last doesn’t begin on page one; it began with the origin scene you wrote in the last chapter. The first page of your novel, on the other hand, probably takes place somewhere near the middle of said trajectory. We already know how important knowing the protagonist’s backstory is. Here’s one more thing that writers lose sight of by ignoring it: the protagonist’s past is a big part of a novel’s force of opposition. Because as we’ll see, it tells you what, specifically, your protagonist is up against—both internally and externally. (Page 132)

These scenes will unfold on a linear timeline, and each one will capture a moment in your protagonist’s life when her misbelief was the deciding factor in a major decision she made. Each decision will change the external course of her life, upping the stakes, and be part of the storyspecific cause-and-effect trajectory that leads straight to the first page of your novel. None of the decisions she makes will be easy for her. In each scene, she will most likely have a real shot at getting the thing she wants, and something will happen that causes her misbelief to rear its head and prevent her from getting it. (Page 132)

Step 1: Find the Turning Points Begin by envisioning your protagonist’s life from the origin scene up to the place where—for now—you imagine the novel might start. (Page 133)

As you sift through the possibilities, keep in mind that you’re looking for moments when your protagonist stood at a crossroads in her life and had to make a decision that had escalating ongoing ramifications, rather than random moments that merely exemplify a time when your protagonist acted on her misbelief. (Page 133)

Instead, keep an eye out for external turning points that in some fundamental way—via an intense internal conflict—cause the protagonist’s misbelief to deepen. (Page 134)

This idea also made Jennie face head-on something that writers often struggle with: creating a protagonist with a viewpoint that is, as a gazillion posts on Facebook can attest, wildly unpopular. (Page 134)

Writers often hold themselves back from creating the very protagonist they really want to write about, because they’re worried that he or she won’t be “likable.” So here’s something that might come as a big relief: being “likable” is not the point. Instead, you want a protagonist who is relatable, who is flawed, who is vulnerable. (Page 135)

Now it’s your turn. Your goal is to zero in on three turning point scenes that will yield the most story-specific info, the most potent grist for the mill, so that you can, indeed, begin your novel in medias res. You may come up with many more than three, some of which you’ll dismiss out of hand, and others that you may decide to explore in addition to the three you’ll pick. That’s fine. Just remember that the goal is to have at least three scenes so you can begin to see the escalating arc of your story. (Page 138)

Put yourself in your protagonist’s brain, see the world through her eyes. Now, turn those eyes toward the three scenes you’re about to write. Aim for scenes as fully fleshed out as the one you just saw Jennie write. This might take awhile, so have patience with yourself, and give yourself permission to take as long as you need to bring each scene to life. The good news is that the scenes do not have to be polished, or “beautifully” written. They just have to capture these escalating turning points in your protagonist’s life. Nailing them down is well worth it, because when you’re finished, you’ll be ready to ask the question that uninformed novelists often start with, much to their peril: Where does my novel begin? (Page 142)

THE WHEN: AN OFFER YOUR PROTAGONIST CAN’T REFUSE (BUT PROBABLY WANTS TO) Everything must have a beginning . . . and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.—MARY SHELLEY W e’ve spent the last five chapters digging, working on the first half of your story, so that your novel can, indeed, start in medias res. You’ve created the bones of the first half of the thing, and it’s almost time to think about the thing itself. We have one last question to answer before we arrive at the first page. Because now, in a remarkably short time, we’ve arrived at what’s often one of the most elusive things to pin down: the “when”—as in when does your novel start? The simple answer is that it starts when life will no longer allow your protagonist to put off going after that thing he’s long wanted, regardless of how much his misbelief—and, as we’ll see, his biology—suggest he sit this one out. Because no matter how dearly we want something, avoiding change is our middle name. That’s probably why the only thing that causes us to change, internally or otherwise, is an unavoidable external force. (Page 143)

Welcome to the underlying conflict that fuels all effective narratives: story is about change, and we’re wired to avoid change. Ask us to change, and we reach for the “opt out” button. Push us a little harder, and we instinctively dig our heels in. (Page 144)

Note: Worst

It seems ironic that the very things we give a wide berth to in real life are exactly what we crave in stories. But it’s not ironic at all. It’s a big part of why story evolved in the first place: so we can vicariously experience the cost, and reap the benefit, of the changes we so studiously avoid in real life. (Page 144)

Stories help create the internal compass we use to navigate the unexpected changes that life is so fond of tossing in our path, often at the worst possible moment. And when it comes to your protagonist, the question, of course, is what is the worst possible moment? To that end, in this chapter we’ll explore why change, even good change, is so damn hard. We’ll make sure that your novel’s overarching plot problem has a clear consequence that the reader can begin to anticipate from page one, with a ticking clock that’s capable of sustaining an entire novel. And finally, we’ll be sure that said plot problem is firmly harnessed to your novel’s third rail, so every twist and turn will force your protagonist to struggle mightily. For his own good, of course. (Page 144)

That’s how stories begin. The protagonist thinks everything is on course—and then, bam! Life says, “Think again.” (Page 146)

Now, you have to steel yourself, because you’re about to start crafting a plot that’s going to pull the rug out from under him when he’s at his most vulnerable. It’s time for life to hit him with its best shot, or, to paraphrase the no-nonsense wisdom of Don Corleone, to make him an offer he can’t refuse (hopefully sans the horse head). This is where many writers stumble. You’re a nice person, plus you’ve become so fond of your protagonist that you don’t want to cause him pain, especially not on purpose. So instead of pulling off the gloves, you’re sorely tempted to begin pulling punches. You want to be fair to him. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt. You don’t want to judge him. But here’s the thing: we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about life, aka the plot. And life isn’t fair. That’s why we need stories—to figure out how to deal with all those unfair things that happen, so we can have the strength and the wisdom to be fair ourselves. (Page 146)

Why Is Change So Damn Hard? Why are we such masters at forever putting off ’til tomorrow what, apparently, we could have done today? Especially since in hindsight, we almost always wish we had done it yesterday. Are we simply stubborn? Lazy, maybe? Or worse, cowards? While each of those things might be true in certain specific instances (not that we’d admit it out loud, mind you), they’re not the reason. It turns out our resistance is not a personal failing at all, which is probably something of a relief (it sure was for me). Instead, we’re hardwired to fight change, often at all costs. Our basic resistance is, in fact, a long-standing survival mechanism. Evolutionarily speaking, in almost every instance, resisting change didn’t make us stubborn, it made us smart. Note the almost. (Page 147)

The technical term for the reason we’re so averse to change is homeostasis (a nifty word that might come in handy when doing the Sunday crossword puzzle). Basically homeostasis means that once a system’s in balance it tends to stay in that balance, because experience has proven that it’s safe. (Page 148)

That is why, as your novel begins, your protagonist has most likely spent a good bit of time downplaying, postponing, and often willfully ignoring the urge to change. In other words, he’s rationalizing—sometimes consciously, but more often than not, as far as he’s concerned, he’s simply making strategic sense of the world, and acting accordingly. (Page 150)

Note: Strategic sense

That moment—the one when the problem finally has the firepower to override his ability to ignore it—tends to be when your novel begins. (Page 150)

Do a little free writing about your intended plot the way Jennie did. Then extract from that a list of as many ideas for your novel’s main problem as possible: the ones you already had a notion about, perhaps new ones that are just occurring to you now, even ones that seem far-fetched. Don’t worry about sorting them out; the goal is simply to identify as many as you can. (Page 154)

Luckily, there are two tests that will enable you to gauge each problem’s potential. The first test is external; the second, internal. Plot Problem Test 1: Can the Problem Sustain the Entire Novel from the First Page to the Last? (Page 154)

Can the problem build? The problem that kicks into gear on page one must have the stamina to play through your entire novel, sparking the third rail and picking up speed as it thunders forward. (Page 155)

To be very clear, this does not mean that something massive has to be happening on page one. The question isn’t whether your problem is big enough—a tidal wave, an earthquake, a hurtling meteor—but whether your problem has the power to grow, intensify, and complicate. (Page 155)

Legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn is said to have advised: “What we want is a story that starts with an earthquake and builds to a climax.” (Page 155)

But here’s the thing: a story is about how, in trying to put out a seemingly minor blaze, the protagonist inadvertently fans the flames, until by the end, it’s a raging inferno. (Page 156)

It sounds so reassuringly logical that it’s a little surprising how often writers instead create a plot made up of a series of separate obstacles, each aimed at tackling an individual facet of the protagonist’s struggle. (Page 156)

Every time the protagonist solves a problem it feels like the novel has ended. The momentum stops because the reader now has nothing to anticipate, and so no reason to read forward. • Each obstacle tends to carry the same approximate weight and meaning, so it begins to feel like, second verse, same as the first. And the third, and the fourth. • Although the writer has painstakingly designed each obstacle to test a certain part of the protagonist’s mettle, the reader never makes that connection, because it’s conceptual. Plus, what the protagonist learns from having solved the first problem has no effect on what she must do to solve the second, so the reader starts to wonder what the point is. And when writing such a novel, it’s not long before the writer begins wondering the same thing. There’s no more disheartening feeling than having no idea where to go next. That’s a trap you will deftly avoid by harnessing your novel to one escalating problem. (Page 156)

So look over your list and cross out any problem that falls short of the mark because it’s too easily resolved, or not specific enough to really challenge your protagonist in a meaningful (and hopefully painful) way. (Page 157)

Note: Escalate

Is there a real-world, specific, impending consequence that this escalating problem will give my protagonist no choice but to face? (Page 157)

Is there a clear-cut deadline, a ticking clock counting down to that consequence? (Page 158)

A key rule of thumb is this: if at any point your protagonist can simply decide to give up without suffering great personal cost due to her inaction, you do not have a story. (Page 159)

Yes! This is an external quest that Ruby cannot avoid without great personal cost. You can just see all the richness of that coming into play here. Sure, Ruby could still choose to sit there and do nothing, but now her inaction would have major consequences that would impact her big-time. (Page 160)

Run your list of potential plot problems through Test 1. Be ruthless; don’t let any problem through unless it clears all three hurdles. Chances are, like Jennie, your problems have begun to evolve and merge. Even so, you may have several still in the running. If so, get ready, because the dilemmas that have passed the first test—the external test—now have to face the internal test. Plot Problem Test 2: Is the Problem Capable of Forcing Your Protagonist to Make the Inner Change That Your Novel Is Actually About? While each of your potential plot problems might have a ticking clock, is the clock you’re considering the right one? Meaning, does the ticking clock represent a plot problem that will continually touch your novel’s third rail? (Page 161)

To determine which plot problem is the most connected to your third rail, you’ll need to answer these two questions. Will the problem’s impending consequence force my protagonist to struggle with her misbelief? (Page 161)

What if the series, along with everything Ruby and Henry have written together, is where Ruby plays out the life she mocks in real life— (Page 162)

Note: Mooie laag

Regardless of whether or not my protagonist achieves his goal, will the approaching consequence cost him something big—emotionally speaking, that is? (Page 163)

Note: Meaning

Here is the secret: Your novel’s main ticking clock is what all the other clocks in your story will be set to; it’s what will give them their meaning. Every other problem you identified must be able to spin off of, inform, and complicate the overarching plot problem your novel revolves around, affecting the resolution it’s barreling toward. (Page 163)

What will trigger your protagonist’s decision to take that first step out of her comfort zone? The good news is, your novel’s ticking clock will lead you directly to the answer. It’s simply a matter of zeroing in on that seminal tick. (Page 164)

Now it’s your turn to sketch out the ticks that will lead you to your opening scene. Your goal is to find the tick that catapults your protagonist into unavoidable action. You’ll know it when you get there, because you’ll feel a strong tug of forward momentum—a sense that your protagonist must act and must act now. (Page 168)

Before we move on, however, take a second to congratulate yourself. By diving into your protagonist’s past, you not only know when your novel starts, but you know why, you know what’s at stake, and you know what it means to your protagonist. Even more amazing, you know what your novel is about. That, my friends, is surprisingly rare. (Page 168)

A novel blueprint is a scene-by-scene progression of your external plot, as driven by the internal struggle each event triggers in your protagonist. (Page 170)

Here’s the secret: although your blueprint (not to mention your novel itself ) will be made up of individual scenes, in truth those scenes are not individual at all, but part of this escalating cause-and-effect trajectory. Each scene will be triggered by the one that came before it and will trigger the one that follows. That’s why even though you’ll work on each scene and each plot point separately, you must always be keenly aware of the part it plays in the overall trajectory. (Page 171)

When it comes to cause and effect, if you move one scene, chances are the others will cease to make sense, and the internal logic of your novel will be tangled into an unfathomable knot. And yet, at this stage you will be moving scenes, and—far more frequently—adding scenes, so how do you do that without destroying your novel’s narrative chain? It’s simple. By tracking how each event is linked together in an escalating, causal succession. That way you’ll know at a glance which events you can easily move, and which ones, should you move them, would cause your plot to collapse on itself like a house of cards. This also will alert you to any logical gaps and internal inconsistencies left in the wake of a move—think of it as literary triage—thus allowing you to remedy them, ere they become the sinkhole that swallows your novel whole. (Page 172)

SCENE # ALPHA POINT: __________ SUBPLOT: __________ SUBPLOT: C a U S E EFFE C T What happens The consequence T h E P lOT Why it matters The realization T h E T h IR d R a I l And so? (Page 173)

Most scenes will move several subplots forward at once and cause numerous changes that will ripple through your novel. (Page 174)

Notice the vertical line that divides the card in two. • The left side represents the cause side of the cause-and-effect equation. ◆ For the plot, that’s what happens in the first half of the scene. ◆ For the third rail, that’s why what is happening matters to your protagonist, given his or her agenda. • The right side is the effect side. ◆ For the plot, that is the external consequence of what happens in the scene. Be very clear: this is the consequence that takes place within the scene itself, not the consequence it will have in the next scene. (Page 174)

◆ For the third rail, it’s the internal change, the realization that the event triggers in the protagonist. (Or, if the protagonist is not in the scene, the realization it triggers in the scene’s POV character, and also the realization it will trigger in the protagonist when he or she finds out.) (Page 175)

Keep in mind that every scene must produce a hard-won change, both externally and internally. (Page 175)

So it’s easy to miss the crucial fact that your protagonist’s worldview must also change a little bit in each scene as he or she struggles with what to do, what action to take. (Page 175)

Noting how your protagonist changes a little in every scene not only helps you keep track of their evolving worldview, it also gives you insight into what they’ll do next, and of course, the most crucial element: why they’ll do it. (Page 175)

The “And so?” pinpoints exactly what ruby’s next action will be, and why she thinks it’s a good idea. (Page 179)

WHAT TO DO Now it’s your turn to create a card for your opening scene. Remember, your goal is just as much to be specific about your protagonist’s inner struggle as it is to be specific about what will happen in the scene. The two are linked, and each is neutral without the other. Your protagonist’s internal agenda is not simply what gives emotional weight and meaning to what’s happening up there on the surface; it’s also what drives the decisions she makes, and therefore the action. (Page 179)

The Essential Process: Going from a Card to Writing a Scene You may have found that filling out a card is not a simple, static exercise. It’s going to crack open your story each time. Things might get messy, because concretizing the internal and external trajectory of each scene often reveals the gaps in your story logic—and what you still need to dig for. (Page 180)

This might be a good time to remember that writing a novel is hard. You are creating an entire world where nothing existed before. Each decision is going to lead to a whole slew of questions. Every “what happens” will send you digging for a “why it happens.” This process of developing Scene Cards, raising questions and answering them so that you can write the scene itself, is the essential component of blueprinting and what will turn you into a Story Genius. (Page 180)

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Note: TK

When you begin writing forward and you know there’s something you have to figure out, but not now, simply put TK—a proofreader’s mark that stands for To Come (and is easier to spot than TC)—and keep on going. You can describe your TK—TK Year, TK Destination—or insert TK all by itself. Once you’ve finished the scene, you can go back to those TKs and begin digging for the specifics they’re now standing guard over. (Page 181)

Now it’s time for you to write your opening scene. Don’t worry. It’s not about “getting it right.” Because at this stage, you can’t, so try to relax (as much as is possible when staring at that damn blank screen). What you’re going to write is the first layer of a scene that will probably be rewritten more than any other in your novel. Why? Because it’s where the seeds of what will happen throughout the novel will be planted. (Page 190)

Note: Relax

THE REAL “AHA!” MOMENT: WHERE WILL YOUR STORY END? If I see an ending, I can work backward.—ARTHUR MILLER T he next question we’re going to tackle is, where does your story end? (Page 191)

End? you may be thinking. Hey, we only just got started. True, but unless you know where your story is headed right out of the starting gate, chances are you’ll never get there. (Page 191)

Maddeningly, the specific road that leads us to our goals (or, tragically, in the other direction) is clear only in hindsight. As far as the reader is concerned, the same is true of your protagonist, but—and this is the point—you, the author, need to know what the future holds for your protagonist right now in order to create the road to get her there. (Page 191)

That’s why in this chapter we’ll learn the secret of what “the end” really means (hint: it’s not about the plot), how the third rail is transformed by in the protagonist’s “aha!” moment, and how the “aha!” moment is earned in reaction to what the plot has put your protagonist through. (Page 192)

Why Write the End So Early in the Process? Like the opening scene you just wrote, the scene you’ll write in this chapter will simply establish the first layer of a scene that ultimately will be rewritten many times over. The funny thing is, this initial depiction of the final scene is the most crucial version you’ll write, because it will help you begin to figure out what needs to happen between the first page and the last page to make sure that your protagonist works overtime to earn her “aha!” moment. (Page 192)

In fact, often the very first scene in a novel includes a glimpse of what the ending will be. Contrary to the popular (and erroneous) notion that this “gives it all away,” letting readers know where the novel is headed is actually the very thing that lures them in. And it goes without saying (she said anyway) that the only way to do that is to know the ending up front, allowing you to take John Irving’s advice: “Whenever possible, tell the entire story of the novel in the first sentence.” 2 (Page 193)

Note: First sentence

Sage writers often open with a clear vision of where their story is headed. (Page 193)

Remember, the first job of a story is to make the reader want to know what happens next, and what lures them in is generously allowing them to anticipate just what “next” might be. (Page 194)

And here’s something interesting (not to mention heartbreaking): writers very often stop writing after the first twenty pages because they have no idea what comes next, either. The problem is that because there are so many options, it’s the same as having none. (Page 195)

The ending we’re looking for here (and what your reader is most hungry for) isn’t just about what happens plotwise—it’s about what your protagonist realizes as she faces it head-on. (Page 195)

So even though your protagonist’s “aha!” moment might indeed occur just as the external problem is solved, that’s not what the scene is about. It’s actually about what the event has taught your protagonist. The moment you want to capture on paper is when your protagonist’s internal struggle ends, as her misbelief finally bites the dust and she sees the world with new eyes—aka her “aha!” moment. Often, it’s what allows her to finally solve the external problem, or make peace with it. (Page 196)

This is the scene in which she either makes that internal change or doesn’t, for as long as the novel shall live. Amen. Here’s the secret: The point is not that she makes the change, it’s how she gets there—internally—that counts. And ironically, even when writers do get everything else right, it’s the logic behind the internal change that often goes missing. (Page 197)

Note: Metanoia, bekering

Let the Protagonist Earn Their Revelation The deep satisfaction readers feel as a novel ends is based not on what the protagonist has achieved externally, but on how he’s changed internally, giving him the insight to make it happen. In other words, it’s not that he solved the problem, it’s what he learned in the process. (Page 197)

That’s why you can’t impose this final, life-altering revelation on your protagonist, but must allow him to earn it himself, right there on the page. So that you don’t inadvertently step over it, it helps to keep in mind that while the “aha!” moment always comes late in the novel, it doesn’t necessarily come at the very end, when the plot itself concludes. (Page 197)

Put the Reader in the Midst of the Event Itself Your goal as a storyteller isn’t to tell us what your protagonist realizes; it’s to plunk us into the event that causes her to have the realization in the first place. (Page 198)

Wait, you’re thinking, what made you realize that? That is exactly what your reader is dying to know. Because this is where we find out what your protagonist is really made of. Which means that chances are it will tell us a little bit about ourselves, too. And that’s why we’re there, to gain insight into human nature, our nature—so we can better navigate the world. (Page 199)

The point is, we don’t want to know that he’s had a realization, we want to know why. The meaning, the emotional satisfaction, the inside intel, is in how he reaches the conclusion he draws as he makes sense of what’s happening to him in the moment. (Page 200)

At the End, Will Your Protagonist Achieve Her External Goal? This is a straightforward question, and it relates to plot. It has to do not with how your protagonist will feel about whether or not he succeeds, but with what actually happens in the story. (Page 200)

My advice, as with your opening scene, is to play it out both ways here, and see which one resonates most with you. (Page 201)

What Will Change for Your Protagonist Internally? As T. S. Eliot said, “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.” 6 So it’s no surprise that at the end of the novel your protagonist will return, either literally or figuratively, to the place where she started, but now she’ll see things very differently. (Page 201)

What Will Happen Externally in This Scene That Forces Your Protagonist to Confront, and Hopefully Overcome, Her Misbelief? The “aha!” moment is the instant when your protagonist sees things clearly for the very first time, and her internal struggle is at last resolved, leaving her transformed (or, if it’s a tragedy, not). That does not, however, mean that all internal conflict then suddenly evaporates, or that this is where the journey we’ve taken down the novel’s third rail inherently ends. Especially in cases when the “aha!” moment is what allows your protagonist—who now sees things very differently—to leap that last hurdle, and face her external problem head-on. (Page 202)

Not to go all new-agey on you, but it’s often the case that when writers are deep in a project, bits and pieces of helpful information begin to crop up, seemingly on their own. My take: It’s because the more aware you are of the story problem at hand, the more likely it is that your trusty cognitive unconscious is on the lookout for anything that relates to it. (Page 204)

But here’s the irony: it’s only when you’re in possession of the vast amount of info you already have that you can effectively wing it. Luck, as they say, favors the prepared. (Page 218)

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I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.—E. B. WHITE (Page 218)

As we know, story structure is the by-product of a story well told, not something that you can—or should—impose from the outside in. Your story will change, 184 grow, shrink, and continually shape-shift as you write forward, finding its own organic architecture. (Page 218)

To be very clear, this isn’t a process where you first blueprint your entire novel and then write it. Instead, you’ll be writing, and at the same time developing the blueprint for what comes next—whether it’s the very next scene, or scenes that will come into play much farther up the road. (Page 219)

Now for the big question: Do you have to make a card for every scene? Yes, you do. Because even when it’s a scene in which you’re sure you know exactly what will happen, simply concretizing the specifics on a Scene Card first helps you keep your eyes on the prize. (Page 220)

Even small diversions are like the break in the rail that causes the locomotive to jump track and plunge into “who cares?” (Page 220)

My advice is to begin writing once you’ve fully fleshed out Scene Cards for the first five scenes, in order, along with the last scene—but as tempted as you might be to get cracking, please don’t start working on these cards right now. (Page 220)

No card can be fully developed until you’ve pinpointed the specific layers that it—and the scene it represents—will be built upon. (Page 220)

Remember, it’s not about simply mapping out the external plot; it’s about keeping the internal story and the external plot in balance, so each continually spurs the other. (Page 220)

Developing the first five Scene Cards may not sound like much, especially since you’ve already written your opening scene. But figuring out the four scenes that follow Scene #1 requires a lot of work, because this is where everything in the entire novel is set up, and just about all the balls put into motion. (Page 221)

It bears repeating that this is an organic and intuitive process, so at some times you’ll be writing scenes, at others you’ll be creating and developing Scene Cards, and sometimes you’ll be doing both in tandem. (Page 221)

There’s one important caveat: Regardless of how much you jump around as you develop your Scene Cards, you must write the novel itself in chronological order. (Page 222)

But making a habit of writing scenes out of order tends to result in scenes that may indeed be beautifully written, but that can’t pull their narrative weight, not to mention threaten to lay waste to your novel’s internal logic. (Page 222)

The Scene Cards will help you layer your scenes so each one has maximum power, urgency, and believability. They enable you to envision the multidimensional aspect of your novel in one fell swoop. Before long this back-and-forth layering process will become muscle memory—the natural way you approach every scene. (Page 223)

No matter which method you choose, you will need a folder for the following six categories, and you’ll need a table of contents for each folder. The table of contents will grow and then shrink as scenes either advance to the next folder or are permanently booted once and for all. The folders are as follows: • Key Characters. Every key character will have his or her or its (should it be a robot, cyborg, or Brave Little Toaster) own folder. This is where you’ll place their story-specific bio (which we’ll discuss in chapter 14), along with any backstory scene in which the character appears. For scenes in which two or more characters appear, put a copy into each character’s folder. As these folders grow, they’ll become a font of inside info from which you’ll constantly be drawing. • The Rules of the World. If you’re writing a novel that unfolds in a world different from the one we wake up to every morning—think sci-fi, horror, magical realism, futuristic, historical fiction, and all things speculative—you’ll need to keep a keen eye on what is possible in the world you’re creating, what is patently impossible, and most importantly, why. Simply put: This is where you will keep track of the logical framework in which the world is grounded. After all, it’s the world your protagonist not only will have to deal with but has most likely grown up in. • Idea List. This is where you’ll put ideas that are still too fuzzy or too conceptual for you to envision as an actual scene. (Page 224)

Random Scene Cards. This is where you’ll put any scene that you can actually envision—which means it must at least have an Alpha Point—but that doesn’t seem to have a connection to your novel’s third rail, and/ or to your novel’s external cause-and-effect trajectory. (Page 225)

Scene Cards in Development. This folder is for cards that you’ve determined are story specific and so are eligible for a place in your novel’s cause-and-effect trajectory. Not all of the cards in this folder will make it into your novel; some will be discarded along the way as your story expands and takes shape. But because all of them are story relevant from the get-go, none will have the power to wreak havoc from the inside, derailing your novel’s finely honed inner logic. This is where your actual blueprint lives. These cards will be arranged in a rough chronological order, scene by scene. (Page 225)

When you’re not sure exactly where a scene will go, put it at the front of the timeline, so you’ll be aware of its pending presence every time you look through the cards. (Page 226)

Scenes. Ta-da! This is where your manuscript lives. Right now, it’s where your opening scene and your “aha!” moment scene are. (Page 226)

Don’t Let Your Plot Run Away with Your Story (Page 229)

It’s the constant laser beam focus on your protagonist’s story-specific inner struggle that will keep you from allowing surface storylines to hijack the story you’re telling. (Page 231)

In the same way that meaningful specifics beget meaningful specifics, so do meaningless specifics lead to more of the same, which is why once a novel is pulled off the rails, it’s really hard to get it back on track. (Page 231)

Your goal is twofold: 1. Make sure each event causes the next one to happen, in an escalating succession as things go from bad to worse. 2. Tie each event to the internal change it triggers in your protagonist, giving a glimpse of why, and how it then triggers the next thing that happens. This will keep you from ending up with a long list of events that are nothing more than a bunch of things that happen. (Page 233)

The caveat is that this only works because you’ve already spent a good bit of time envisioning what has caused the events that will take place in your novel. In other words, your paragraph isn’t “from scratch” but drawn from material you’ve already developed. (Page 233)

Now, just like in chapter 8 when you were searching for your novel’s overarching plot problem, take a look at your sketch and see if you can pinpoint all the moments that challenged your protagonist and caused her to take action. Make a list of every potential scene, plot point, and storyline that springs from your paragraph, so you can continue to develop them. (Page 234)

What Secrets Does Your Protagonist Have, What Lies Has She Told—to Others, and Even More Importantly, to Herself? Secrets and lies go hand in hand. After all, secrets are often the flip side of a lie, as in, I told a lie (of course I paid the electricity bill!), because I wanted to keep a secret (I lost my job and can’t pay any bill). Not to mention that an unexposed lie is, by definition, a secret—that’s kind of the whole point of lying. And when it comes to secrets and lies, out of sight is not out of mind. (Page 236)

That’s the beauty of searching for the secrets and lies that follow your protagonist into the novel—it forces you to concretize them by making them specific, which is the only way they can play forward. (Page 236)

In culling through your protagonist’s specific past, you will no doubt find several similar possibilities, some of which you’ll use, and others that you’ll stash in your back pocket, just in case. And by back pocket, I mean you’ll start a Scene Card for it and slip it into the appropriate folder. (Page 238)

Often when reviewing what you know about your protagonist’s past, you’ll discover answers to questions you hadn’t yet asked. How great is that? (Page 241)

STORY LOGIC: MAKING SURE EACH “WHAT” HAS A “WHY” Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—MARK TWAIN (Page 242)

The “Why”—the reason something might happen, can happen, does happen—is what creates your novel’s internal logic, so that things add up, and your reader can eagerly anticipate what might happen next. (Page 242)

That’s why it’s essential to test every plot point for believability right out of the starting gate. The beauty of this is that by digging for the “Why” you also uncover more of the “What” that you need to move the story forward. By now your mantra should be, specifics beget specifics. (Page 244)

Occam’s razor: the simplest solution is usually the right one. (Page 246)

Now it’s your turn to scan your Idea List and Scene Cards, hunting for plot points where the logic and/ or the logistics are still fuzzy—and don’t be surprised, or disheartened, if it’s all of them. Explore them in chronological order. This is important, because as with Jennie’s foray into the relationship between Ruby and her sister, the info you uncover as you probe that first plot point will, by definition, affect, clarify, and give you insight into your second plot point, and so on throughout. The goal is to make sure each fuzzy plot point can pass all three “Why” tests. (Page 249)

Looking at the empty swaths in your novel, you might be thinking the same thing. It’s enough to make many a writer panic. Don’t. Instead, maybe take a nice walk around the block, clear your head, take a deep breath, and remember, although a finished novel is made up of several layers so deftly woven together that it feels all of a piece, when you’re writing it, it’s impossible to focus on all the layers at once. (Page 250)

Never forget that your protagonist wants two things, which he’s about to find out are mutually exclusive: to achieve his desire and to remain true to his misbelief. (Page 251)

The point is this: Always make it harder for your protagonist. Never give him the benefit of the doubt. If a bad thing could happen, let it happen. In fact, make it worse than he imagined it could possibly be—worse than you imagined it could be at first blush. Not to put too fine a point on it, but never forget that it’s your sworn duty to continually yank the rug out from under him, to see how deep he’ll have to dig to tap into the as-yetunimagined inner resources he’ll need in order to stand up and keep going. (Page 251)

Now you try it. First, take some time to gather up any empty swaths of your fledgling cause-and-effect trajectory that are now bereft of concrete plot points—basically, anything you’ve summed up in general. Your goal is to start bringing them into focus and making them specific. (Page 253)

This is why it will take you awhile to fully develop your first five Scene Cards. Because—just as in life—in a novel everything is intertwined, so what looks like a single step forward is actually several steps, all taken in unison. (Page 256)

When blueprinting a novel, each layer is laid down one by one, so while in the end every scene will advance multiple subplots, deepen characters, and foreshadow the future, each of those layers was developed and woven in separately. (Page 258)

As you develop your novel’s subplots, it helps to keep in mind that readers tacitly assume that everything in a novel is there on a strict need-to-know basis. If they didn’t need to know it, why would you waste time telling them about it? (Page 259)

it’s important to remember that you must create each subplot with one question in mind: How will it affect the main storyline? (Page 259)

Every subplot must spin off the main storyline, telling the reader something they need to know if the plot itself is going to make sense. (Page 260)

Without those subplots there would be no story. Because subplots are, in fact, central to the story itself. That is, provided they don’t take on a life of their own and start madly dancing to their own drummer. (Page 260)

Where to Dig for Subplots The term “subplots” tells us exactly where to look for them: beneath the plot, or, more accurately, beneath the surface of your story. Not beneath as in the random assortment of things that seem to collect under the bed all on their own, but beneath as in an integral story layer that, once exposed, sheds light on the surface meaning. It’s not surprising, then, that a novel’s principal subplots tend to spring from two story areas that you’ve already developed and that often overlap: • External events that were set into motion before the novel began, and that have impending consequences that will affect the protagonist’s quest • Secondary characters (basically, anyone other than the protagonist) Much like drilling down into your plot points, creating subplots will send you back into the past to dig for the specifics that will make them relevant to the story you’re telling. Your goal at this stage is not to develop the entire subplot from start to finish, in intricate detail. Rather, the goal is to begin to envision it, where it might go, and how it might spur your main storyline. (Page 260)

Subplots that are already in motion when your novel begins are powerful because they hit the ground running, giving the protagonist no choice but to take action. (Page 262)

Take a look at the list you just made of possible subplots already in play when your novel begins. The good news is that if it’s on your list, you already know it has story relevance. The first question to ask is always, Why will this matter to my protagonist, given her quest? (Page 266)

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The point is, every single character in your novel fervently believes he or she is the protagonist with the same unquestioned assuredness that we all do, and as such, everyone else is there to facilitate their agenda, not yours, your plot’s, or your protagonist’s (or so they think). And that’s as it should be. (Page 267)

It means when you develop your secondary characters you need to think about them in the same way you think about your protagonist. Each character has his or her own driving agenda, realizations, and, often, their own arc. (Page 268)

Take a minute and make a list of all the characters who have appeared so far, then select those who you know will play the most significant roles in your novel. (Page 269)

The most important thing to keep in mind as you develop your secondary characters is that each one must be conceived and developed in accordance with the role he or she will play in your protagonist’s story. (Page 269)

Remembering that your goal is to create a character who’ll either challenge or reaffirm your protagonist’s misbelief, ask yourself, What, in general, might this character open my protagonist’s eyes to? (Page 270)

This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed in countless writers as they dive deeper and deeper into their stories. It doesn’t happen overnight, but when it does the results are spectacular. You’d think they were channeling the muse, but what’s really going on is even more amazing, because it’s something you can control, and therefore count on. It’s this: once you’ve created your story, and your characters have taken on the shape, depth, and complexity of a fully formed past, they begin reacting to the present as if on their own. (Page 273)

The point is, the more you know your characters, the more your novel begins to write, and revise, itself. (Page 275)

Is there anyone in your story who, like Henry, played a big part in your protagonist’s past? You’re looking for characters who helped shape your protagonist’s story-specific worldview, because they’re who she will think of as she struggles to make sense of what’s happening in the present. (Page 278)

That done, there’s one last area to explore: How do you develop a character’s backstory so that it will supply meaning in the present? Especially when chances are some of it will unfold in the present in the form of flashbacks? (Page 278)

You’re looking for only the moments when what happened between the protagonist and the character in question has story relevance. Once complete, transfer anything still too conceptual or general to visualize to your Idea List, and begin Scene Cards for those that you can sit back, close your eyes, and actually begin to see. (Page 282)

Markeren(geel) - Pagina 283 · Locatie 3410 (Page 282)

Your opening scene is written, and thanks to your tenacious digging, the cards for your next four scenes may already be fully populated, with your 24 0 story logic layered and firmly in place. At this stage, if there are logic gaps they shouldn’t be hard to identify, and with the skills you’ve acquired, you know what to dig for in order to fill them in. The trick is to make sure that each scene touches the third rail, forcing your protagonist to make a difficult decision that’s part of an escalating cause-and-effect trajectory. You want to plunge us into action, and at the same time—this is the crucial part—give us enough insight into your protagonist to understand what the action means to her. In other words: We need to know what’s really at stake. (Page 283)

Because just as action is meaningless unless it’s having an effect on someone, abstract thought is boring unless it’s spurred by action. (Page 284)

And notice that the And so? always leads directly to the next scene. (Page 289)

A lot of the exploration she did, and the backstory she wrote, will be part of her novel, either as full-on flashbacks, or as the thoughts that will go through Ruby’s head as she navigates the quickly escalating plot that Jennie has begun to craft. This is exactly how you bring a novel to life. It’s the work you’ve already done that guarantees that your novel will be rich and evocative and logical and whole. (Page 294)

It’s finally time to write Scenes 2 through 5 and do a bit of rewriting in your opening scene. Because I’m willing to bet you’ve discovered a lot of new, juicy info that you’ll want to strategically weave into the opening so it can play forward. And that’s as it should be. You will continually be hunting for new information and incorporating it into your novel. (Page 294)

Best-selling author Harlan Coben talks about this process, saying that every seventy-five pages, he goes back to the beginning of the novel he’s writing and reads forward, editing, adding, subtracting—making sure every layer is firmly rooted in place, beginning on the very first page. (Page 295)

Remember, nothing is written in stone; it’s sculpted in clay. Expect things to change, because with each layer you add, the ones beneath will shift a little to accommodate it. The good news is that because you’ve tracked each subplot throughout your blueprint, you’ll know precisely what, and where, those changes are, so you can be sure your story logic still holds, and rethink it where it doesn’t. The point is, change is constant. Don’t let it throw you. (Page 296)

But don’t fall into the one last trap that lures so many writers to their downfall: imagining that because you can read your protagonist’s mind, your reader can too. Your job from here on out is to make the invisible, visible. That is, how your protagonist sees the world, how she feels, how she makes sense of what’s happening in the moment. (Page 297)

Your Protagonist Must Draw a Strategic Conclusion from Everything He or She Notices (Page 297)

The rule is this: he can’t notice or comment on anything—even if it’s just a description of what someone is wearing—unless he then draws a strategic conclusion that affects what he’s doing or how he interprets what’s happening. And he must do this every minute of every day—just like we do. (Page 298)

You Must Get Emotion onto Every Page Let’s make one thing very clear: although the reader needs to know how your protagonist feels at every turn, that does not mean you need to tell us. (Page 298)

The secret is this: the emotion emanates from how the character makes sense of what’s happening, rather than mentioning the nearest big emotion that sums it up. Your goal isn’t to tell us how they feel, so we know it intellectually; it’s to put us in their skin as they struggle, which then evokes the same emotion in us. That feeling will be subtle, nuanced, and layered. And, most likely, ineffable, which is why you want to shun those massive generalizations. (Page 299)

There was nothing in the passage that mentioned how Marilyn actually felt, and yet everything in the passage conveyed it. (Page 300)

You Must Stay in Your Protagonist’s Subjective Mind-Set What stokes a story’s momentum isn’t simply what happens; it’s what it costs the protagonist internally to make the decisions that drive the external action. Decisions that, on the surface, might appear objectively irrational, but are completely logical to your protagonist, because they’re based on his subjective beliefs. (Page 300)

But, and this is the point, it’s irrational only from the outside looking in. (Page 300)

To your protagonist, everything she does makes complete sense, given the internal set of rules she lives by. (Page 301)

After all, we know from personal experience that when something genuinely horrid is going on, it’s always with us no matter how much we pretend it isn’t. It not only filters everything we see, it tells us what to look for. (Page 301)

But here’s the rub: seeing makes it feel true, and that’s the point. We see the world through what feels true to us, and that dictates both what we notice and the meaning we read into it. (Page 303)

Remember, a single scene doesn’t take one step forward; it’s akin to taking eight different steps forward, all in unison. That’s why at first it will feel very rough, but as you add in layers, they’ll begin to meld as the scene unifies and gathers nuance. The result isn’t mathematical. It’s exponential. (Page 305)

Did you notice that Jennie never told us how Ruby felt and yet we were viscerally aware of it? (Page 308)

As you approach each scene, gather everything you know about your protagonist and their subjective worldview at the moment. What are they most worried about? How will that affect their judgment in this scene? Be sure you’ve thought about each layer, each ticking clock. All those strategic conclusions we were talking about in Secret #1, the conclusions that your protagonist needs to be continually drawing? Understanding what she’s struggling with will tell you what those conclusions will be, and what she’ll do as a result. That’s what unites the story and the plot, and what moves them ever forward. And Finally . . . Not to seem like a mother hen, but I know that when you’re out there writing, no matter how focused you are on getting the story in your head-onto the page, there will be times when the force of an idea sweeps you away. And everything you’ve learned will vanish in the haze. When that happens, and it will, I want to remind you of the two simplest, yet most essential writers’ tools you’ll ever possess: • Ask “Why?” of everything, and don’t stop asking until you’ve chased it down to its most story-specific, flesh-and-blood, “close your eyes and you can see it unfold” origin and there is not another “Why” to ask. • Ask “And so?” of everything. And so, why does my reader need to know this? (Page 309)

You now have all the tools you need to write a riveting novel capable of triggering a dopamine rush in your reader’s brain that will make her forget everything else: the series she was about to binge watch, the big meeting tomorrow at work, and even better, all those nattering doubts about, well, everything, that seem to descend like a swarm of mosquitoes the later it gets. Instead, she’ll get a mini-vacation, a moment of solace, of sanctuary as she takes refuge in your novel, all the while picking up inside intel into what really makes people tick. (Page 310)

Note: Ultieme doel

After all, riveting novels have been known to change the world itself. For instance, do you know what is often cited as a major reason for the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s? To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated second, behind only the Bible, in books most often cited as making a difference. Oprah Winfrey calls it “Our national novel.” 3 Former First Lady Laura Bush said, “It changed how people think.” 4 How? By changing how they felt. Because the only way to change how someone thinks about something, is to first change how they feel about it. You have the power. Now go use it. (Page 310)