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Who Knows More About Story: Writers or The Pentagon?

Photo via Flickr by Pfc. Mardicio Barrot
Photo via Flickr by Pfc. Mardicio Barrot

I can’t believe I’m back! I missed you all, and the amazingly warm, welcoming and fabulously engaged and engaging community here at Writer Unboxed. I’ve spent the past year working on my new book, Story Genius, and thinking about one thing: story itself, not “writing.” Because to talk about writing is to talk about the method. The technique. The format. The genre. To talk about story is to talk about the juice, the point, the content, the thing that hooks readers from the first sentence.

I want to spend the next ten months before Story Genius comes out, letting you in on what I’ve learned about story – not just theoretically, but hands on, boots on the ground, so you can begin to harness the unparalleled power of story right out of the starting gate (which is not page one, but miles before it). It can all be boiled down into this one simple sentence:

Story first, writing second.

My goal in Story Genius was to create a step-by-step method to go from the first glimmer of an idea to a finished first draft by focusing solely on story. After all, writing and technique is born of story, not the other way around. This is good news for writers. Because story is story regardless the format, the technique, the genre.[pullquote]You know that old saw, “The pen is mightier than the sword”? It’s a metaphor, right? Wrong. It’s a fact.[/pullquote]

And the heartbreaking thing is that story – what it is, where it came from, what its biological purpose is, and what the readers’ brain is actually responding to – is not something that tends to be discussed by writers, let alone taught to writers. But strangely enough, the biological effect of stories is being talked about with increasing frequency and urgency by scientists. Discoveries and connections are being made that explode our understanding of story and the power it has over us. In other words, everyone else is beginning to figure out that writers are among the most powerful people on the planet.

You know that old saw, “The pen is mightier than the sword”? It’s a metaphor, right? Wrong. It’s a fact. You know who believes it?

The Pentagon.

Or, more to the point, DARPA, The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s top secret military research arm [1], which “is the most powerful and most productive military science agency in the world. Its stated mission is to create revolutions in military science and to maintain technological dominance over the rest of the world.”

Sounds like the beginning of a dystopian novel, doesn’t it? Story as a way to maintain dominance over the world? How could a technology that’s as old as our brain do that?

That’s what DARPA wanted to find out, so in 2011 it began a program called Narrative Networks [2] (N2) based on the fact that human brains physically change in order to fit new information into coherent narratives. According to DARPA, “Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity.”

As Wired [3] pointed out when the program began, “One of DARPA’s stated goals is to explore ‘the intertwining of the biology of narratives and emotions. This will discuss, in terms of our neuron signals, how listening to a narrative can impact the biology of emotions like empathy, sympathy or outrage and disgust, leading to impulsive reactions.’ All this may sound fluffy but there have actually been a number of scientific studies assessing the relationship between the seemingly disparate but deeply related issues of memory, judgment, identity, narrative and neuroscience. DARPA’s workshop is trying to weave these elements together within the context of their work: security matters.”[pullquote]Story – narrative – is the language of the brain. And in that capacity, story’s main job is to impart useful inside intel on how to navigate our beautiful, unpredictable world.[/pullquote]

Kind of scary to think that the Pentagon wants to harness the power of story to get its point across, isn’t it? Conjures up images of Big Brother and mind manipulation. But that’s precisely what story does – it changes how we see things. That’s its job. Story itself is neutral; it can take us just as far in the right direction as the wrong. It all depends on who is wielding it.

There’s only one thing we can’t do: unplug our brain from story. Because story – narrative – is the language of the brain. And in that capacity, story’s main job is to impart useful inside intel on how to navigate our beautiful, unpredictable world. In fact, as studies have shown, reading novels increases our ability to empathize, but not by choice. Our newfound empathy isn’t something we “decide” to engage in having read a story about someone different than us; it’s something that happens organically — because when we were lost in the story, it rewired our brain.[pullquote]Studies have shown that reading novels increases our ability to empathize, but not by choice, but by rewiring our brain. [/pullquote]

That’s how powerful stories are. They often change how we see things, without our conscious knowledge. We’re being affected by stories every minute of every day, whether we know it or not. What the Pentagon is getting at is that it’s better to understand the story, and the power it exerts, than to pretend that that power doesn’t exist.

And for us writers, the more we understand what it is that’s really captivating our readers, the better we’ll be able to write stories that enthrall them.

The genuinely surprising thing is that it took humans this long to prove how powerful story is. We needed evolutionary biology and neuroscience to give us the key insights. There are two good reasons that story’s power stayed hidden for so long.

The first reason we overlook the power of story, and why writers tend to be unaware of exactly what it is that makes a story compelling, is because although we think in narrative, we don’t tend to perceive it as such. Instead, we tend to believe that we’re seeing things “objectively”—that is, the way anyone would (well, anyone as sane, smart, and savvy as we are, that is)—rather than “subjectively,” as defined by what our very specific life has primed us to see.

That’s why what sometimes appears to you as a clear-cut, illuminating fact that demands instant action, might leave someone else scratching his head and wondering what on earth you’re talking about. While this might sound obvious in the abstract, out there in the field it’s easy to forget. It’s like the old joke David Foster Wallace tells in his now famous This is Water [4] speech: An older fish asks two young fish, “How’s the water?” and as she swims away, one young fish turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?”

Our subjective story is the water we’re swimming in. So we don’t see it as our narrative, but as “life” – the way things are. Truth is, we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. And what writers need to take to heart is: so do our protagonists.

The second reason we’ve missed the unparalleled power of story is, ironically, because we love stories so much. Since it feels so good to get lost in a story, we’ve come to regard stories as “entertainment” and thus optional — as if stories serve no real purpose other than to entertain us.[pullquote]Without narrative, life would not only be meaningless, but incomprehensible. Stories don’t simply chronicle external events (plotters, beware), they make sense of those events as they relate to a specific person, given that person’s agenda.[/pullquote]

Story isn’t something we humans created for “entertainment” nor is story about something as ephemeral, vague and – honestly unhelpful – as the concept of “art.” In fact, we didn’t create story at all; story created us. Or at least our perception of the world we live in. Story is built into the architecture of the brain, it’s the framework that allows us to process all the raw info that life throws at us 24/7.

Story is the lens through which we see . . . everything.

Without narrative, life would not only be meaningless, but incomprehensible. Stories don’t simply chronicle external events (plotters, beware), they make sense of those events as they relate to a specific person, given that person’s agenda. It’s that internal logic that supplies subjective meaning, thus triggering every action your protagonist takes, from walking the dog before it’s too late to taking a high paying job she detests to prove to her sixth grade teacher that she does too have what it takes to succeed in the real world.

In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain [5] neuroscientist David Eagleman writes that to make a good narrative, “the brain works around the clock to stitch together a pattern of logic to our daily lives: what just happened and what was my role in it? Fabrication of stories is one of the key businesses in which our brains engage. Brains do this with the single-minded goal of getting the multifaceted actions of [the world around us] to make sense.”[pullquote]Narrative is our internal attempt to figure out how the external world works, and – most importantly – why people do the things they do, the better to not get clobbered for saying the wrong thing. [/pullquote]

In other words: narrative is our internal attempt to figure out how the external world works, and – most importantly – why people do the things they do, the better to not get clobbered for saying the wrong thing. Story isn’t what happens, externally; story is how we make sense of what happens, internally. That’s what your readers are wired to come for: we can already see what happens on the surface, we don’t need novels to tell us that. What we want to know is: how is what’s happening affecting the protagonist given her specific agenda; what subjective meaning is she reading into it; and how will it drive her action?

In other words, it’s not about what she does, it’s about why. As author Julian Barnes says, “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”

And the key question is: what does our brain use to make sense of the present? In literature as in life, the answer is the past. In writer’s parlance, backstory is the lens through which your protagonist views and evaluates everything in the present. And, in combination with what she wants (her future agenda), backstory is the basis of every decision she makes.[pullquote]In writer’s parlance, backstory is the lens through which your protagonist views and evaluates everything in the present[/pullquote]

Each one of us (not just you and me, but every protagonist, every character) lives by our own internal, subjective logic, which we’ve stitched together out of the very specific experiences we’ve had. Those experiences are called up the moment life throws something unexpected at us. It’s the unexpected – a problem, an inescapable conflict, the prospect of unavoidable change — that catapults our conscious brain into action. To quote Eagleman again, “Think about when your conscious awareness comes online: in those situations where events in the world violate your expectations.” Stories are about just that: how we deal with the unexpected. And when that happens, your protagonist would instantly and innately call up her own subjective narrative – that is, her past life experience – to figure out what the hell to do. It is this internal struggle that evokes the emotion that drives the novel, and hooks the reader. It’s the struggle that tells us what things mean.[pullquote]Stories are about how we deal with the unexpected. And when that happens, your protagonist would instantly and innately call up her own subjective narrative – that is, her past life experience – to figure out what the hell to do. [/pullquote]

Thus it’s no surprise that it is the protagonist’s internal struggle that the reader’s brain is wired to respond to. That means that you must know a lot of story-specific information about your protagonist before you can develop a plot, before you can even begin to write your novel. But – and this is the game changer – not before you begin to write your story. Because your story starts in your protagonist’s past, long before your novel does.

And, here’s something that might come as a surprise: your protagonist’s past – yes, backstory — must be present on page one, in the internal response she has as she tries to figure out the meaning of the unexpected thing that’s happening in the moment.

It’s this that tells readers why what’s happening matters to your protagonist, gives them empathy, and allows them to experience, feel, and vicariously live your protagonist’s life – live it literally, as it rewires their brain, changing how they see the world.

The take away: Readers are responding to things that writers have not been taught to focus on. And those things need to become the framework of your entire novel. In a story every twist, every “sensory detail,” every bit of tension springs from one thing: the single internal struggle that spurs your protagonist’s action from the first page to the last. There are no random elements. Ever. All the workshops and lessons about beautiful writing, and three act structures, and plot-level drama come to nothing unless the internal struggle that those external events put the protagonist through is clear and present.

To that end, next month we’ll dive into exactly what that internal struggle looks like and why, given the way writing is taught, it may be exactly what you’ve been purposely avoiding when you write.

But before that, I know that you’re all miles ahead of where you were nine months ago when I signed off.  What’s the most revelatory thing you’ve learned about your story since December? Aha moments welcome!

About Lisa Cron [6]

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence [7] and Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste 3 Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). [8] Her video tutorial, Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, can be found at Lynda.com [9]. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, [10] opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, schools and universities, Lisa's passion has always been story. She currently works as a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and journalists wrangle the story they're telling onto the page; contact her here. [11]

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