Book review: Story Genius

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The “brain science” part in the title might make you think this is a dry, analytical approach to story construction, but Lisa Cron peppers this book with plenty of humor, often painting herself as the target, as she details a very specific approach to outlining and planning the story that will drive a novel. The brain science is basically recognition that humans are hardwired to enjoy a good story, due to how important stories were to the survival of early humans. Cron explains this better than my glib rundown would suggest, but don’t mistake this for a book about brain science. It’s not, it’s about writing a novel.

She comes down hard on so-called “pantsing” where a writer just grabs an idea and then wings it, hoping that over the course of 300 or so pages it all somehow works out (hint: most of the time it won’t and the writer will abandon the story. I can vouch for this by my amazing tower of unfinished stories, now in the running as one of the wonders of the modern world). Instead, she favors an approach where you, as the writer, are always asking questions about your story and its protagonist, the most persistent question being,”Why?”, followed closely by “And so?” The latter is asked at the end of a scene, to prompt the writer to explain how the end of the scene leads into the next. The questions prod the writer into thinking through the character’s actions and motivations before committing to the actual writing. No winging it allowed!

Cron is also an advocate of what she calls Scene Cards where each scene of the novel is explicitly detailed on a card (she recommends virtual over physical), with items like the Alpha Point, the plot (cause and effect), the consequences and so on. She rightly observes that writing software like Scrivener is pretty much tailor-made for the level of organization and planning she advocates.

You might think all of this planning would result in a story that is so predictable as to be rote and not especially fun to write, but Cron notes that there is always plenty of room for developments to grow organically and take off in one of several directions–as long as those directions continue to work in service to the protagonist and her motivations/beliefs.

I’m not sure I could commit to the level of planning Cron suggests, but I can’t deny that a writer who does is bound to come up with a story that is solid and able to pull a reader through to the end. In a way the approach reminds me of bestsellers that are derided for the quality of the writing (Shades of Grey, Dan Brown novels) but are successful due to other strengths, such as the storytelling (I’ll admit to never having read a Dan Brown novel, so I’m assuming there’s something other than the prose that compels people to read his books). Even if you don’t write deathless prose, following Cron’s method may still produce something people will enjoy reading.

Story Genius is made more entertaining as Cron enlists one of her friends and fellow author/writing coach, Jennie Nash, to follow Cron’s technique in developing a new novel. The reader gets to watch the development of this novel’s protagonist (a woman who refuses to get close to others for fear of getting hurt and ends up kidnapping a dog and, well, it gets complicated) and how all the parts of the story–background, supporting characters, motivations and so on, come together to create a compelling whole. I was a bit disappointed that the end result of Nash’s work was not made more clear.

All told, this is a meticulous approach to novel-writing and one that will likely bear fruit for the writer who is willing to commit to the techniques described. Heck, even only following some of the techniques, like always asking why, or compiling Scene Cards in the way Cron describes, will likely result in a stronger story. Recommended especially for people who love plotting.

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