Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Feed Your Head: Why Your Brain Craves A Good Story

Without a good story, beautiful prose is just empty calories . 

Lisa Cron examines this idea in her book WIRED FOR STORY, one of the best writing books I've read in a long time.

See it on Goodreads
I love Cron's book because it talks about how recent breakthroughs in neuroscience help us understand what our brains are hungry for and how writers can use this knowledge to tell better stories. 

I'm fascinated by brain science.  I love to know how the mind works, why people act the way they do, how the structure and mechanics of our brains influence the way we act and think.  Applying it to writing is the next logical step.

It's all in your head

In her book, Cron asks, why do humans naturally crave something as ethereal and seemingly unimportant as stories?  The answer: survival.  We evolved to love stories because they help us simulate and learn from experiences, without actually having to live through them.  So if we're ever captured by pirates, chased by flying monkeys or lost in the Sahara desert, we'll know what to do.  While reading or listening to a story, subconsciously, we continuously ask ourselves, what would I do in this situation?

Like a harrowing ride on an upside down roller coaster, stories provide the chills and spills and adrenaline of a threatening situation, with none of the risks.  We play out the scenario in our minds, so we won't need to face a charging elephant stampede to anticipate how we might react.  

It's especially true in the social realm.  We need to know what other people might be thinking.  Why do they act the way they do?  How do I deal with them?

The connection is so subconscious, we aren't even aware of it.   We feel what the protagonist feels and experience the story, just as though it's really happening.

In order to engage this hard-wired response in our readers, writers have to tell the right kind of stories.

 Now that's a good story

A good story triggers our desperate need to know what happens next.  Our curiosity is aroused, and the mechanisms in our brains drive us to find the answers.  And when we finally do, our brains reward us with a little charge of dopamine.

Haven't you felt it?  You're reading a fast- paced thriller or a heart-breaking love story and feel compelled to know how it ends.  You skip lunch, stay up late, neglect your dog, just to read a little bit more. And when you finally figure out who committed the crime or learn the secret that's keeping the loving couple apart, it feels great

That's the reaction every writer is after.  A story that gets into a reader's head and rewards her with the "aha" moment she's craving.  To achieve this, the first thing a writer has to do is to make the reader care.

Make something happen

Something must be at stake from the first page.  No matter how exquisite the descriptions or scintillating the dialogue, if there's nothing at risk, there's little reason to pay attention.

Cron says, a story is the telling of events that affect someone in some way and causes them to change as a result.   "Not only must something be happening, but there must be a consequence we can anticipate."

A story with no consequence is flat and uninteresting.  The higher the stakes, the more the reader is engaged. 

To achieve this, someone in the story has to want something.  To find the hidden treasure.  To catch the bad guys.  To win the bowling trophy.  To earn a father's approval.  To save the world.  Something. Even in a "literary" novel, characters must have a goal.

Figure out what the main character wants and create obstacles to keep her or him from acheiving it and you'll have the reader eating out of your hand.

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