Story Genius by Lisa Cron is a great writing craft book to help you dig into the heart of your novel and find that magical “third rail” that keeps a reader engaged from page one until the very end.
At its most basic level, the third rail is your main character’s internal conflict. This includes their goals and misbelief that they must accomplish and overcome to achieve their happily ever after. It’s that internal struggle, more than the external plot, that drags readers into a story and doesn’t let go.
While Story Genius is a great resource to learn about the third rail and how to build your novel around it, the one thing I wish it had more of is examples. I’m an example girl. I need examples to fully understand and apply a concept.
With that in mind, I decided to seek out some examples in pop culture and share them with you all.
First up, we are going to focus on the delightful musical, The Greatest Showman!
Note: This post does contain spoilers for the movie. If you haven’t watched it, go do so now and then come back to check out this article.
Who’s the MC?
Before we can identify the third rail, we need to figure out the main character. While a novel (or movie or anything else for that matter) can have multiple key point of view characters, there is generally one who is our star. In the case of The Greatest Showman (let’s call it TGS for short), our MC is none other than Mr. Phineas Taylor Barnum himself.
What is their misbelief?
P. T. Barnum’s misbelief is that he needs everyone to love and respect him in order to be truly successful and happy.
I really love the way in which the movie addresses this and forces P. T. to confront it over and over again before he’s finally able to overcome it. For example: the song “Never Enough”, which not sung by or to P. T., is actually about him. Fame. Money. Success. None of it was enough for him.
At one point his wife even directly confronts him with his misbelief when she says “You don’t need everyone to love you, just a few good people.”
A great story should force your MC to come up against their misbelief and wrestle with it over and over throughout the course of the novel until, at last, they are finally able to overcome it and experience that true internal change that’s at the heart of the story.
What happens to ignite the external plot which forces the character to deal with their internal conflict?
In a novel, this should be your opening scene. In the case of the TGS, the movie starts out with a lot of backstory. While that backstory is relevant to help the viewer understand the MC’s misbelief and goals, ideally you wouldn’t hit us with that first.
A great novel starts the moment that life goes from normal to abnormal. Something happens (the MC makes a choice, something external happens that affects them, etc) which triggers them to start a journey in which they must address their internal misbelief. I.e. it triggers the internal struggle. Often whatever this event is also triggers the external struggle as well.
So, in the TGS, what event happens that starts P. T. Barnum on the path to address his misbeliefs and change as a person? The company he works for goes bankrupt, forcing him out of his daily routine and into taking a risk on a new venture: Barnum’s American Museum. This is the beginning of the story, and if this were a novel, I would start here.
Where does that misbelief come from?
Now, I said I’d start a novel with the scene where the company that P. T. Barnum works for goes bankrupt. This doesn’t mean that everything that happens before that in the movie is unimportant. Far from it.
The first 12 minutes of the movie contain important backstory. This tells us the details of P. T. Barnum’s life that we need to know in order to understand his misbelief and where it came from.
Specifically, we learn that:
• P. T. grew up as the poor son of a tailor with nothing, especially once his father passes.
• He fell in love with a girl from a wealthy family and promised to give her everything.
• He has big dreams of living in a beautiful house and chasing fantasies.
• His father in law isn’t a great guy and expects P. T. to fail, which makes P. T. want to prove him wrong.
These are just a few things we can take from the opening scenes; however, all of these are events which helped to fuel P. T.’s misbelief (He has to be rich and famous to be happy and respected) and his goal (Prove that he’s something by acquiring wealth and proving everyone wrong).
Earlier I mentioned that I wouldn’t start with the backstory, so where would this go? Ideally it would be sprinkled throughout your novel, leaning heavily toward the beginning, but likely stretching throughout most of it. This could be shown in a number of ways: memories, dialogue, comparisons between past and present, small flash backs, etc. There’s no limit on the ways in which you can share these details with the readers, but ideally you give it to them one small spoonful at a time. Enough that they get to know the character without getting bored or overwhelmed. Like the tightrope, it’s a balancing act.
What event in the story finally forces the MC to overcome their misbelief?
As I mentioned in the beginning, P. T. comes up against his misbelief many times throughout the movie. This is the third rail humming in the background, along which the whole plot of the movie runs. Yes, the music is great, but if we didn’t have a solid story to go along with it, the movie would not have been as engaging or memorable.
Ultimately, that third rail has to lead somewhere. If the MC never learns or changes, the narrative will fall flat. Yes, they overcame XYZ external plot point, but a movie or a novel without internal change will not have the resonance it needs to really make it memorable.
Eventually something happens to make the MC realize their misbelief and overcome it. This is the critical moment of change. Typically this happens near the end, usually around the darkest moment and/or climax.
In TGS, this moment of change comes at the end of the darkest moment. The circus has burned down, P. T. is bankrupt, and his wife has left with the kids to move back in with her parents. All is lost. It’s in this dark moment, with the help of his friends, that P. T. finally comes to realize what’s truly important to him (a few good people who love him) and that he doesn’t need to impress everyone or have it all in order to have what matters most. He’ll never have his father-in-law’s approval, he may never be respected by high society, but that no longer matters to him. He’s overcome it.
By being able to put that misbelief aside and move past it, he is able to reclaim the things that truly matter: his wife, his daughters, and his circus family. And with a little (or rather, a lot of) help from that circus family, he even reclaims his financial success.
Now that’s a happy ending.
Stay tuned for future examples of the third rail in pop culture and how you can apply this skill to your own writing.