Please give a hearty welcome to Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story!
How To Grab the Reader’s Brain: The Facts of Fiction
The most common mistake writers make happens long before they ever set pen to paper, and is not their fault. They diligently read books on writing, take classes, join workshops, work really, really hard and still end up writing novels that leave readers cold. Why?
Because they made the mistake of believing a very stubborn misconception that’s been perpetuated in the writing community for generations.
I’m talking about the notion that learning to “write well” is the same thing as learning to write a story. This couldn’t be less true. Make no mistake: it’s the underlying story that gives the words their power, not the other way around.
What’s worse, that misconception is directly tied to an even more insidious mistaken belief: that what hooks the reader is “having a way with words” -- lyrical language, authentic dialogue, vivid description, and a compelling voice.
This is such a seductive belief, because no one can deny that every one of those things is good.
But having a way with words is not what makes a novel compelling. One thing, and one thing alone, hooks readers: the story driven desire to know what happens next. Everything else is gravy.
If we don’t want to know what happens next -- even if it’s the most exquisitely written novel ever --it’ll still be what’s known in the trade as a beautifully written “Who cares?”
The brain doesn’t care a whit about lyrical language in and of itself. What the brain does care about is making it through the night. And that’s where story comes in.
We’re wired for story because it was crucial to our survival – story allowed us to envision an unpredictable future, the better to figure out how to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, should they ever be aimed at us.
In other words, the primary goal of story is something much more meaningful than mere entertainment; we use story to make sense of the world. And that delicious sense of pleasure we feel when a story grabs us? It’s a neural rush of dopamine, triggered by curiosity. Think of it as nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to the story, because hey, someday there might be a test on it out here in the real world.
So how do you ignite that “what happens next?” curiosity in the readers’ brain? By giving it what it’s actually hungry for. Here are the Big Three.
A Juicy Problem
It’s so obvious, and yet it’s amazingly easy to overlook: from the very first sentence a story must revolve around how someone solves an unexpected problem that, no matter how hard they try, they can’t avoid. This is crucial because it gives us something to try to figure out. Hmmm, we wonder, how will she get out of that one?
Without a clear and present problem, the reader has nothing to measure the story by. They can’t anticipate what might happen next because they don’t know what the point of anything is. Narratives like this aren’t really stories, they’re just a collection of things that happen.
So before you write your first sentence, know what your protagonist wants. I like to think that in every story there’s a wolf at the door, breathing down the protagonist’s neck. What’s your story’s wolf? What’s the big problem? And what does your protagonist want to do about it?
An Emotional Connection
Pop quiz: What’s the best way to make a decision -- cold dispassionate reason, or going with your gut?
Can’t quite make up your mind? I’m guessing that your gut probably voted for itself, while your calmer, rational sense of reason said, Wait a minute, let’s think about this.
Don’t. Because it’s a trick question. Turns out, there is no such thing as cold, dispassionate reason.
Even when we make a stab at analyzing the facts, we’re still feeling something about them. And it’s those feelings that drive our analysis and, consequently, any action we take. In fact, neuroscience has shown that when we can’t feel emotion, we can’t make a rational decision. Or any decision – everything really does become six of one, half a dozen of the other.
In life, if we’re not feeling, we’re not fully conscious; when it comes to story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. The reader’s goal is to viscerally experience what the protagonist does. We want to see what he sees and feel what he feels, so he better be feeling something.
Thus as the protagonist pursues his goal, it must force him to feel a whole range of messy emotions – after all, that’s the price of risk and conflict, something that most of us have been taught to avoid from day one. Which is precisely what brings us to story. We want to know what it would feel like to take those risks, to work through that conflict.
A Deeper Meaning
The question is: how do you unite the two things we’ve been discussing and so ignite the reader’s curiosity for the long haul? This brings us to the nature of story itself.
Surprisingly, most writers have no idea what a story really is. Often, they believe that a story is the same as the plot – which is flat out wrong. A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist as she pursues her quest, and how she changes as a result.
In other words, we’re not simply interested in the surface logistics of how the protagonist solves the problem. What we really want to know is what solving the problem is going to cost her, emotionally. What will she be forced to confront and overcome? How will she then see the world differently than she did in the beginning?
This is where the story’s real -- and deeper -- meaning lies. Which means that the reader must be aware of what achieving the goal means to your protagonist, beyond simply accomplishing it.
Want a down and dirty example? The movie Die Hard. Sure, on the plot level it’s about whether John McClain can outsmart (not to mention out live) the bad guys and save everyone at Nakatomi Plaza. But what’s it really about? It’s about whether McClain can win back his estranged wife, Holly. That’s what surviving means to him. Throughout the film, this is what motivates him, what he struggles to achieve, and why we’re rooting for him from the get go.
So the question to ask yourself is: what is your reader really rooting for when they read your story? If it’s simply that your protagonist will achieve his surface goal, roll up your sleeves and dig a little deeper.
For years Lisa has worked one-on-one with writers, producers and agents developing book and movie projects. Lisa has also been a literary agent at the Angela Rinaldi Agency, and is featured in Ask the Pros: Screenwriting. For the past six years Lisa has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence is now available wherever books are sold.