What is a Story?
What is a story? What has actually hooked us? I'm going to say it twice, slowly, I hope slowly, I know I talk fast, and then we're gonna break it down. And I got slides too, so you can read it too. A story is about how what happens affects someone who's in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, meaning it doesn't seem that difficult in the beginning, and how that person changes internally as a result. Let's say that again. A story is about how what happens affects someone who's in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result. Okay now let's break that down in familiar writing parlance. A story is about how what happens. That what happens is merely the surface of the story. Yes, it is the plot. It is not, if I leave you with nothing else, it is not what the story is about. Your story is not about the plot, in fact the plot is just the surface. It comes second, that is why very often those story structure books will lead you astray, becaus...
e they talk about the external structure or the plot as if that's what your story is about, and it's not. So it's about how what happens, that's the plot, merely the surface of the story, affects someone. That someone is your protagonist. Your protagonist is your reader's avatar within the story. They literally are doing that Vulcan mind meld with your protagonist. Think of your protagonist brain as your novel's command center, and to make the point about the plot, everything's gonna happen over there in the plot on the surface of the story is going to get its meaning and emotional weight based on one thing and one thing only, and that is how it's affecting your protagonist, and not affecting your protagonist in general, like my protagonist really hates cold weather and over here in the plot it's snowing so she's gonna stay home and have coco and she's gonna join those people binge watching Breaking Bad on her iPhone. But how the plot affects your protagonist in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal. And that is what's known as the plot or story problem. Sometimes you'll hear it referred to as the story question. I'm gonna, from here on out, I'm going to call it your plot problem. So, and that plot problem is both external and internal and it is that difficult thing that your protagonist is going to be struggling with. Again, externally and internally. And there's got to be that struggle. There's got to be that hard thing, because story is about change and all change is hard. Good change is as hard as bad change because it catapults us out of the familiar and we don't really know what to do. It can be as hard to leave home to get married as it is to leave home to get divorced. In fact, it can be easier to leave home to get divorced than it is to get married. So your protagonist is going to be sweating, they're gonna be going through something difficult. If you have a protagonist who is either solving problems without breaking a sweat, or actually doesn't have any and is just kind of going from one lovely, fun party scene to the next, great for them, really bad for the reader. So it's about how what happens, that's your plot, affects someone, that's your protagonist, in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal that is going to force a change, and how that person changes internally as a result, and that my friends, that is what your story is actually about. In other words, your story is not about the plot. Your story is about how the plot affect your protagonist. Story is not about the external change that happens in the plot, story is about an internal change that that change in the plot puts your protagonist through. And if you're thinking, well wait a minute, what do you mean my protagonist has to change? Change from what to what? Why would my protagonist need to change, a-ha. All protagonists enter the story, and when I say enter the story, I'll be doing this all the way through, we'll talk about it next. If this is the line, page one of your story is over here, I am talking about your protagonist on this side of the line, they haven't stepped on to page one yet. Every protagonist enters the story with two things already firmly in place, and that is a long-standing desire, something they enter wanting very badly, and as equally a longstanding misbelief, something that has kept them from getting it and we'll go in to the concept of misbelief throughout this course so this is just the overview of it. But this is something that came in to being, early in their lives, probably in late-childhood, early-teen years and it is something about human nature and it has been keeping them from getting what they want and this desire and this misbelief have ricocheted through their lives, it has been driving their story-specific action, the choices that they've made, up until you get to page one and then your plot is going force them to go after that thing they want, but in order to get it scene, by scene, by scene, by scene, they are going to have to confront and struggle with this misbelief, and it is this internal struggle that your novel is actually about and it's what I call your novel's third rail. You'll often hear writers talking about the narrative thread, like what is the narrative thread of your novel. And it's really easy to mistake that for the plot, that means what's happening in the plot is the narrative thread, not true. We're going to be busting a lot of myths here, there's a myth to bust. Not true. The narrative thread is this internal struggle that your protagonist goes through, that is what we are wired to connect to as we are reading forward. Everything that happens in the plot will get its meaning by touching on this third rail, it is what brings it to life, it is what gives it meaning, it is where the electricity from the story comes from. It's what creates it. And just to, I was first teaching this concept at UCLA, which of course is in Los Angeles, and I had a student who raised her head and she said I think I get what the third rail is, but what are the other two rails? And I realized I had to explain it to, places where you don't actually have a Subway. The third rail is the electrified rail in a Subway, it's what makes the cars go forward. The third rail in your story is what your reader is hooked on to, it is what your reader comes for. So you might think, okay well what actually powers it and it is the struggle with this misbelief. And you might go, okay misbelief, I think I've heard of that, is a misbelief, is that like a fatal flaw? I've heard that protagonist come in with a fatal flaw, is that what you're talking about? And the answer is, no. That is not what I'm talking about. That is not what I'm talking about. Fatal flaw is an expression, I admit, I've used before, I would never use it again. Because fatal flaw, let's just think about that for a minute, doesn't that sound really judgemental? Doesn't that sounds really, finger-waggy like, you have a flaw and you know, maybe you'll get over it, maybe not. It kind of sounds like you're doing it on purpose, like you know you're doing this bad thing and it's kind of maybe even a moral failing. And so it's like you got this flaw and maybe my plot is going to help you overcome that flaw, maybe not, we'll see. So I don't think it's a flaw. The other term you may have heard is, wound. And wound is closer to what we're talking about, I don't like using that term as a catch-all either, because wound now makes your protagonist sound like a victim. You know there are reprobate with a fatal flaw and they're a victim with a wound and the world has hurt them and hopefully your plot is going to help them heal and they'll have a kumbaya moment at the end, and then everything will be okay. And I don't think either of those things really grab what we're talking about, what we're talking about is a misbelief, a misbelief as I said is something that comes in to being in childhood, maybe early teen years at the latest, and it happens in a moment of like normal childhood trauma. So when I say trauma, I don't mean trauma like, and then they go up in a spaceship or someone throws them in the trunk of a car and then they get taken out in to the desert, but just normal childhood trauma where they go in wanting something, believing they're gonna get something, believing something about the world. Because a misbelief is a misbelief about human nature, it's not a factual misbelief. And something happens during that moment that teaches them that they were wrong and now they have a small a-ha moment and they read the world differently. They've got a new belief, something that was probably very adaptive in the moment that it came in to being, but it's maladaptive once they get out of that situation. But they don't know it, because your protagonist doesn't think of that misbelief as a misbelief, they think of it as a hard-won piece of inside intel that's gonna help me navigate the world. And now that is what has moved them forward, and now the job of your plot is to disabuse them of that fact. Misbelief might be something like the nicer someone is to me the more they're trying to use me, and you can see that that might be something that would come in early in life, now they're going to believe that and obviously that becomes part of the lens through which they see everything. And if you have that belief you're gonna misread a lot of people throughout your life, you're gonna make a lot of mistakes, you're gonna do a lot of things that go against your self interest because of this misbelief. This is what we come to story for, we don't come to story for the plot, because the plot again is the surface of the story, and we understand the surface world. We live in the surface world, I can say that all of us, you and you guys at home as well, we all have, probably many things in common, but here's something I'm pretty sure we all have in common. All of us from birth up until this moment have navigated this surface world, and we've done a pretty good job of it, because we're here. But we don't come for the surface world, we come for what goes on beneath the surface. I often think of story as the difference between what we say out loud and what we're really thinking when we say it. Because ask yourselves, when you're talking to someone how often does what you're saying and what you're thinking, the same thing? And which one is more interesting? And which one is juicier? And which one is more revealing? What you're thinking, right? And that's what we wanna know about everybody else, we want people to like us, so we are constantly wondering, how am I coming off? How does this sound? Do you like me? Are you really understanding what I'm saying, am I really understanding you? The barista at Starbucks, we want everybody to like us. So it's like when someone comes us to you and says, Matilda I'll love you forever, what's your first thought after, my name's not Matilda? It's really, can I trust you, are you punking me, are you just looking to get lucky, what? Will you still love me tomorrow? That's what we come to story for, that's what we want to know, that internal stuff. It's interesting talking about the difference between the surface and what we come to story for. Here's an expression that I bet all of you, counting you guys out there, have heard. So raise your hand if you've heard this, and you guys can raise your hand too, because we can actually see you, I'm just kidding, just kidding, we haven't gotten that far yet. So if you've heard this expression, raise your hand. Never let em' see you sweat. You guys heard that expression? Never let em' see you sweat. Almost everyone has heard that expression. Think about what that means. What does that imply? It implies that inside we are sweating buckets and we're trying to keep everybody else from seeing it. Story is about the sweating. Story is about what's going on inside. I had a student at UCLA who once said, she said, I know on the surface I look really put together, but inside I'm a raging mess and I'm trying to keep all of you from seeing it. That's what story's about. It's about that raging mess inside, that's what we come to story for, the vulnerability that we don't show to the world, that is what you need to-- that's what being a writer, means having courage, because you have to show people what you think and what you believe, but watch when you're reading, we come to story for those me too moments. Oh my God, I've been through that too. Oh my God, I thought I was the only one. Oh my God, that thing that I thought made me weird and odd and strange, actually is what endears me to other people, who knew? That is what we come to story for. That is what story is about, the internal struggle. So the question is, in order to get that on to the page, in order to create a story that brings that to life, where do we start?