Thursday, July 12, 2012

Channeling The Reader’s Brain: What We Expect of Every Story

By Lisa Cron, @LisaCron

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Lisa Cron to the blog today to chat with us about reader expectations. As writers, we're constantly pulled between writing the book we want and writing our readers. Lisa has some interesting advice on how we can satisfying those reader expectation and still write the book of our hearts.

Lisa spent a decade in publishing—first at W.W. Norton in New York, then at John Muir Publications in Santa Fe, New Mexico—before turning to television, where among other things she’s been supervising producer on shows for Court TV and Showtime. She’s been a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency in NYC, and for Village Roadshow, Icon, The Don Buchwald Agency and others in L.A., and a literary agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency. She’s featured in Final Draft's book, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle, 2004). Her passion has always been story, and she currently works as a consultant helping writers wrangle the story they’re telling onto the page. Since 2006 she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Ten Speed Press).

Take it away Lisa...

Here’s something we probably didn’t need neuroscientists to tell us: the brain craves certainty. We like to know things for sure, so we can plan accordingly. I mean, we have an entire channel devoted solely to predict tomorrow’s weather so we’ll know if we should take a sweater when we head to the market.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were something writers could tune into to know for certain what readers expect of every story they read? There is. And it’s far more reliable than the Weather Channel. I’m talking about the brain, which is wired to crave certain things in every story it encounters, whether it’s a literary novel or a mass-market thriller. Yes, the same things regardless the genre.

Why? Because contrary to popular belief story’s primary purpose isn’t entertainment. It has a far more meaningful objective: our survival. Our brain evolved to use story as a way to envision the future. Since we can never know for certain what will happen, story lets us prepare for the alternatives.

Which is why one of the things that the reader’s brain isn’t nearly as picky about as we’ve been led to believe is great writing. I’m not saying that great writing isn’t a huge plus. It is. What I am saying is that what really grabs the reader isn’t the great writing. It’s the story that all that great writing is giving voice to. Without a story, great writing just sits there, like a beautifully rendered bowl of wax fruit.

So, what are the brain’s expectations when it comes to story?

The reader expects to feel something. 

Turns out feelings aren’t ephemeral at all; they’re physical and have a very specific purpose. Neuroscience has revealed that feelings evolved so we’d be able to instantly gauge what something means to us and then act accordingly. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert says, “Indeed, feelings don’t just matter, feelings are what mattering means.”

What this means for writers is that, just like life, all story is emotion driven. If the reader isn’t feeling something, they’re not reading.

The reader expects to feel what the protagonist feels. 

The reader’s goal isn’t to feel just anything. Readers want to slip into the protagonist’s shoes and feel what she feels. And not what she feels in general: they don’t care how much she loves her morning coffee, hates headcheese or that her lumbago flares when it rains.

The reader’s goal is to viscerally experience what it would feel like to face—and hopefully solve—the problem the protagonist must deal with. So unless her dislike of headcheese somehow affects the story, the reader doesn’t want to know about it. As far as the reader is concerned, everything in a story is there on a need-to-know basis.

What’s more, readers don’t want to have to guess or figure out how the protagonist feels about anything. They want you to show them via her internal reaction to everything that happens.

The reader expects that the protagonist will want something.

What are these feelings caused by, you ask? They’re caused by the fact that the protagonist wants something real bad and if she doesn’t act now—even though chances are she’d rather not—she’ll never get it. That’s why the protagonist needs to yearn, to pine, to be in desperate search of something and the reader needs to know it from sentence one. If your protagonist doesn’t want something they can’t yet have, you don’t have a story.

The reader expects the protagonist will fear something that keeps her from fulfilling that desire. 

This is something that writers often lose sight of: it’s not just external events—read: the plot—that keep the protagonist from getting what she wants, the real problem is that there’s something internal that’s holding her back. That’s what the story is really about. To wit, it’s about what the protagonist must learn—her “aha” moment—in order to finally get what she wants (which often turns out to be the opposite of what, until that moment, she thought it was). If nothing is holding her back, what does she—or the reader—have to learn? That would be a big fat zero, good buddy.

The reader expects the protagonist to struggle to make sense of what’s happening to him.

The reader expects it to take the whole story for the protagonist to earn his “aha” moment, and that it will be an escalating struggle every step of the way—overcoming fear always is. If your protagonist has no trouble figuring out the right thing to do, not only will the story be boring, the reader won’t like him one bit. Why? Two reasons. One, because people who never seem struggle with anything make us feel kinda like losers. Two, because everyone struggles, and so he won’t ring true, anyway.

Bottom line: we turn to story to find out what it would cost the protagonist emotionally to deal with things that, in real life, we’ve probably worked hard to avoid—things we’d never admit we struggle with. What we’re hoping for is fresh insight, and maybe to feel a little less alone. How often have you read something and thought, “Me too!I thought I was the only one.”

The reader expects that the protagonist will emerge changed by his story. 

This is why the reader comes to the story—to experience that change. Why? Because the reader will emerge changed by it, as well. That’s how story works. We get inside the protagonists’ skin, feel what they feel, struggle as they struggle, and emerge a better, smarter, more illuminated person for it. Literally. Studies have shown that a compelling story can rewire the brain, making us more empathetic.

Yep. Writers are the most powerful people in the world. Provided, that is, we can meet the brain’s hardwired expectations.

About Wired for Story

Imagine knowing what the brain craves from every tale it encounters; what fuels the success of any great story; and what keeps us transfixed or we walk away. Wired for Story reveals these cognitive secrets—and it’s a game-changer for anyone who has ever set pen to paper.

Backed by recent breakthroughs in neuroscience as well as real-life writing examples, the book offers a revolutionary look at story, as the brain understands it, filled with fascinating facts about what draws the reader in unlike anything writers have heard before.

Every captivating story has elements that fool us into thinking we know exactly what has us hooked—things like beautiful metaphors, authentic dialogue, or interesting characters—all the classic elements of great writing that we blindly believe form the essence of the best stories. In fact, engaging stories must do one thing well: stimulate the brain’s primal urge for survival. When they do, a delicious dopamine rush tells us to pay attention. When they don’t, even the most perfect prose fails to hold our interest.

The vast majority of writing courses, workshops, and books focus on writing—as if learning to “write well” is the same as telling a great story. It couldn’t be less true—and it’s exactly where most beginning writers fail. Writing serves the story; it’s not the master of it. A story achieves greatness when it intrigues the brain.

Wired for Story lifts the veil on what the mind is hungry for, and shares the elements beneath every great story that enable that passion, that fire, to ignite the reader’s imagination. The book is organized into twelve chapters, each zeroing in on an aspect of the brain, its corresponding revelation about story, and how to turn it all into powerful writing. Appealing to readers and writers alike, this telling guide immerses us in story, and delivers a mind’s eye-view as intoxicating as the stories it will no doubt inspire.


  1. Just discovered this blog through my writing buddy; this is awesome!

    Hmm, I think I have most of this in my current ms...but it takes a while for the protag to learn what he wants.

    How soon would you say it's important for the stakes to be revealed?

  2. Rachel6, welcome to the blog! Lisa will probably chime in as well, but you'll want stakes from page one. Every goal should have something at stake, even if it's small, to keep the reader wondering what will happen/how it will turn out and keep them reading.

    The stakes will keep escalating as the story unfolds. The first big story stake reveal usually comes around the inciting event, catalyst, or end of act one (somewhere n the first 25% of the novel)Typically, it goes like: Act one, protagonist realizes the problem and it's big (stakes). Act two midpoint, stakes raised again, story often shifts, Act two end, stakes raise yet again, protagonist has a dark moment where all hope is lost, stakes go up one more time at the climax where it's a do or die type situation. (these can also be quieter stakes/situations if it's a quiet book. High stakes doesn't have to mean life or death)

    I did a post on this a while back that goes into a lot more detail:

  3. "What we’re hoping for is fresh insight, and maybe to feel a little less alone"

    This is so true for me as a reader, and as a writer, I often ask myself if I am delivering something new to the reader. If not, that's my sign I need to dig deeper...

  4. Great post, and it has some insights I hadn't really thought of before. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  5. Thanks Janice so much for having me here, it's such a pleasure!

    Hi Rache6 -- That's a great question! I agree with everything Janice said. It's not that you have to tell us EVERYTHING on the first page, but pretty close. We need a good idea as to what the story will be about -- that is, what the overarching problem will be -- so we can begin to anticipate what will happen next and, as important, how it all fits together. One thing it's so easy to forget when we're writing is that a huge part of the pleasure of reading is being able to figure things out. The more you hold back what the stakes are, the less we'll have to figure out, and so the less involved we'll be. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible."

    WOW, Bluestocking, Well said!

    Sbibb -- thanks!

  6. Thanks Lisa, your comments were an aha moment for me. They rang true as a reader - and will be a valuable tool as a writer!

  7. I'm SO glad, Raewyn. Good luck with your writing!