Start Writing: Discussion: Lisa Cron on Starting in the Middle
We are starting our series that focuses on individual theorists and story consultants. Lisa Cron takes a unique approach to storytelling. She focuses on the neuroscience behind human understanding and patterns for for her theories. You can visit her website Wired for Story here and pick up her books on Amazon.
In Medias Res:
You’ve probably heard the term before ‘In Medias Res.’ Simply put it means to start in the middle and not do a slow wind up, start where the story gets interesting.
When you’re writing fiction you are competing with everything the world has to offer, television, movies, video games, friends, concerts, work projects, side hustles. Cron puts it this way.
“in order to distract us from the relentless demands of our immediate surroundings, a story has to grab our attention fast. And, as neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer says, nothing focuses the mind like surprise.”
“We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.”
“This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket.”
“Simply put, we are looking for a reason to care. So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there must be a consequence we can anticipate.”
I find that piece of advice the most potent. In my own writing I often focus on the immediate nature of the scene and fail to cultivate consequences that the audience can anticipate, beyond the scene they are reading.
As I was studying this I added this element to my revision process. Go through each chapter and consider what point hint at future consequences. In some cases I add in character interiority as they ponder those consequences for themselves. I do this because it tell the reader what’s at stakes as the character sees it.
Essential Elements of the Beginning
This also address one of the elements on Cron essentials for a beginning.
1. Whose story is it?
2. What’s happening here?
3. What’s at stake?
Patterns and breadcrumbs
She also mentions the breadcrumb trail. This a reference that people see pattern and meaning in everything. We see images in clouds, faces in bread and chips, everywhere. The famous green crabs off the coast of Japan have shells that look like the faces of a samurai warrior, so much that many scientist argue that humans had a hand in creating them, through selectively throwing them back. Only recently this scientific theory has been reputed but for decades it was accepted. We see pattern, because our brains are wired to seek them non-stop. So what does this have to do with story?
“As readers we eagerly probe each piece of information for significance, constantly wondering, “What is this meant to tell me?” It’s said people can go forty days without food, three days without water, and about thirty-five seconds without finding meaning in something”
“We are always looking for the why beneath what’s happening on the surface.”
If this is the case it will be farm more interesting if there are actual patterns there to see.
“So for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there must be a consequence we can anticipate.”
Essentials: Whose story is it? The protagonist’s
Cron makes the case that we need to meet the protagonist immediately. That everything the reader experiences is through the lens of the protagonist. I will say this: remember this is a theorist episode. I can point out genres, and incredible books that don’t this. We won’t cover that here as it’s not part of Cron’s theory on writing.
“But here’s something writers often don’t know: in a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels.
Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”
“In short, without a protagonist, everything is neutral, and as we’ll see in chapter 3, in a story (as in life) there’s no such thing as neutral. Which means we need to meet the protagonist”
An example of the protagonist giving meaning to story, and allowing use to find meaning in everything they do.
“The big picture cues us to the problem the protagonist will spend the story struggling with. For instance, in a classic romantic comedy it’s Will boy get girl? Thus we gauge every event against that one question.”
Let’s look at an opening line that will meet all the essentials:
“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” Imagine that: all three questions were answered in a single sentence. 1. Whose story is it? Joel Campbell’s. 2. What’s happening here? He’s on a bus, which has somehow triggered what will result in murder. (Talk about “all is not as it seems”!) 3. What is at stake? Joel’s life, someone else’s life, and who knows what else.
The concept of ‘what’s at stake is really about giving context and meaning to the story.
“Within the brain, things are always evaluated within a specific context. It is context that bestows meaning, and it is meaning that your brain is wired to sniff out.”
Knowing that story is about a romance we now immediately what meaning we are to look for in each other interactions, not just with each other, but anyone possible romantic interest; a best friend, and ex, a stranger who offers to help them. Each moment is filled with interpreted meaning by the reader because they know what’s at stake. However if we don’t have that context then we don’t know what important in a scene.
Knowing when it’s not working:
“Here are just a few telltale signs that a story is going off the rails: • We have no idea who the protagonist is, so we have no way to gauge the relevance or meaning of anything that happens.”
“We know what the protagonist’s goal is, but have no clue what inner issue it forces him to deal with, so everything feels superficial and rather dull.”
Antonio Damasio demonstrates, this in his literature model:
Lunch with your brother to talk about the inheritance and how your sister has been acting strangely. In the conversation you will go to/flashback to many memories, about growing up with her. Have moments of interiority where you think about the kind of person she’s become, and what she wants do with her life. Deliberate on concerns about what she will do with the money. Without the context of the this being about the inheritance for her, all these moments, thoughts and memories feel random except for the fact that they are about your sister. With context they all have meaning.
Cron address the issue of events playing out before the protagonists arrival
In other words, even when the protagonist doesn’t appear on the first page, everything that happens before he shows up must occur with a clear eye toward how it will affect him when he finally ambles in.
We will cover more of her theory on storytelling in another episode.
In summary the three things we need for a beginning are:
Someone to have an emotional reactions to events to tell us how to feel: protagonist
A context to understand the meaning behind all events: the stakes/big picture
Something to get us interested: what’s happening right now
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron