Reading Time: 5 minutes

Lisa Cron’s books, “Story or Die” and “Story Genius,” should be right up my alley, as she offers brain science suggestions for improving one’s writing. She has helped me realize why my stories are flat, but her suggestions have blocked me more than empowered me. This piece is to work through my issues. I apologize for the nitpicking. She has two quality books. 

I get hung up on the word misbelief. As Lisa claims, the protagonist has a misbelief that prevents her from achieving her goal. A story revolves around the protagonist’s struggle to relinquish this cherished misbelief in the “aha” moment. The external events that force this transformation are the plot. So what is the problem?

Misbelief makes it sound like the protagonist has the emotional IQ of an idiot. Lisa suggests that the protagonist is a proxy for the audience. In my head, I have formulated this syllogism: If the story’s protagonist is an emotional idiot and a proxy for the reader, then the reader is an idiot. 

My readers are bright and emotionally intelligent. They don’t identify with someone who holds on to stupid beliefs just because that is their backstory. They can argue and defend a mental model but can change their thinking without an existential emotional crisis when presented with new information that improves their understanding. 

In “Story or Die,” she uses the example of a Water is Life ad with a two-minute video about a four-year-old Kenyan boy who doesn’t have access to clean water. The NGO created a video about helping him complete his bucket list to get the waterworks flowing from the potential donor’s tear ducts into the boy’s village. In this example, the implicit protagonist is the viewer who can save the day with a donation. I have a problem with her analysis. Here is Lisa describing the misbelief of the viewer:

“The misbelief: Drinking water is safe and plentiful, and of course, a four-year-old will live a long and full life.”

I don’t believe the problem is naivete. I, for one, as a viewer, know damn well that not everyone has access to clean water, and people, including young children, suffer because of it. It’s not a misbelief. It’s not that I don’t care, either. I know it’s a tragedy, but I have not donated to that cause. My takeaway from brain science is that the brain, above all else, is a filter for extracting meaningful information from noise. Like many other good causes, this one got lost in the noise.

I question her interpretation of brain science. Yes, I have read that we evaluate things emotionally. However, our thinking brains construct scenarios, and our emotional brains assess them. The brain needs the plot to build scenarios as much as it requires the emotion to decide. Those dry, boring facts about the severity of the problem matter to me, maybe because I am a “Logician,” according to Myers-Briggs, a decidedly small minority in their catalog of personality types. 

Why has my brain filtered out this boy and all like him in the past? My brain has evaluated if donating to that four-year-old boy (who, by the way, has already satisfied his bucket list items) will make my life more meaningful than all the other things I do with money to make my life meaningful. That is the basis of my decision, not merely giving in to pathos. 

So, just because you get me to cry and feel miserable doesn’t mean I will donate. As Lisa points out, telling people what to do will cause them to shut down, but on the flip side, a tear-jerking story alone only makes me feel manipulated. 

So, I don’t want to throw away the baby with the bath water because Lisa’s books are powerful writing tools. Here is what Lisa has given me so far (word for word):

  • There is one person (the protagonist, the person who will experience the conflict)
  • With one unavoidable problem (the external conflict)
  • That spurs one internal struggle (misbelief versus truth, the core conflict)
  • Leading to one “aha” moment (the protagonist’s realization, the point your story will make, resulting in the emotion you want your audience to feel)
  • Which allows the protagonist to solve the problem and take action (the transformation).

To progress, I want to change her misbelief and truth into concepts I can write to. I need something else. 

Trust or mistrust is a good thing to build a story around. The internal struggle is evaluating your level of trust and misreading intentions. What could be more valuable to survival than knowing who and what to trust or mistrust? Arguably, our big brains evolved to ferret out the honest people from the psychopaths. In this model of human evolution, art, including storytelling, is a tool for expressing empathy and outing those who lack it. Evolution is not the survival of the fittest; it is the survival of those who cooperate the best. Adapting Lisa’s framework to “trust and mistrust” instead of “truth and misbelief,” a story is about trusting someone when you shouldn’t or not trusting someone when you should. The “aha” moment is the realization that the opposite is true. 

Titanic comes to mind as a story that fits the trust framework rather than the misbelief. Lisa would say Rose’s misbelief is that she has to live as a prisoner of the well-to-do in high society. But that doesn’t hold up. She is looking for an escape from the beginning, contemplating diving off the backend of the ship if that is what it takes. The “aha” moment for that premise comes halfway through the movie when she says, “I know. It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I trust it.” The movie’s arc isn’t overcoming that misbelief but trusting Jack as the catalyst for her escape. She doesn’t trust herself to do it, but it is not because she has misbelief; she must learn from Jack how to shed her high society shackles. She is briefly tested again with the alleged “Heart of the Ocean” theft but doesn’t succumb. Her training is complete when she peels Jacks’s frozen body off of the wooden bed frame. I don’t think that is an “aha” moment: “See you later Jack. I can go it alone now.” The more significant trust issue is the faith of all those unfortunate people who trusted Titanic. Spoiler alert: the Titanic sinks.

Vulnerability is just another face of trust. It involves revealing something about yourself to someone that could cause harm, whether physical, financial, or emotional. In this model, the story simulates the risk and reward or lack of reward for the reader so the reader can make an informed emotional decision about the value of the revelation. 

Another story model could be finding meaning out of the noise. Story is about meaning. It is the transformation from what gives the protagonist meaning at the start to what provides the protagonist with meaning at the end. Meaningful decisions are about hard choices. When I say hard choices, I mean they are defining. There is no right or wrong choice, misbelief, or truth. I don’t think it is “Story or Die.” It is “Story, or you might as well be Dead Inside.”

Meaning is also about making a difference. How will my donation make a difference in the world, and what reward will I get? The movie About Schmitt comes to mind. A small donation to strangers in a faraway place makes more difference, as revealed by a thankful letter from his donation recipients, than all of his other failed attempts with those close to him. I want my thankful letter, not your manipulative story and endless requests for more money. 

Misbelief, trust, or meaning? Depending on the story, you can choose any of the three, and I’m sure there are many more frameworks to choose from. Think guidelines, not rules.

Ghost of My Shadow

Reading Time: < 1 minute

My shadow was the light that would follow me,
the ghost is emptiness where the shadow used to be.

The apparition is gently opening the door,
finding my shadow doesn’t wait for me anymore.

Stepping on my shadow in the gloom of the night,
its ghost is my memory when the sun shines bright.

My shadow would levitate its food in the air,
the ghost is the story of a feat so rare.

Casts the shadow no longer, yet the ghost is always near,
the mournful presence of moments held dear.