Lisa Cron Q and A
Q and A No. 99! Who will be No. 100? As we wait for the 100th practitioner to be revealed and the revised compilation of Q&As to be assembled, I’m thrilled to present a Q&A with Lisa Cron. Lisa approached me about her book, Wired for Story, releasing the week this Q&A is published, and I suggested she do a Q&A to introduce readers to herself and her book. This Q&A will appear over several days.
Bio: Lisa Cron spent a decade in publishing, first at W.W. Norton in New York, then at John Muir Publications in Santa Fe, NM, before turning to TV. She’s worked on shows for Fox, Bravo and Miramax, and has been supervising producer on shows for Court TV and Showtime. She’s been a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency in NYC, and for Village Roadshow, Icon, The Don Buchwald Agency, and others in LA. She’s featured in Final Draft’s book, Ask The Pros: Screenwriting. Her personal essays have appeared on Freshyarn.com and the Huffington Post, and she has performed them at the 78th Street Playhouse in NYC, and in LA at Sit ‘n Spin, Spark!, Word-A-Rama, Word Nerd, and Melt in Your Mouth (a monthly personal essay series she co-produced). For years she’s worked one-on-one with writers, producers and agents developing book and movie projects. Lisa has also been a literary agent and for the past six years, an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where she currently teaches. Her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, will be published by Ten Speed Press on July 10.
Q&A with Lisa Cron:
Q: What inspired you to write Wired for Story? In what ways did you see a need for writers to understand the neurological process of story?
A: No one was talking about this stuff. No one. I had students coming to my classes at UCLA who’d gotten MFAs from some of the country’s most prestigious universities yet they didn’t know the first thing about story. At first I was stunned. Then it dawned on me that most writing instruction centers on learning to “write well” rather than how to write a story. Big difference. I did a little research, and saw that while there were myriad writing books out there, none of them even touched on what I was teaching. I leapt in to fill that gap.
The reason it’s essential for writers to understand how the brain processes story is threefold. First, because it puts to rest the notion that story is something that lyrical writing can “transcend.” Second, because it allows writers to see how genuinely, profoundly powerful story is. Third, because understanding what the brain is hungry for in every story we hear allows writers to craft stories capable of captivating the audience from the very first sentence.Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: That’s like asking me when I became involved with breathing — who remembers, I just know I’ve been drawn to story. As a child I was enthralled with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, then Nancy Drew, then every movie ever made. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would drive 100 miles to just see some obscure B movie at a drive-in. If it were compelling, I’d be so deeply drawn in that when we left the theater, it was a surprise to enter “the real world” again — and the story would stick with me.
Then I began to realize that the stories I saw were affecting how I saw the world. That got me interested in the nature of story itself. Turns out stories reach us in a way that facts can’t penetrate. Stories put facts into a context that allows us to experience how they would affect us. And in so doing, the stories themselves affect us — stories can literally rewire our brain, giving us more empathy, and more insight into how others see the world.
That’s why writers and storytellers are the most powerful people in the world. Story is my passion, there’s nothing I love more than working with people, helping them translate their vision into a story that not only reflects, but can help shape, reality.Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: There have been two major influences in my work. The first is the thousands of failed novels, memoirs and screenplays I’ve read over the years as a story analyst, editor and literary agent. From them I learned something their authors had no intention of teaching me: how not to tell a story.
It was my job to slog all the way to the bitter end, even when after a few pages I knew I was probably the only person other than the author’s mom who would do so willingly. But unlike mom, I not only had to read the thing, I had to report on it — candidly. I began to notice that although each unsuccessful narrative or screenplay failed in its own spectacularly unique way, the underlying problems tended to be intriguingly similar.
It soon became clear that while there are indeed a gazillion ways to break a single story expectation, there are only a few nonnegotiable hardwired expectations.
The second thing that’s had a major impact on my work are recent breakthroughs in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, as reported by such renowned neuroscientists as Michael Gazzaniga, Antonio Damasio, and David Eagleman, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and literature scholars Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall. Collectively they’ve uncovered, and documented, the evolution of the brain in relation to story.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.Q: You have read many stories from your days in publishing and in the entertainment industry. Presumably you saw plenty of examples during this past career both to reinforce what you say TO DO in the book and what you say NOT TO DO. What were some of the most common story mistakes you saw writers make during this career?
A: The No. 1 mistake is a story in which the things that happen don’t affect anyone, or have a consequence. Nothing is at stake, no one wants anything, no one changes. It’s just a collection of random events that don’t add up to anything. You’d be surprised how often this is the case.
The second most common mistake is a story in which we have no idea what the protagonist’s goal is, or what she must overcome internally to achieve it. Thus, we have no yardstick by which to measure the meaning of what happens, or to anticipate what might happen next.
Third most common mistake is that writer didn’t realize that as far as the reader is concerned, everything in a story is there on a need-to-know basis. So they threw in all sorts of things that had absolutely nothing to do with the story they were telling.Q: If you could identify a person or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: Sadly, that’s incredibly easy: the Democratic Party. As a lifelong lefty, I used to rail at how the Republicans constantly got the facts wrong — and I had this burning desire to set the record straight. I used to think that if only the other side learned the truth, they’d get it.
Then I realized that knowing the facts doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to convincing anyone of anything. That, in fact, the truth often has nothing to do with how we vote. Is that a good thing? You know what, it doesn’t matter. It’s simply how we’re wired — we’re wired to respond to what makes us feel safe and what validates us, rather than what might objectively be true. I don’t mean that pejoratively; it doesn’t make us weak; it makes us human.
The Republicans know how to tell a solid, compelling, emotionally resonant story (often, the truth be damned), and people respond to that. The Democrats have trouble taking a hard and fast stand on anything, because they can see all the nuances. And there are nuances — when it comes to actually deciding on policy, the nuances matter most. But you don’t get elected by understanding nuances — or God forbid — explaining them. You get elected by making people feel good about themselves. The sooner the Democrats learn that, the better.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: This is a great question, because the answer is surprising. It’s not that storytelling is any more resonant at this moment. Storytelling has always been resonant; it’s in our DNA. Story is, in fact, how we make sense of the world because stories are simulations. They allow us to experience things without having to actually live through them, the better to pick up pointers should we ever find ourselves in a similar situation.
What’s different now is that we’re finally recognizing story’s unparalleled power. Until recently story has been seen as entertainment — fluff — and so not really necessary when it comes to the business of life. Wrong!
Turns out that real-life decisions aren’t based on a “rational” analysis of the facts, but on how those facts affect us. Stories put facts into a context that allows us to experience them in action, and so “feel” what their impact would be on our lives.
Look at advertising — does it ever “tell” us what to do? Nope. Instead it puts the product into a context that lets us experience how using it would make us feel - and not feel in general, but feel about ourselves. That’s the secret of all advertising — all selling, actually - it’s not about what’s good about the product itself, or even what the product will do for you. It’s about how using the product will make you feel about yourself.
The scary thing is that even knowing that a story is trying to manipulate you doesn’t trump its power. If it did, would we really have bought half the things we own, starting with all those Beanie Babies in the basement? I’m just saying.
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: I could talk forever about the way corporate America tells stories that manipulate us into doing things that aren’t in our best interest, but I don’t think we have that long. If you want a glimpse of what I’m talking about, watch the brilliant HBO documentary Hot Coffee, which tells the chilling true story of the infamous and widely misunderstood “McDonald’s Coffee Case.”
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: It’s that all story is emotion based — if we’re not feeling, we’re not listening. What are we feeling? We feel what the protagonist feels. As a result, everything that happens in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If it doesn’t affect her, even if we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire — it is completely neutral. And if it’s neutral, it’s not only beside the point, it detracts from it.
That’s why in every scene you write, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment. This reaction must be specific, personal, and have an effect on whether the protagonist achieves her goal. It’s as simple as that.