Q&A with Lisa Cron, Questions 5 and 6:
Q: You define story as “how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve a difficult goal, and how they change as a result.” How important is that definition to your message about story and writing? How did you arrive at the definition (given that definitions of “story” abound)?
A: I’ll say it flat out: I think my definition is essential, because it defines, specifically, what a story actually is in clear, concrete terms.
And here’s something else I’ll say flat out: I believe that most of the common definitions of story are either way too general or way too vague, and so are useless when it comes to actually writing a story.
Too general is the ubiquitous: a story has a beginning a middle, and an end. Sheesh. What doesn’t?
Too vague is: “A story is a fact wrapped in an emotion.” What does that mean, exactly? That a story is a fact that makes us feel something? Okay, but if I were trying to write a story, how would that help me? No clue.
Even less helpful: “A story promises dramatic fulfillment of our needs.” What needs, exactly? How does it fulfill that promise? Again, there’s no there, there. It’s a concept, and you can’t wrap your mind around a concept.
Then there’s the much-revered Hero’s Journey, which lays out an external order-of-events. It’s far more specific than the others, which ironically makes it even more damaging. Why? Because it offers an actual story-template — unfortunately, it’s one that focuses on what happens plot-wise. Sure, plot is important, but it’s secondary. The purpose of the plot is to force the protagonist to overcome an internal issue so that, as Proust said, they can “see the world with new eyes.” A story is not about the external world changing, it’s about how the protagonist’s internal view of the world changes. That’s very different, and is the cornerstone of my definition of story.
My goal was to come up with a clear definition that reveals the specific underpinnings of every story — a definition that writers could then work from, and almost use as a mathematical proof to keep their story on track.
Q: Your book seems to primarily focus on fiction writing. To what extent do you think the techniques you lay out apply to writers of nonfiction stories? As you probably know, my special niche is story in job search and career. I could see your techniques applied to the very short stories told in interviews and even in cover letters and resumes. Your thoughts?
A: I love that you asked this question, because it’s something that I really want to make clear! I believe that story is story, whether you’re writing a novel, a memoir, a resume, or a mission statement. There is absolutely no difference.
Bottom line: story is the most effective communication tool we have, because it allows us to convey experience, rather than merely facts. The principles of story that I write about apply whether the story in question is fact or fiction.
Interestingly, those using story in the business world are often a big step ahead of creative writers, because they understand something that novelists often miss — they know from the very beginning the point they want their story to make. And make no mistake, all stories make a point, starting in the first sentence.