Four Writing Tips from Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

I recently read Wired for Story by writing instructor and former literary agent Lisa Cron. Cron makes the good point that our brains are wired to be attracted to stories and offers insights about how to make stories more naturally appealing.

Here are some of my favorite tips from the book:

1. Internal vs. External

The interplay between external action and a character’s internal reactions are very important for driving the plot forward. In most scenes, something will happen to the character (external), but it is the character’s emotional reaction and interpretation of the event (internal) that provides the necessary firepower to keep the story moving.

On a larger scale, characters will have both an external concrete goal as well as an internal goal that drives it. For example, Laura might have an external goal of creating a successful startup. Her internal goal, on the other hand, might be that she has always felt a need to win the approval of those around her. Note that the internal goal and external goal aren’t always compatible – perhaps Laura’s struggle to make her company successful ends up alienating those around her. A conflict between external and internal goals can make for great tension.

2. “Show don’t’ tell” doesn’t mean to visually show a character’s emotions. It means to show the reasons for the character’s emotions. 

 “Show don’t tell,” is a pet peeve of mine – not because it’s bad advice, but because it is so easily misinterpreted by beginning writers. (I was one of those – for the longest time, I avoided internal narration for fear of “telling” too much. I’ve also seen writers mistakenly interpret “show don’t tell” as “never summarize anything” or “use florid prose.”).

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron clarifies another misinterpretation of “show don’t tell.” Showing that John is sad doesn’t mean describing his sobs and tears in intricate visual detail. It means showing the forces that made him sad. For example, dramatizing the board meeting where he loses his job.  When the reader hears the spiteful words of John's coworkers, sees John's own reactions, and takes in the cold unforgiving conference room, she will gain much insight into the story

3. The Mirror Subplot

Consider having a subplot with a similar situation to the main plot, but that resolves in a different way. For example, a novel about a couple’s failing marriage could have a subplot about their unhappily married neighbors. Perhaps in the subplot, the neighbors breaks up, whereas in the main plot, the couple ultimately sticks together. Additionally, perhaps seeing the neighbors’ messy breakup contributes toward the main couple’s ultimate decision to stick together.
4. Good questions to ask beta readers after every scene. In my blog series on beta reading, I provided some sample questions to ask beta readers at the end of a novel. Cron gives some useful questions to ask at the end of each scene. These include “What do you think is going to happen next?”, “What do you think the characters want?”, “What, if anything, leaps out as a setup?”, and “What were you dying to know?”.

So what do you think?  Any of this advice resonate with you?

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  1. Very interesting, I may have to get a copy of that book for me kindle :)

  2. Mirror subplot. Great idea. Thanks.

  3. Thanks, I've been thinking about buying this for a while

    Especially the 'show don't tell' tip is useful. I've also avoided internal narration which made my writing dialog heavy (I also had a morbid fear of writing purple prose).

  4. Thanks - nice post. The show-don't-tell tip is great.

  5. Wired for Story is one of the best books on writing that I've read! Glad you found it useful as well.

    Cathryn Cade

  6. I especially like the "mirror subplot." In a recent review of a performance by Al Stewart, I remarked upon his agile use of allegory in his lyric writing. It is the absence of subplot (and of course, other devices) that makes much pop music so unidimensional; i.e., disposable.