One of the things I love about advances in brain science is that scientists are finally proving so much of what writers have been saying about the human condition since long before the invention of, well, everything. After all, our territory as writers is – and always has been – what makes people tick. Writers were psychologists long before there was such a profession. And hey, as Jonah Lehrer so aptly pointed out, “Proust was a neuroscientist.”
But since turnabout is fair play, this time rather than looking at the reader’s brain, let’s take a good look at the writer’s brain to ferret out what makes us tick, and the ways our wiring can trip us up when we write. There are two main dangers to watch out for:
1. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. In other words, we don’t see things “objectively,” because everything we see is by definition colored by what we tacitly read into it. This is what tends to blindside writers more than anything else. Why? Because the story we see with such perfect clarity in our head is very often not the story we’ve actually put on the page.
I was reminded of this recently while working with a writer who has a splendid voice and a great idea for a novel. Unfortunately, that novel was full of exquisitely described events that transpired entirely on the surface, and didn’t add up to anything or have an ounce of momentum. I remember questioning him about a long, very dull conversation between the protagonist and her father. “There’s no story in it,” I said, “nothing beneath the exterior events, and so we have no idea what the point is.”
He was completely taken aback, and proceeded to tell me in specific, riveting, and insightful detail what each character wanted, why each character said what they did, how each character was interpreting what the other said, and precisely how the scene moved the story forward. “Isn’t that enough?” he asked.
It absolutely was – or make that, it would have been. Unfortunately there was neither hide nor hair of what he was talking about on the page. Not even a subtle teeny tiny hint of it. In his head it was loud and clear; in what he’d written, not so much.
Interestingly, a few minutes later I watched the same writer come across a very similar scenario in someone else’s novel, and he was the first one to point out (nicely, of course) how dull and uninvolving it was.
So why didn’t he see it in his own work? The answer is because when he reread the conversation he’d written, he was already aware of what everything actually meant, what each character’s agenda was, and what they were going to do as a result. It never occurred to him that his brain was supplying crucial information that readers would have no way of knowing. In other words, he was unable to see his story with anyone’s eyes but his own.
And he’s not alone. We all tacitly assume that everyone else sees the same world we do, so naturally they know that when Uncle Archie ignores Aunt Sadie, it’s because of the time back in ’72 when she accidentally threw away his lucky bandana, and that he hasn’t said a civil word to her since. Thus, when we write a scene in which seconds tick by while Archie studiously ignores Sadie until she bursts into tears and stabs him with a salad fork, we’ve felt the tension mount from the instant Sadie walked into the room. Because we not only know what she’s thinking and feeling, we know why. So when at long last she pokes him over and over like a potato about to go into the oven, we have a deep sense of satisfaction. Whereas our clueless reader scratches her head and wonders what the hell is wrong with Sadie that she’d go bonkers for no apparent reason.
What can you do to make sure the story is on the page and not just in your head?
First, make sure you really do know, specifically, why your characters do what they do, and how they’re making sense of everything that happens. Remember, story is internal – that is, it’s about how your characters react internally to what happens on the surface – rather than external. To concentrate solely on the surface events locks the reader out. Readers already have a handle on surface events; we’ve got that part covered. We come to story to find out what your characters are really thinking and feeling as those surface events unfold.
Second, make sure that what you know is actually there on the page. How? By making a list of the things going on beneath the surface. Things like:
- What’s behind what your character is doing or saying?
- What does she want in this scene?
- What, specifically, does she expect to happen?
- What’s at stake?
- How is she making sense of what’s happening?
- How does her internal reaction spur her external response?
Now, reread your work with the answers to these questions in mind, and ask yourself, How will the reader know this? Where, specifically, is it on the page? Look at dialogue, description, internal thought, body language, and the way you handle time and space – in other words, everything.
It also helps to keep in mind that story is often about what we don’t say out loud. After all, in life how often are what you’re saying and what you’re thinking the same thing? And which is more interesting? We turn to story to glean insight into what someone might really be thinking when they say things like, “Oh Bertha, of course I’ll love you forever.”
Third, get an outside opinion, and then really, really listen to it. Which neatly deposits us on the doorstep of the other way our brain works against us as writers.
2. Your brain is wired to argue with anything that challenges something you hold to be true. So when someone questions, or worse, seems to poke holes in something you believe, it awakens your analytical brain. Anything that breaks the pattern of what you expect to hear (like, your novel only needs a bit of polishing and it’s done!), sends up a red flag. As a result your current belief goes into lockdown, while your analytical brain works overtime to guard against anything that challenges it.
For instance, the writer I was just talking about? He was positive that he’d already put everything I was asking for onto the page. So instead of considering the feedback, his goal was to show me that, in fact, everything I thought was missing was already there.
And who could blame him? He’d poured his heart and soul into his novel, and hearing that it still needed a lot of work was difficult. And so his instinctive reaction was to defend what he’d already written. My heart went out to him.
Because I knew that no matter how well he argued – and he was really good at it – it wasn’t going to change the words on the page. So in the long run, his brain was actually working against him. Especially since what mattered most to him wasn’t winning the argument; it was writing a really good novel. It’s just that in that moment, his brain had lost sight of what was most important.
What can you do about your brain’s innate proclivity to argue?
First and foremost, be aware of it. But at the same time, remember to be kind to yourself. Your brain has your best interest at heart, but sometimes it makes a mistake about what would really be in your best interest. So when you’re getting feedback, and you feel your analytic brain kicking up a storm and going into defensive mode, ask it to pipe down for a minute so you can carefully evaluate what you’re hearing. I mean that literally. Talk to your well-meaning but misguided analytic brain, tell it to simmer down. Taking control feels surprisingly good. And breathing deeply helps. So does smiling. Strange, but true.
And hey, does that mean that all the feedback you get will be on target? Of course not. But unless you calmly listen, hear, and evaluate it, how will you be able to tell the difference?