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?
Wow! I thought dopamine was just used to support blood pressure.
Heh. Little hospital humor, there. And I know story trumps prose - that's why readers complain about some writers even as they're buying a copy of their newest releases. You might argue that JK Rawlings, Stephanie Meyer's, Charlene Harris, and EL James aren't good writers, but they're all awesome storytellers, which is why they're famous. (They also have good copyeditors, so there's no temptation to throw their books across the room.)
Great post, Cora, and something I teach my students on day one. If I hear one more "it starts slowly, but really picks up around page 10"...
Going back to read the opening to my next novel. I've already thrown the first chapter out once :)
I actually look at the quality of the prose, or I should say, the creative choice of words. I also note the crafting of sentences. I don't like books set in cold weather (I hate snow) so Girl With The Dragon Tattoo really was a difficult read. I get annoyed by the word "it" instead of real nouns and will put a book down if the punctuation is too creative. Dialog is a deal breaker as well.
However, with all the historical fiction I gobble down, I'm looking for information more than some sort of story. I mean, we all know how it ends: Ann B. gets her head chopped off, everyone goes to battle, Mad Juana is shut up in a castle for life, Lucrezia flirts with her brother--or did they do more? I'll sacrifice quality a bit to add to my information bank.
But, that's just me.
Hi! It's me...the person who throws hideously edited books across the room! I agree with you, Liv. Those grand storytellers you mention have copy editors who keep reader-fans from the necessity of wading through split infinitives, dangling participles, misplaced punctuation and atrocious misspellings in order to earn the prize: a dopamine-doused, brain-worthy slam-dunk of a story!! That's the difference.
I certainly wish my Avatar had let me know she was on vacation! Where is that "gal?" ;D
Ordered this book after I read Cron's blog on WU. Her theory makes so much sense, and as your poll showed, it's all in the story. I've had similar instances when I've ripped through a story, that didn't have perfect prose nor well written, because of the great storytelling.
What a fascinating post! Thank you, Cora, for bringing Lisa's book to our attention. I believe in the importance of story and will stop reading if the first chapter does not grab my attention, but I'm also annoyed by multiple errors. Recently, I suffered through a friend's book (self published) that had not been edited properly.
Liv and Jodi, don't know what I'd do without your humor. Sorry your avatar is avoiding being photographed, Jodi.
I know the feeling, I keep cutting my beginning on my new novel and losing lots of words--going in the wrong direction.
I finish reading books that have compelling storylines, that I don't have to try to make sense of and that are seamless in the writing. It's unfortunate but some self-published books shouldn't have been. The authors should have taken more time with the poor editing that was probably the problem to begin with and, therefore, not published by an objective publisher. This can get difficult because most rejection notes do not arrive with reasons, if they are sent out at all. As writers we have groups and other tools to keep us honest. Interesting post!
Loved your insights, Cora! I think you're onto something. When I stay up most of the night reading until my eyes cross I'm tripping on dopamine-producing stories that provide clues for social interactions. In my favorite novels by Higgins & Silva, the problem-solvers are the assassins. Oh, my.
My point, and Cron's point exactly--"sacrifice quality a bit to add to my information bank." The information bank being the something we are trying to get at by reading. Good prose, good mechanics all add to the pleasure--but we are hungry for the information that will add something we need to our memory banks and our life experience. Dopamine lets us know we are approaching it.
Thanks for your affirming comment. I want to get her book too. I always like to know the science that validates our actions/reactions. (That must be my latent psychologist talking.)
What can I say? If a book is really full of errors, the best story will not get read--you won't be able to get to it before giving up.
Thanks for your comments. I'm certainly not condoning shoddy writing. It's a writer's responsibility to learn the craft.
You know I do that, too. I read before falling asleep and I usually can get through only a page before I want to close the book and go to sleep--Unless, I'm reading one of those dopamine inducing books--then I seem to come wide awake and I keep reading until my eyes get blurry and I'm forced to go to sleep--usually hours later.
I love it when a book compels me to read it as fast as possible because I can't possibly wait to find out what happens. For a book to be that compelling to me, I have to not just want to know what happens, but care about what happens to the character. So for me, while a good story is necessary, I also need characters that speak to me.
If it's powerful enough to hook me, I consider the style of writing, the type of story and if it continues to keep me involved without dragging in the middle. Sometimes the stroy starts off good but soon I know it's going to continue in the same vein and I know where it's going before it gets there and I'll lose interest. Recently I completed two stories that had me guessing pretty much until the very end. Both were powerful enough to hook me and keep me hooked. Characters and plot are very important, but writing style and arrangement of scenes/chapters. For instance I recently reviewed a book that wasn't very good in my opinion because there was a lot of build up background detail but when it came time for the action scenes it fizzled. The tension vanished. This was repeated throughout. I quickly lost interest.
I find your write up and the insight from you and Cron very interesting. I like books with a believable story as well as dynamic prose. I read a ton of books that just fall flat. I try to plow through them but without a great story or interesting prose, I just can't finish them. I re-wrote my manuscript after similar advice as Cron and your blog suggests that was given to me by Sunny Frazier. The story jumped off the pages afterwards. I'm hoping to hit the dopamine neurotransmitters of millions of readers!!
I'm at the Willamette Writer's Conference this weekend and one of the workshops is being taught by Lisa Cron on this very topic! I'll be sure to take copious notes and share anything I learn that you haven't already highlighted here. I''m always fascinated to learn more about how our brains are wired and how they work.
I agree that character is very important--I think it's part of good story telling.
When a story really hooks you, you are not thinking about anything but finding out what happens next--right to the end. Thanks for comments.
Sunny is the bomb. When you follow her advice, it will get you to where you want to go. Good luck with your story.
How lucky you are. Interesting synchronicity. Can't wait to hear what she has to say.
I couldn't wait for my order of Wired for Story to arrive, and now you've made the wait a lot worse, Cora. Thanks! ;)
Great summing up of what it's all about: writing is about storytelling, and storytelling is about urgent curiosity. Get these right, and all those little things like the "perfect" wordchoice and sticking to ancient rules can fly out the window. Readers want excitement, they don't check your book against the Elements of Style to see how good it is.
Thanks for a great post!
I like that, "urgent curiosity." It makes me think of good oral storytellers I've listened to--how they grab your curiosity and keep you hooked until the end to find out what happens. You're not thinking about word choice. Thanks, Vero.
Such a wildly thought provoking post, Cora. I definitely agree that curiosity goes a long way in keeping me tuned into my reading choices. But in order for me to hang into the end and consider a book memorable, I have to care about the characters, the story needs to be well crafted, and boo-boos need to be low on the obnoxious scale. If any of these elements are missing--then so am I. There are too many "want to reads" on my pile to waste precious reading time on what fails to stimulate and intrigue.
Absolutely intriguing! So much is involved in writing. This just adds to what I want to give to my readers. I have always put myself in a story when reading. However, there were just some books, which did not do the trick for me. This is some especially important information for writers to have! Thanks!
I bought Cron's book yesterday, so I will have more to say about this in the future.
I agree, more writers need to have this information. To say what makes a good story is easier than actually crafting it. Am reading the book now. more to come
A story has to be believeable for me to read it. It can be far-fetched, but it needs to be something that could have actually happened. I don't like reading a book and thinking, "Oh, brother", long before I'm through the first couple of chapters.
My dad was a terrific storyteller, and he was sharing things that happened in his own past. No matter how mundane the subject might seem, he always made it exciting. He made the dopamine flow, so to speak.
I know what you mean. I just picked up a book and it started good and quickly got confused. I'm out of there.
Dopamine is triggered by the expectation or a reward. That’s what makes slot machines so addictive. The random expectation of hitting a jackpot is so overwhelming that some players get upset when they hit jackpots because it keeps them from playing and expecting jackpots.
Dopamine is so seductive that it causes students to spend years studying (and going into hock) in the expectation of landing high-paying jobs. And it keeps religious followers forgoing earthly pleasure in the expectation of earning eternal salvation.
I think the story plot goes hand in hand with the writing. Indeed, unless you write well, you will not be able to convey your plot correctly and effectively.
Mistakes in grammar or too much slang, swear words etc. are actually very distracting. The writing should not create an overload, but lend a helping hand to the plot.
That is my opinion.
Now I have to go buy Wired for Story. I'm a sucker for books on writing.
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