Recently, I had a bunch of e-books on my reader and I just couldn’t get into any of them. Then I opened the last book I’d downloaded on my Nook for free. Before I realized it, I was 80 pages in and hooked. Why, I wondered did all those other good books not grab me and this one did?
Back in June, I was blogging on why we choose to read certain books, here: and a follow up of the results here: There was lots of opinions in the comments about what readers like to read and why.
Then I came across this post at Writer Unboxed, and I was struck by the simplicity of what it takes to make a story that grabs people and doesn’t let them go until the end.
Why Are We Wired For Story? Is an article by Lisa Cron from her new craft book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence.
She says, “What the brain craves, hunts for and responds to in every story it hears has nothing to do with what most writers are taught to strive for . . . whether literary or a down and dirty thriller.”
“Beginning with the very first sentence, the brain craves a sense of urgency that instantly makes us want to know what happens next. It’s a visceral feeling that seduces us into leaving the real world behind and surrendering to the world of the story.”
Story is more than entertainment, more than a question to be answered, more than a vicarious experience. Story is how we make sense of the world. Cron says it is the brain’s goal to predict what might happen, so in the event that we are in a similar situation, we will know what to do. It has to do with Stone Age programming for survival. We vicariously live through the story experience so we can gain useful information, just in case.
Cron makes the case,
“Story was so crucial to our survival that the brain evolved specifically to respond to it, especially once we realized that banding together in social groups makes surviving a whole lot easier. Suddenly it wasn’t just about figuring out the physical world, it was about something far trickier: navigating the social realm.
In short, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world and give us insight into what makes people tick, the better to discern whether the cute guy in the next cubicle really is single like he says, and to plan the perfect comeuppance if he’s not.”
So, I was hitting on something back in my June posts when I questioned what people want in story. There were comments all over the place about what makes a good story—or at least the stories that grab us and won’t let go. Wouldn’t we all like readers to read our stories like that—unable to put them down?
It seems that when a story grabs us to pay attention it has to do with the neural pleasure transmitter, dopamine. Imagine that.
“It’s triggered by curiosity,” Cron says. “We want to know what happens next—curiosity gives us a flood of dopamine to keep us reading long after because tomorrow we might need the insight it will give us.”
The results of my limited questionnaire in June were:
People read for a variety of reasons, the main ones being evenly divided between:
Plot and story:
-to get lost in the story
-a problem to solve; a mystery
-interesting story line
-effectiveness of weaving a tale
This seems to affirm Cron's hypothesis.
So, how do writers craft a well-told tale? It’s not your lyrical prose that is most important. It’s not even those memorable characters of themselves that are important, but only if your characters are actively engaged in solving a problem effectively (believably). Then the dopamine makes us respond.
Cron goes on to say that you can reduce your editing time by not concentrating on polishing your prose—she says “that’s like rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.” Concentrate on telling a good story. And, I would add, a believable story that could happen (even in a sci-fi or fantasy world). We can’t forget believable emotions and emotional reactions as well.
Are you convinced that story is more important to keep readers reading than the prose? Or, do you believe the writing is the most important thing, as one of my commenters said, “if I find multiple errors in a book, I throw it across the room!”
What do you think?