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photo by Flickr’s Luis de Bethencourt

When we love a story, we usually say things like: “Great premise, fabulous characters, talk about a fresh voice, and the writing? Exquisite!”

But is that really why we loved the story?

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the answer is no. Which isn’t to say that those things aren’t incredibly important, worthy and something to strive for. They are, hands down. But they’re not what grab, and hold, the reader – even though they’re exactly what your readers might rave about once they’ve finished your novel.

Truth is, you’re giving them something much more meaningful, and enduring, than that. The real reason your readers love your stories goes far deeper than their alluring surface. Stories are entertaining for one reason: so we’ll pay attention to them. It’s only once they have our undivided attention that they bestow their genuine gift – vicarious experience. Because, as I’m inordinately fond of saying, we don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.

Here are five ways your story helps your readers expand their horizons, understand the world, and know themselves a little better. These are the real reasons why readers love your story, and why (thanks to the dopamine buzz they get from it) reading a good book often feels exactly like falling in love.

Reason 1: Your story takes them on a mini-vacation, giving them a breather from the stress and strain of daily life.

Wait, you may be thinking, didn’t you just say that we don’t turn to story to escape reality? I did – because a mini vacation is a wee bit more complex than a simple escape. Getting lost in a good story is like hitting the pause button – biologically. It puts our life on hold so we can slip into the protagonist’s skin, where we experience what he goes through as he struggles with the story problem. But we bring our version of reality with us, too. So as we navigate the plot with him, we’re always tacitly comparing his reality with ours, and in the process his insights, epiphanies and breakthroughs either reinforce, challenge or slightly alter our own.

So when our mini-vacation ends and the story deposits us back in the real world, we disembark refreshed, rejuvenated and with more insight than when we boarded.

Reason 2: Your protagonist takes physical and emotional chances, allowing readers to vicariously experience risks that would normally be too scary to face.

We’re wired to avoid conflict, risk, and change – even good change. Why? Because once we feel safe with what we have, our hardwired inclination is to stick with the status quo. This doesn’t mean we like it, mind you, but simply that it’s familiar. In other words, we know what to expect. What frightens us is the unexpected, the unknown. That’s why we stick with the devil we know. Which doesn’t stop us from longing for other devils, other options, and wondering what it would really be like to take that chance.

Enter stories. They’re about what happens when the protagonist (aka your reader’s surrogate) is forced by circumstances out of her control to take risks that she’s probably spent her entire life avoiding.

That struggle is precisely what your readers come for. They love it when your story allows them to feel what it would be like to actually go through situations that make their hearts pound and their palms sweat (you know, while they’re safely tucked in their comfy reading chair). Because as your protagonist digs deep and finds the courage to meet the challenge you’ve set up for him, your readers feel it at every turn. When the story ends, and they close the book with a wistful sigh, they carry your protagonist’s experience into the world.

Life doesn’t give us do-overs. The “do-before” of a story is the next best thing, so we’ll know what to do in real life should we ever find ourselves face to face with that devil we don’t know.

Reason 3: Your story catapults readers straight into the one realm we have no other access to: someone else’s mind.

In real life, our goal is to figure out what people really mean, despite what they, um, say. When Fred purrs, “I love you” to Gloria, she’s wondering, “Really? Do you love me, or is it that I starved myself into a size four, or that you think I might be rich, or are you just trying to get lucky?” In other words, we’re always trying to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface.

Think about your own life. How often is what you say and what you’re really thinking the same thing? Which one is more interesting? More revealing?

That’s what we come to story for. The inside scoop. Stories give us a glimpse into someone’s inner life in a way that nothing else can – even people we know. Especially people we know. Why? Three reasons. First, because in real life we’re wired to want people to like us, (or at least not punch us), so we keep our most revealing thoughts to ourselves.

Second, often our most deeply held truths are . . . embarrassing. So we wouldn’t tell them to anyone, no matter what, and often we end up doing things that we’d really rather not. I know a woman who was terrified of heights but went bungee jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge on a blind date (with a guy she’d already decided she didn’t want to see again) because she was too embarrassed to tell him she was chicken.

Third, even when our friends do let it all out, especially in times of crisis, how articulate are they? Often, we clue others into our deepest wounds simply by sobbing unabashedly.

Stories, on the other hand, let us peer into someone else’s unguarded mind, and often what we see there, in all its messy, revealing, gloriously human detail, is a reflection of what’s in our own mind. “Thank god,” we think, “I’m not the only one!” That’s why stories are such a comfort. Often, we learn that the very thing we thought made us really weird is what actually makes us brave, endearing and inventive.

Reason 4: You give your readers perspective, allowing them to see the world from a point of view vastly different from their own. You open them up to new experiences, and even more life-altering, to new ways of viewing the things they’ve already experienced.

Stories allow us to experience the lives of people vastly different than us – people who we might believe we already understand, thank you very much. Then the story puts us in their shoes, and for the first time we really feel how the world treats them, and experience the world from their perspective. Ofttimes, this shows us just how wrong we were. It can be a humbling and enlightening experience. Studies have shown that reading can rewire our brain, enlarging our ability to empathize. Sometimes, the effect is nationwide.

For instance, do you know what is often cited as a major reason for the success of civil rights movement in the 1960s? To Kill A Mockingbird. It changed how white America viewed racism by letting them experience its inhuman injustice, as seen through the eyes of Scout, a six year old white girl.

In fact, a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated only behind the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference.”

Oprah Winfrey calls it, “Our national novel.” Former first lady Laura Bush said, “It changed how people think.”

Stories let us get as close as we can get to viscerally experiencing another person’s lot in life – and that allows us to feel more connected, more part of the whole. We’re not just individuals, not just members of our own tribe. We’re part of the human tribe. Being able to feel that, if only for the time it takes to tell a story, can change us forever.

Reason 5: Okay, okay, YES, you give readers hours of just plain flat-out fun.

Sure, stories are entertaining by design so we’ll pay attention to them, and yes the entertainment is a bonus — but what a delicious, juicy, enriching, intoxicating bonus it is. There’s nothing like curling up with a good book, or that tingly feeling of anticipation you get sitting in a theater as the lights dim and the movie begins.

Yep, a story is a better Valentine than a nice big box of chocolates. Here’s why: while both are incredibly enjoyable in the moment, the legacy of a box of chocolates is five extra pounds. The legacy of a story well told is a new slant on life. Which would you pick?

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.