Response to Barbara King

Story Genius and the ‘Third Rail’ of Narrative

Specific emotional meaning is the means to transmit universal meaning to the reader

David Rhoades
2 min readMar 27, 2024


Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

I read Story Genius a few years ago, and the idea of the "third rail," the character-specific emotional meaning of a given event, has stuck with me.

The way she explains it, if a character has a deep emotional association with, for instance, stairs and death, then any situation requiring her to take the stairs would have vastly different meaning for her than for a character who uses stairs without a second thought. Her use of the stairs could be an expression of love, devotion, relentless vengeance, or whatever the story requires.

I don't follow Cron's prescribed methodology or use her scene cards, though they might be useful for writers who don't have an established writing process. Regardless, I think there's merit to considering the emotional impact of a character's experience.

What I appreciate most is the attempt on Cron's part to link storytelling with how people actually learn from life experience on a fundamental level. Biologically speaking, our emotions sometimes function as a learning accelerant. An experience that generates a heightened emotional state allows us to learn more quickly and deeply.

It makes sense humans developed that trait—some lessons don’t give you room to learn them twice. From that perspective, it’s not surprising we developed storytelling before we developed agriculture. The survival of our species may well have depended on our ability to learn from other people’s negative (or final) experiences, and the ability to elicit strong emotions in the recounting would be vital to imparting those lessons effectively.

What I think the book doesn't get into enough is how the specific meaning a character ascribes to narrative events communicate broader, universal themes to the reader—and that's how story actually works: as a way of modeling human behavior so that we can glean lessons from someone else's experience.



David Rhoades

Working class writer, editor, and photographer. Journalist for Socialist Alternative. Writes essays, horror, and science fiction.