What is a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been pushing this book lately, and not just on this blog.   It has the unwieldy title of “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)” so from now on, I will just call the book “Story Genius.”

I love the book so much. It forced a paradigm shift on writing that excites me and convinces me I will be a successful writer. It also concisely explained much of the dysfunction we see in society, because so many people are laboring under misbeliefs.

For instance, Socialists are laboring under the misbelief that if they can win total political control of all major government and social institutions, they can transform and perfect society so that everyone is equal (at best) or that no one suffers from need (at worst).  There are so many misbeliefs in that assumption.  I think homosexual activists have a misbelief that their unhappiness comes from social rejection, so if they can just force society to celebrate their identity in more and more aspects, they will finally be happy.  The Right has the misbelief that if they just calmly and clearly explain their views and preferred policies, the Right will win elections, enact conservative legislation, and restore the US’ liberty and exceptionalism.  I could go on for days about these misbeliefs, but it is evidence that the book is correct that everyone has misbeliefs.

That’s how it improved my life.

I’ve been mulling on its application to writing for a month now, however.  *MUST* every story be a character development story?  *MUST* every story start with a misbelief that gets resolved?

I’ve really been considering this question. I’ve re-thought this question in light of “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” and “A Princess of Mars” and “Coming to America” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Jack Reacher novels and even “Game of Thrones”.

My answer is that no, not every story must have a misbelief that causes the main character problems and gets resolved over the course of the story.

But the follow-up questions to that are: Do you want people to enjoy and recommend your story?  Do you want to sell your story?  Do you want to write *great* stories, or merely write stories?

Heroic action stories can be enjoyable.  I don’t think the Jack Reacher stories ever have Jack Reacher holding a major misbelief or learning anything in the course of the story.  He’s pretty much unchangeable (except that the author gives him mental abilities needed for the plot that mysteriously don’t exist in other stories where they might have been useful, but the author hadn’t thought them up yet weren’t needed for the plot).  The interest in and success of those stories is the author starts with a perplexing situation, so you want to read to find out what is actually happening.

In “Game of Thrones”, the misbelief is actually on the part of the reader: George R. R. Martin set out to upend several major expectations of the reader, such as Plot Armor and Deaths Mean Something.  I think he’s struggling to finish and the books are kind of fizzling out because you can only deny the expected tropes for so long. If he wants to finish, he’ll have to resolve the story, and it’s going to be trope-y as all get out.

So from that perspective, even if you aren’t dealing with a character’s misbelief, you are still using misbelief to make the story more interesting.

That admission aside, I think that while it isn’t *MANDATORY* to use the techniques in “Story Genius” to load your main character down with one or more misbeliefs that are resolved in the course of the story, it still is a good idea to do it.

Because the book has convinced me that the point of stories is to learn from other people’s mistakes.  You can be entertained by the story, but entertainment is the bonus, and should not be the goal.  We are hardwired to enjoy stories from childhood, but that doesn’t mean we should focus solely on the entertainment aspect.  If we only care about entertaining, we might succeed, and the story might sell, but I don’t think it will have much staying power.  Sure, it might catch on and become famous, and it might be read for generations, like Edgar Rice Burroughs “A Princess of Mars”.  But that’s not the way to bet.  That’s not a good model to base your own writing career on.  When ERB wrote that book and invented those characters, there was no TV, there were no comic books, there were no smartphones, and even movies had no sound or color.  Many people don’t read at all, and we don’t have a unified culture that allows an iconic character like John Carter or Dejah Thoris to capture the imagination of millions.  Put another way: there is so much mindless entertainment already out there, it is advisable to do your best to find ways to stand out.

I think “Story Genius” gives you what you need to stand out.

“Story Genius” requires more prep-work, but in the end, it saves you time.  It’s right there in the title “(before you waste three years writing 378 pages that go nowhere)”.  It keeps you from getting stuck.  It demands you consider every development in terms of the character’s misbelief, which provides a motive force for the story, and only then write the scenes…which keeps you from wasting as much time writing unnecessary filler that you’ll cut anyway.

The book helps you to add layers to your story via subplots.  If everything ties back to both the misbelief driving the story *and* the visible plot developments, your story will have depth.  I thought I might not be able to succeed as a writer because I couldn’t hold an entire novel’s plot in my head.  With this book, I don’t have to.

I have a dozen stories that have foundered on the rocks of painting myself into a corner, plot-wise, or not knowing what to do next.  Thinking about them in terms of misbeliefs resurrects their viability, because it gives me new ideas of how to make them compelling.

“Story Genius” tells you that the misbelief has reached a crisis in the character’s life.  The character has kept the misbelief up until that point because it worked more or less. The misbelief perhaps kept the main character from enjoying life more, or from fulfilling some aspect of life, but it also kept the main character from disaster.  But now the misbelief’s impact on the character’s life has come to a head.  If the character retains the misbelief, their life will be destroyed.  But if they accept life’s lessons and give up the misbelief, their self-image will be destroyed. Everyone thinks they are correct.  Giving up a misbelief is not only admitting you were wrong (very hard for anyone to do), it also is admitting that you damaged your own life for years by not realizing it sooner.

People double down on mistakes. That’s how we hold onto misbeliefs.  That’s why we hold onto misbeliefs.  Only if everything you hold dear is threatened by the misbelief are we forced to actually confront the fact that what we beleived, what we thought kept us safe, was wrong.

Doesn’t that, as a writer, excite you?  Wouldn’t you love to be able to write a story with that sort of impact, that level of import?  “Story Genius” will show you how, and walk you through it.

If the main reason we like stories is because it allows us to safely learn from other people’s mistakes, then yes: underneath and on top of whatever else your story is, you should include a character development aspect. You should make your main character’s misbelief the driving force behind the story.  It will make the story better, and will attract readers.

The only possible downside I can see from this is that it makes it harder to develop a character and setting and write an infinite number of stories in your “franchise”.

Frankly, I don’t see that as a downside.  With the possible exception of Lois McMasters-Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, and the actual exception of the Jack Reacher and Matt Helm series, I don’t want or enjoy series focused on one main character.  There can only be so many self-image-threatening misbeliefs in one character.  Most authors don’t use the same character over and over.  They invent new characters, and new settings.

My favorite author, CJ Cherryh, is my favorite writer because she was good at this.  She had her universe, but she made new main characters for new stories to reveal different aspects of her universe, and it made it better.

Now she’s written an endless “Foreigner” series and I lost interest after book 6.  No one learns anything. The main character is always right. I mean, maybe that’s not completely true, but it’s true enough around book 5 or 6 that I lost interest.

Same with Steven Brust’s Jhereg series.  Same with the Miles Vorkosigan series, but only after book 10 or so, and that was because McMasters-Bujold used different viewpoint characters, allowing her to play off of the new characters’ misbeliefs.

Your fans may want an infinite number books with the same main character. I say, don’t give that to them.  Make new, fresh characters.  Wow them with your ability to create new compelling viewpoint characters, and stun them with your insight into human nature. “Story Genius” shows you how.

Two final thoughts:

No one enjoys message fiction, i.e., “Now I’m going to teach you something I think is true.”  I think “Story Genius” helps you avoid that, by letting you put a misbelief into the main character.  If I wanted to write something against Socialism (and I will), I would make my main character believe that humans are perfectible if they just have the right rules to follow and the right people in charge.  And then I’d show that character how that misbelief will threaten everything they hold dear.  Result: a great story that doesn’t seem preachy.

I haven’t finished my short story, and I haven’t started my novel (waiting to finish the short story).  So maybe I’m wrong about all this.  I don’t think I am. I’m stuck on some mechanical aspects of the short story (what traps or threats can I put into the underground crypt that will drive and highlight the main character’s viewpoint changes?), so I might just drop it for now and start another short story from scratch using this process.  If so, I’ll let you see the results and let you judge if it results in a compelling story.

3 thoughts on “What is a Story?

  1. Interesting thoughts, friend.

    You had me until you said entertainment should not be the goal of a story. Strikes me that this is like saying enjoyment should not be the goal of a meal. Different meals and types of food aim at fulfilling different goals, just as different stories and types of writing do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that’s the crux of the debate.
      Is it enough to just entertain? Or, in contrast, if all you want to do is entertain, can you entertain people *more fully* using the techniques in the book?
      I think the latter is true.

      Liked by 1 person

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