review by Beth Mitchell
We’ve all read Middle Grade books that are good, but not great. Well written with exciting action, funny dialogue, or an intriguing setting. But somehow we don’t quite care about the protagonist. As one member of our MG Lunch Break (in-person discussion) group says about such books: “It didn’t really give me the feels I’m looking for.”
On the other hand, we’ve all read books that linger in our imaginations years later. For instance, every time I see coins in a fountain, I remember Claudia and Jamie bathing in the fountain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Likely because as a young girl, I was Claudia. I identified with her and experienced her adventure vicariously.
I want to write that second type of book. But I fear that I’m writing a story in which lots of stuff happens but none of it matters. That’s why Story Genius by Lisa Cron is my new favorite craft book. And why I recently participated in the Story Genius Workshop with Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash, where I was fortunate to receive weekly coaching from the talented MG writer, Julie Artz. Story Genius is all about making the reader care.
The subtitle of Story Genius is “How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel” and the footnote to the subtitle is “Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere.” A follow up to Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story, Story Genius is more of a “how to” book. In it, she lays out a method for writing a story that will captivate readers, complete with exercises and examples from the work-in-progress of Jennie Nash.
My key takeaway is that a story needs what Lisa Cron calls a “third rail” (i.e. the story equivalent of the electrified third rail that makes a subway car go). As she explains, the “protagonist’s internal struggle is the story’s third rail, the live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.” (p. 18)
The Story Genius method involves first defining that third rail (the protagonist’s internal struggle) and then constructing an external plot that is connected to the third rail (forcing the protagonist to struggle).
The Inside Scoop
The first step in the Story Genius method is to figure out the internal story: What is your point? Who is your protagonist? What does he want? Why? What is his misbelief about how the world works? Why does he believe he’s right?
The exercises in the book involve digging into your protagonist’s past, but they are not character interviews (favorite color, favorite food, favorite pet). Instead, they focus on story-related details about formative experiences that you’ll reveal as your protagonist navigates the events of the plot.
If you want your readers to identify with your protagonist, then he can’t be just a generic kid. He needs to be a specific kid with his own unique worldview. Your readers need to understand what makes him tick so that they’ll want to come along with him on his journey of discovery.
For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, when Harry’s Hogwarts letter arrives, he is not merely an almost-11-year old orphan with unruly hair and a lightning-shaped scar. He is a wizard raised by Muggles. More specifically, he’s a boy who has slept in a cupboard under the stairs while his cousin had two bedrooms, who has never received a birthday present while his cousin got thirty-nine. He’s been made to feel freakish, unloved, and isolated at every turn. Through a specific set of childhood experiences, he’s come to believe that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never belong.
The External Challenge
The second step in the Story Genius method is to figure out the external plot problem. It needs to be a problem that can escalate. It needs to have consequences that your protagonist can’t avoid and a clear deadline. Most importantly, it needs to force your protagonist to make an internal change (or, in other words, to confront and ultimately overcome his misbelief).
Lisa Cron advocates writing the opening scene, then writing the “aha!” moment scene (which is the end of the internal story but not necessarily the last scene in the book), and then writing forward from the beginning so that each scene follows logically from the scene before.
Along the way, the plot events must touch the third rail. As you ask yourself what happens next, you must also ask yourself why it matters to your protagonist and what he realizes as a result.
To return to the example of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, consider how many events in the book touch on Harry’s fear that he’s a freakish kid who doesn’t belong:
- He’s recognized as the famous Harry Potter in the Leaky Cauldron.
- Ollivander sells him the brother of Voldemort’s wand.
- He doesn’t know how to get onto Platform 9 ¾.
- Draco Malfoy warns him not to make friends with the wrong sort of wizards.
- The Sorting Hat almost puts him in Slytherin.
- Professor Snape is hostile towards him.
- The Mirror of Erised shows him a false image of his family.
In the end, Harry is willing to risk expulsion from Hogwarts (the only place he’s ever truly belonged) in order to prevent Voldemort from getting the Sorcerer’s Stone. He chooses to stand up to the dark wizards and to belong to the community of good wizards. He has the help of true friends, and he finds the courage to face the final challenge alone.
Although the examples in Story Genius are drawn from women’s fiction, the method is applicable to all types of fiction, including MG fiction. The misbelief and the “aha!” moment will be different in a MG novel, but the story still needs its “third rail.”
I chose Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as my example in this post because it’s not a book that, as my sons would say, is “all about feelings.” It’s about spells and potions, Quidditch and trolls, dragon’s eggs and unicorn blood. A lot of exciting things happen. I know from reading the book myself and from reading it aloud to my two sons, though, that readers really care about Harry. And that’s the real magic.