Why Are We Wired for Story?

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest isn’t a guest at all; she’s the newest addition to Writer Unboxed! Please join me in welcoming author and UCLA Extension Writers’ Program instructor Lisa Cron to the fold. We’re sincerely thrilled to have her.

Lisa’s craft book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, released just this month. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve had the chance to read Lisa’s book, and can tell you it’s truly valuable and already has a permanent spot on my shelf.

Lisa brings a background in brain science to WU, and being a former science major, I love the angle. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we write what we write? Why do we crave a certain type of story? Why, why, why? That’s a scientist’s favorite word, and Lisa is here today to give it a proper introduction. Welcome back, Lisa, and welcome aboard!

Why Are We Wired for Story?

What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?

You’d probably say, prove it. Fair enough.

First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve have been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.

It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re not what hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.

What does the brain crave? Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.

Which brings us to the real question: Why? What are we really looking for in every story we read? What is that sense of urgency all about?

Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, these are questions that we can now begin to answer with the kind clarity that sheds light on the genuine purpose of story, and elevates writers to the most powerful people on earth. Because story, as it turns out, has a much deeper and more meaningful purpose than simply to entertain and delight.

Story is how we make sense of the world. Let me explain . . .

It’s long been known that the brain has one goal: survival. It evaluates everything we encounter based on a very simple question: Is this going to help me or hurt me? Not just physically, but emotionally as well.

The brain’s goal is to then predict what might happen, so we can figure out what the hell to do about it before it does. That’s where story comes in. By letting us vicariously experience difficult situations and problems we haven’t actually lived through, story bestows upon us, risk free, a treasure trove of useful intel, just in case. And so back in the Stone Age, even though those shiny red berries looked delicious, we remembered the story of the Neanderthal next door who gobbled ‘em down and promptly keeled over, and made do with a couple of stale old beetles instead.

Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier.

Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.

In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.

The sense of urgency we feel when a good story grabs us is nature’s way of making sure we pay attention to it. It turns out that intoxicating sensation is not arbitrary, ephemeral or “magic,” even though it sure feels like magic. It’s physical. It’s a rush of the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. And it has a very specific purpose. Want to know what triggers it?

PhotobucketCuriosity. When we actively pursue new information – that is, when we want to know what happens next — curiosity rewards us with a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after midnight because tomorrow we just might need the insight it will give us.

This is a game changer for writers. It proves that no matter how lyrical your language or how memorable your characters, unless those characters are actively engaged in solving a problem – making us wonder how they’ll get out of that one – we have no vested interest in them. We can’t choose whether or not to respond to story: dopamine makes us respond. Which is probably why so many readers who swear they only read highbrow fiction are surreptitiously downloading Fifty Shades of Gray. I’m just saying.

I know that many writers will want to resist this notion. After all, the brain is also wired to resist change and to crave certainty. And for a long time writers were certain that learning to “write well” was the way to hook the reader. So embracing a new approach to writing – even though it’s based on our biology, and how the brain processes information — probably feels scary. The incentive to focus on story first and “writing” second, however, is enormous. To wit:

  • You’ll reduce your editing time exponentially because story tends to be what’s lacking in most rough drafts. Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
  • You’ll have a 1000% better chance of getting the attention of agents, editors and publishers. Yeah, 1000% is arbitrary, but it’s not far off. These professionals are highly trained when it comes to identifying a good story. They like good writing as much as a next person – but only when it’s used to tell a good story.
  • You’ll have a fighting chance of changing the world – and I’m not kidding. Writers are the most powerful people on the planet. They can capture people’s attention, teach them something new about themselves and the world, and literally rewrite the brain – all with a well-told tale.

Indeed, the pen is far mightier than the sword. That is, if you know how to wield it.

Fantastic post, Lisa! Readers, you can learn more about Lisa and her upcoming craft book, Wired for Story, on her website, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s  kevin dooley

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I’m on page 85 of Wired for Story, applying what I’ve learned thus far—workbook-style—to my WIP, and I’m LOVING it! Just wanted to say thank you, Lisa, for a breath of fresh air among all the writing craft books out there. Your book has been a tremendous epiphany for me!

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  2. says

    First, congrats and welcome to WU, Lisa! So happy to know I’ll be seeing more of you here. Second, I just downloaded Wired at the behest of fellow WU tribe member Bernadette Phipps-Lincke, who had nothing but raves for it. Third, I guess I should read it before I spend another day working at rearranging my deck chairs. I believe, I just need more deets. Thanks for providing!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Can I Entice You To Read On?

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  3. says

    “…Unless those characters are actively engaged in solving a problem… we have no vested interest in them.”

    This is excellent on boiling down the purpose of story, Lisa. Your insights on the human response into WHY we keep reading is very helpful and informative. Thank you for the great reminders and new info, as well as adding much food for thought for writers.
    Jennifer King´s last blog post ..My 3 Years in Prague

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  4. says

    This makes so much sense! Most of my previous first drafts have bits of pretty prose but lack story. I’m much more focused on story in my current ms and, although the whole process feels different somehow, I think it’s going to work out better in the long run.

    WIRED is already on my TBR list – looking forward to reading it! :)
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Motivational Monday

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    • says

      Thanks, Cindy! Be sure to let me know what you think after you’ve had a chance to read it. Here’s to the power of story!

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    • says

      Thanks, Annabelle! If you want a really fascinating look at the science and evolutionary biology that backs up that intuition, check out Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and literary scholar Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Oh, and while we’re on the subject on books about the brain that are impossible to put down, don’t miss David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

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  5. says

    Excellent post, Lisa, and perfect timing since I’m in the process of doing final edits on my manuscript before submitting to agents. I’ll definitely pick up your book.

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  6. Carmel says

    I love Donald Maass. I love James Scott Bell. I owe them big time for getting me on the right track. But this is the best writing advice I’ve ever read. And the best secret anyone has ever told me. Off to get my Kindle. Hope you’re on Kindle.

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    • says

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Carmel. And of course I’m on Kindle. It’s hard not to be these days! Let know what you think of the whole book. I’d love to hear!

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  7. says

    How suscinct. Especially for action/adventure/mystery writers (my genre) its problem solving, problem solving, problem solving. All the rest is setup and embroidery. Thanks for the focus.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Wall Stickers

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    • says

      Hi, Alex, that’s so true! Story is the same whether it’s a romantic comedy, a literary novel or a mystery novel. I love mysteries; from Nancy Drew as a kid to Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain and now, P.D. James and Walter Mosley to name a few — they ruined many a day for me, because I was utterly exhausted from having stayed up to 4 a.m. reading. It’s so funny, isn’t it, how you’re so wide awake when you’re reading that you can’t imagine how tired you’ll be come morning. That’s how powerful story is.
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

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  8. says

    Lisa, welcome to WU! So great to have you here. I absolutely love and agree with what you say about the need for urgency–and about us as a species being hard-wired for story. I have 2 little girls and it’s been absolutely fascinating to me that from a very young age (like just 2 years old) their made-up stories will conform to the same basic framework and principles we all strive for as a writer: initial problem, rising action/conflict, climax, resolution. Even as 2 year olds they would both naturally seem to work all those elements into a story of just a few short sentences.

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  9. says

    I was at a writing retreat a few weeks ago and used your wonderful book as a prompt to flesh out some missing scenes in my novel. (I want to be a plotter, know my beginning and the outcome, but have ended up quilting the back end and am still missing a few patches.) At any rate, my companions kept looking up as I’d “ooh” and “ah”, scrabble for pen and paper, then write furiously. I think I hand-sold you at least 5 books.

    So here’s my question: If you get a sales bump in Alberta, do I get a commission?

    I’m teasing, of course. Thrilled you’re here. Welcome!
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Why I’m Dropping a Regular Feature of This Blog, at Least for a While

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  10. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    “Polishing prose in a story that’s not working is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

    Thanks, Lisa! I just pinned that sentence of yours on the bulletin board. And the book rocks.

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  11. says

    Welcome Lisa,

    This post is great. I have actually given workshops on the essential power of stories in the human experience, but I am not a science person. Very wonderful to see these ideas supported by science. The new discoveries in neuroscience are so exciting and one of the frontiers of our time which is going to have a huge impact. I have been following some of the studies on neuroplasticity and also those having to do with the effects of meditation on the brain. Fascinating! I look forward to your contributions on WU.
    Mary´s last blog post ..Boredom is just a stage

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    • says

      Thanks, Mary, I feel so welcome. Your workshops sound fabulous — and the great thing about the science is that it supports all those things we knew intuitively all along. I love how science turns what writers discovered eons ago — like that “the pen is mightier than the sword” — from metaphor into fact. I’ve been following the studies about neuroplasticity too — and began meditating based on what they’re revealing. It IS fascinating, not to mention life altering!
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

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  12. says

    Love the concept in so many ways I can’t sum them up in a comment!
    I’m a huge neuropsychology & CBT buff, and –coincidentally!– stumbled over Lisa’s book on Amazon last week and it got my attention immediately. I’ve ordered it yesterday and can’t wait to read it.

    Thanks very much for writing it, Lisa, and for bringing the basic principles of how the brain works and processes “interesting” things to the attention of writers. I can’t even imagine writing a story without understanding what tickles the characters’ and the reader’s synapses! It’s an insanely useful thing to grasp!
    Vero´s last blog post ..The Double Ds of Writing Fiction

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  13. says

    I love the neuroscience angle, so I was already turned on to your book like that. But then the way you wrote your article mirrored exactly what you were saying. Form mirrored function. I kept asking myself, “Oh really? What are the implications?” after each point, until you told me the consequences.

    Writing may not really be crucial to my physical survival, but that drive for information has expanded beyond our purely physical needs as we’ve become a society with time to focus on other things, so the effect was the same: I wanted more information in order to navigate the topic better.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Gender neutrality and pronouns

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    • says

      I couldn’t agree more, Kristin, neuroscience is fascinating! As for more info, that’s what Wired for Story is all about. And speaking of mirroring, one of the most intriguing ideas to come out of neuroscience is that of mirror neurons. That is, the way we literally mirror others the better to “feel” what they’re thinking. Michael Gazzaniga has a superb chapter on it in his book: Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique.
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

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      • says

        The mirroring is fascinating. A couple of psychologists in my neighborhood have done studies for about twenty years on how parents mirroring their infants is important in the babies forming healthy attachment, which is imperative for healthy child development. I’ve seen a presentation where they show slides and videos from their studies and they are amazing to see.

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        • says

          That’s so interesting! Doesn’t it amaze you that so much of what makes us who we are, whether by nature or nurture, is already at our core by the time we become aware of it? We’re shaped by those loving parents who play peek-a-boo, and smile at us, and cuddle us as infants, although we’ll never remember a moment of it. It’s their living legacy to us, and when we smile at our kids, we’re passing it on. Okay, and not to be too Pollyana about it, there is the grumpy stuff too ;-)
          Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

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  14. says

    Interesting! I’ve read a little neuroscience before, but had ever come across anything like this before in my research.

    Thanks for an insightful post! :))

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  15. says

    Nice to see you here, Lisa. I’m still enjoying your book and will do a review as soon as I dig out from under my current flood of work to do.

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    • says

      It’s great to be here, thanks, Ray! Oh man, do I know what you mean about digging out from the current flood of work. My question to you is: how do we stop the flood from pouring in? I’ve been bailing for months, and if anything the water level seems to be rising. Maybe there’s a hole in the bucket? Wait, isn’t that a song? Think I’m getting punchy from all this bailing ;-)
      Lisa Cron´s last blog post ..I’m Thrilled to Become a Contributor at Writer Unboxed, YES!

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  16. says

    Hi Lisa,

    You’ve hooked me – but I’m based in the UK and would prefer to read a kindle version. Is your book going to be available for kindle, or should I bite the bullet and pay for the shipping.

    Thanks,
    Nicci

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  17. says

    Lisa, what a wonderful article and I shall certainly read your book! You’ve confirmed with neuroscience what I’ve always felt was true about writing and writers: writing is a vocation, not a profession, we write even if we make no money, we’re out to “explain” the world to our readers, to show them “how it is” and hopefully… change it (!); most writers are modern-day crusaders with a mission, they’re moved by social issues, they’re politically involved.
    Okay, not all writers are like this: you have professional genre writers who stick to the rules of their genre and turn out very creditable products that actually sell to the millions addicted to the said genre.
    But I was talking about the inspired writer, the crusader-type, the one involved in the issues confronting his/her society, like Bulgakov or Solgenytsin were back in the days of Soviet oppression…
    Claude Nougat´s last blog post ..Europe R.I.P: The Germans Killed You!

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  18. says

    Love the fact that you’re “taking the gloves off” and getting dirty in the physiological world of dopamines and sweat and tears (and other body fluids).
    Plenty of people have written about storytelling on a metaphorical and intellectual level, and this perspective adds some fresh new ingredients into the “understanding storytelling” soup :)
    Power of Stories´s last blog post ..Wired For Story by Lisa Cron (Brainscience Meets Storytelling Book)

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  19. Chloe Garner says

    Thanks for a great perspective on how to write well.

    It triggers a question I’ve been asking myself for a while – if writers really do have that much power, and they can shape the way people respond to the world around them, how much responsibility do that put on the writer? How many writers consider that responsibility as they write?

    Writers should absolutely write what they are passionate about, but there is a natural art-vs-social-responsibility tension that I wonder about.

    At any rate, good food for thought. Thanks again.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] [I would say it's a bit more than a "craft book" but maybe that's just me…]   What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?   You’d probably say, prove it. Fair enough.   First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve have been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.   It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re not what hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.  […]

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  2. […] Lisa Cron#s book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence … First, the mistaken belief: From time immemorial we’ve have been taught that things like lyrical language, insightful metaphors, vivid description, memorable characters, palpable sensory details and a fresh voice are what hooks readers.It’s a seductive belief, because all those things are indisputably good. But they’re notwhat hook the reader. The brain, it turns out, is far less picky when it comes pretty prose than we’ve been led to believe.What does the brain crave? Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.Which brings us to the real question: Why? What are we really looking for in every story we read? What is that sense of urgency all about?Thanks to recent advances in neuroscience, these are questions that we can now begin to answer with the kind clarity that sheds light on the genuine purpose of story, and elevates writers to the most powerful people on earth. Because story, as it turns out, has a much deeper and more meaningful purpose than simply to entertain and delight.  […]

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  3. […] Writer Unboxed about the craft and business of fiction (Ever wonder about the psychology of reading a story? What would you say if I told you that what the brain craves, hunts for and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for? What’s more, that it’s the same thing whether you’re writing literary fiction or a down and dirty thriller?  […]

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  4. […] inspiration comes from someone else. My heroes to be exact. Let me explain. In a recent blog post Lisa Cron talked about her book “Wired for Story” and the scientific evidence that proves we all are. Wired for story that is. We actually learn […]

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  5. […] Why Are We Wired For Story? Is an article by Lisa Cron from her new craft book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.  She says, “What the brain craves, hunts for and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for . . . whether literary or a down and dirty thriller.” […]

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