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Writing the Third Rail…

Notes and thoughts on the presentation on writing fiction at the

Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium 

June 10, 2017, Southwest Virginia Community College



It was a major insight for me to realize that story is not about plot; it’s about how the plot affects the protagonist. This was good news, because what I like is thinking about my characters. I love them, but I know that my job is to push their buttons, to push them to grow. And, if I’m honest, to learn from their growth. I hope readers do the same.


Lisa Cron (see the names of her books below) insists that story is critical to our lives and that this is borne out by the recent (last fifteen years or so) of brain research. I found a recent story that extends this idea to the new field of prospective psychology. That study says that we are forward-looking creatures, the past and the fleeting present simply providing data to guide us in what we will do next.


The idea is that our brains evolved into story-hungry devices that allowed us to share experiences—without having to actually live through the saber-toothed tiger attack or eating the wrong berries. As we shifted to less physical concerns, stories told us how to navigate the social seas. People who read, read. Others go to the movies, take in reality TV, or, as a last resort, listen to gossip. Any way we do it, our brain takes in stories, filters the new experience through the stories we have built up in the past, and prepares us to move on.


You would think that creatures whose brains actually thrive (the dopamine rush, the oxcytocin reaction) on story would know how to construct one. But, the knowledge of how a story works in our brain is apparently akin to the knowledge of how we breathe or digest or any such bodily function. Cron insists we can use the insights of brain science to write better stories.


She makes the leap to saying that therefore, stories must be about people who face challenges and who change (or fail to, if it’s a tragedy) because that is what our brain is looking for: specific situations challenging people we can relate to in order to see how they react.

I take this to mean, as Cron and writer Anne Lamott and many others assert, that all good stories are character-driven, that plot is important because it is how we challenge our characters. We do indeed get caught up in good writing, a fast-paced plot, clever twists, and we think that is why we’re drawn to story. But the foundation lies in the character we identify with. Our brains have no need to understand the craft behind a good story; in fact, our brains work to suspend reality in order to focus on the story.


This seems right to me. I know I think in story. I tell myself stories about how my husband and I met, why I write, how much trouble I have finding a new hairdresser. If anyone were to ask about any of those topics, I would have my story ready. Furthermore, I refine those stories every time I visit them, updating them to fit my current situation or to reflect new experience.


Readers need to do the same. They need to experience how it feels to navigate the plot, to take the internal journey, not the external one. Therefore, they need to experience the protagonist’s internal as well as external dilemmas.


For the writer, this means we start with a character with an issue, with a button that can be pushed. Later, after—or while—we are thinking up ways to torment the character, we may notice that we have a theme, that we are making a point. That’s good. It gives us focus. It introduces the important question: what do I want my reader to continue thinking about after she finishes the story?


But the details of making the point are the craft in question.


We start with character. We need to know backstory and details only as they apply to the character’s misbelief. Elizabeth George calls it the core need accompanied by a pathological maneuver. I have to write those out. I have stories I never thought would see the light of day about my main character and even the secondary folk. (They have seen the light of day as vignettes in my little character book.) I like interviews. (The interview with Terence Kelley also made it into the character book.) I have lots of those, along with recollections and journals and so on, in addition to the stories/scenes that play in my head. I have to know these folks to know what buttons I can push.


Then craft becomes even more critical in the details. The plot must keep its focus on the characters’ needs. Everything is on a “need to know” basis. Voice and point of view are technical decisions that define the character. Head-hopping should be avoided, and I am working these days on deep point of view in order to keep the authorly voice to a minimum. I can’t stray from cause and effect, on the emotional side as well as the plot/physical side. Emotion is critical.


All this sounds scientific on one level, and we are led to believe that science is the antithesis of emotion. But emotion is the language of the brain, the language of story. The physical reactions in the brain are reactions to fear, joy, and so on. If we can identify the physical reaction, we are tapping the right keys. And it seems that our brain will produce those reactions even if we are reading a story instead of running from the saber-toothed tiger. Story is that important.


As writers, we may have done a lot of research. I write historical fiction, and it’s become an even bigger thing as I head into a new series that involves World War I. But I am not an historian now. I am not writing about the war. I’m writing about a man, Carl Schroeder by name, who has serious decisions to make, a tangled background to make sense of, specific demons to face. Everything I am learning about espionage from 1916 to 1919 goes onto shelves in my mind, specific events to be pulled off as props to help me push Carl’s buttons. Other characters will be created for the same reason—and if I tip over into making anyone of those characters real enough, I will have to know their backstories and their demons. But those issues must be related to Carl’s issues or they go in another book.

Cron insists that the writer needs to be checking at every point to make sure the reader knows the rocks and the hard places for the characters. In her second book, she outlines how a writer would proceed to tell a tale that literally hooks readers by inducing pleasure in a story-seeking brain.


Her first book is Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, published in 2012 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley. Unlike most writing books, this one has actually has endnotes to document the science she uses. There are quotes from a good number of well-known scientists, including Stephen Pinker, Michael Gazzaniga, and Antonio Damasio.  If you go online, you can find descriptions of research from Paul Zak and many others. A good search is “brain science and storytelling.”


Cron’s second book is a how-to, entitled, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. It contains details and worksheets and follows the writing of her friend, Jennie Nash. Along the way, Cron ruthlessly debunks myths about writing, including the advise of great writers. She rails against the myth of the shitty first draft, the myth of external story structure, the myths of both plotting and pantsing. She says that great writers who are natural storytellers may not be the best ones to explain how to write. They have never had to take their writing apart or examine their process.


I also featured, in my talk, a list of things you need to know about your main character and maybe some of the secondary ones. I got this list off a pinterest/blog pin, and I’m frustrated that I can’t find a name or even a website as the source. But it’s the most helpful list I’ve found. It’s called The Ten Elements of a Main Character, and I will repeat the list here, along with examples for Julia in Train Song. I list these in a different order than on the website—more along the lines of what I presented.


The first is what the blogger calls a psychological or moral weakness. He ( I will say he for conciseness given that I don’t know the writer) implies that moral weakness is what you’re looking for when you write a villain; psychological weakness is a better term for the protagonist. The difference is that a psychological weakness only hurts the person in question; a moral difference leads the person to hurt others. Julia’s psychological weakness is that her fear of failure leads her to be too bold in her quest for respect.


The next question involves “want,” what the protagonist thinks she wants. In Julia’s case, that’s respect. This would be the response if I asked her what she wants.


The next question involves “need,” what the protagonist really needs—what I, the writer/creator, knows that she needs. And the answer to that is self-respect. She needs to lose that fear of failure that makes up the negative side of her quest for respect. Julia would not have the answer to this one. If she did—and heeded it—there would be no story.


The next question is described by the blogger as “ghost.” By that he asks what is the back story, what was the event that triggered the psychological weakness. In Julia’s case, it was her mother’s rejection of her. Based on a quick description of the situation, a  psychologist told me that Anna, Julia’s mother, saw her herself as a failure and projected that failure onto Julia. She repeatedly told Julia that she would never be womanly, that she’d never attract a man, that she would basically fail. Anna meant that Julia would fail at the things Anna thought important, but Julia was young and took that to mean that she would fail at anything she tried. So, while Julia thinks she needs respect from society, she really needs to respect herself. I have recommended that folks write this out. For Julia, it was spread over time, but a vignette entitled “Coming of Age in the New Century,” captures the gist of Julia’s psychological problem. (You can read it in In-Between Murders: Stories that LINK and ILLUMINATE the novels of the Julia Nye Mystery Series.)


Then, he asks what your character’s true “character” is. By that, he means, what is character like when she’s not worrying the psychological problem. What are her good characteristics and bad? What would she be like if she solved the psychological problem? Julia would be courageous, iconoclastic, caring, justice-loving, precise (meaning both scientific and neat), smart, disciplined, romantic. Are there negatives? Of course. She is NOT sentimental, laid-back, artsy, or fashion-conscious. Her need to see her world organized and predictable makes her tend to see things in black and white. And, she can’t cook. Although she has a plan for dealing with that.


As to the continuing characterization and plot, it might be worth noting that William, her husband, sees all that in her and loves her for that—not what she might assume he loves her for.


. . . because we also need to know the characterization, the face she shows the world and the one we see first in the novel. The Julia we see first is brash, bold, in-control, detrimentally stubborn, and, in the words of Chief Wright, “not an easy woman” when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation.


One of the items the blogger lists early is goal, the obvious goal the protagonist pursues. I put it down here because it deals with plot, and I want to put character before plot. But this is clearly important. For Julia in Train Song, the goal is for William to be safe and, beyond that, to be the one who insures it.


And then, given her goal and character, there is the arc of the story. At the beginning, Julia feels that she has to use her skills to save William. Otherwise, she will be a failure—big time if she loses her husband. By the end, she realizes that, while she can help because of her skills, it is not solely her responsibility. William is competent to watch out for himself. Terence Kelley can be help.


The ninth element is the changed person. Julia’s self-respect increases, her fear of failure decreases, and she begins to understand that William loves her for the real character above, not for the characterization, the persona she has built up to hold back her lack of self-respect.


The tenth element is not really a character element; it’s a technique. The blogger says to play it out, meaning not to offer all this in the first chapter, but to let the reader learn the ins and outs of Julia’s character and situation.


I have worked through these same elements for two other characters in Train Song. Carl Schroeder is always the second voiced character in the series, and I am pushing his growth for his role as the protagonist of another series (set in World War I.) Terence Kelley is the equivocal character. He is something of an unreliable narrator, and readers may not be sure if he’s a good guy or a bad one. That carries on his tradition from the first book in the series. His psychological weakness threatens to tilt over into a moral weakness: he intends to make something of himself and leave his past behind, even to the point of bending his morals. His difficulty with “bold” women, including his wife, who appears in Train Song, his lover from the first book, Amelia Ingle, and Julia as co-worker, stem from the death of his sister many years before. She was a bold woman who encouraged him to break free of his ethnic stronghold—and died for her boldness. Julia finally figures out that he respects bold women but needs to defend them, in the name of his sister.


Once you know all this about your character and the arc plays out, you can begin with character and go back and forth between that plot. I offered an example of how that works out for Julia in the first several chapters of Bread and Roses, and I copy it below.


So, having done all this work on characters and plot, what is the connection to theme?


I don’t like the word theme. It implies I’m going to preach or at least hit the reader over the head with some piece of morality. Maybe it’s better to say, “what’s your point?”


Cron does this in her first book for Gone with the Wind. There are several possible ways to describe a point for the classic. Margaret Mitchell said the book was about how people with gumption survive. Cron offers several sentences that attempt to get at that, each flawed until the final one that includes Scarlett’s misbelief.


The first attempt has to do with loving the wrong man, but that makes it sound like a romance that ignores the huge scope of the book.


Another attempt talks about bucking the societal tide to survive the war, but it’s too general.


Another says the novel is about how traditional class structure in the South gave way during the war. But Cron wisely says that sounds like nonfiction.


Her next-to-the-last attempt says this:


Gone with the Wind is about a headstrong Southern belle whose unflinching gumption causes her to spurn the only man who is her equal, as she ruthlessly buck crumbling social norms in order to survive during the Civil War.


But that doesn’t get to Scarlett’s biggest misbelief: that land is more important than anything. So Cron adds a last phrase to the long sentence above . . .


By keeping the one thing she mistakenly believes matters most: her family estate, Tara.


I found this idea of knowing your point helpful. I went back to the Julia Nye Mystery Series and wrote down the point of each one. Once, I would have said the point was to solve a particular mystery/crime. But now I put the point in terms of how Julia moves toward overcoming her expectation of failure and acknowledging that she is worthy of respect. I recommend the exercise.


If you have questions or comments about writing, I’d love to talk with you.

I surely don’t have all the answers, and I’m open to new ways of thinking about writing.

Don’t hesitate to contact me through the website or at

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