As I gear up for the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference  next month (woo hoo!), I thought it might be helpful to revisit some of the basic story tenets that I’ve been writing about here for the past two years (sheesh, time doesn’t fly, it vaporizes!) Often these tenets don’t come from the writing world, but rather, they’re set by what your reader’s brain expects. Writers sometimes balk at this – after all some of it flies in the face of what is taught in the writing world. Besides, it’s easy to believe that story doesn’t need to be learned. After all, no one ever had to tell you what a story is when you’re reading one. But you have to admit, when it comes to writing a story, suddenly it isn’t quite so clear. Why is that?
[pullquote]We’re hardwired to come to every story tacitly asking one question: what am I going to learn that will help me make it through the night?[/pullquote]
One of the main reasons is because what actually hooks a reader is very different from what we’ve been led to believe. It’s even very different from what seems logical, clear and obvious – which is that readers are hooked by the beautiful writing, the clever plot, the fresh voice, and so on and so forth. All those things are great, no denying it, but they’re not what readers come for. Those elements simply give voice to it – they’re the surface, the conduit. Readers come for what goes on beneath the surface. We’re hardwired to come to every story tacitly asking one question: what am I going to learn that will help me make it through the night? We’re looking for useful intel on how to navigate situations we haven’t yet been in, and new ways of looking at those we have. As a result, there’s a set of specific expectations by which we unconsciously evaluate every story — expectations that have nothing to do with being able to “write well.”
But articulating what, exactly, we’re responding to when we read a story isn’t easy, because it’s not something we had to learn, the same way we didn’t have to learn how to enjoy chocolate or how to feel pain when we skin our knee. Being enthralled by a story just happens. It’s not something we think about, because it’s part of our standard operating package – we roll out of the factory with this wiring already in place.
The good news is that we can decode what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear. We can learn what triggers the surge of dopamine that biologically pushes the pause button on real life, letting us get lost in the world of the story. And once we do that, we can create a story that lures a reader in as surely as a trail of crumbs in the woods.
Here, then, is a reader’s manifesto – twelve hardwired expectations that every reader has for every story they hear, whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Meet these expectations, and readers won’t be able to put your novel down.
- The reader expects that the story will start making a point, beginning on page one.
The brain is wired to begin making sense of things instantly. We are constantly on the search for meaning — not in a metaphysical way, but in a how-will-this-affect-me way. When it comes to novels, the affect we’re hoping for is to be swept up into the world of the story. Which is why our first questions tend to be: What’s going on here? Why should I care? What’s at stake, exactly? In other words, we’re looking for a reason to be curious about what will happen. If we have no idea of what’s going on, or what the point might be, we have nothing to be curious about. While sure, we may be able to see the “what,” we have no clue as to the “why,” and so nothing really adds up. And when things don’t make sense, instead of the rewarding surge of dopamine that an effective story always triggers, we get a rush of cortisol. Think: stress. That’s when we put the book down and decide to see what’s on TV.
This is not to say that you have to spell the point out on the first page, but readers need enough of a sense of it –- enough context -– to do three things: grab their attention, make them care, and make them curious about what might happen next.
- The reader expects that the story will revolve around a single clear, escalating problem that the protagonist has no choice but to deal with.
[pullquote]But here’s the secret: This external problem is what the plot is about. But it’s not what the story is about.[/pullquote]
Once we have the context, we’re ready to read on – and what we expect is that the established context will hold. That is, we expect a story to be about one, single overarching problem that then complicates throughout the story. We expect that problem to escalate, but what throws us is when that problem is suddenly back-burnered, or it splits into two separate-but-equal problems, or the problem ends and another begins, or the author keeps throwing random problems at the protagonist, you know, to keep things exciting.
Remember, a story is about how we solve a problem we can’t avoid, and how we change in the process. This escalating problem is the external context within which the story unfolds. But here’s the secret: while it sure sounds like this problem is what the story is about, it’s not. This external problem is what the plot is about. But it’s not what the story is about. The plot is the external manifestation, the thing that forces the protagonist to take action. The real problem they’ve got is internal – that is, how they react to what happens in the plot – and that is what the story is actually about.
- The reader expects that the protagonist will enter the story already wanting something, which is what gives true meaning to her goal.
Have you ever woken up in the morning with no idea who you were, what you believe, why you believe it, or what you want to (or have to) do that day? Okay, okay, maybe once or twice, in college. But I’m betting that it came back to you with unforgiving clarity soon thereafter, along with a splitting headache and a vow never ever to drink that much again. Now, imagine that happened to you every day – not the drinking part, but the “who am I and what’s my agenda?” part. There’s no worse feeling than having amnesia, and staring at a new day with absolutely no idea of, well, anything. It’s something S.J. Watson captures brilliantly in his novel, Before I Go To Sleep, about a woman coping with amnesia. Here’s what that might feel like:
[pullquote]It’s the protagonist’s memories that have taught her what things mean, and that shapes her agenda and drives her ambition.[/pullquote]
I realized I have no ambition. I cannot. All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things. . . I cannot imagine how I will cope when I discover my life is behind me, has already happened, and I have nothing to show for it. No treasure house of recollection, no wealth of experience, no accumulated wisdom to pass on. What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?
Indeed. And yet, writers begin writing novels without a clue as to their protagonist’s accumulation of specific memories. Forgetting that it’s those memories that have taught the protagonist what things mean, and that shape their agenda and drive their ambition. Which is why at the beginning of a story that is exactly what every protagonist must have: a specific agenda, which is to say, something they already want very badly.
- The reader expects the protagonist will already have a deep-seated fear, misbelief or wound – i.e. an inner issue — that keeps him from easily achieving that goal.
Just as we all have an agenda, we all have things that hold us back from carrying it out. Not simply external reasons, like, “I’d love to climb Mt. Everest, but I’d probably have to get into shape to do it.” But internal reasons – like why I resist getting into shape (oh wait, did I say that out loud?). Point being, this is what your story is actually about – an internal change. If it was simply external, even a stranger could take me aside and say, “Hey, then begin exercising, and you’ll be in shape in no time,” and I’d slap my forehead and go, “Why didn’t I think of that? Problem solved!” As if, right?
[pullquote]We come to story for inside intel, the real reason we do things, not the surface reason. We don’t come for insight into what people do, we come to find out why they do it.[/pullquote]
This is what we come to story for: the inside intel, the real reason we do things, not the surface reason. We don’t come for insight into what people do, we come to find out why they do it. That’s what your story is actually about. So not only does your protagonist need to come in wanting something, but they also need a deep-seated misbelief that keeps them from having a shot at getting it. After all, if getting what they want was easy, there’d be no problem and therefore no story.
- The reader expects the things that happen in the plot to force the protagonist to confront and overcome her inner issue, something she’s probably spent her whole life avoiding.
Ahhh, now we come to why you can’t start with just a “plot.” The answer is simple: we’re not wired to care about what happens, per se – even if we’re talking war, peace or a midnight visit by cuddly aliens. We’re wired to care about how those things will affect us, given our agenda (what we want, and what we’re afraid of). In a story, the reader evaluates everything that happens based on one thing: how it affects the protagonist, given her agenda. That’s what gives everything in the plot its meaning and emotional weight – nothing has meaning in and of itself. So when you’re writing a novel (and if you hear a familiar drumbeat here, you’re right) you have to know a whole lot of specific story-related things about your protagonist’s past before you can write word one – or even begin to build the plot.
[pullquote]In a story, the reader evaluates everything that happens based on one thing: how it affects the protagonist, given her agenda.[/pullquote]
Note that this does not mean that you need to write a “character bible” that catalogs exactly what your protagonist wears on Saturdays and eats for a snack after soccer practice. What you actually need to do is write fleshed out scenes about the origin of their desire and their misbelief – scenes that will help you figure out what your story is about and where it starts and where it ends. And, most important, these scenes will then create the lens through which your protagonist sees, and evaluates, the world you’ll plunk her into. Many of these scenes will end up in the book itself, as you’ll soon see. Worrieth not, none of it will go to waste.
- The reader expects there will be something crucial at stake, continually forcing the protagonist’s hand.
What keeps us reading is dopamine-fueled curiosity. What triggers it? Wanting to know what will happen next when something is at stake. It’s not about wondering whether Jane’s husband will make spaghetti or stir fry for dinner. Because, really, who cares? Nor can the “something at stake” be random – it needs to be something that will affect your protagonist in pursuit of her goal. In other words, will this get her closer to what she wants, or further away?
[pullquote]What keeps us reading is dopamine-fueled curiosity. What triggers it? Wanting to know what will happen next when something is at stake.[/pullquote]
But wait, there’s more! A big mistake that writers often make is that they think it means that something is at stake externally. And while yes, there must be something at stake externally, the real question is: given what’s happening externally, what’s at stake for your protagonist internally.
- The reader expects a clear and present force of opposition, with a loudly ticking clock.
We’re wired to keep a vigilant eye on anything we perceive as danger, and to begin planning escape routes the second something squirrelly catches our eye. But if what seemed to be a ticking clock suddenly stops, so does our interest in it. A common mistake writers make is that while they do indeed create a force of opposition – be it an actual villain or a conceptual societal restraint – the specific danger remains vague, general, so we can’t really envision what might happen, or anything specific that the protagonist needs to be wary of. Under those circumstances, by definition, the story can’t escalate.
[pullquote]The whole point of the plot is to force the character to take action, and without a rapidly approaching deadline – well, good luck with that.[/pullquote]
And not only must something specific be at stake, there must be a deadline with a very clear consequence – so that your protagonist can’t put off dealing with the problem until she’s feeling rested, or when Mercury finally comes out of retrograde, or tomorrow. We all know where tomorrow falls on the calendar: A week from Never. The whole point of the plot is to force the character to take action, and without a rapidly approaching deadline – well, good luck with that.
- The reader expects the protagonist to try to make sense of everything that the plot puts her through, in the moment, on the page, as she struggles with what to do.
This is where the true story lies. Everything else is there to serve this one master. This is the very specific inside intel we’re wired to hunt for: What is this character really thinking? What would that really feel like? Not thinking in general, mind you. Not long, rambling, stream of consciousness musings about this and that. But how she makes sense of what’s happening to her right now, based on her specific agenda.
[pullquote]The past is the yardstick by which we measure the meaning of the present. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so crucial that you know certain specific events in the protagonist’s backstory before you begin writing.[/pullquote]
This is where that backstory we were talking about comes in, whether in full scene flashbacks, or in snippets as he tries to parse out the real meaning of what’s happening, and gauge the possible consequences of what he might do about it. The past is the yardstick by which we measure the meaning of the present. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so crucial that you know certain specific events in the protagonist’s backstory before you begin writing. Otherwise, how will you know what anything means to them at all? The answer is simple: you won’t.
And yes, this applies to scenes in which the protagonist is not present. Sure, we’ll feel a lot of things, but the ultimate filter through which we’ll evaluate everything will be: how will this impact on the protagonist when she finds out?
- The reader expects that everything in the story is there strictly on a need-to-know basis, even the weather.
[pullquote]As readers, we tacitly take for granted that if we don’t need to know it, the writer won’t waste our time telling us.[/pullquote]
As readers, we tacitly take for granted that if we don’t need to know it, the writer won’t waste our time telling us. It’s so logical, isn’t it? But surprisingly, this logic doesn’t seem to stop writers from throwing in all sorts of things that don’t really have anything to do with the story at hand. But the poor reader doesn’t know that. The reader thinks that whatever you wrote has story significance, and so they dutifully ascribe meaning to it, and that meaning is, by definition, going to be wrong. The trouble is, soon they’re reading a different story than the one you’re writing — a story that shortly stops making sense.
- The reader expects that the protagonist will be flawed and vulnerable
We’re wired to use ourselves, and what our experience has taught us, as the barometer of what is believable and what isn’t. And if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that we’re vulnerable, and, gosh this is hard to admit — flawed. Meaning, there are times when we don’t know what to do, when we’re insecure, when we feel like we sound really stupid, and when we don’t really want to say what we’re thinking out loud. So when we come across a character who seems perfect – who’s always kind, considerate, smart, and well groomed — rather than swooning, we’re kind of skeptical.
[pullquote]It’s our flaws, our differences, that make us interesting, and our vulnerability that allows us to connect. Likeable doesn’t mean perfect or unable to offend anyone, ever. It means relatable.[/pullquote]
Trouble is, writers often feel that their protagonist has to be likeable, which they take to mean perfect – and by society’s standards, no less. And so the protagonist never makes mistakes or has any real flaws that might offend or embarrass. Which actually means that they’re not perfect — they’re boring. And, probably, hiding something. Am I right?
It’s our flaws, our differences, that make us interesting, and our vulnerability that allows us to connect. The point is, likeable doesn’t mean perfect or unable to offend anyone, ever. It means relatable. Even if we don’t particularly like the protagonist, she has to be someone we can relate to, if only a little bit.
Besides, what can we learn from someone who’s already perfect? What problem could they possibly have? In other words, your protagonist has to have something they need to learn, which implies that, um, there was something they didn’t know to begin with. Something they got wrong. Otherwise, what do they have to struggle with?
- The reader expects that as the protagonist tries to solve the story question, he will only make things worse, until he has no choice but to face his inner issue.
Biologically, we’re hardwired to start out by taking the least amount of action in order to solve a problem. We’re also wired to want to get the most by giving up the least. This is not a moral judgment: these are biological truths that for eons have helped us – and every other living organism — survive. It doesn’t make us weak, it’s just the nature of the beast. We want to have our cake and eat it too. Who wouldn’t? As readers, we’re aware of this tendency, and so we expect the protagonist to try to take the easy way out. But as experience has taught us (read: the hard way), chances are that’s probably going to make it worse. This is how a story builds, tension mounts, and stakes rise, until the protagonist is forced to confront the thing that’s been holding her back.
That is why you can kick external story-structure manuals to the curb – which misleadingly only focus on the plot, and the “things that happen” externally, rather than the internal story from which the plot springs. As I’ve said before, story structure is a byproduct of a story well told, not something you can create from the outside in. By allowing your protagonist’s inner struggle to give meaning to and thus drive the external events (aka the plot) your story will organically escalate.
- The reader expects that at the end of the story the protagonist will emerge changed — seeing the world through new eyes — and that we, the readers, will emerge changed, as well.
Remember where we started?
[pullquote]Our unspoken assumption is that when we finish the book we’ll be a little smarter, a little more savvy in the ways of the world, and a little more able to make it safely through the night.[/pullquote]
Story is hardwired into the architecture of the brain; it’s how we make sense of everything. And when it comes to envisioning the future, to imagining what might happen, a story is a simulation: it allows us to vicariously experience things we haven’t yet gone through, the better to gather inside intel for the future. We began telling stories at the dawn of time, and by the time novels came around (like five minutes ago, in the grand scheme of things), our wiring was in place. To wit: our unspoken assumption is that when we finish the book we’ll be a little smarter, a little more savvy in the ways of the world, and a little more able to make it safely through the night. Which is why what we’re tracking when we read isn’t an external how-to, but an internal “why to.” In other words, story is not about the plot, it’s about the internal change the plot causes in the protagonist.
And here’s the kicker: when the protagonist changes, so does the reader. All stories are a call to action. The reader expects no less.
Thoughts? The floor is yours.