The clock is about to strike midnight. Your fingers hover above the keyboard. Ready, set, go!
It is Nanowrimo time.
This year the first scene practically writes itself. This year you’ve plotted out the whole story. This year will be different. This is the year you will win.
You feel the rush as your fingers fly, words spill, scenes and pages form. Oh, the thrill of it all.
But then the fingers slow. It takes longer for the words, the dialogues, the scenes to form. And then the dreaded feeling that despite having an outline, you have no idea why your character is climbing that mountain or carrying a tomato plant down the busy city street. It sounded perfect when you wrote the outline.
My friends, we have come to the realization that we are pushing our characters around the story board like a game piece. We don’t know why our characters are doing what they are doing. What is she thinking? What does she want right now in this scene? What are the consequences if she doesn’t do this thing?
The answer is that we don’t know.
I have been there many, many times.
I’ve found that doing the character work first has made a difference. But I don’t believe that filling out character sheets with a hundred questions that include knowing her favorite crayon color or even the color of her hair works. We need to know our characters deeper than that. This is where Lisa Cron’s long-titled 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) comes in.
Lisa Cron writes in Story Genius that unlike us, our characters don’t have a long history of events in their lives. We make them up from nothing. They are hollow shells. So we need to know the important events in their lives that make them who they are and brought them to the point in their lives where the novel begins.
I think the “genius” in Story Genius is that she makes us think about and work through the pivotal point in our character’s backstory when they went from one view of their world to a new and distorted view of their world. From this point forward, they live their lives according to this new worldview. Even though it is distorted, it works for the character. They are able to protect themselves from pain with this new worldview. But this protection also creates a fence that keeps them from being able to fully realize who they could be. At some point, this leaves them vulnerable to new, unanticipated pain. This is where the story of our novel begins.
Lisa Cron gives an example of this in Story Genius by working through an example with the author Jennie Nash. In Jennie’s example, her character sees her best friend’s family as being safe and loving. Her friend’s family is the perfect family that is so different from her cold parents. But then her friend’s father dies. For the first time, her character realizes that the loving, perfect family causes unbelievable pain. This is when her worldview shifts and she protects herself from potential pain by keeping herself distant and never fully committing to love with another person. This protects the character from pain until she is forced at the beginning of the novel to confront that how she lived her life is now causing her unanticipated pain. She had not protected herself after all. I won’t give away more of the story.
Knowing the pivotal point in the backstory of the character and how it changed her acts as an anchor for the whys as we write the novel. Every action that our character takes goes back to that shift in her worldview and the protection and safety that proved to be unsafe when the story begins.
So this October as you work through your world building and your plot outline, do the exercises from Story Genius. Writing 50,000 words in the month of November for Nanowrimo will still be a challenge. But when you’re writing the scene where she climbs the mountain or carries the tomato down the street, you’ll know why she’s doing it, what she’s thinking, and what she’ll lose if she fails.
May the words be with you.
Lily LaMotte has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. She has written picture books, a middle grade graphic novel, and is challenging herself to write early readers through Hamline’s post-grad semester with Laurel Snyder. She had childhood dreams of working in a library. Now she supports her passion for libraries through her work on the King County Library System Foundation Gala committee. She is also the monthly programming coordinator for SCBWI Western Washington.