The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.

Neuroscience of Narrative with Lisa Cron

September 15, 2021 Ingenium Books Season 1 Episode 34
The Ingenium Books Podcast: Author. Publisher. Changemaker.
Neuroscience of Narrative with Lisa Cron
Show Notes Transcript

It’s every novelist’s greatest fear: pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into writing hundreds of pages only to realize that their story has no sense of urgency, no internal logic, and so back to square one they go for a total rewrite.

What's your approach when this happens to you? You might think you have only two choices here: pantsing, which is winging it, or plotting, which is to focus on the external plot. 

Story coach Lisa Cron has spent her career discovering why these methods don’t work and coming up with a powerful alternative, based on the science behind what our brains are wired to crave in every story we read (and it’s not what you think).

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story, Story Genius and most recently, Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life. Her video course, Wired for Story: How to Become a Story Genius can be found at, and Writing: The Craft of Story at 

Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference. She spent a decade in publishing, and has been a literary agent, television producer, and story analyst for Hollywood studios. She has also served on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in visual narrative and, since 2006, has taught in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. In her work as a private story coach, Lisa works with writers, nonprofits, educators, and organizations helping them master the unparalleled power of story.

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Introduction 00:05
Welcome to the Empowered Author podcast. 
Discussion, tips, insights and advice from those who’ve been there, done that, helping you write, publish and market your nonfiction book.
Being an author is something that you’ve got to take seriously. 
I’m proud I’ve written a book. 
What does the reader need, first? What does the reader need, second?
What happens if you start writing your book before you identify your “why”? What’s the problem with that?
You’re an indie author, you take the risk; you reap the rewards; you are in charge of the decisions. You’re the head of that business. 
Every emotion you’re feeling when you’re writing is felt by every other writer.
The Empowered Author podcast. Your podcast hosts are Boni and John Wagner-Stafford of Ingenium Books.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 00:57
It’s every novelist’s greatest fear: pouring their blood, sweat and tears into writing hundreds of pages, only to realize that their story has no sense of urgency, no internal logic. And so back to square one they go for a total rewrite. What’s your approach when this happens to you? You might think you have only two choices here: pantsing – which is winging it – or plotting – which is to focus on the external plot. Story coach Lisa Cron has spent her career discovering why these methods don’t work and coming up with a powerful alternative basing – based, rather – on the science behind what our brains are wired to crave in every story we read: and it is not what you think. Now, I took much of that introduction from the introduction to one of Lisa’s books. Lisa Cron is the author of “Wired for Story”, “Story Genius” and, most recently, “Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade and Change Minds in Business and in Life”. Her TED talk, “Wired for Story” – TEDx talk, actually – “Wired for Story” opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference. She spent a decade in publishing and has been a literary agent, television producer and story analyst for Hollywood studios. She’s also served on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in visual narrative and, since 2006, has taught in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. In her work as a private story coach, Lisa works with writers, nonprofits, educators and organizations, helping them master the unparalleled power of story. You can see that Lisa knows what she’s talking about. Lisa, thanks for joining us today. 

Lisa Cron 02:46
My utter pleasure. I am so happy to be here. 

Boni Wagner-Stafford 02:49
I just love talking about story and writing and oh, I’m looking forward to our conversation. So now creating an engaging, enriching and ultimately rewarding story for readers – and this is whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir – maybe any genre can really get a turbo boost when you understand the power of story on the brain. Lisa, tell me about that.

Lisa Cron 03:14
Okay, well, story is – and when I talk about story, to be very clear: I don’t mean story just purely in the way that we tend to think of it today, right? When you hear someone say, “Let me tell you a story,” you think of a bedtime story or a novel or a TV show or a movie. And those are very recent inventions. Story has been wired into the architecture of our brains for, you know, since for about 100,000 to 150,000 years. It’s literally built into the architecture of our brain. We think in story. We make sense of everything through narrative – and all narratives are a call to action. That’s what we come to story for: which is problem solving. And the only way that we can solve a problem isn’t to look at it, quote, unquote, objectively in terms of what’s going on in the external world but we solve problems internally. Story is about an internal journey, not an external journey. Because when you think about it, the way that we make sense of everything is based on one thing and one thing only: and that is what our past experience has taught us that those things mean in our lives. And we evaluate everything based on that. In other words, we don’t look at something objectively – some objective fact; we look at something based on boots on the ground: how is that going to affect me in my life? Is it going to help me or is it going to hurt me? Is it going to get me closer to achieving my agenda? Or is it going to get me clobbered? And that is the lens through which we make sense of everything. And that is narrative: that is our internal narrative. And when we’re lost in a story, any story – like they’ve done studies that show, fMRI studies that show the same area of our brain light up that would light up if we were doing what the protagonist is doing. That is, if we understand how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening. And when writers talk about, “Well, what’s the narrative thread?” – and it’s really easy to mistake that as what’s happening in the plot. Could not be less true. The narrative thread is the internal narrative that the protagonist or point-of-view character – but let’s talk about protagonist, especially if you’re obviously writing a memoir: something that’s nonfiction – is the sense and the logic and the meaning: the internal, subjective logic; not external Aristotelian logic but the internal logic that we are using to make sense of what’s going on so we can decide what to do. And that is literally, again, how we are wired. I just finished reading a book by a neuroscientist – I think he’s out of LA – and it was literally called “Your Brain is a Time Machine”. Because what neuroscience has really discovered is that, you know, the purpose of our brain, the purpose of memory, is to record past events in order to predict the future. That is what we’re doing from the moment that we are born: we are taking information in, we’re trying to figure out what we need to do, not to sound completely transactional but in order to get our needs met – and this is from when we are children – so that we can, you know, basically survive. Is this safe or isn’t it? And that’s not an external, you know, objective, quote, unquote, metric. That’s an internal metric that is created by our subjective reality and experiences that we’ve gone through, which is why I think, no matter where we are in the world right now, I think we can see this writ large in that you can look at any one, quote unquote, fact and you can find two people who are going to read mutually exclusive meanings into that: you know, not based on one’s done more research than the other – although they certainly might have – but based on, you know, what their past experience has taught us – it’s taught us; has taught them – that means. So yeah, we are wired for story. It is literally how we make sense of everything. And a story is about how what happens externally forces somebody to question their internal narrative: a narrative that they’ve probably mistaken for reality because we don’t see the world as it is; we see the world as we are but we think we’re seeing the world as it is. We think we’re being quote unquote, objective. And we really never are because it’s a concept we made up that on one level doesn’t really exist but we are looking at it that way. And so that’s what story is: story’s about how something external happens, forces us to question something that we have long believed because that belief is now leading us astray and now we have which is what I call a misbelief. Reality makes us question that misbelief. And now we have an aha moment. And the way that we see the world has shifted and now we can either solve that problem or we realize it wasn’t really a problem to begin with or, you know, in some stories – really sad stories – that misbelief is so deeply rooted in who we are, that we continue to do the thing that is actually, you know, self destructive, if that makes sense.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 08:09
Let’s pause for a moment for a message from our sponsor.

Commercial 08:13

Boni Wagner-Stafford 08:48
So for the writer – I want to get now into one of the – at least in the “Story Genius” book of yours that I’m reading now: you talk about, I can – correct me if I’ve got the phrasing or the positioning of this wrong – but the myth of there being two ways to craft your book, which is the pantsing – winging it and just going and letting your creative genius flow – versus plotting and plotting out the external story on a timeline. Tell me why you believe that those are not the only two ways and in fact, are not – either of them – a good way to start to craft your story.

Lisa Cron 09:34
Yeah, I would say – and I would just say, it’s not, I don’t think it’s my belief; I think it’s a fact. Which of course. But it has to do with how our brain processes information. And as I’m fond of saying to writers all the time: everything you’ve been taught about writing is wrong. I firmly believe that if the writing world where a person – I say this all the time – meaning the world that gives advice, I would punch it in the nose and go to jail happily because I think it derails most writers. And the problem with quote unquote pantsing – meaning, you know, writing by the seat of your pants – and plotting – as you’re saying, like, you’re going to plot the external trajectory – and often writers are presented as if those are the only two choices: back in the day, when we could go to actual writing conferences when we were like there physically and often you’d go and you’d get your little badge and they’d say, “Okay, which are you? Are you a pantser or a plotter?” And then they’d put it, you know, they’d put a little tag on your thing and it was sort of a, you know, a way of getting to know other people. And I say, “A pox on both your houses.” Because pantsing is the worst way to write ever. I think it is what has derailed so many otherwise fabulous writers because it’s basically like, “Okay, just start writing and see what comes.” And so, in the beginning, all you’re trying to do is really write something pretty. If a story is about how somebody solves a problem – and all stories are about problem solving: all stories are about how somebody solves a problem that they cannot avoid; they’ve got no choice but to deal with – so if you start pantsing, solve what problem? How would they solve it? Why would it matter to them? Where did it come from? Especially since, let’s be honest, as in real life, most problems by the time they hit that critical mass when we have no choice but to deal with them, they’ve been sort of gathering on the horizon for quite some time. I mean, problems often tend to be the unintended consequences of all the choices that we’ve made and that’s landed us, you know – but if you start pantsing, it’s like, what problem? It’s like saying, “I’m going to write a 300-page novel about somebody dealing with the most important turning point in their life: somebody who I know absolutely nothing about.” So people write forward and you don’t know where you’re going. Where are you going? What are you doing? What matters? What doesn’t? And then people start writing really, really pretty. They start thinking that writing is about writing beautiful sentences, which it is not: it’s not about the language because, you know, what is language at the end of the day? Language is just either sounds or squiggles on a page or, you know, sign language. Language is an empty vessel. Language is there to convey meaning and the meaning that matters is the meaning that your protagonist is going to read into what’s going on. And that comes from, as we said, their past experience. And if you start on page one, what past experience? So I think pantsing, literally – unless you’re someone who has a natural sense of story and some, very few people do and I don’t think it gets them all the way there. But that’s why. And it kills me: writers always want to learn to write from very, very successful writers. And I would say, never listen to those people: they’re going to tell you their process and it just works for them. And it just makes you feel bad because you can’t really do that. And with plotting: plotting, what happens is people will come and they’ll come, they’ll make some external – like creating a maze you’re going to drop a rat in: this is going to happen and that’s going to happen and that’s going to happen and that’s going to happen. And they’re external things. They’re all about what. And story isn’t about what. Story’s about why and how. So if you want – people come up with just plot points, then they drop a protagonist in and they’ve got a … It’s funny because then they’ll start writing really, really fast because it’s almost like literally a rat in a maze. And the protagonist goes into a scene and now they’ve got to ring that bell to get to the next one and ring that bell. And literally, it gets super boring. And more than that, you end up with a character who if they’ve got to ring whatever bell they’ve got to ring in Chapter One, by the time they get into Chapter Five, they’d never be ringing those other bells. But if they don’t, it collapses in on itself. And then you have what most – I hate to say this – but what most manuscripts are that come in to agents. And I don’t just mean manuscripts that are novels; I mean, you know, memoirs as well. And they really are nothing but a bunch of things that happen. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read, where if you asked me, “What’s it about?” I’d say, “It’s about 300 pages. I have no idea. It’s just a bunch of things that happen.” So I think both of those just lead you astray.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 14:01
So a question that I have for you is – and I didn’t find this in your book yet; you might get to it – but the ability to create or identify, depending on the genre, what that internal, I’m going to say motivation but I mean that internal journey – the starting point and the finishing point and, you know, the challenges that you overcame internally to make it a story – requires a different level of observation. Some people have it and some people don’t. Can you talk about that?

Lisa Cron 14:43
I don’t know that I’d say some people have it and some people don’t. I mean, it comes from and it’s what I do talk about in the book, you know, all the way through, which is, you know, the misbelief: in other words, something that happens early in someone’s life – and we all have: we all have worked with so many writers who said, “I was looking for my protagonist’s misbelief and I found my own,” because we all have them because they come into our lives early. Because as I said earlier, when we’re born, we have what’s known as an affinity for paternicity, which is a perfect example of why you never want to use $25 words, because what the hell does that mean? An affinity for patternicity simply means we’re looking for “if, then” patterns: if this happens, then – you know, if I cry really loud, that nice person is going to come in and give me milk. Once we see a pattern, we end up – we don’t have to think about it anymore. It gets relegated to what’s known as our cognitive unconscious. And that’s where we start to build this picture of the world. Again, we don’t see the world as it is; we see it as we are. This is what our experience tells us. So when we’re young, we don’t come in with some sort of a priori, “This is right; this is wrong; this is what I need to do,” and, you know, we just kind of read the, you know, read the rulebook, get on the page and do it. We come in and we learn from our family: from our, you know, for lack of a better term, tribe. And we don’t think, “Well, my family is this way but other families are other ways.” We think, “This is what families are; this is what people are.” So we take in, “What do I need to do?” – as I said before, not in a purely transactional way but you can see it that way – but, “What do I need to do to get my needs met?” And that’s where often the lesson that we’ve been taught is actually wrong: like a small child who might realize, you know, because of the way that her family is, that the nicer someone is to you, the more they seem that they really want to get to know the real you, they’re really just doing that so they can manipulate you into doing what they want you to do. Now, if you learn that lesson early in life, you might think, “Okay, the more someone wants to get to know me, the more they’re actually trying to abuse me. So I’ve got to be very, very careful of people who seem like they want to get to know me.” Now, obviously – hopefully, that’s not true of everybody in life – and you could see how that kind of a misbelief, deeply buried, would lead somebody to make all sorts of wrong decisions because they’re misreading what’s going on. So you’re looking for that misbelief. And you kind of got to. If you can’t do that, if you can’t take it down, there’s actually no point in writing because that’s what stories are about: stories are about how that internal way of seeing things causes somebody to, you know, probably, let’s face it, the problem that they’re facing on page one is something that they have caused to happen, not because they’re jerks or they did something wrong or they’re selfish but just because the way that they saw the world, they were misreading something. And now the plot, the things that happen, which is one story – again, a plot is one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates; not a bunch of its story; one problem grows, escalates and complicates – is going to now force them to dig deep and be able to see that the way that they’re trying to solve that problem isn’t working because of what they believe. And that’s how, and you’ll notice in almost all – whether it’s a memoir; whether it’s a novel; whether it’s a movie; whether, you know, whatever – there is that aha moment where the character, toward the end, they’ve been earning their way to the aha moment all the way through. It doesn’t come out of the blue ever. If it does, it totally wasn’t working. But it’s when they realize, “Wait a minute: I’ve been reading this wrong. Here’s what’s really going on.” And that moment is what changes everything. And that’s what we’re wired to come for. We don’t come for what; we come for why. And the why is always internal. Think of it this way: stories are like the difference between what somebody says out loud and what they’re really thinking when they say it. Because how often are those two things the same? And which one is juicier? Which one is more interesting? Which one is more revealing? What they’re (crosstalk). It’s what we’re wired to want to know: “I hear what you’re saying. What do you really mean?” That’s what story’s about. It’s about the raging mess inside. It’s about, you know, don’t want to see you sweat. It’s about sweating.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 18:52
So your advice for whether somebody believes their – and we’ll call it a misbelief: the misbelief that they’re either a pantser or a plotter – you’re saying throw those out the window. And where should a writer begin when they’re crafting their novel or memoir or whatever other genre of book? It does not start at page one. Where do they start?

Lisa Cron 19:19
So where you start – and here’s the thing: all stories begin in medias res. In medias res: fancy Latin way of saying “in the middle of the thing”. Doesn’t mean in the middle of the scene; it means literally the middle of the thing. In other words, page one of your story – in other words, you know, when you open it up and you’re on page one – is the first page of the second half of your story. And stories all begin with that misbelief which happens always in childhood; never – I would honestly say never older than 12 or 13. It can happen as early as 6. Often – and even if it is 12 or 13, it’s been building toward it. A misbelief, again, is that way where something happens; it challenges how that person sees the world. They realize at that moment – it is an aha moment: there should be an aha moment, every scene that you write – but it is that, “Aha, I thought the world was this way. Oh, now I know the nicer someone is to me, the more they’re trying to use and abuse me. I better be careful; I’m not going to trust anybody.” And then that character draws a conclusion. And then from that moment – let’s say that’s when the character is like 9 – and if the novel is going to open or the memoir is going to open when they’re 29, it’s not like – and I want to be really clear: in no way am I saying that you want to do one of those character bios and in general, what’s happened. Could not be more worthless: better to have nothing than to do that because that is all part of what is the enemy of story, which is the general. It’s general. It will be a summary. People will go, “Writers do it all the time: they’ll do a, you know, a one page summary of what happens to their protagonist from 6 to 29.” And it’s like, think about the definition of a summary: what is a summary? A summary is, all the specific things happened from 9 to 29 and you found the one kind of commonality and you’re going to pull it out and say it in general. But if you’re going to come up with something like that for what your protagonist’s past is like, you’re summing up what? There is no specific. The general, the conceptual, the abstract does not exist in real life. It is something we made up. It is the enemy of story. Story is in the specific. But it’s not like therefore, nor am I saying, “Okay, we’ll get her diary and everything that she did from 9 to 29 and you’re going to write, you know, 10,000 pages and …” What you’re looking for are ways in which that misbelief has guided her through her life: the mistakes that she’s made that’s landed her in the problem that she is going to be facing on page one, that’s about to kind of hit critical mass. So she’s got no choice but to deal with it. That’s what you’re looking for. So you’re writing – I know, in my book “Story Genius”, I said you’re looking for three, I think I call them “turning point scenes”: you know, where this misbelief is now steering them in a direction that’s going to land them on page one. It was a book: I had to pick a number. You know, two felt like too few; four was just like arbitrary; three is the magic number. The truth is, it’s probably way more than three.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 22:12
So I’m fascinated with the experience that you write about in story genius of your work with the educational organization around writing prompt exercises – if I may use that term – the “what if” questions in primary school. Can you tell me about that? How did you come to go? What was the problem that they were trying to solve that they had you come in to try to help them with? And what did you kind of pull apart and discover?

Lisa Cron 22:44
Okay, this was, it was a small school district in New Jersey, it was K through 8. So kindergarten through eighth grade. And the problem that they were facing was that – I don’t know: if you’re in the States, you totally know what I’m talking about. But they had so many standardized tests that these kids had to take. 

Boni Wagner-Stafford 23:03
Yeah, we have those in Canada too, yeah. 

Lisa Cron 23:05
Yeah. I mean, they’re just horrific: horrible because you can only test something, you know, that has a metric that can be tested. Intelligence cannot be tested that way. And the problem was their test scores were low, especially in the, you know, in the written language. And they brought me in because they wanted to help, you know, K through eight: they wanted to incorporate story into how they taught writing because they were hoping to bring their test scores up. And the problem with looking at some of these prompts – these things that the kids would get, you know, when on the test – and this is, I believe this is actually paraphrased from a test called the New Jersey ASK – and it was stuff like, “Jane’s walking on the beach and she finds a bottle with a message in it. Write a story about what happens.” Or, you know, “Martha comes into class and there’s a big box on her desk. She opens it up. Sparkly light comes out. Write a story about what happens.” Or, you know, “James wakes up and he hears voices in the backyard and he looks out the window and there’s a castle in the backyard. He goes to investigate. Write a story about what happens.” And the question is, why does it matter what happens? So that what happens when kids and adults get those prompts, is they end up freezing because, you know, writers will go, “But unleash your creativity. You can write absolutely everything.” And what happens is – and this is what studies will tell you – is that that isn’t absolute freedom. Absolute freedom to write anything isn’t liberating; it’s paralyzing. Because the question is, what difference does it make? And these kids would get prompts like that and they’d freeze. And they would – their answers would be something like – and we went into, we went into and we modeled it for several classes and when we saw what they did before, we heard stories like, you know, “James hears the,” you know, “the voices in the backyard and he goes into the, he goes into the castle and it turns out that actually it’s a castle from – it’s a spaceship – but it’s from the Middle Ages and there’s a knight with shining armor. But all of a sudden, the castle turns into a spaceship and it goes to space. And now it comes out. And now the knight is actually on an octopus. But it’s not an octopus. It’s actually got 20, you know, 20 actual, actually tentacles and they’re purple and they’re green. And then Luke Skywalker comes up and he wonders, ‘How did the octopus get the lightsaber?’” And then and then and then. And this is how all those stories would end. “And then James woke up because it was a dream.” Because if there’s no underlying why – if there’s no reason why, you know, a castle in James’s backyard or Jane getting the bottle or Martha getting the box on her desk – if there’s no reason why that mattered to them, if it didn’t cause them to question anything, it’s just a weird thing that happens. And when you start with a weird thing that happens, the only way you can escalate that is to go from weird, weirder, weirdest, until it collapses in on itself. And then it’s like that, I think it’s the eighth or ninth season of Dallas, where they just declared it a dream and moved on. It’s not about some weird thing. Exactly. It’s, that’s the problem with writing prompts. They don’t take you anywhere because they start in the wrong place. They give you a what without a why. And what without a why could not be more worthless.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 26:18
So what did you do with that, then? Did you help them craft different writing prompts? And I guess, you know, anybody – any writing group that encourages people to have writing prompts – should be paying attention here, taking notes, because I suspect this is going to make a huge difference.

Lisa Cron 26:35
What we did was – because we couldn’t: I mean, that was, I said to them, like, “Well, can you just take this off the test?” It’s like, “No, they are going to go in and they are going to get prompts like that.” So we said, “Okay, here’s a way that you can go in and questions that you can ask and have in your back pocket, so you figure out what is the point of the story? What is the point of this is going to be?” And we broke it down to, I think one’s called, it was called a foursquare. So you take, you know, you take a piece of paper and you fold it in half and then lengthwise again. So you have four squares. And I think it started with character: who is your story about? Problem: what is that external thing’s going to happen? Struggle: what is the internal struggle that the character is going to go through? Solution: how is coming through that internal struggle going to force them to come up with a solution? And as I recall – and I’m pulling this out, like, I haven’t talked about this in a while so let me see if I can get this exactly right: because the key thing you also want to ask even to get to that is what point do you want your story to make? All stories make a point, beginning on the very first page. This is why I also tried to have them get rid of the word “theme”. I would never use the word “theme”. I used it in “Wired for Story”. I’m embarrassed; I’d take it out if I could. Because theme, it’s like – believe it or not, they were asking kids about theme at the age of seven. And I said, “You ask adult writers to talk about theme and they’re going to start to sweat.” Because guess what? It’s vague. It’s general. What does it mean? How do you get it onto the page? The real question is point: what point are you trying to make? What are you saying about the human condition? What are you telling us about how we process information that if we see it this way, it’s going to help us live our lives? Because we come to all stories asking one question: what am I going to learn here to help me make it through the night? So we went down to, “What point are you trying to make?” So we thought, “Okay.” There was – I’m trying to think of what the prompt was or what the story was: I believe the prompt was something like, “James goes into the backyard with his mom. He’s in the backyard. He’s gardening with his mom. He hears a rustling in the bushes. He looks down. There’s a snake. Right, what happens next?” And I think, I believe that was the prompt. So the question was, “Okay, what” – I’m trying to remember: shoot. What exactly was the – and it was something like, I think the point was, “Think about how your actions are going to affect someone else before you act.” And so the prompt was, there was James and he’s in the backyard. What’s the problem? There’s a snake in the backyard. Right? So he’s out there with Mom. There’s, he hears a rustling in the bushes. He sees a snake. What’s the internal struggle? And the internal struggle was that James, what he wants to do is he wants to grab the snake and hold it up to Mom and go, “Look, a snake.” But the internal struggle is, he knows Mom is terrified of snakes. And so he thinks it’s going to be really funny: but she’s going to yell; she’s going to scream. That’s going to be great. So he goes down – so that’s the internal struggle. So what would the story be? So the story became, well, he goes down and he’s going to reach in the bushes because he wants to really do this because he thinks it would be super funny to scare Mom in that way. 

Boni Wagner-Stafford 29:55
Poor Mom.

Lisa Cron 29:56
But yeah, but when he goes into the bushes – because they’re big bushes – it’s pretty dark. And it occurs to him that he’s a little bit scared himself. And he thinks, “Wow, when I’m scared at night, Mom doesn’t just come in and turn up a light and go, ‘Hahaha, you’re alone in the dark.’ Mom put a nightlight in because she’s really concerned about me and she doesn’t want to scare me.” So now what does he do? He’s got this snake. He wants to get rid of the snake. Mom’s there. So what’s his solution? Solution is, he says to Mom, “Hey, Mom, I think your phone is ringing.” Mom goes into the kitchen, you know, to answer the phone; he takes the snake; throws it over the fence: let the neighbor deal with it because the neighbor’s not scared of snakes. And that solves the problem. But it was really coming down – and I can’t remember exactly the point: it was, we had a more succinct than “Think before you act.” You know, think about how what you’re going to do is going to affect someone else. But that was the point. And knowing just what a point is when you get the prompt helps you to craft it so that now we know that this – whatever this weird thing is going to happen – is going to challenge somebody to do something where they’re going to have an internal struggle. The struggle is between what they want to do and what they feel like they should do. What James wants to do is to take a snake and scare Mom. What he really should do is think about how Mom’s going to feel and then not do it. And that’s what that internal struggle is. Think of an internal struggle as always that “this versus that”: here’s what I want to do; here’s what I really should do. Here’s what I want to do and here’s what society tells me I have to do. Really often, that’s what stories are about: the difference between who we really are and who society tells us we have to be. That is that is the biggest struggle. I think most stories – again, whether it’s a memoir or a novel – are really about the cost of human connection. You know, what can I show someone else of myself? It’s that old, “I want people to like me for who I am. But I’m so afraid if I show them who I am, they won’t like me.” So what do you do? And I think that’s really the basis of so many stories. Think of it this way, sort of in a business way, to use business terms: Stories are really about an emotional cost-benefit analysis of taking a particular course of action. Emotion being – I don’t have time to go into this – but emotion is something we do not understand. We have – society has taught us: what society has taught us about emotion could not be more wrong; 100% wrong. Emotion is what telegraphs meaning: if we couldn’t feel emotion, we couldn’t make a single rational decision. Emotion is the decider; not our objective, quote, unquote, false rational logical selves, which is something, a generality we made up: it is actually a myth. It is an emotion that telegraph’s meaning because emotion is, in other words, when our past is telling us what to do, is giving us that information. It’s down there in our cognitive unconscious. It can’t sit and explain it to us. It hits us through emotion: we feel something, that gut reaction that lets us know what it means to us. Doesn’t mean we don’t even think about it. Of course, we do that as well. But if we didn’t know what something meant to us, literally, we couldn’t make a single rational decision. That’s not – that’s not my opinion. That’s not myth. That’s not metaphor. That’s biological fact.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 33:10
Yeah. Super fascinating. I hope listeners were taking notes because there’s a lot to digest here. And we’re at our little bit past our, my magic 30-minute, totally arbitrary 30-minute level. We could chat for much longer but I think I’ll wrap it up here. Just to kind of summarize the major points here, Lisa: you’re suggesting that the very purpose of the story – regardless of what genre – is to help the reader not only survive but to prosper, both physically and socially. And that we don’t turn to story to escape reality but to navigate reality. And we do that by thinking about the internal struggle and solution that the protagonist – main character: maybe it’s you if it’s memoir – goes through. And only then do we think about putting together the plot or the series of external events that show us how the protagonist is navigating that. I think I kind of got that. I probably got a couple of things wrong. But I want to thank you so much for your time, Lisa, and I look forward to reading the rest of your books.

Lisa Cron 34:27
Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s been a great pleasure. There’s nothing I love more than talking story.

Boni Wagner-Stafford 34:33
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