The Protagonist Will Enter with a Defining Misbelief
The reader expects the protagonist will have a longstanding misbelief that's kept her from getting what she wants. When I say longstanding, I mean, again, remember we talked about stories begin in medias res. In fact, we just in fact said it. Stories begin in medias res, middle of the thing. The want comes from a very long time, maybe late childhood, early teens, so does a misbelief. Misbeliefs come into being early in life, late childhood, early teens, really no later than that. A misbelief, to be very clear, is a misbelief about human nature. It's a misbelief about what makes people tick, and a little preview here. This is how your story makes its point. Character comes in with a misbelief, plot forces them to reevaluate it, they have an a-ha moment toward the end where they see the misbelief for what it is wrong, and your story's made its point, which sounds like math but it's not. So, let's talk about a misbelief. A misbelief is never something that is factual. It's never something...
like, I thought the world was flat, and I hope you're sitting down because I just discovered it's actually a rectangle. Round. Or, I thought she was my sister, it turns out she's my mom. Wow, someone's got some 'splaining to do. Now those things could be true, but that's not what a misbelief is. Misbelief is about human nature. It might be something like, I learned early in life that if you show any kind of emotion, that is going to be seen as weakness, and I wanna be strong and seen as strong. Therefore, I will never show emotion. In fact, I don't think I'll even let myself feel emotion because then I couldn't accidentally show it. That's a misbelief. Or a misbelief, and this is the one I always like to use. A misbelief is something like, the nicer someone is to you, the more they seem like they really wanna know the real you, the more they're actually trying to manipulate you and use you. Now, these misbeliefs come in, as I said, early in life through an experience that teaches your protagonist or whatever characters, your character this misbelief. They've learned it through the school of hard knocks, and the reason it always comes in early, always, and this is a big mistake writers will make. They'll go, well, the book starts, and my protagonist is a guy and he's 29, and he got his misbelief when he's 28. It doesn't work that way. It's always early, and here's why. Let's take that one we were just talking about, the nicer someone is to you, the more they're trying to use you. That's your belief out there. Now, as adults, I'm thinking almost all of us have had some form of this kind of experience where you meet someone, and I'm not talking about a romantic relationship here, but you meet someone and they're simpatico, and there's comradery, and you think, wow, this is somebody I could really be friends with, and then you find out they want you to invest all your money in a Ponzi scheme, and at that point, you go, okay, that person, this guy, is a jerk. But you have all sorts of other friends in life. You know, it's just that guy. Everybody else is great. When you're a kid, it's not, oh, it's just that person. You are trying to figure out how the world works because that's how we're wired, so it isn't, oh, that's how that guy is. It's, oh, that's how people are. And the reason we're so susceptible to that then is, and I'm sure you've heard of this, Maslow's Pyramid of Needs. Maslow, Abraham Maslow, he was an American psychologist, and I think he's best known for this pyramid of needs, and he says, at the top is what makes you a happy realized human being, but the base of that pyramid, the first thing you need, he says is food, water, and shelter 'cause if you don't have that, how could you be happy up there? But that's not true. When we're children, when we're babies, there's something else that we need way more than that, and that is we need someone who loves us enough to give us those things because, as a baby, if as a baby, you had to get food, water, and shelter all by yourself, but we know that baby wouldn't last very long because it doesn't work that way. So, when you're a kid, when you're young, you are not only trying to find out how other people work, but you're trying to find out how they work because you're survival depends on it. What do people expect of me? What can I expect of other people? That's what we do as children, and that's why misbeliefs tend to come in really early. I've worked with a lot of writers where they'll go, "I was looking for my protagonist's misbelief, "and I found my own." Because we've all got them. This isn't like writing. This is psychology. So that is how it works. So, misbelief comes in early in life. So let's say it's that one, the nicer someone is, the more they're trying to use and abuse me, and let's say what the want was, was that character wants someone, and I'm picking something super simple here obviously, who wants someone who would really see them for who they are. That vulnerable place that they don't show to anybody else, they want someone who isn't gonna go, "Ew! But go wow, me too, yeah I wish I could do that. I value that. The problem is...so that's what this person really wants...the problem is they've got this misbelief, the more someone wants to know that part of themselves the more they think uh-oh I better be weary of that person. You can see misbelief totally keeps them from getting what they want, and then that ricochets through your protagonist's life up until the moment where the story starts, and the way that it ricochets through their life might very well causing them to make story specific decisions might very well be what created that problem they are going to be facing there on page one, and then it's the job of the plot to force your protagonist to go after that thing they want, and in order to get it scene by scene by scene by scene they're struggling with that misbelief, which by that time has been personified in the choices they make and how they see and do everything. That combination of what they want what they end up wanting in that misbelief is what I call your story's third rail, and that is where all meaning comes from. All meaning comes from...all meaning in the plot, everything in the plot gets it's meaning in emotional weight based on how it affects your protagonist it is because it touches that third rail. The third rail being the electrified rail in a subway system. You know, electricity gets cut, train just sits there. Without what's happening, touching and forcing your protagonist to struggle internally train just sits there.
Lisa Cron is a story coach and the author of <em>Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence</em> and <em>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)</em>, both published by Ten Speed Press.
Awesome -- Lisa Cron is the best writing teacher I've ever had the pleasure of reading/watching. And I majored in comp lit! :) Thank you Lisa!
Impressed! Lisa's storytelling approach makes so much sense to me and so refreshingly different to the expected 'generic writing structure’. Great delivery, easy to listen to and understand. Thank you.
I appreciated the differentiation between plot and story. Inspiring and usefull throughout. Thanks Lisa.