Lisa Cron: The Terribleminds Interview

Lisa Cron wants to help you write better not just by teaching you better skills but by cracking open your brain and showing you how it’s wired to tell those stories. Since I’m all about smashing open people’s heads with a rock (though Lisa assures me that’s not how it’s done), here she sits down for an interview. Wired for Story now available! Check out www.wiredforstory.com and seek her on Twitter (@LisaCron).

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Many years ago a friend of mine was traveling with a buddy. They were down on their luck, and often got so low on money that they only had enough for gas. They never went hungry though, thanks to a tip they got from an aging hobo. Every night they’d pull up behind a hotel banquet room at about ten and go into the kitchen. They’d say that they were on the road and had run out of dog food, and the stores were closed, and could they just have some scraps. It always worked. No one wants a dog to go hungry.

Why do you tell stories?

Because people listen to stories. They can choose whether or not to listen to facts or headlines or “truths” but stories? They can’t help it.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Remember, the reader believes that everything in your story is there on a need-to-know basis, so they assume that everything you tell them is critically important to their understanding of what’s going on. They trust you implicitly on this. That means that when you tell them things that they don’t actually need to know, they’re going to spend time inventing reasons why you might have told them, which means that pretty soon they’re reading an entirely different story than the one you’re writing. And as soon as they figure that out, they defenestrate* the book and go see what’s on TV.

* Oh, one more thing, the bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys — not to mention meaning. Handy case in point: defenesrate, otherwise known as “chucking something out of a window.” I always wanted a real reason to use that word. Thanks!

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t outline. If trust your muse and just write, the story will appear.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A strong character is a character who’s conflicted, which means you need to figure out what issue they’re struggling with, internally, before you begin writing. The goal is to dig deep in their backstory, but with the guidance of a treasure map, not by tearing up the whole damn yard. You’re looking for the specific issue that’s holding them back, not everything that’s ever happened to them.

You want to pinpoint two things: First, the event in their past that knocked their worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps them from achieving their goal. Second, the inception of their desire for the goal itself, which tells us what achieving it really means to them.

Only then can you construct a plot that will compel them to either deal with their issue, or give up. Which is why digging into their past is so important. After all, everything a character does is based on how they see the world (just like us, in real life). We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. So knowing how they see the world – and where and why their interpretation is off — not only allows you to write a strong character, but to create a compelling plot that will force said character to actually be strong.

And – this is the brilliant thing – it will tell you what it is they have to learn at the end in order to succeed. In other words, their “Aha!” moment – which is ultimately what the story is about.  As T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” A strong character learns to let go of how he or she saw things, and see it fresh, with new eyes.

A perfect example of a strong character who does exactly that, although he seems utterly genteel in present company, is George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Books: The book I’ve read recently that grabbed me from the get-go and never let up is a debut novel called Cannibal Reign by Thomas Koloniar.  I loved it because beneath its pounding post-apocalyptic thriller heart, beats a nuanced novel about what it means to be human when all bets are off.  It’s a visceral ride, and one that allowed me to experience just how precarious our social contract really is.  It had never dawned on me that because men are physically bigger and stronger than women, should society collapse, women could easily become fair game.  Sure, I might have thought about it, but this novel made me feel it, and that made all the difference.  Yep, gonna finally take a self-defense class.

Movies suck. It’s been years since I saw a movie so absorbing that I forgot I was watching a movie. And DON’T get me started on The Avengers; there’s something scary afoot that such a ham-handed, story-less, pointless, ultimately bland-if-you-think-about-it movie would do so phenomenally well.  I’m really curious about it. It has no story. It’s about a bad guy who wants power – more power than anyone has ever had, we’re told. Power to do what? To what end? Why? No clue. And the so-called “Avengers”? They never risk anything, nothing ever costs them anything, they don’t learn anything, and everything always works out, so who cares? And the CGI? Sheesh. Half the time I thought I was watching an upgraded episode of The Power Rangers.

These days, I think the best visual storytelling around is in long form TV — The Sopranos in particular – it doesn’t get better than that. I watch it over and over, and every time I see something new.  The third and fourth seasons of The Wire are brilliant, (although you still have to watch it from the start for it to make sense).  The best current show, I think, is Homeland. Here’s hoping it has a long run.

You’ve been in publishing and in Hollywood: what’s the biggest thing that stories get wrong? What should stories do better?

The biggest thing writers get wrong is that they mistake the plot for the story. In other words, they believe that the external things that happen are what the story is about. The truth is that the external things only happen in order to force the protagonist to deal with an inner issue that’s keeping her from getting what she wants and thus solving the story problem. The moment of realization – the “aha” moment — is what the story is actually about.

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where if someone asked me what it was about, all I could say would be, “It’s about 300 pages.” Not to mention how many screenplays I’ve read where I’ve thought of the author, “Okay, this is the person who’s never seen a movie.” It goes back to Flannery O’Connor’s observation: “I find most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” My goal is to change that.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

My favorite word is clobber. I just love how it sounds. Especially in this poem, which my best friend’s entire first grade class collectively wrote for their school paper, The Dixie Canyon Chronicle:

Coconuts, coconuts in a tree

One fell down and clobbered me

As for curse words, I love them all. I love swearing. My favorite? Is fuckfuckfuckfuckFUCK! a word?

And can I add that when used as a verb, fuck is also one of my favorite words? Substituting the phrase “make love” makes my skin crawl. Ditto using “passed away” for dead. Words pack power, to edge away from that power is to edge away from the really interesting part of life, the part we can’t really tame or domesticate. That’s why I don’t trust people who make a point of never swearing.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I love red wine best. But it can’t be sweet at all. I loathe sweet drinks, even a hint of sweet turns me off. Someone gave me a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, and while it was real smooth, it had a slight underlying sweetness that made me crave rot gut (not that I’ve ever had rot gut, mind you, but I watched enough Westerns to know).

But when it comes to mood altering substances, my drink of choice is caffeine. I could easily give up alcohol, but I couldn’t live without coffee  — the darker the better.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I don’t rust.

Wired For Story attempts to train storytellers in “cognitive storytelling strategies” to help them tell better stories by essentially appealing to the crazy science of the brain. What drove you to dive deep into the gray matter of this topic?

Great question! I’d been working with writers for decades, formulating my theory about story, but back then I used “wired” as a metaphor. Sure, I believed it was fact, but I couldn’t prove it. Meanwhile, I’d always been interested in neuroscience, and then suddenly one day every article I read seemed to relate to what I’d always known about how story affects the brain – and even better, why. It was the biggest “aha” moment of my life. In one fell swoop the theory I’d spent years developing, honing and sharpening was revealed as fact.  We are wired for story. Understanding what a story actually is and why our brain evolved to respond to it is a game changer for writers.

After my epiphany, I dove into neuroscience in a big way, reading everything I could get my hands on.  It’s unbelievably fascinating because, as that movie producer at the beginning of Citizen Kane barks, “There’s nothing more interesting than finding out what makes people tick.” That’s exactly what neuroscience is doing. And you know the really crazy thing? Neuroscience is proving what writers have always known: that the pen is mightier than the sword. Writers are the most powerful people in the world.

What surprises you most about the human brain?

What surprised – and delighted — me most about the human brain is that feelings are physical, not ephemeral, and evolved as the basis of how we determine what things actually mean, and every action we take – “reason” then plays catch up. And here’s the kicker: this is a good thing, rather than what we’ve been taught to believe — that emotion undermines reason. As science writer Jonah Lehrer says, “If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.”

You can’t imagine the wild glee I felt when I learned this – especially given that our society was built on marginalizing women for being “emotional” whereas real men never let emotion cloud their rational, logical “accurate” judgment. Take that, boys!

And of course this brings us right back to story: just like life, all story is emotion based. Story is about what it costs the protagonist – emotionally – to overcome the internal issue that’s keeping her from attaining her goal, and not about the buildings and bridges she has to blow up to do it.

There exists a glut of writing advice books out there (I should know, having clogged the pipes with my own suspect opinions): why should writers take a second look at yours?

Oh what the hell, I might as well say it straight out: I think every writer should read my book first, before they read any other book. Why? Because it’s not about writing, it’s about story. The trouble with starting with any of the other writing books out there is they tend to focus in on the mechanics of language and writing, or the glory of unleashing your creativity, or both. There’s nothing wrong with that per se (I love your take on writing), but in so many of those books there’s the tacit implication that by learning to “write well” you’ll know how to write a story. It couldn’t be less true.

Sure, learning to write well is a good thing, but only once a writer really understands what a story is – I’m not talking story-structure, mind you – but story itself. Knowing what the reader’s brain is really responding to when they can’t put the book down, and how to craft a story that delivers it, is the most important thing a writer can learn. It’s also the first thing a writer should learn.

Right now, no one else is writing about what I do – in fact, on one else is teaching it. I just finished teaching a nine month master class in novel writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program – these were accomplished writers who’d spent years studying writing, including one who’d just received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious universities – and the thing I heard most often was that they wished they’d read my book before they started writing. Especially the woman who’d just gotten an MFA.

Sheesh, self promotion has never come easily to me, and I’m not saying I’m brilliant or anything, just that I’ve stumbled onto something that no one else is talking about – and run with it.

Do you plan to take the storytelling lessons learned and apply them to your own work? Will we see a novel or a film from you?

Maybe! But for now, there’s nothing I love more than working with writers, and helping them wrestle the story in their head onto the page.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I want to take my message about how the brain processes story far and wide.  It’s such a game changer, and my goal is to help writers understand what story is before they start writing.  The scary thing is that right now, it’s advertisers, right wing politicians and televangelists who really understand the power of story, and how to wield it.  I want to change the equation, so that many more writers, the nonprofit world and politicians who need to learn how to use story (Democrats, are you listening?) have that same power.