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Story Genius by Lisa Cron

28 April 2024


Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel* [*Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere] by Lisa Cron

My mentor, Jenny, presaged my findings from this book when she said, “Cron has one great idea, but she beats that horse to death.” Or something. This is not a direct quote, obvi. Jenny is far more eloquent. That said, it was the gist of Jenny’s take that decided me to read Cron’s book for my final craft book this writing semester.


Jenny was right: Cron’s one single powerful idea serves as the critical cog piece for the entire book, which made me marvel that it could be 267 pages. Cron spends 267 pages implementing the same idea (her “third rail”) at every level of writing a novel. This isn’t bad, per se. There are some implementation suggestions that I will employ; however, everything beyond the introduction was sorta like, okay, got it. This happens occasionally, where I’ll read a book and the details in it do little more than the title itself—like Odell’s How to Do Nothing or (sorry everyone) bell hooks’s All About Love.


To get to the point—and save you reading 267 pages yourself, if you haven’t the time—Cron’s idea is this: each scene of the story must have a “third rail” that indicates why the event matters to the protagonist and what it causes them to realize (about their worldview misapprehension). Cron writes in her intro, “Story is about how the things that happen in the plot affect the protagonist, and how he or she changes internally as a result” (3).  She continues, “Anything that doesn’t impact the protagonist’s internal struggle, regardless of how beautifully written or ‘objectively’ dramatic it is, will stop the story cold, breaking the spell that captivated readers, and unceremoniously catapulting them pack into their own lives” (4). So, the protagonist (and yes, she insists there can really only be one alpha protagonist per story) must have some backstory wherein they developed a grave misperception in their worldview that the fresh plot will force them to address head-on. This will ostensibly change them. Cron insists that story cannot exist without this “third rail.”


To begin, I agree almost wholly with Cron. Perhaps because I am so psychologically minded, I cannot ever see any character I write as distinct from his/her backstory and subsequent worldview (and let’s not even dive into how opposite this instruction is from Benjamin Percy’s in Thrill Me, where he instructs that we should incorporate as little backstory as possible). Each of my short stories to date does precisely what Cron instructs above. Now, could those stories accomplish this “third rail” guide better than they currently do? Yes. Cron’s book has given words and theory to a thing I was attempting blind. I love this.


Still, I have two points of instinctual opposition to Cron’s claim: 1. The Wren, The Wren, and Pet Sematary versus The Body, and 2. It just feels so scripted—all science, no art.


First, it annoyed me that in her concluding chapter, Cron loftily asserts, “You now have all the tools you need to write a riveting novel capable of triggering a dopamine rush in your reader’s brain that will make her forget everything else…” (266). As if. But what’s worse is that there are myriad examples of stories out there in the world—successful stories garnering significant revenue—that do not appear to have this “third rail.” The best example that comes to mind is the book I just recently read, The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. Not only are our characters’ motives unclear in this book, but Enright so divested herself of traditional craft standards that plot takes a backseat to beautiful writing. Of course, it’s possible Enright was able to sell that story because she was already a popular, accepted author. Perhaps a better example lies in the difference between Stephen King’s stories, Pet Sematary and The Body. In Pet Sematary, we are given almost no protagonist backstory, nor is any misperception in the protagonist’s worldview indicated until the son dies, clobbered by a semi (even as I write this, I suspect I’m wrong and wish I had time to go back and re-read it to be sure). In The Body, on the other hand, every single member of King’s little quartet has his own backstory and faulty worldview that is reshaped over the course of their odyssey. So, if Cron’s right, please explain to me why both work?


I am also instinctually opposed to this idea that we must fully develop a “Scene Card” for every scene in our novel which excavates its cause/effect and “third rail.” For some reason, this feels too close to a “beat sheet” for my comfort, and I worry that to adhere too closely to such a method is to deprive myself of creative spark—or of art. This makes me speculate that Cron’s book is geared toward aspiring writers of popular fiction. That’s fine, if so, but just not my jam, not my goal.


Anyway, as always happens, Cron’s book generated a lot of great ideas for me, and now I’ve got much inspiration for the revisions of both my novel and the short story I drafted yesterday. I will be keeping this book close at hand when I revise my novel next semester. There is a lot about my protagonist (and her “third rail”) about which I was unaware when I began drafting seven months ago.

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