Lisa Cron: What’s it about?

Stories that lack focus often aren’t about anything at all. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where if someone asked, “What’s it about?” my only answer would be, “It’s about three hundred pages.” As one editor put it, “If you can’t summarize your book in a few sentences, rewrite the book until you can.”

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.

The Protagonist:

We will have a few repeat quotes from last time, since we covered how to start a story. But essentially Cron is going to make the case that your protagonist, their wants and needs are what give structure to the story.

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.

Protagonists and Sports

To understand how important the protagonist is to the structure of the story she gives an example of what it would be like to watch football without knowing anything about the game. Nothing at all.

As a result, it’s impossible to envision the coming chain of events—that is, the story itself. It’s like watching football with no idea what the rules are, or how points are scored, or even that it’s a game at all. Imagine that the protagonist, Hank, a massive man in a padded spandex uniform, catches a prolate spheroid (you wouldn’t know it was a football). Suddenly, a whole bunch of other spandex-clad bruisers are rushing toward him. Now what? Should he run to the right, run to the left, throw it to the guy in the red uniform? Bury it, maybe? If you don’t know what the objective is, everything appears random. The action doesn’t add up, so there’s nothing to follow, which makes it impossible to anticipate what will happen next. It is anticipation that creates the intoxicating sense of momentum that hooks a reader, so stories without it remain unread.

We covered anticipation in a previous podcast, how it not only pulls people along but gives them a bigger payoff in the brain.

In the movie Blast From the Past, Brandon Frazier plays a boy who was born and raised inside a nuclear bunker. At one point his father attempts to explain baseball to him and he just doesn’t get it. He repeatedly asks the question “But why is he running?”

He asks this question because his father never explained the motivations behind the game or sports in general. It is only when Adam (Brandon) sees the game in real life that finally understands the motive, suddenly it all makes sense. I’ve read more than one novel where I didn’t really know what the protagonist wanted until halfway through. It felt like that moment. “Oh because he must!” It would have been better if the author had just told me this upfront.

Protagonist and reader as one:

The protagonist is the window through which we see the world of the story, how we experience it.

If the reader can’t feel what matters and what doesn’t, then nothing matters, including finishing the story. The question for writers, then, is where do these feelings come from? The answer’s very simple: the protagonist.

When we’re fully engaged in a story, our own boundaries dissolve. We become the protagonist, feeling what she feels, wanting what she wants, fearing what she fears—as we’ll see in the next chapter, we literally mirror her every thought.

This means that everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If it doesn’t affect her—even if we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire—it is completely neutral. And guess what? Neutrality bores the reader. If it’s neutral, it’s not only beside the point, it detracts from it. That’s why in every scene you write, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment.


For instance, the fact that Ted decided to surprise Ginger with a brand new plush Day-Glo orange couch is in and of itself neutral. But if we know that Ginger loved her old couch, hates orange, and don’t even ask her about plush, then we’ll have a pretty good idea how she’ll feel when she sees it—regardless of what she says to Ted.

Let’s break that down. You write this scene where the husband goes out and buys a new couch for his wife. But it feels bland. It just is, and eventually it spirals out of control, but that doesn’t feel real. So you decide to fix it. How do we fix it? Three things: anticipation, emotion, and why.

So let’s roll back a few chapters. The reason Ted buys the new couch is because he had an argument with Ginger that he doens’t fix things around the house. He sees the old couch and decides that’s where he’ll start. He’ll go out a get a new one…

That works, but we make it even better. What if as he is trying to fix the very problem she pointed he makes it worse.

We go back further in the draft. Ginger loved the old couch. The color, the memories, the everything...oh what if she hates the color of the new one too. Even better. And the fabric.

Now let’s follow the flow of this incident. The moment Ted looks at the couch decides he is going to fix things we Ginger we can anticipate just how terrible things are going to. With every decision, he makes in the store about style, fabric, and color it gets worse. But at heart of it all is that he is doing this because she said “you don’t fix anything. You don’t clean up anything. You don’t replace anything when it breaks down.” There is a storm coming and we can see it, and we know it everyone's fault and no ones at the same time.

Did I cover the three: why, emotion. And anticipation?

Why Ted wants to fix things. Ginger loved the old couch.

Anticipation: we see the storm coming

Emotion: the final argument and emotional outburst in the fight.

See how the wants and desires of the characters structure everything?

Thus it’s not just that we see the things she sees—it’s that we grasp what they mean to her. In other words, the reader must be aware of the protagonist’s personal spin on everything that happens. This is what gives narrative story its unique power. What sets prose apart from plays, movies, and life itself is that it provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else’s mind.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, or “just because”—especially in a story. The whole point of a story is to explore this “why” and the underlying issue that, in real life, dear old Susan never let on she was struggling with. Otherwise, how will we, as readers, be able to pick up pointers for navigating our own lives?

We can see that in the fight over the couch now. When Ginger walks in and becomes furious we can see exactly why it happened, and we can also see what she doesn’t. Her own role in the terrible outcome. She did complain that Ted “didn’t replace things that were worn out.”

And that according to Cron is why we read stories

In short, when we read a story, we really do slip into the protagonist’s skin, feeling what she feels, experiencing what she experiences. And what we feel is based, 100 percent, on one thing: her goal, which then defines how she evaluates everything the other characters do. If we don’t know what she wants, we have no idea how, or why, what she does helps her achieve it. As Pinker is quick to point out, without a goal, everything is meaningless.

...what your protagonist wants dictates how she will react to everything that happens to her.

Because as we know, the heart of the story doesn’t lie in what happens; it beats in what those events mean to the protagonist.

Or put more simply, as the aggravated newsreel producer barked at the beginning of Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.” Because with that comes the predictive power of knowing when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to run for cover.

That’s what readers come for. Their unspoken hardwired question is, If something like this happens to me, what would it feel like? How should I best react?

Protagonist Goal & Desires:

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.

  • Adhesion: why don’t they walk away. It a question every reader asks when the Protagonist faces overwhelming odds. Why don’t they walk away. That is the driver of the inner issue. They are connected to the plot not just physically but driven by something inside them.

In this case, what needs to be explained is why the protagonist wants what she wants, what it means to her, and what getting it will cost her. It’s this that we, as readers, “try on for size.” Cognitive psychology professor and novelist Keith Oatley puts it this way: “In literature we feel the pain of the downtrodden, the anguish of defeat, or the joy of victory, but in a safe space.… We can refine our human capacities of emotional understanding. We can hone our ability to feel with other people who, in ordinary life, might seem too foreign—or too threatening—to elicit our sympathies. Perhaps, then, when we return to our real lives, we can better understand why people act the way they do.”

A common mistake:

Wasn’t sure where else to put this, but I wanted to cover it here.

The most common mistake writers make is using body language to tell us something we already know. If we know Ann is sad, why would we need a paragraph describing what she looks like when she’s crying? Rather, body language should tell us something we don’t know.

I thought about my own action beats, and I’m definitely guilty of this.