If you write in such a way as to intrigue a few brains, you'll hook and keep readers. Hook enough brains, and you might have a bestseller.
At least that's what Lisa Cron suggests in Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Cron spent a decade in publishing, then was a supervising producer for television. She's also been a story consultant, an agent, and an instructor.
In Wired for Story, Cron discusses how writing serves the story, rather than the other way around.
Particularly in this era of short attention spans and multiple competing distractions, writers would do well to know what makes attention stick rather than drift away. Cron takes knowledge garnered from current brain science and applies it to reading and writing.
I admit I'm uncomfortable with some of the generalizations Cron evokes, such as "We won't put up with a bad story for three seconds." That seems to leave out those of us who will hang in there for a lot longer than that as we read quieter books offering rewards that take longer to accrue than three seconds or three pages. Even so, most of her advice in Wired for Story rings true.
"Evolution," writes Cron, "dictates that the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is created in such a compelling illusion of reality." She mentions a brain study that shows how much we feel that we are actually inside a compelling story, how much we feel the action happening to us. So it's only natural that we can't help turn pages to see what's coming next.
Therefore, to engage your reader more quickly and thoroughly than the competition, try these:
1. Something must be at stake for the protagonist from the first page, and your reader must be aware of what it is. Something must be happening right away so the reader wants to know what will happen next.
2. Focus is crucial, meaning the writer must make clear what the protagonist has to overcome internally to accomplish her goal.
3. Write what you know emotionally. Tap into what you know about human nature to make your story feel real. Does your protagonist feel shame? Surely you have at one time too.
4. Write character bios, but focus it on their messy flaws, without allowing them any privacy. Aim to find their motivation, to learn (and have your characters learn) what really causes them to do what they do,
5. Avoid too many sensory details. There has to be a reason for each detail, and the reader has to be able to figure it out.
6. Intrigue matters. "If we don't know there's intrigue afoot, then there is no intrigue afoot." Readers enjoy going back to reconsider hints and events in the light of a twist or "reveal," but not if there are hidden things that have been going on all along that are not at least hinted at.
7. Beware of misplaced digressions, whether small or large. Digressions should provide what a reader needs to know at that moment. "Can you answer the 'And so?' to everything in the story? Flashbacks stop the action and must only be used to provide needed information the reader needs now
8. Back off whenever the conflict peaks, so the reader can process it. Use subplots for this. This point and the previous one may seem to conflict, but they don't. A subplot after an intense plot point should eventually come back to join the story and help the reader make more sense of it.
9. Escalate the trouble. Make sure everything that can go wrong does.
10. Your protagonist must suffer embarrassment and other untidy emotions, even if you'd rather protect her. By protecting her, you may be trying to protect yourself, fearing readers will be alerted to the fact that you know more about the dark side than you want them to suspect.
Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry