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photo by Andres Musta via Flickr

Who knew way back in 1966 that S. Bar-David (aka Shimon Wincelberg), the unsung Star Trek TV writer who came up with the Vulcan Mind Meld, was a visionary?

Because here’s the thing: it’s not fiction. It’s fact. Except, you know, for the Vulcan part.

And, okay, the part where you have to put your fingertips on the other guy’s face to do it. But hey, the world was pretty much analog back then, so who could blame Wincelberg for seeing life as hands-on, and thus missing the nuances of how information is actually transferred from one brain to another?

To figure that part out we had to wait for something that even ‘Bones’ McCoy didn’t have access to — fMRI technology, which revealed that when we’re really engaged in listening to a story, our brain synchronizes with the speaker’s brain – literally mirroring it.

fMRI studies reveal that when we’re really engaged in listening to a story, our brain synchronizes with the speaker’s brain – literally mirroring it.

In other words, we really are on the same wavelength, and their experiences become ours. With one fascinating exception: when we’re very, very engaged, the listener’s brain leaps ahead of the speaker, anticipating what is going to happen next.

The exact same thing is true when we’re reading a story. We become the main character, aka the protagonist. Our brain synchronizes with theirs, allowing us to viscerally experience what they’re going through as they try to solve the story problem. While this is incredibly enjoyable, story’s primary purpose is not to merely entertain us.

Rather, story’s evolutionary purpose is to allow us to vicariously navigate unexpected (read: unfamiliar, unknown and so scary) situations from the safety of our own armchair, the better to pick up pointers for surviving them, should they ever befall us on our way to the kitchen for a snack.

Cognitive psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley defines fiction as “a simulation that runs on the software of our minds. And it is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect.”

Exactly! It’s yet more proof of the fact that we don’t come to story for the great prose or for the plot, but for what the plot forces the protagonist to overcome internally in order to solve the story problem.

Story is an internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition, whether it’s a literary novel, a potboiler or an ad for toothpaste.

Story is an internal brain-to-brain, emotion-driven expedition, whether it’s a literary novel, a potboiler or an ad for toothpaste.

In short, a story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists are people. Just like you and me. They live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.

The story is in how we decide to do things, not simply in the things we do.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at 6 ways we innately navigate reality, and how to make sure that your protagonist does likewise – on the page — so the reader’s brain can experience it.

1.  We go into every situation with specific expectations.

YOU: When you walk into your office in the morning, whether it’s a corner suite, a teeny tiny cubicle or, like me, a laptop on your kitchen table, you always have expectations. You expect your boss will be pleased with the report you slaved all weekend to finish; you expect your cubicle-mate to reek of that wretched aftershave he mistakenly thinks is a chick magnet; you expect that the dirty dishes you left on your “desk” last night will still be there.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: The exact same thing is true of your protagonist. He has expectations for every situation he ventures into. Those expectations are the yardstick by which he then evaluates the meaning of what actually happens. And after all, that’s exactly what stories are about: What we do when our expectations aren’t met. So if you don’t tell us what the protagonist’s specific expectations are, how will we know when those expectations aren’t being met? We won’t.

Meaning comes from how the protagonist sees things, not from how things might look “objectively.”

THE TAKEAWAY: Tell us what your protagonist expects to have happen first, so when it all goes kerlooey! we’ll be in on it, instead of standing outside wondering why the hell she’s sobbing, when as far as we can see, nothing bad has happened.

Remember: Meaning comes from how the protagonist sees things, not from how things might look “objectively.”

2.  We always try to make sense of what’s happening to us.

YOU: Let’s say you walk into your office and out of the blue your boss begins grilling you about the last expense account you turned in. You calmly walk him through each item, but your heart is racing –– even though you’ve never overcharged the company for so much as a pencil. You’re madly trying to figure out why he suddenly seems suspicious, what information he’s hunting for, and what the hell is going on.

That’s what we do when anything out of the ordinary happens – no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential. We’re constantly trying to figure out what things really mean in order to be sure we’re safe – and, as important, not inadvertently making a fool of ourselves.

In life we’re always told, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” Stories are about sweating.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: Not only is your protagonist trying to figure out the same damn thing, it’s what readers come for. In life we’re always told, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” Stories are about sweating. We want to know what someone would really think and feel under all that pressure. Being human, we already know, in general, how something like that would feel. We’re looking for specific pointers on how to survive it. In other words, we’re dying for something we don’t know.

That’s why your goal isn’t simply to tell us what’s happening from the outside, but to show us how your protagonist is reacting to it on the inside – so we can sweat it right along with her.

THE TAKEAWAY: The cause-and-effect trajectory the reader comes for isn’t just external – that is, what happens on the surface. What we’re really hungry for is the internal cause-and-effect, as your protagonist interprets the external situation, and madly figures out what she should do about it, without giving away her hand in the process.

Remember: It’s not about the external “what.” It’s about the internal “why.”

3.  We draw on memories to evaluate what’s happening now and what to do next.

YOU: It’s been a long day, especially with your boss being so grumpy. You can’t wait to get home, draw a nice hot bath and just soak. You’re about to pull into your driveway when you remember that you were supposed to go to a house warming party across town for your old college roommate. It’s the last thing you want to do. But he was so helpful last year when your car broke down, plus when you were a kid didn’t your mom always tell you that kindness counts most when it costs you something? You can still see her smiling down at you, and it hits you for the first time how exhausted she must have been after work, but she always took you shopping whenever you asked. With a surprisingly contented sigh, you turn around and head crosstown, paying it forward.

That’s how we humans roll: to figure out what things mean in the present, we innately sift through prior experience for clues.

The best way to give us backstory is as it flies through the protagonist’s mind, as she struggles to figure out what’s really going on, and even more important, what it means.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: That’s why when it comes to your protagonist, snippets of memory are continually called up as she struggles to make sense of what’s happening now. For your readers it’s a twofer. They get to experience the event filtered through her worldview, and they get revealing bits of backstory at the same time. In fact, the best way to give us backstory is as it flies through the protagonist’s mind, while she struggles to figure out what’s really going on, and even more important, what it means.

THE TAKEAWAY: What things mean to your protagonist is wholly dependent on, and defined by, what’s happened to him in his life up to that point. So if, um, you don’t know much about your protagonist’s past, how can you know anything about how he sees the world, what he wants, what frightens him, why, or – as we’re discussing here – what specific memories he might call on to make sense of the present? Pantsers, you might want to pause here and consider this for just a sec.

Remember: The past is always present. Or as Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

4.  We imagine how what we’re doing now will impact us in the future.

YOU: It’s time to tackle your dream of being a writer. So you fire up that new laptop, and begin pounding out the great American novel. As you write, you imagine how much your life will change when it’s done. For one thing, your second grade teacher will call you and apologize for saying you’d never live up to your true potential. And your loser ex-boyfriend Phil will realize that he was fool to two-time you, but even if he begs you to take him back, you won’t. You’re just happy that your novel will set the record straight, and let the whole world know what a dweeb he is. You even feel a little sorry for him, ‘cause when the movie version comes out, you’re pretty sure they’ll have gotten that Napoleon Dynamite guy to play him, or even better, Jabba the Hutt. You’ll argue against it, but hey, if the shoe fits.

Ah yes, anticipating how what we’re doing now will impact our future can be sweet indeed. And, happily for writers, we’re usually not very good at it. We tend to either be massively overoptimistic, as evidenced above. (If only!) Or, we go all Worst Case Scenario, envisioning the end of everything, except, of course, everlasting humiliation. Read: we need stories to set us straight, and let us know what the possibilities really are.

The more you know what your protagonist thinks the consequences of her actions will be, the more you’ll know about how, and why, she’ll react when it doesn’t turn out exactly as planned.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: That’s why your protagonist must always be anticipating how what she’s doing now will impact on her future – for better or for worse. And see how this ties into what we were saying earlier, about the need to let the reader know what your protagonist expects to have happen? Knowing your protagonist’s expectations gives you golden grist for that particular mill.

THE TAKEAWAY: The more you know what your protagonist thinks the consequences of her actions will be, the more you’ll know about how, and why, she’ll react when it doesn’t turn out exactly as she planned.

Remember: As the brilliant author Kathryn Schulz says in her TED talk On Being Wrong: We think this one thing is going to happen, and something else happens instead.

5.  We evaluate everything for meaning; we’re always drawing conclusions.

YOU: Your brain is a meaning-seeking machine. It’s a biological imperative: you’re always on the hunt for meaning—not in the metaphysical “What is the true nature of reality?” sense, but in the far more primal, very specific sense of: Max left without his usual morning coffee; I wonder why? Betty is always on time; how come she’s half an hour late? That annoying dog next door barks its head off every afternoon; why is it so quiet today? 

What common thread runs through all these things? They matter to you, because they affect you. Why do you notice them? Because they’re out of the ordinary. They break a familiar pattern. And, because you know that they’ll have a consequence — one it behooves you to anticipate and to prepare for.

On the flipside, things that don’t matter to you? Things that have no consequence in your life? You don’t give ‘em the time of day. You couldn’t. Because you don’t even notice ‘em.

Your protagonist must only see, notice, mention or muse on things that have story significance.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: Your protagonist is just like you. She never mentions things that don’t matter to her. She doesn’t narrate objectively. She doesn’t notice things simply because they’re there. She doesn’t reflect on the past just because it happened. Instead, she notices, mentions, and reflects on things for ONE reason, and one reason only: because she’s probing them for information that might come in handy, given what’s happening in the moment.

THE TAKEAWAY: Your protagonist must only see, notice, mention or muse on things that have story significance. And when she does, she must then draw a conclusion that has a story consequence.

Remember: This is where the “And so?” Test comes in handy. After everything you protagonist does or says, ask yourself, “And so?” What’s her point? Why did she notice that? What conclusion does she draw? What new intel does it give her?  How does it move the story forward?

6.  We read everyone’s body language to gauge their true intent.

YOU: You’re sitting in your favorite booth at the diner with your beloved, and even though he’s smiling as he tells you about the new widget his company is importing, there’s something about the expression in his eyes that has you on high alert. He looks worried. And he keeps reflexively glancing at the door, which seems to upset him, as if he knows the gesture is “giving something away,” but he can’t stop. That’s when you realize that the annoying tap, tap, tapping you’ve been hearing is his knee hitting the table from beneath. He’s jittering, that can’t be good. But just when you’re sure he’s about to confess to murder, or worse, that he’s two-timing you like that jerk Phil, a brass band bursts through the door playing “your song,” he falls to one jittery knee and proposes.

Point being, body language evolved as a biological lie detector, as if Mother Nature anticipated how popular actual lying would become once we mastered speech. Yep, body language is the one and only language we aren’t capable of lying in (Meryl Streep notwithstanding). However we’re quite capable of misinterpreting it, as evidenced above.

Think of language as text, and body language as the very revealing subtext.

YOUR PROTAGONIST: Your protagonist can be solemnly vowing one thing, while her body language is saying something decidedly different (which is to say, her body language is blabbing the real story, the internal story, the story your reader is most attuned to). It’s this delicious discrepancy that helps build tension as the reader tries to figure out when your protagonist is going to fess up, come clean, face the music, grasp reality – or, even juicier — what will happen if she doesn’t.

THE TAKEAWAY: Body language is never neutral; it’s integral to what the scene is really about. It exposes your characters, telegraphing things that they’d much rather keep secret. This is exactly what makes body language so useful to you as a writer – it’s a nifty tool for hinting at the real story, and cluing the reader into the underlying truth.

Remember: Don’t use body language to tell us things we already know, use it to tell us things we don’t know. Think of language as text, and body language as the very revealing subtext. Yep, body language is the original snitch! You feel me?

Now that you know 6 ways your reader’s brain mirrors your protagonist’s brain, there is a catch. In order to put this info to use when you’re writing there’s one more thing you need to do.  And that is:

First you must create a protagonist who actually has a mind to begin with. Not an “objective” mind, not a mind that does what “any person” would do, and not a mind that evolves as the story unfolds. But the unique mind he goes into the story with. A mind with a fully developed worldview that’s been created, shaped, and honed by the very specific experiences he’s been through up to the moment he ambles in on the first page. Experiences that, no doubt, catapulted him into the story problem he’s now faced with, and experiences he’ll draw on, learn from, and reinterpret in order to solve it.

After all, the last thing you want is for your reader to attempt a Vulcan Mind Meld with your protagonist, only to find herself staring into the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind.

How about you?

What methods have you come up with for getting a good look into your protagonist’s mind before you set her loose on the first page?

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.