Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Is Your Brain... On Story

Brains… brains… brains… The fondest desire of zombies everywhere.

It should also be the desire of writers looking to connect with their readers.

What am I talking about? The ‘neuroscience of story’, as presented in Lisa Cron’s book on writing, “Wired for Story” (10 Speed Press, 2012). Essentially, it's 'this is your brain, on story'. This book was a major game-changer for my writing, and I recommend it as part of every writer’s tool box.

The book discusses why people crave story (it’s ‘how we make sense of the otherwise overwhelming world around us’). Cron bases her work on current research in cognitive science (complete with exhaustive footnotes and references). Story, she says, is ‘the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters’. We look to story to guide us in how we deal with the world and the social interactions required of us in it.

Just as our brain tells us a story which allows us, the protagonist, to avoid the impending car crash or the lurking sabre-tooth tiger rustling in the bushes, so we look to the written story to help us navigate the potential pitfalls inherent in our existence. In other words, what might I expect if I were pursued by those brain-craving zombies. Or if I cheerfully embezzled a small fortune from the mob and made a run for a friendly South American nation with a sultry brunette, one jump ahead of both the FBI and some determined hit-men.

But even though we know why we read stories, what is it about a story that will keep us reading beyond the first few lines? For this to happen, the reader has to be invested—to have that overwhelming desire to know what happens.

Cron posits that story trumps beautiful writing. Just because you’ve written well (i.e. the use of ‘beautiful language, vibrant imagry, authentic-sounding dialogue, insightful metaphors, interesting characters’, etc.) doesn’t mean that people will want to read your book. You’ve got to get beyond the ‘who cares’ factor. If the story doesn’t force the reader to want to find out what happens next, you’re stuck in ‘so what’ land.

And to get beyond that ‘who cares’ trap, you need to hook the reader from the very first page. This is why so many agents and editors only want (or need) to read the first few pages of your book. They already know this. They realize that if they aren’t hooked in that first little bit, to the point where they have to get more pages to find out what happens next, the reading public won’t be either. Which means no sales. No sales means no percentage. No point.

Story, Cron says, does not equal plot. Plot is stuff that happens. Story is designed to answer the question the reader wants to know—how the plot affects the protagonist. Plot is what ‘facilitates story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue which is keeping him from achieving his goal’.

One of the key points of “Wired for Story” is that everything that happens in a story needs to happen for a reason. And that reason is that it somehow leads the protagonist on his journey, or prevents him from progressing on his journey. But whichever way it may be, everything in the story needs to be relevant. Look at a scene that you’ve struggled with and sweated over and cursed at until it was finally brilliant and beautiful. If you still can’t answer the question ‘what’s the point?’ then chances are your reader won’t be able to answer it either. And will fast lose interest.

And that’s the fatal error. If the reader loses interest—decides he doesn’t care what happens next—you’ve lost. You’ve lost a reader. Lost a sale. Lost a potential return customer who otherwise might have come back to buy your next book and see what's next.

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably have not done justice to a marvelously insightful book. I read it last year when I was (re)writing my debut novel. And every time I studied a chapter of Cron’s book, I’d go back and look at my own work and find umpteen examples of the things she was warning against. Make changes, read another chapter, and find myself back at the drawing board again. Maddening, granted—but ultimately, it made me write a much better book. One that, I hope, will hook the reader from the very first line and keep them invested all the way to ‘The End’.

If you’ve never dipped into “Wired For Story”, give it a try. I think you’ll be fascinated, and enlightened. And invested. 

Keith W. Willis is a Champagne Books author whose debut fantasy novel, TRAITOR KNIGHT,  will be published in Summer 2015. Find Keith at:


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Sounds like an interesting book, one that a writer should internalize to the point where s/he no longer needs to read it.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

The premise is perfect in the book, and you did give us the bones of his advice.

Now we have a job to do.

Liz Fountain said...

Seems like a must-read book. Thanks!