Wired 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
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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