I've read a lot of articles on how to write good fiction, but rarely have I seen so many insightful key ideas summed up so nicely as in Lisa Cron's article "The Rules of Story" from writeradvice.com. Below is part of the article, her "seven immutable rules:"
All stories make a point, beginning on page one. A story is designed,
from beginning to end, to answer a single overarching question, which
complicates as the story progresses. After all, a story is a
simulation-it captures our attention because it allows us to vicariously
experience what it would be like to navigate a challenging situation.
need to have an idea of what that situation is from the get-go. It’s
like when your friend is rambling on about something that happened
yesterday, and you nod and smile politely while a little voice in your
head screams, “Okay, okay, but what’s your point?” Same with a story.
Think of your story’s point as the context that allows the reader to
gauge what things are adding up to.
2. Story is about how someone
solves a problem, which is another way of saying story is about change.
But here’s the fine print: change results only from unavoidable
conflict. Because no one - you, me, or the guy next door-changes unless
we’re forced to. Think about it. We swear we’re definitely going to
start looking a new job-tomorrow. Which is code for about a week from
never. Until one day we show up for work and the door is padlocked, the
factory closed, and guess what? It’s tomorrow!
In other words, a
story’s job is to shove protagonists into the fray, where they find out
what they’re really made of. It’s like that great JFK story. When asked
what made him a war hero, he replied, “I didn’t have a choice. They
sank my boat.”
3. All story is emotion based. Neuroscience has
proven that, as Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says,
“Feelings don’t just matter. They are what mattering means.” In life, if
we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. In a story, if we’re not
feeling, we’re not reading. The question is What are we feeling? The
answer is The reader feels what the protagonist feels.
protagonist is our surrogate-our avatar-in the world in which the story
unfolds. Can you see the fine print in this one? It means that the
protagonist had better be affected by everything that happens and react
in a way the reader can see.
4. Story is not about the plot; it’s
about how the plot affects the protagonist. This means that everything
in a story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects
the protagonist in pursuit of his or her quest. You can have a dramatic
event in a story, and we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the
Roman Empire, but if it doesn’t affect the protagonist-if it doesn’t
matter to her-then it doesn’t matter to the reader, either. Drama for
its own sake means nothing.
5. Story is about an internal
journey, not an external one. In other words, a story isn’t about the
external events that unfold, it’s about the internal changes the
protagonist must make, given those events, in order to achieve his or
her goal. At the end of the day, what your reader is aching to know is
What would it cost someone emotionally to do that? What would it gain
6. Everything in a story must be there solely on a
need-to-know basis. When your brain focuses on something, it filters out
all unnecessary information, the better to concentrate on the task at
hand. And since about 11,000,000 pieces of information bombard your five
senses every second, your brain does a pretty good job of it. In a
story, that’s your job as writer. Because as far as readers are
concerned, there’s a story-reason for everything you tell them, or you
wouldn’t waste their time mentioning it.
The problem is that the
brain is wired to read meaning into everything, so if you throw in
something that might be beautifully written, but that doesn’t have an
effect story-wise, readers will try to read meaning into it anyway. And
when that doesn’t work? The rush of dopamine that kept them riveted
dries up, and they decide to see what’s on TV.
7. In a story,
everything that can go wrong, must go wrong-and then some. It helps to
think of a story as that annoying schoolyard bully who always taunted,
“Oh yeah? Prove it!”
The purpose of a story is to allow your
reader to learn from experience-namely, your protagonist’s. Which means
that as writers, it helps to be a little bit of a sadist. Because your
protagonist has to earn her victory, nimbly snatching it from the jaws
of defeat. And the only way she can do that, is if you construct a plot
that forces her to face things she’s probably spent her whole life
trying to avoid.
This is what the reader comes for - to find out
what it would really feel like to suffer the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune, you know, just in case.
And lest it sound as
if I’m speaking metaphorically when I talk about the reader “feeling”
what the protagonist feels, here’s something to think about. Recent
brain imaging studies show that when we’re lost in a good story, the
same areas of our brain light up when we read about something happening
to the protagonist, as light up when we actually experience it
Story is the world’s first virtual reality, and as
neuroscience reveals, we have the hardwiring to prove it. Of course, it
also helps immensely to get the punctuation right.
Check out Cron's website at WiredForStory.com