craft review by Beth Mitchell
Lately, I’ve been preoccupied by Lisa Cron’s concept of a novel’s “third rail,” the protagonist’s inner struggle that propels the story (see my craft review of Cron’s Story Genius). As I read MG books, I ask myself: What is the protagonist’s misbelief? What is the origin of that misbelief? How does the plot force him to confront and overcome his misbelief? What is his “aha!” moment? And when I find a book with a compelling third rail, I ask myself: How did the author do that?
Sara Pennypacker’s Pax is a book with a clear third rail. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Peter and his pet fox, Pax, told through the viewpoints of both boy and fox.
Peter rescued Pax as a motherless kit five years earlier, just after the death of his own mother. Now, war is coming, and Peter’s town is being evacuated. His father decides to join the military and sends Peter to live with his grandfather, leaving Pax in the wild. Peter soon regrets allowing himself to be separated from his fox and sets out to find him.
Peter’s misbelief is that anger is wrong (and even dangerous) for him. He thinks that he’s inherited his father’s and grandfather’s explosive temper, so he cannot ever let himself get angry. Pennypacker expertly reveals the origin of this misbelief through backstory and ties her external plot to Peter’s inner struggle.
The Origin Scene
Cron describes the origin scene as “the moment in your protagonist’s life when his misbelief took root,” the time when “life just taught him an important lesson when it comes to navigating the world.” (Story Genius, pp. 94, 98, Ch. 6).
For Peter, that moment came when he was seven years old. He threw a tantrum and smashed his mother’s blue glass globe with his baseball bat. She told him that he must not have a bad temper like his father, and she left him at home while she went for groceries. Then, she was killed in a car accident and never returned.
Pennypacker reveals Peter’s backstory gradually. We learn early on that Peter’s mother has died. (p. 13) Through Peter’s memories of the therapist he saw after her death, we learn how she died and get a hint at the origin of Peter’s misbelief. (pp. 47-49) When the therapist asked him if he felt angry, he lied and denied ever feeling angry. Although he never returned to therapy, he wondered: “Had the nice therapist known all along he’d been angry that last day, that he’d done something terrible? That as punishment, his mother hadn’t taken him to the store?” (p. 48).
Later in story, Vola, the wounded veteran who helps him after he breaks his ankle, notices that he has a baseball glove but no bat. (p. 71) When she remarks that he needs a bat, he flashes back to the morning of his mother’s death: “If he owned his own bat again, every time he picked it up, he would see that shattered blue glass over those white roses. And it would wreck him.” (p. 173)
Three quarters of the way through the book, Pennypacker reveals the details of the origin scene. Vola carves a baseball bat for him, prompting an unwelcome memory:
His seven-year-old fury. A wildness he couldn’t control. The exhilarating fright of that wildness. His mother’s blue gazing globe, batted off its pedestal into a million shards. Her tears—“You’ve got to tame that temper. Don’t be like him.” Her bloodied fingers, picking the blue glass from her white roses. His shame as he watched her drive away. (p. 217)
The reader can finally understand how young Peter concluded that anger was an emotion that was off limits for him. That revelation comes just as Peter is preparing to confront his misbelief head on.
The Opening Scene
Cron argues that a novel should begin with the event that “catapults your protagonist into unavoidable action.” (Story Genius, p. 143). This event also needs to trigger an internal struggle for your protagonist. (Story Genius, Ch. 8)
For Peter, that moment is abandoning Pax. His father is the one who insists on leaving Pax in the woods, but Peter is complicit. He tricks Pax into leaving the car by throwing the toy soldier for him to fetch. (pp. 4-5)
The reason, as we learn later, relates to his misbelief that he must not get angry:
When his father had first dropped the order about Pax, Peter had steeled himself and said, “No. I won’t do it.” But his father’s eyes had flared with that flash-fire anger, and his fist had jerked up, stopping only at the last split second to knuckle Peter’s cheek in a gesture that carried enough threat to set Pax on growling alert.
Peter’s own fists had come up, and the rage he’d felt at his father had scared him more than the threat itself. (p. 123)
In other words, because he’s convinced that it’s wrong to feel angry, he fails to do the right thing for Pax. Immediately afterward, though, he feels miserable and anxious—sure that something bad is going to happen because he’s not where he should be. (p. 14) He’s catapulted into action (hiking 200 miles to find Pax) and he’s experiencing inner turmoil (denying his anger).
The External Plot and the Internal Struggle
Cron proposes two tests for a novel’s plot problem: (1) Can it build with specific consequences and a clear-cut deadline? (2) Will it force the protagonist to struggle with his misbelief? (Story Genius, Ch. 8)
The search for Pax meets the first test because Peter is convinced that his fox will be able to survive no longer than a week on his own in the wild. And it meets the second test because for Peter, finding Pax means being the person he wants to be, doing what he knows is right at his core.
Early in the novel, Peter’s grandfather voices his worst fear: “The men in our family—I guess our apples don’t fall far from the tree, eh?” (p. 10) Specifically, Peter worries that he’s like his grandfather, “on the verge of blowing up”, and his father with “his hands clenched in fists by his sides as if itching for something to set him off.” (p. 13)
Thus, even though he has reason to feel anger, he denies it again and again. When he first explains the urgency of his journey to Vola, she says, “You were plenty angry, so you ran.” And Peter says, “I wasn’t angry. I’m not.” (p. 75)
As he gets ever more frantic about finding Pax, Peter tells himself that he’s not angry. He’s just frustrated. Vola insists that he’s angry and that he’s justified in being angry. He denies it “because what if he was like his father, with that threatening kind of anger, the kind that was always simmering, the kind that could boil over at any time and hurt everyone in the way.” (p. 119-20)
Three quarters of the way through the story, when Peter learns that his father knew that the area where they left Pax would be evacuated, Vola forces him to confront his misbelief directly:
“I know you’re angry…”
Peter’s fists had balled up again, the nails gouging his sore palms. He jammed them between his knees. “No. I told you. I don’t get angry. I’m not like him. I won’t be like him.”
Vola sat down across from him. “Oh. I see. I see now. But I don’t think that’s going to work out. You’re human and humans feel anger.”
“Not me. Too dangerous.”
Vola threw back her head and barked her startling laugh. “Oh, let me tell you, feelings are all dangerous… No, you can’t avoid any of them. We all own a beast called anger. It can serve us: many good things come of anger at bad things; many just things are made just. But first we have to figure out how to civilize it.” (p. 218)
Although Peter continues to deny his feelings of anger, he is ready for the final stage of his journey and the final stage of his emotional transformation.
The “Aha!” Moment
According to Cron, the “aha!” moment, is the ending of the internal story; “it’s about what your protagonist realizes.” (Story Genius, p. 169) It can come before, during, or after the resolution of the external plot problem, but it must show how the protagonist changes. (Story Genius, Ch. 10)
For Peter, the “aha!” moment comes at the end of the book. When Peter reaches the mill, finds Runt’s leg and the toy soldier, and understands his father’s betrayal. Then, he sees Pax trying to defend the other foxes from the coyotes:
And Peter roared in fury. He braced himself on one crutch and leaned back and side-armed the other, heavy with its white ash bat, as hard as he could, aiming in between the two coyotes. (pp. 272-273)
He allows himself to feel anger, but it’s not the anger of his father or his grandfather or of his seven-year-old self. He realizes that it’s right to feel anger against the things that are wrong in the world.
The novel ends with Peter’s card, the blank one that Vola gives him to fill with a truth he discovers on his journey. On it, he has written simply: “Sometimes the apple rolls very far from the tree.” (p. 277)
Pax offers many craft lessons for the MG writer, of course, but it’s particularly instructive for those of use trying to wrap our minds around the concepts that Cron describes in Story Genius. Pennypacker gives Peter a misbelief rooted in a childhood trauma, and she forces him to struggle with that misbelief as he confronts the external obstacles of the plot until he earns his “aha!” moment. That struggle is the novel’s “third rail.”
Beth Mitchell lives in the coastal mountains of Northern California with her husband and two sons. A member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, she writes middle grade novels and blogs about the books she and her boys love.
Find her at bethmitchell.rocks
I’ve been reading through “Story Genius” lately. Thanks, Beth, for fleshing this out with “Pax”!
Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Story Genius as it applies to MG, and you’ve done a wonderful job combing through a successful MG novel.
I love Story Genius, but I have been having trouble finding examples of the third rail/MC’s misbelief in lots of stories–stories that do really well. Have you found Cron’s rule to apply to every story?
I’ve wrestled with that question too, Jaime. Pax lends itself well to a Story Genius analysis, but I agree that other satisfying MG stories do not. I don’t know why.
One possible reason is that MG novels have young protagonists. A child character has had less time to form a misbelief, and to the extent he or she has a wrong idea about how the world works, it will not necessarily spring from a specific childhood trauma. Thus, the internal change in a MG novel may feel more like a small lesson learned than the upending of a worldview.
Another possibility is that several popular MG genres (such as mystery and adventure) place less emphasis on the internal change of the protagonist.
Even when I can’t pinpoint the misbelief, origin story, etc. in a MG novel, I try to ask myself some of the questions from the beginning of Story Genius–What is the author’s point? What is the “what if” of this story? Whose story is it?
In general, though, I’m finding Story Genius more useful for my writing than for my analysis of other stories.
Thanks for reading the blog! We’d love to hear about some of the MG novels you love despite their lack of an obvious third rail.
SUPER late to the conversation, but I was wondering if you had any easy examples of great MG books that don’t seem to follow story genius. I’m testing a hypothesis that when story genius doesn’t seem to apply it’s because the protagonist is steadfastly good and it’s the world that changes. I’ve found it explains why Tamora Pierce’s books often don’t seem to fit the mold. Thoughts?
Shae Lynn, your timing is good! Just this week, literary agent Jennifer Laughran interviewed Lisa Cron on her children’s publishing podcast, Literaticast (https://www.jenniferlaughran.com/literaticast/28-story-genius-with-guest-author-and-writing-coach-lisa-cron). She asked Lisa about how the Story Genius techniques apply to kidlit, and Lisa responded that SG applies in exactly the same way to MG and YA stories except that a young protagonist will not have a decades-old misbelief.
Personally, I’m skeptical. I agree 100% with so much of what Lisa says in this interview. A protagonist needs to want something, and he/she needs to make hard decisions. A protagonist needs to have a specific way of looking at the world informed by his/her backstory. A protagonist needs to be the reader’s avatar in a story, and readers need to understand why the story events matter to him/her.
But I think all of the following great MG books have such a protagonist, and yet I cannot point to a SG-style misbelief or origin story in them: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead, Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall.
Maybe that shows my failure to fully understand the SG misbelief. I’d love to hear what you or others think. Tamora Pierce’s books are on my TBR list, so I can’t comment on them or on your hypothesis specifically.
Oooh, I’ll have to go find that podcast!
Thank you so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking response! I haven’t read anything on your list except The Lightning Thief, and I just finished the Penderwicks (like 15 minutes ago, lol). Since I was reading for research on how to shape “Aha!” moments in my own stories, I just took some notes on these characters.
It seems to me that Batty and Rosalind both have SG style misbeliefs, but without any clear origin story for them. Batty seems very comfortable to just melt into the background and give way to any discomfort until she decides she must be brave and defend “the dog and people she cares about.” And Rosalind starts the book believing that if she’s falling in love with Cagney, then her relationship to him is entirely wrapped up in those feelings and whether or not he returns them. So when, at the very end, she realizes that her infatuation was silly and that she threw away a friendship, that seems like overcoming a misbelief to me. I just wrote myself a bunch of notes on this exact topic.
I don’t see these kinds of transformations for Jane and Skye. I’m not sure what exactly Skye learns in the book, except that sometimes it’s righteous to lose your temper? And Jane seems to learn not to trust her fairy tale version of life so much, while simultaneously being encouraged to continue creating stories. That one’s a little muddy for me–something about the best expression for her creativity and imagination?
I’m eager to check out a few more on your list. As a brand new fiction writer, SG serves me in a really remarkable way–I was able to write a first draft of a book that I know has something of substance, and now I’m drafting up short stories. But I think there’s a lot of merit in looking at what makes a story work without that particular backbone.
I think in The Penderwicks the big story change is arguably Jeffrey’s. About halfway through, his story takes over, and the girls help him in their various ways. So many of the backstory moments, even the little ones (especially for Rosalind), have to do with their mother’s death and their roles afterward, I wonder if the world views that change have to do with that origin moment.
I’ve recently been reading K.M. Weiland’s book on Character Arcs, and she talks about character change not always moving toward positive change. Sometimes characters trade one misbelief for a worse one. She also talks about “flat arcs” and explains how/why they work, but they still need a LIE (as she calls the misbelief). Weiland has quite a comprehensive blog, and it may be another place to look. (Last week’s post here is the first of two on character arc and plot structure.)
Well, that seems pretty obvious in retrospect! Jeffrey’s arc is less well defined internally, but much more significant.
Those non-SG arcs seem intriguing too, but obviously I’m still figuring out the basics! I’m still learning to read like a writer. It’s a skill I didn’t totally understand was distinct from just reading until I started working on it!
Thank you for making me think, Shae Lynn and Anne-Marie!
Now, I’m having second thoughts about including The Penderwicks on my list. You could argue that Jeffrey’s misbelief is that he always needs to go along with his mother’s wishes if he wants to be loved by his mother and take care of her. I’m not sure such a misbelief would have its origin in a specific traumatic event, but it could arise from the cumulative effect of his interactions with his mother over his childhood. His “aha” moment is when, after resolving to run away, he instead finds the courage to talk to his mother about not wanting to go to military school. Thoughts?
Reading like a writer is the best!