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Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius

Lesson 6 of 17

The "What If?" Exercise

Lisa Cron

Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius

Lisa Cron

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Lesson Info

6. The "What If?" Exercise

Lesson Info

The "What If?" Exercise

What I'd like to do now, before we get to then writing our what if is to do an exercise, and that is, to ask yourself, what's your point? Now, and to be very clear, up first what's your point and why is your story important to you? Why is making this point important? You wanna be as specific as you can. The story is in the specifics. We'll be digging deeper and deeper and deeper into them. You don't want it simply to be something that is conceptual or abstract. You wanna be personal. And to be personal, means to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable, means to be courageous. Because writing is hard. It's hard, it takes a long time to write a novel and it means you're going to be digging deep into who you are. Was working with a writer recently who said her mentor had said to her in college, when you write, go deep, write into some deep thing that you wanna probe inside yourself. Because you never end up knowing if it's gonna be published, if it's gonna be successful, but you will have got...

ten something because you will have dug really deep into something in your own self that you're really looking for answers to or unsure of. So, we're gonna take three minutes. And we're gonna do this exercise and then when we come back we're gonna talk about, okay, what is the what if, and then we will workshop what the point is at that point. So, since this is the first exercise we're doing, I wanna say, you lucky pups at home, you have as much time as you need, you are so lucky. These poor people here in the studio, they have three minutes, they only have three minutes. So, ready, begin. Yay, so that's it. So we will workshop those images. One quick question, was that hard? Was that easy? Was hard isn't it? But here's the thing with everything that you do. You will be able to dig deep into it. And at some point, you might go, you know what, that's not the point, I think it's this over here. But you've got that beginning tent pole that you're driving into the ground. So you know specifically what you're doing. So, now the question is, now that you know what your point is, or have some idea, fledgling idea of it, and you know why it matters to you. Again, something that you will be able to dive more and more deeply into as you go forward. The question is, okay, so what is a what if? What is a what if look like? What if revolves around what the plot problem is going to cost the protagonist emotionally. Think of it this way. Think of it as, it's this kind of linchpin between your story wants to go this way, here's what's gonna happen, but over here is, what's it gonna cost your protagonist emotionally. What are they gonna need to learn and give up in order to navigate this plot? That's what you're looking for, you're looking for that hinge right now. Because right now, you don't have a plot yet. You've got an idea of it, but it's not quite there yet, nor do you know exactly what it's gonna cost them or exactly what that misbelief is quite yet. But this is gonna help you develop both. So that's what you're looking for when you look for that what if. Now, the next question is, what is a what if look like? What are we talking about? I'm gonna show you three what if's. They're short and they will be from movies that you're familiar with. What if when you're writing it does not need to be this short. It can be up to, say 150 words. Totally fine. I'm just doing this because it's succinct and because the cheat in what I'm about to do is the same sort of cheat that story structure books often have, which is, because chances are, you're gonna be familiar with all three of these movies, you know, one was also a book, one was also a play. When I give you the what if, you're gonna be able to play it all out in your head because you're familiar with it already. Oh yeah, I see what she means. Same thing is true with story structure books when they give you movies or books you're already familiar with, you're already supplying this internal struggle because you're familiar with it already. Writing one from scratch is much harder because it's all you've got. So my point is, these are hard to do, so give yourself some slack, have fun with it when you start to do it. You can't screw it up, is basically the point. So I'm gonna give you first a right and then a wrong for each one of these. The right ones, I wrote myself. The wrong ones, I went and pulled off of writing sites out on the internet. And you'll see that often, well, here's one. Here's the first one, this is the Godfather. The youngest son of a mafia family takes revenge on the men who killed his brother and becomes the new Godfather. Okay, people will often start with a premise with a that's what that's about and all that is is little itty bitty mini synopsis of the whole entire plot. It's literally just talking about what happens on the surface. And you don't feel anything, there's no tugg, even though the word revenge is there, you feel like you should feel something with revenge, but you don't because all you've got is something generic, you don't know who these people are, you don't know what's actually happened, you don't know any of it. It's just a kind of a mini synopsis of what the Godfather is. You're not looking for something that is a mini surface synopsis of what you think is going to happen in the plot. What you're actually looking for is something like this. What if the idealistic son of a ruthless Mafia Don vows to leave the family business? We're now right here in this crux, in this Michael Corleone, he's idealistic, that plays against ruthless. And we know that if he's going to leave the Mafia family and he's idealistic, it means, you know, he's not gonna leave the Corleones and start the Sopranos. He's gonna do something different. I think Michael, I think he wanted to be a lawyer actually. Which sort of feels like it could go in the wrong direction but we don't need to go there. So he's idealistic and he's got the ruthless Mafia Don there probably gonna try to pull him back. We can feel that family loyalty is really going to be tested here. So that is what you're looking for. You're looking for that this is the direction he wants to go and this is what's gonna pull him back, this is what it's gonna cost. Next one, this is Casablanca. A tough American expatriate rediscovers an old love only to give her up so she can help her husband fight the Nazis. That sounds like it would take five minutes. Not even five, a minute. Ilsa walks in, he goes hi, how you doing? Oh my God, I haven't seen you in so long, how are you? Oh you're married, oh you're helping him fight the Nazis? Oh okay, gotta go, got these letters of transit I'm dealing with. And that would be it, there's no story in that. It's just a thing that happened. There's no feeling, there is no anything. What this would really look like is, and again, he's already done it, it's already happened. He's given her up so where's the struggle in that? Well doesn't sound like there really was any, was really super simple. Right. What if a bitter, disillusioned ex-pat discovers that the women he thought jilted him, still loves him, but she's an integral part of her husband's work to stop the Nazis? Now we're right there at the beginning again. We've got that beginning, we've got the past is calling him. We'll always have Paris, right, what is that, oh yeah, backstory (laughs). We've got all of the reasons why this really matter to him when she walks into Rick's Cafe, American. We can feel what it might cost him to let her go, because he's bitter and disillusioned because she jilted him. Now, here she is, he realizes, she still loves him, she never didn't love him. Well now he wants her, of course he wants her back. Of course they get back together but she's an integral work, I don't know what she actually did to help Victor Laszlo stop the Nazis hopefully it was something. But she's an integral part of that so you can feel where that tough moral question is. And the great thing about that story is that that's what it really turns on is that he comes back to life, he gets what he had with her that is rejuvenated and feeling alive again and not being bitter or disillusioned but realizing, there is good in life, she did love me, it wasn't just being jilted because nothing really matters. That gave him the strength to actually let go of her and then go do something even bigger which is, you know, try to stop the Nazis. There's a lot of meaning in that. But as you can see, it starts right here, in this crux. Next, now this next one, I pulled off of a big site and it might make you laugh because it isn't even what actually happens in this very, very, very, probably most famous of the three stories. Romeo and Juliet. Once upon a time, two teenagers became so distraught over their passion for each other, they killed themselves. (laughter) That is not what happens. You know, that would be sort of like, Romeo I love you so much, I can't live, ah, you know. I mean, that is just not what happened. What actually happened is this. Here's the crux. What if two teenagers fell madly in love, only to discover that their parents were mortal enemies? That's what happened in that moment. They fell in love, everything should be fine. But their parents are mortal enemies. You can feel the tug, what are they gonna do? Family loyalty. The world coming against them, but they love each other so much. Now you might go with that, okay but what's the misbelief, what are we actually talking about, where does that actually come in? And you could say, cuz I thought about this a lot, you could say, it's the fact that they really think that love will conquer all. And it actually doesn't. That that might have been the misbelief which is something that we kind of wanna believe, it's not a bad thing about human nature, we'd hope that that was true. Not really true. I've been giving it a lot of thought though, and I think it's actually taking that one deeper something else. I think that the misbelief in Romeo and Juliet is naivete. And I'll tell you, I'm not gonna use Romeo and Juliet as an example cuz I don't know it by heart. However, I do know West Side Story by heart cuz it's my favorite movie of all time, which parallels, obviously. In West Side Story, Tony and Maria, they fall madly in love and now the Jets and the Sharks are gonna have this big battle. And Tony finds out about it. And they're gonna use guns and knives and zip guns and he goes, no guys, let's not do that. Let's make it a fair fist fight. And they go, okay, fine, good, that's what we're gonna do. Be a fair fist fight, got it. But then he tells Maria about it and what does she say? No, Tony, no. No fighting is good for us, for our love, there can be no fighting, meaning it's binary. Meaning, if there's any bit of fighting, we can't have our love. And he's like, okay, fine. And then we know what happens. Poor Tony ends up getting killed because it's not binary. Because you can't get rid of all hatred and anger. You can't have the one without the other. So I actually think, I mean if Shakespeare were around, I'd ask him, I think that's what he meant, could be totally wrong, of course. But the point is, you can really dive down and really try to figure that out here. You can see where that story would go. And again, right here, your what if begins at that crux. Nothing has happened yet and we don't have the full backstory yet. But you know what to develop. So, what I would like you to do now, is to write a what if of up to a 150 words. Now, a couple of things. You don't, and some people will do this sometimes, and I'm not sure why, you do not have to start every sentence of it with the words what if. (laughs) I've seen ten sentences and each one is like what if, it's like, you only need one what if. You don't actually even need a what if if you don't want to. You're just trying to capture this crux of where you might go in the plot which you don't know yet cuz you haven't done it yet. And what this misbelief and what it's gonna cost your protagonist emotionally to have to navigate the plot. That's what you're looking for. It's hard but this is just your starting point. This is always in writing the hardest point is the beginning. Because you're creating something out of nothing. So have fun with it. (laughs) The last thing I'll say and that is there is no right answer. You know, there are many many right answers. It's not just one, so pick what feels the most right to you. And again, this is something that can change, that can grow, that can be altered as you go forward. This is just that first stake in the ground. So, again, as we've said, you guys at home, you could take as much time as you like. You are the lucky pups here. These poor people, three minutes. Go. (laughs) Okay. So, was that hard? Yeah, it is really hard. It is really hard. But it's worth it, it's worth it. You start to get something, oh my gosh, I've got something. So, and that gives you something to begin with. And it's getting that beginning thing, I think that then can really help go forward. So let's workshop two of them now. And what I'd like to do is, I'd like to hear what your point is and then what your what if is. So, I am just going to start over here and I'm gonna start with you Shannon, if you don't mind. Sure. So the point I was writing about was about belonging. Can I be different and belong, can we be accepted as who we fully are and belong in the world? Okay. And did you wanna know why that was important? No, no cuz we don't have time for that. And then the what if. What if a young woman who can't fully remember the past discovers she has an extraordinary power she doesn't fully understand and cannot fully control, so she's very different from the world around her. Okay. And struggles with how to be in it. Okay, and let me ask you, go back to the point because the way that you stated the point was a question. So the point is about being our whole self and belonging - That we can be. That we can be our whole self and belong in the world. Okay, okay, and what is it gonna cost her and read your what if again. So the point is, your point is, even though it's really difficult, we can belong in the world, even though we're very different from everybody else? Um hm. Okay, got it. So she is an outsider in her family - Right. She doesn't fully remember things that have happened in the past. Right. She has stories that have come in about that that aren't true and she finds out that they're not true. Okay. So what do we, how - How do we belong when we really feel like an outsider? Yeah. Yeah, got it. So even when we feel like an outsider, we can still belong. Yes. Got it. Okay and that's a good point and that's an interesting point because it's not like overcoming it like I'm not gonna be an outsider, you know and now I'm in the circle of belonging. It's like I can still feel like an outsider and I can belong as well. That's really, I don't have to give up who I am in order to belong, is basically what you're saying. And that's really profound. And now read one more time the what if. What if a woman who cannot fully remember her past discovers she has an extraordinary power she doesn't fully understand and cannot fully control? Okay and that gives you stuff to dig into then because what is that power, why can't she control it, what does it do, how do other people see it, are they aware of it. I mean that certainly is a place to start. If we had more time, we could a little bit more into what that is and a little bit more into what it cost her. But it sounds like you've got some very fertile ground there to be able to dig into. And as you guys can see here and at home, you're not gonna get it right, there's no right answer, yeah, you got it right out of the starting gate and go forward. That isn't even your goal. Your goal is to start to get meaty stuff that you could start to dig into and ask specific questions of. So with any of these exercises, the more that you've got something, where somebody can go, wait what is that exactly, what do you mean by that, or what powers, or why? Now you've got stuff that you could start asking questions of and dig deeper and deeper and deeper. By definition, something that's a 150 words or that was probably just like 20 words. It's just gonna be that first layer that you can dig into. So Jeff? My point was, I thought popularity was beyond my reach, but I was an outsider who just needed to get into the club to be a worthwhile person. And my what if is, what if a child who aspires to entertain large crowds, has a mother who becomes overwhelmed by large crowds, on top of that, mom has a handmade ceramics craft collection that gets broken the first time the child has a party. Yikes. One final party that pushes, the 18th birthday party that pushes the limits of mom's ability to keep her sanity. Okay, so the two things I would say is, one, going back to your point, you want it to be one point that you can sum it up with. Like if you had to sum that up in one, with one, like what point are you making? What are you saying about the human condition with that point? That popularity is not a standard, it is just a maneuver. Popularity is not a standard, it's a maneuver for what? It's just a matter of putting task together to gather people. Okay, so in other words, what you're saying is popularity is not an end in itself and we're not gonna get our self worth from being popular. Right. Got it. And as you can see, that's a great thing about points, you can start to dig into it and almost always it's there. And so the only thing I'd say about the thing with the kid and his mom is you really wanna figure out if she's, read me the last bit of that, the last bit. Um- But with the bad thing with his mom. The last sentence is, after pleading, the 18 year old child throws a one final party that pushes the limits of the mom's ability to keep her sanity. Okay and that would be the question, cuz what you're looking for here in a story is not something that's just surface. In other words, he wants to go and bring crowds in, she can't be around crowds. So he would just need to move away, like there's no internal struggle there. But the notion of pushing her past her sanity, nobody wants to push mom past her sanity, or anybody past their sanity. So there would be that crux which would be is it worth it to me to do this, what would he have to give up, what would she have to give up in order for this to happen. And that's where you would start digging. Because you want it to be, and why does this matter to him? Which would be the other question with any character ever as we'll talk about with the why. Why does it matter to him to go out and be in front of crowds, like what is that drive and what is he willing to sacrifice to do it and then again, the question would also be, because you don't just ask questions of your protagonist but also, secondary characters, would be what is this deal with mom? Why is mom that way? Why is she, does she have a hard time being around people? And you don't want the answer, you don't want the answer to anything ever to be just because. Because she does. But there's story, a reason why that's difficult, that would be the hub of this, given what you've said. But that's what you're looking for, is what it would cost him emotionally to do that. And that isn't quite there yet because there are too many surface answers that would do it. But it tells you again, exactly where to dig. And that is the goal for everybody, is that you're looking for places where now you can go wait, let me go a little bit deeper with that, let me ask another specific question which we're gonna do when we get to our next lesson, which will take us into that exact same territory. But the great thing about these first fledgling what if's is they show you where to dig. And they show you what you still need to know, because by definition, you still need to know a lot of stuff because all you've got is a what if. So it's perfect. So in other words, great work.

Class Description

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Do you feel like you have a book inside of you but don’t know how to bring it to life?

Lisa Cron has helped thousands of aspiring writers master the unparalleled power of story so they can write a novel or memoir capable of riveting readers!

In this class, you’ll learn:

  • What your readers’ brain is hardwired to crave in every story they read – and it’s not what you think.
  • Why writing a successful novel is not about having the innate “talent” that only a lucky few are born with, but something you can learn!
  • How to write a first draft that reads like a fifth draft, and cut down rewriting in the process.
  • How to become a more confident writer, and make whatever you’re writing now deeper, richer, more compelling, and able to do what all stories are meant to do: change how the reader sees the world, themselves, and what they do in the world.

This class is not filled with random, general writing exercises – rather each exercise builds on the one before it, giving you the tools to create a riveting story from the inside out.

Your goal: to build a novel (or memoir or screenplay) by first creating the material from which the story, and the plot, will organically begin to appear.

Writing a novel doesn’t have to be a daunting task. With this class, Lisa busts the writing myths that have held you back, and gives you a clear, concise, concrete step-by-step method to find your story and share it with the world! 


a Creativelive Student

A woman with a wealth of information to share and who is totally engaging. Lisa was like a really good book that you didn't want to put down. I watched this course over two days, eager to press the play button on the next lesson. Passionate but to the point, everything Lisa had to say was interesting and meaningful. I am just starting on my first novel and her knowledge and insights are invaluable. Highly recommend.

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This was hugely influential to my writing. I don't actually think I knew how to write until this class. Lisa Cron is a great speaker and teacher. She is well prepared and does an excellent job getting through all the important material. Everything I learned in this class could be applied to a book, essay, and even possibly one's own self-reflection. Who doesn't want to understand the point of life's story? Cron does an excellent job of getting to THE POINT. I have already recommended this class and will reference it again and again as I write. Thank you!

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I'm going to go back and watch this course every time I begin a new novel. It took me six years to figure out how to write my first novel, discovering many of these concepts as I went. I can't imagine the time I would have saved had I been able to consider them more carefully before I began. I recommend this to anyone who is just starting out, but also, to established writers. Every book is a different house to build and this course really helps set down a good foundation.