Creating a Great Story
My writing career was going nowhere. I’d imagined hundreds of thousands of dollars of income, fame, and something far more elusive, critical acceptance. My average annual income was hovering at $42.11; rejection letters carpeted the floor. Why? What was I doing wrong? I would have fixed it…if I’d known what “it” was.
Enter Story Genius by Lisa Cron, a book recommended by one of my writing buds—and the pieces fell into place. Cron’s hypothesis: All great stories have both an internal conflict and an external conflict. Because people procrastinate, because not a one of us wants to face our inner demons, great stories use an overwhelming external conflict to force the protagonist to grapple with his or her internal conflict.
Consider Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She was a discontented teenager looking for the way home. So crucial is Dorothy’s internal state to the story, that Dorothy’s fears are characters. She’s afraid to make tough decisions (the scarecrow); she fears she’s a coward (the lion), she doesn’t know how to love the people she cares about most (the tinman). I’ve always found the tinman incredibly moving. As a young woman becomes an adult, her body changes, and thus how she interacts with her family also changes. Physical demonstrations of affection can become awkward and stiff. Dorothy feels rusty, unable to move. She longs to be a child again, when affection was simple, when she could easily throw her arms around the people she loves.
The external conflict in the story forces Dorothy and her friends to face their fears. When Dorothy is kidnapped by the flying monkeys and taken into the lair of the Wicked Witch, the scarecrow hatches the rescue plan. Hmmm…smart and decisive. The cowardly lion is willing to fight the palace guards to save her. At the end of the story, when she must leave, the tinman weeps. Dorothy who, at the beginning, was willing to listen to munchkins (who told her to follow a stupid yellow brick road to find a wizard) learns that her future is in her own feet. Remember, the wizard did not get her home. She missed the balloon. Instead, she got home by clicking her heels together. Her actions, not those of a charlatan wizard, determined her future.
Thus, we see Cron’s classic pattern:
External Conflict → Compels the protagonist to face → Internal Conflict
The Wicked Witch of the West → forced Dorothy to face→ her fears about her own future
Before I put a single word on the paper, I ask myself: What is my character’s greatest fear? Then I craft an external event so powerful that my protagonist is forced to face that fear. I leave her no room to dither or escape. Finally, when she wrestles with her fear, when she grows, when she becomes more than she ever dreamed she could be, then I know, I’ve got a great story.