- by Dara Girard
Literary consultant Lisa Cron provided me with a copy of her newest release, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, and I believe it will give people a lot to think about. In order to whet your appetite about what’ this book discusses, here’s an interview with Lisa about some of the topics she highlights.
What intrigued you to study brain science?
The truth is, I’m always surprised when people aren’t interested in brain science – what could be more fascinating than finding out how we really process the world, and come to the decisions we do? I’ve spent my whole life believing, as the aggravated newsreel producer barks at the beginning of Citizen Kane, “Nothing is ever better than finding out what makes people tick.” It’s what drew me to story in the first place, and then to brain science.
I mean, understanding how the brain works is the same as understating how we work. Neuroscientists are actually able to watch the brain process information in real time, and their discoveries have been astounding, often flying in the face everything we’ve been taught.
For instance, when we’re lost in a good story, the same areas of our brain light up as do when we actually experience what’s happening on the page. It’s not a metaphor; story really is the world’s first virtual reality.
For me, the most thrilling moment came when I began to notice that all the articles I was reading on brain science were proving what I’d long believed about how story affects us, and that we are indeed wired for story. Talk about a life-altering moment!
You say “We think in story.” What exactly is a story?
First, let’s talk about what it means to think in story. This notion comes from neuroscience: story is how the brain processes information and makes sense of the world. In short, each of us is the protagonist in our own life, and we automatically evaluate everything we come into contact with based on how it relates to us, and how it will therefore affect us.
This is true both physically, as in that car is barreling straight at me, I better get out of the way; and emotionally, as in I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t volunteer to help the homeless. This is not to say that we only do good things because they make us feel good about ourselves, but that we evolved to gauge whether something is right or wrong based on how it makes us feel about ourselves.
This is what accounts for the struggle we so often face: there’s something we really want to do, but doing it will upset our vision of who we are.
And that is exactly what a story is all about: what it would cost the protagonist emotionally to achieve his or her goal? Which brings us to my definition of what a story is:
A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) who is trying to achieve a difficult goal (the story question), and how they change as a result (what the story is actually about).
In other words story isn’t about what happens externally, it’s about what the protagonist must confront and overcome internally in order to achieve her goal. Writers so often mistake the plot for the story, when in truth, the plot is constructed to force the protagonist to face an inner issue that’s holding her back.
I was fascinated by the chapter where you discussed the role of dopamine. What surprised you most about the role dopamine plays in the reading experience?
That the delicious sensation we feel when we’re immersed in a good story isn’t ephemeral or arbitrary, but real, physical. It’s the result of a measurable chemical process and as such it has a very clear purpose: to make sure we have the information we need to survive.
Because although getting lost in a good story is one of the greatest pleasures in life – like chowing down on a scrumptious meal — the primary purpose of story isn’t simply to entertain us. In the same way that food tastes good so we’ll eat it, stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them.
That’s why we can’t choose whether or not to respond to story: dopamine makes us respond. This reality never ceases to amaze me!
But for writers the real breakthrough came in discovering what, precisely, it is that triggers the intoxicating sense of enjoyment that we feel when a story hooks us. It’s not lyrical language, great characters, realistic dialogue, or vivid images. Curiosity is the trigger — the desire to find out what happens next.
This information is a game changer for writers. Especially given how often we’re led to believe that it’s “having a way with words” that hooks readers. In fact, words are the handmaiden of story, and story is what captivates the brain. Hello, dopamine!
Jonah Lehrer, a prominent neuroscience writer, says “Nothing focuses the mind like surprise.” How does this apply to effective storytelling?
What triggers surprise? The sudden realization that our expectations have been defied. In other words, all is not as it seems. The brain is wired to instantly respond to surprise because we want to know what the heck is going on, just in case we need to pack a bag and flee.
Storytelling is about just such a situation. All stories take place in the gap between what seems to be happening on the surface and what is actually happening beneath it. So surprise doesn’t just apply to storytelling. It’s what storytelling is all about, from beginning to end.
What hooks the reader in the beginning is that something out of the ordinary is happening – a predictable pattern has been broken — and what keeps them reading is that, along with the protagonist, they’re trying to figure out why, what it means, and what they should do about it. In other words: how will the protagonist solve the story problem?
Why is it that the majority of most aspiring writers get the ‘element of surprise’ wrong?
Two reasons: First, because they think of surprise on a very one-dimensional level – usually the plot level. This surprising thing happens, often at random, and while the protagonist has to deal with it, it’s so surface that it doesn’t advance the story at all because it has no real meaning beyond “Surprise!” Think of it as about as satisfying playing an endless game of peek-a-boo with a tireless baby.
Second, because of the mistaken notion that in order to really have the element of surprise, you have to hold back all information about it until the moment you spring it on the reader. The problem is this renders the “surprise” totally unbelievable because it hasn’t been set it up at all, so instead of being revealing, it’s a groaner.
Writers often do this on purpose, thanks to one of the most misunderstood writing devices: the reveal. That is, withholding key information in order to lure the reader in. Trouble is, aspiring writers tend to hold said information back so well that the reader doesn’t even know there is anything being held back.
Ironically, it’s often the very information what would have lured the reader in, and keeping it secret so flattens the story that the reader never even gets to the reveal. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!
You mention how mirror neurons allow readers to get into the skin of the protagonist. What’s one key way a writer can develop a relatable protagonist?
Let us know how the protagonist is making sense of what’s happening to her in the moment – not just what she sees and smells or what she decides to do, but why she’s doing it, why it means something to her, how it’s changing the way she sees the situation and her next move.
The brain is wired for problem solving and making meaning. How can a writer engage these elements into a story?
It took me an entire book to answer this one! In a nutshell, the goal is to write a story that focuses not on the plot, but on constructing a plot that forces the protagonist to come to grips with an inner issue that’s keeping her from solving the story problem and attaining her goal.
It’s this inner struggle that gives meaning to what happens on the surface, and is the genuine problem the protagonist must solve. Remember, the reader’s unspoken question isn’t simply, Will the protagonist achieve her goal? it’s What would it cost her emotionally to achieve it?