“No Stories Are Plot Driven!”
Lisa Cron on the dangers of pretty language, foolish outlines and why no stories are plot driven.
In the second of a two-part interview, Creative Screenwriting spoke with Lisa Cron about the dangers of pretty language, foolish outlines and why no stories are plot driven..
Tell me about our draw to pretty language. What are some of the dangers of getting wrapped up in the language itself?
Language comes last. Beautiful language doesn’t have any meaning. People talk about a love of language and it makes my eyes roll back in my head. What does that even mean?
Language by itself is just a vessel. It’s empty. The meaning comes from the story that you’re telling and if you haven’t dug deep and got that story down, what do you have to express in language? Nothing. It gets in the way.
I had someone tell me in a recent Q & A session that what she had the hardest time with was the fear of writing ugly. She meant that the language wasn’t pretty, right out of the starting gate, and that made her feel like a bad writer. She’d question herself and her ability and then would stop writing. But we can put that to rest because pretty language comes last.
When you’re writing, you’re digging for the story and that’s what is then going to be expressed in that language. That’s what gives that language its power. If you’re gussying up what you’re writing before you know what it is, it’s like talking to someone but you don’t have any point. You’re saying these flowery things. But the thing about that flowery language is that after about a minute it starts to get really annoying.
I think the reason that writers fall into this is because (at least with novels) when you read, what you see is the beautiful language.
It goes back to those layers of intentionality. What makes it feel like real life is how the protagonist is responding to what’s happening in the moment – that internal struggle as they’re trying to accomplish something and not let other people see it.
You know that expression “never let them see you sweat”? Stories are about sweating. They’re about what we’re really thinking as opposed to what we’re saying. And of course it’s not just scene by scene and different in every scene. It’s that one problem that complicates, that one thing you’re trying to get to.
When you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, what you see are two things: the language and the plot. So it’s very easy to think you can write really beautiful, flowing sentences and come up with a plot – and if you’re talented, a story will appear. But it doesn’t work that way.
I think one of the biggest things that often holds writers back is the fear that it’s got to be perfect from the very first sentence. Which by definition it can’t be, because you don’t have the story yet. So what writers end up writing is basically a bunch of things that happen and there’s no there there.
Let’s talk about plot versus story.
There are no stories that are plot-driven. Every story is character-driven. Some stories are more plot-heavy and more things happen…but by definition, the plot is just a bunch of things that happen.
What makes us care about it is how it’s affecting somebody in the moment as they’ve got some struggle and it’s personal and it has to do with some difficult choice they’ve got to make. That’s what gives it meaning.
The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. It’s very different. Story first, plot second.
Stories, whether you want them to or not, change how people see the world. Most of the time we don’t know that. Most of the time we’re being affected by stories and we have no clue that we’ve been affected – which is what gives writers such a tremendous amount of power.
There is no such thing as mindless entertainment – that’s something people made up. All stories are changing us, always. If you want to redefine mindless entertainment, it’s this: story comes in through your gut and it makes you feel something and then that changes how you see things. But it never goes through your conscious brain on that level.
If you want to think of them as mindless that way, then maybe! But not mindless as in “it doesn’t affect me”. It does. Writers are so incredibly powerful. Story is so incredibly powerful.
We take things in through story. That’s how we learn things. That’s how we navigate reality. That’s how we take the abstract facts out there and translate them into something super-specific that makes them accessible to that one system we use to make every decision – our emotion. And that’s not a bad thing.
Emotion is just your neurological system’s way of letting you know what something means to you. That’s why in story you don’t ever have to say “Joe is happy” or “Joe is sad”. All you have to do is show the internal struggle – what the character’s thinking, how they’re making sense of it. And you can get the emotion onto the page or into the scene without ever having to use any big box emotional term. It’s just there in how the character’s making sense of it.
Of course the only way we make sense of things is based on what our past has taught us those things mean. That’s why you need to know the very specific past of your protagonist.
General is the enemy of story. That’s a problem a lot of writers have. They’ll drum something up in general that they don’t even have the specific for. “Jane had a hard time in school.”
What does that mean? A hard time because she cheated all the time? A hard time because she cut school? A hard time because she was bullied? You pick one of those things and who did it and why.
Those are the things that matter and what you have to find out first. That’s the layer of story that most people don’t even think about.
Tell me your view on blueprint versus outline.
I think an outline is a foolish idea from the beginning. Because all you can outline is the plot. And story is not driven by plot, it’s driven by the character’s reaction to what happens.
In terms of blueprint, I really struggled with that while writing this book…with what the actual word would be. I don’t say – nor do I think that – you can write any kind of a story, be it a novel or a screenplay, where you’re going to blueprint the whole thing out first and then start writing.
I think that you first need to dig in and dig up the specifics that are going to be in the story. All the work that I’m talking about, when you’re digging into your protagonist’s story-specific past? Other characters come from that, the things that they’re going to remember come from that, and very often the things that actually happen in the novel or the script come from that.
So it’s not pre-writing – it’s actual writing and most of it catapults into the actual screenplay or novel itself.
The only way to blueprint is kind of like building the bridge as you’re walking on it. You dig this information up and you end up getting that beginning part, which is the hardest thing to write.
Blueprinting really comes to having some idea of where it’s going to go and what might happen in the future. And beginning to make a scene card.
Something might happen in the future, but it takes a long time to finish a scene card, because there’s so much that you need to know. Both what happens externally and as important, what’s happening internally. Because that’s what’s driving it and why you can’t outline something from beginning to end out of the starting gate.
That internal stuff is what moves it forward and you can’t know what that is until the scenes move forward. Very often, in almost every scene you write, especially in the beginning, you’re always being sent back into the past to find out more about the character.
What advice would you give, specific to screenwriters?
I think it’s the same as what I would say to novelists. You want to know what your point is from the very beginning. What’s your story about? And what it’s about is the way your protagonist’s story-specific world view is going to change toward the end – that “aha” moment. Or not!
A great example of a character that doesn’t have one is in Woody Allen’s movie Blue Jasmine. You’re waiting for her to wake the hell up, but the character doesn’t arc and doesn’t change. But that’s what it’s about.
It’s really knowing that. It’s the internal that drives the external. It’s getting that onto the page in the beginning. It’s not holding things back for a big reveal later, so that we really are grounded in what the story is and what’s at stake from the very beginning and why it matters to the character.
Take the HBO series The Night Of. That first episode was amazing. I thought it was brilliant because while very little of it was in the dialogue, you always knew why he was doing what he was doing. You’re thinking “Oh my god, this poor guy”. They made you like him in the beginning. The show captured all the seeds and you watch it all build.
You also knew while you were watching that every single thing that happened was going to come back later. There was nothing that was wasted. They were all meant to be seeds that were clearly planted from the get-go and were going to come back. They also made you like everybody.
Another piece of advice I can offer is that a little goes a long way. I’m thinking back to the countless scripts that I’ve read where you think “OK, this is a person who’s never seen a movie”. They’re having people talk about what’s in the refrigerator…just minor stuff that has nothing to do with anything.
But I would say the biggest piece of advice I have for anybody is remembering the story is one single problem that grows, escalates and complicates. One problem, not a bunch of them.
Again, in The Night Of, Nasir Khan wanted to go that party but he didn’t have a car so he took his dad’s – that’s the one thing. It escalates and it complicates and it ripples through. And the problem is internal – everything external gets its meaning based on how it’s affecting the protagonist in terms of what they want.
Every character enters the story already wanting something and that’s their agenda going all the way through. I remember at one of my UCLA classes, everyone had works in progress. I asked them “what does your protagonist enter wanting?” and nobody could answer the question. A lot of them were surprised it even was a question.
What do they want, what’s their agenda, what’s that “aha” moment going to be, where are you going, what point are you making? Those are the things you need to know first. Why will what’s happening matter to your protagonist? Other than “because they’re shooting at him and he doesn’t want to die”.
I often use the first Die Hard as an example. He enters wanting something – he wants to win his wife back. That’s what makes us root for him, and it’s a very human thing. That’s why getting rid of Hans Gruber and saving Nakatomi Plaza from being obliterated matters to him.
If we don’t have that “why it matters” from the beginning then we don’t care. And it’s hard to write forward because then the plot starts to pull you forward and it becomes one of those story structure issues.
I think story structure is a misnomer. It’s not story structure, it’s plot structure. Story structure is the by-product of a story well told. Later on you can go back and look at the details such as “when does Act 2 end?”
If you’re thinking of it that way to begin with, you’re only thinking of plot stuff. And now your protagonist is being yanked forward by your plot and your plot is what’s galloping away. As opposed to the protagonist driving the plot.
I think the saddest thing that pulls us apart is that because story got lumped in with “it’s just entertainment” we see so many stories that end up where what it makes you want is something that’s impossible. Like a perfect romance where they live happily ever after.
So you’re aspiring to something that not only doesn’t exist but the truth is that if it did, it would bore the pants off you and would be awful. But we’re still looking for that perfect thing.
We’re still looking for that thing that the story has made us believe is true. It’s a powerful tool and the more we understand it, the more we’ll be able to wield it in a way that will change the world for the better. If you have a point you want to make – and all writers do – it will help you not only make it but really change how people see the world.