I was preparing for a talk I’m going to be giving this weekend to the Maryland Romance Writers when I was reminded of Lisa Cron’s concept of the Third Rail. This is an easy way to think about Story, Plot, Character development, and GMC all wrapped up into one very nice concept.

The Third Rail, according to Cron, is the opposition between what your protagonist needs (their goal) and the wound that is stopping them from attaining their goal. How your protagonist overcomes this misbelief is what the story is about.

Okay… that can sound like a lot of nonsense so let’s break it apart.

First, what the heck is a misbelief and a wound? Well, most people, usually when they’re a child, is told something or something happens to them that makes them believe something about either themselves or their place in the world. This is called their wound. From this wound, they develop a misbelief—that the world is one way or they are some way. The standard example of this is from the movie Good Will Hunting. When Will was a child, his father told him he was stupid. He believed his father and therefore never attempted to do well in school or do anything much in his life beyond being a janitor. The wound was his father telling him he was stupid, the misbelief was that he would never amount to much in his life so why even try?

All of our characters have a wound and you, their creator, need to know what it is. You need to know what misbelief developed from this wound. It is this misbelief that drive your character to act in certain ways throughout the book and it is this which must be overcome by your character. They need to learn that their misbelief is wrong—and no one can simply tell them that it’s wrong, they must learn it for themselves. How?

Through the plot of the story. The character’s actions and what happens as a result of those actions needs to ultimately teach the character that their misbelief is wrong. This is what the third rail is – the character’s internal struggle to learn that their long-held belief about either themselves or the world is wrong.

By learning this, by growing and developing, the external plot of the story is moved forward and just like a train cannot move forward without touching the third rail to obtain electricity, the story cannot move forward without touching upon this opposition of the character’s internal struggle and the external forces of the plot.

So, there you have it, the third rail! It is comprised of the character’s development (their growth from their misbelief into a fully developed, possibly self-aware, better person), the character’s goal, motivation and conflict, and the plot of the story (what happens).

To make this all a little easier to keep track of, Cron created this handy-dandy scene card:

The Plot: Cause (what happens) Effect (the consequence)



Third Rail: Why it matters The Realization – and so?