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Brain Science for Writers

A story coach explains what catches a reader’s brain on fire.

Lisa Cron
Source: Lisa Cron

As I prepared for a writing retreat at the Highlights Foundation, tucked away in a pretty area of northeastern Pennsylvania, I wondered which books I should take. Besides doing my own writing, I wanted someone else's to inspire me. At first, I chose a novel. Then I received a copy of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius in the mail. No contest. That was it!

It was the right choice. I had mentioned Cron’s earlier book, Wired for Story, when I explained why The Walking Dead TV show hooks viewers. The series taps into our hard-wired drive for meaning, I said. Cron describes the 4-step momentum in stories that makes us stay attuned: meaning-making, identification, anticipation, and expectation. “Having our curiosity piqued is visceral,” she says. It makes us hungry.

In her new book, Story Genius, she picks up the same theme, that a protagonist’s internal struggle makes the story work, and offers step-by-step advice on how to exploit this truth about neuroscience for richer, deeper, better first drafts. A writer, Jennie Nash, works alongside her, trying out the advice. As they demonstrate the steps, they debunk several longstanding myths about writing fiction – something to which all aspiring writers should pay attention.

“The initial job of an effective story,” says Cron, “is to anesthetize the part of your brain that knows it is a story.” You want the reader to become the protagonist, to believe that the situation is real, and to watch how the protagonist deals with it – especially when things get complicated.

Too often writers confuse ‘plot’ with story, when plot is merely the external manifestation of the internal dilemma. The things that happen to protagonists matter less than what is at stake for them and how this affects them psychologically.

You, the writer, says Cron, must know their problem before you create the plot. She advises that, regardless of whether you plan to write from first- or third-person, you should write pivotal “crossroads” scenes from first-person, so that you can feel what’s happening. At some point, protagonists must face truly difficult situations and figure out how to deal with them.

Story, says Cron, is our brain’s “decoder ring.” Among the things that she points out is the function of dopamine in the brain, which not only makes us feel alert and alive but also kicks in when we anticipate something we want to experience. It can even make us addicted to that anticipation, i.e., make us stay up all night to keep reading.

Story instills meaning through feeling. The more we experience a character, the more we want to know what will happen. Among her wisest nuggets is this: “We don’t turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality.” You want the reader’s brain to meld with the protagonist’s brain.

Authors can put all the time they want into perfecting their craft, but in the end, if they don’t deliver on story, their craft remains just words, no music. So, protagonists must be fully developed, with goals that matter deeply to them, hindrances to those goals (including internal hindrances such as mistaken beliefs), and reactions to those hindrances – specifically how they are changed along the way.

So, what if writers experience all this frisson in their own brain while writing their story, but still can’t seem to hook readers? How does this awareness of how story hits the brain translate into craft?

Cron provides exercises and examples to keep writers on track, always highlighting the fact that emotions engage the brain faster than anything else. “What ‘write what you know’ really means,” she says, “is write what you know emotionally.”

My setting at the Highlights Foundation was the perfect place for trying this out in my own work. “There’s something in the air here,” I heard people say. Over meals, they spoke of focus, inspiration, and ideas that popped in ways they’d never anticipated. Distractions are minimal and the camaraderie is about being in our work spaces, working.

Source: K. Ramsland

You can walk on a trail, hang out in the common areas, sit on a patio, wander in the “word garden,” take a yoga class, or do some “prompt” exercises (which my writing friend in the neighboring cabin likes to use).

The combination of focus, setting and inspiration worked well for me. I would recommend that writers first pick up Wired for Story, to learn the science so that Story Genius becomes an effective workbook. The concepts are easy to understand and they are certainly important. Even if you can’t go on a retreat, you should try to find time to do the exercises for your own blueprint.

You can’t argue with the brain: it wants what it wants what it wants. The reader’s brain-on-story wants to know how your protagonist feels, from start to finish.