Story Genius: write powerful novels with purpose

In both my coaching and editing, I have found that there is one key ingredient that can lift anyone’s writing practice to the next level: getting clear on your purpose. When you know what you want to achieve with your writing, that will be your motivational engine, keeping you going when the going gets rough. When you know what the purpose of each paragraph or scene is, it will be easier to make your text shorter and more powerful. But what I never realized to this extent until I read Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius, is that your character’s purpose is what drives the book. And that that has its roots in evolution!


Story Genius book cover

If you know how to plot a book but you still feel your novel is lacking in “umph factor,” Story Genius can help you write a more powerful book that will hook your reader! So in this blog post, I thought I’d tell you a bit more about it, so you can see whether this is the right author resource for you. 

Character development and purpose

From the very beginning of Story Genius, Lisa Cron is clear on a distinction we writers often forget to make. With all our focus on plot, we often forget about story! In her words: 

Story Genius quote: A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.
Story genius quote: The protagonist’s internal struggle is the story’s third rail, the live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.

Or in my own words: it’s the character’s feelings and reactions that keep us engaged in the story – and yes, that’s as true for a murder mystery as a romance novel. You can focus as much on intrigue and plot as you like, but if the characters don’t care, neither will your reader. Or, to again borrow the words of Lisa Cron: “The events themselves mean nothing; it’s what those events mean to someone that has us compulsively turning the pages.” 

So why should you care about feeling?

In my experience, the reason why events often mean something to a character, is that they either align with or contradict what it is the character wants or needs. And therefore, the development of a character is often the purpose of the story, and therefore the book. 

Now, if you write detective novels, I can see you start frowning. Detectives, after all, don’t necessarily need to develop throughout their book: it’s the crime they’re trying to solve that unfolds, not the main character. But still, a detective has a purpose and a desire (to solve the crime). And when events either bring them closer to or further away from their goal, they certainly have emotional reactions. And more often than not, the whole plot hinges on the detective’s expectations being overturned – which always constitutes a development (the detective will never look at something the same way again) and a reaction (shock, surprise, disappointment, or renewed determination).

The MC’s purpose

And yes, this all comes back to purpose. The main reason being: the purpose of a main character is, more often than not, to give the reader someone to identify with. So once you have this identification established, it is essential to keep emotionally prodding the MC, as a way to keep emotionally stimulating the reader – thereby keeping them interested. As I said: if the main character doesn’t feel anything, neither will the reader. 

Makes sense, no? 

And that means that you need to get very clear on the purpose of your story. What do you want your reader to feel? What do you want them to realize? If you know what journey you want to send your reader through, you know what you need to make your protagonist experience. 

Story Genius: how to craft your story

The beauty of Lisa Cron’s method is that it works for both plotters and pantsers, and can be combined with any plotting technique you like. This means that to use her strategies, you don’t necessarily need to overturn your entire process. What it will allow you to do, however, is get clear on the story that will propel the reader through your book. 

For this, Cron uses one big strategy: to look at the protagonist’s “dueling duo”:

That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Your protagonist, or main character, wants something. However, in their past, they have developed a mistaken belief that keeps them from getting what they want. The tension between these two is what drives the character development and therefore the story. And it’s easy to see how this would fit with every genre or outline structure you can come up with. 

Why Story Genius can help

As a developmental editor and writing coach, I know that in many books that cross my desk, what’s missing is exactly what Lisa Cron calls “story”, and what I call “purpose.” In fact, I wrote a blog post where I called purpose the number one developmental editing tool! If this is something you struggle with too, I highly recommend you give Story Genius a go. Not only does it spend a lot more time making the case for this Big Idea than I have, but it will actually take you through the steps you need to take, to turn your inner struggle into a story. 

What’s more, it does this in a very pragmatic way. Throughout the book, we follow Cron’s friend Jenny Nash as she uses the program to write a novel herself. it doesn’t get more concrete than that: to see practical examples of the exercise you’re supposed to do. 

Final thoughts on Story Genius

As I said: I think purpose is one of the most important tools in the writer’s toolbox. I have used it as an editing tool – to shorten texts and strengthen arguments – and a coaching tool – as a source of motivation (which is something ADHD writers often lack). I’ve recommended other books to you in the past. But what Story Genius brought home to me, which the others never did, is that the book’s and character’s purposes directly translate to the reading experience. If your story doesn’t quite work, that probably means that you aren’t clear on your character’s purpose. And lucky for you: there’s a book that helps you work through that! 

So if you ever get in trouble during the writing process (and let’s be honest: you will!), investigate your purpose on each of these levels. 9/10 Times, the purpose is where it’s at! 

If you’d like some help with any of this, just know that I’m here. Simply click on the button below to go to my scheduling page, and find a time slot in my calendar for your free appointment!