BOOK REVIEW: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First SentenceWired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There are countless books offering advice to writers. Some are good. Some are not. Good, bad, or ugly, few of these books offer anything new beyond particularly artful (e.g. humorous or poetic) explanations or superior examples. In other words, if you’ve read five writer’s guides you’ve read five thousand. Cron’s book is the rare guide worth a read even if you’ve read a hundred other such books. It’s not that Wired for Story offers radical or novel advice on story building (its writer’s tips are orthodox.) It’s the way this book couches the arguments for what can admittedly be hackneyed advice. As the title suggests, Cron’s book is about how our brains are wired to love stories–as long as said stories contain certain attributes that the brain finds appealing. (Conversely, there’s a reason why books that go wildly off the reservation with “experimentalism” are doomed.)

While I’ve read many a book on writing, I picked up Wired for Story more out of an interest in the subject of the neuroscience of story. The book doesn’t delve deeply into the science, but it does cite leading thinkers in the field as well as providing a good layman’s overview of the neuroscientific principles that inform the book’s tips. Cron’s background is in publishing and her bona fides to write this book are as someone who came from a career reading and rejecting / accepting manuscripts. However, I believe she did a good job of laying out science.

The central idea is that humans love stories because the narrative structure allows people to simulate a nasty chain of problems without suffering the real world consequences. The brain loathes uncertainty and randomness, and loves whenever it can learn about how to face a problem or make sense of the world. This is why we love conflict, tension, and an unrelenting unfolding of worst case scenarios in our stories even though we tend to hate those characteristics in our own lives. This results in both the tried advice to keep putting the protagonist through the wringer, and the qualifications that a writer should do so in a way that is believable (our brain’s BS-detector is ever on) and which will eventually force the protagonist to change. Cron offers a definition of story that has the usual elements: “A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.” As with many guides, the definitions of plot, the protagonist’s issue / goal, theme, and tone are elaborated at length—as well as being differentiated because these topics tend to be confused by neophytes—often resulting in a failure to clarify one or more of them.

Stories also give us an opportunity to anticipate what others will do, and forecasting the behavior of others gives one a nice little dopamine dump. The ability to foresee what others will do has always been a powerful evolutionary advantage, and those who did it better passed on their genes more than their oblivious counterparts. Owing to this idea, there is a great deal of advice about what should be in the book (only what is relevant), and how it should be revealed (in a way that eschews attempts to play “gotcha” with your readers.)

One may wonder why I’m so pleased with a writer’s guide that gives common advice about writing–just because it explains said tips in terms of evolutionary biology. The answer is that it’s far easier to keep these lessons in mind when they’re held together by a logic rooted in what all readers have in common (e.g. conscious and unconscious minds, emotions, instinctual drives, etc.) For example, knowing why readers hate an overly simple resolution for a problem that’s presented as insoluble (i.e. robbing them of dopamine reward for figuring it out) helps one better recognize this pitfall in all its forms and to avoid it. Such an approach allows for a deductive approach and is far more useful than having memorized “avoid deus ex machina” as a disparate tip that’s attached to a specific example. In short, it’s both easier to remember and broadly implement these ideas when one understands the rationale from the ground up.

Beyond the reason in the last paragraph, I enjoyed this book for reasons that have little to do with its advice to writers. While I now know that there are other books on the evolutionary biology of story that deal with the subject more from a scientific perspective (while I haven’t read it yet, you might try this book), this was the first book that I stumbled across on that topic. And, it’s a topic that’s well worth understanding whether you’re a writer or not. No matter what one does, understanding the universal appeal of a story can be beneficial, whether it’s in the context of teaching, parenting, or business.

I’d recommend this book for writers—particularly those who think about the world in scientific terms. Beyond writers, if you have cause to construct or use stories in your life—or suspect you should—you can benefit from this book.

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READING REPORT: May 1, 2015

Becomingbatman

Most of my reading time this week was divided between two books, one of which was also a new purchase. The newly purchased book that I spent a lot of time with is E. Paul Zehr’s Becoming Batman. This book isn’t at all what one might expect from the title or the cover. If one were to notice that it’s put out by Johns Hopkins University Press, one might realize that it’s not a fanboy fantasy work. What it is is a book about the science of exercise and conditioning for athletes that uses “Batman” as a pedagogic tool to make more digestible scientific information like how our muscles grow or how we make our movement more efficient through practice. It’s a fascinating book if you are interested in science and martial arts (or movement arts more generally.)

 

Wired for StoryThe other book I’ve been tearing through is Wired for Story, which I wrote about last week. It’s a book that explains how human brains are wired to be intrigued by story, and how writers can put this information to good use.

 

Meeting the Dog Girls

The one book that I finished this week is Gay Terry’s Meeting the Dog Girls. This is a collection of short stories (some of which might be classified as flash fiction) that could be called tales of the weird or supernatural fiction. Most of the stories have a quirky sense of humor.

 

ZebrasUlcers_Sapolsky

I bought two other books this week, both of which have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky.  As the title suggests, this book is about why humans are unique within the animal kingdom with respect to stress-induced illnesses. Stress reduction and mitigation have been an important question of inquiry for me as of late.

 

afterdark_murakami

The other book is Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. This will be the third or fourth book by Murakami I’ve read, and I enjoy his style. Ironically, this was the first book by Murakami that I noticed in the bookstore, but I never got around to reading it.

READING REVIEW: April 24, 2015

I completed three books this week. The first was Richard Wiseman’s Night School. I wrote a lot about this book in my last Reading Report. Night School examines what happens when we sleep, what happens when we don’t, and a host of events that happen in and around our sleeping life (i.e. nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.)  The notion that dreams and nightmares are our subconscious working out waking life problems is well established, but there was some interesting discussion of how to change one’s dreamscape (i.e. lucid dreaming) that was fascinating.

NightSchool

 

 

The second book I finished was Sam Harris’s Free Will. I had high hopes for this book, but they didn’t pan out.   It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. There’s a well-established scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion. This conclusion was reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of rotating letters / numbers. Some subjects became convinced that the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.)  What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when they became aware of their decision.

While I’m normally a big fan of brevity, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. First, he barely mentions a couple of the neuroscience experiments, and expects that the reader will treat this all as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Harris also scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps the conscious can overrule the subconscious. He seems to deem this as not worthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision. So we learn about a couple of studies in which a.) the decision-maker has no stake in the decision (is it possible the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number in which there is no more costly outcome?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.) Maybe all of this has been studied (e.g. high stakes cases and cases with monks and meditators), and we can safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris didn’t make this point. He concludes we will take it as a given just as he has. (Much like he suggests that anyone who truly studied their mind would understand this point already. Would it surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who have spent far longer alone with their minds than he, who have concluded quite the opposite?)

Second, if the conscious mind is just a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-style) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives (what happened to evolution not over-engineering?), what guides all of these “decisions?” Given that they produce, I might point out, a fairly orderly world. Harris doesn’t answer this. One might guess that he would point to Dawkinesque suggestion that it’s all about genes advancing their own agenda. (A proposition that seems to me has trouble explaining a corporeal who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades.) I shouldn’t put words in the author’s mouth. Quite frankly, I have no idea whether he believes there are rules or some guide to these subconscious decisions, because he doesn’t tell us. (Maybe he thinks they are random neuronal firings, but I doubt it.) From what I’ve heard of his other books, he doesn’t think it’s a god making these decisions–a sentiment I share. However, there must be something underlying these decisions, and an author writing about this topic should at least make some effort to address it. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

FreeWill

 

The final book I finished this week is entitled The Sensual Body. This is a book that discusses a number of systems of movement and bodily activity as means to increase bodily awareness. Among the systems included are Tai chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, running, Aikido, and massage. It’s an interesting overview, but without sufficient detail of anything in particular to be of practical value. It’s the kind of book one might read to see what kind of classes one should take or what more focused books would be of benefit.

 

Besides the aforementioned books, I spent most of my reading time on two books that look at two very different subjects from the viewpoint of neuroscience. The first is Wired for Story, and it’s a how-to book for writers that sets itself apart by explaining how humans are hardwired by evolution to love stories. Just as a few notes produce an infinite variety of music. There is an inherent limiting / shaping structure to stories that is ignored at the writer’s peril. Much of the advice offered isn’t that different from other books on writing or storytelling, but one gets insight into which advice one should really treat as inviolable because it touches upon something fundamental to our human nature.

 

 


Wired for Story

 

The other book is the only book I purchased this week. It’s entitled Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and is by Kathleen Taylor. So far the book is intriguing. The chapters I’ve read so far provide an overview of brainwashing and cults. The middle section of the book delves into the neuroscience behind brainwashing, and the final section gets into practical matters such as how one can make oneself resistant to thought control techniques.

 

Brainwashing_Taylor