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a:Still Crazy After All These Years

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5360193989_12f069bd44_c-525x392.jpgWe are thrilled to bring back longtime contributor Lisa Cron for a guest post today! When we learned that Lisa had a new book coming out, STORY OR DIE, we knew we’d need to do whatever we had to do in order to get her here for a guest post. Turns out, she was as happy to be back here as we were to have her. And in case you’re new to WU, or don’t know Lisa, let’s fill you in:

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story, Story Genius, and Story or Die. Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity.

Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton and John Muir Publications, as an agent at the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, as a producer on shows for Showtime and Court TV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers and the William Morris Agency. Since 2006, she’s been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and she has been on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts MFA Program in Visual Narrative in New York City.

Lisa is frequent speaker at writing workshops, universities, and schools, and in her work as a story coach she helps writers, journalists, educators, business leaders, social justice advocates, and change makers master the unparalleled power of story. She can be reached at www.wiredforstory.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisacron

And be sure to check out our archive of Lisa’s posts for writers HERE.

Without further ado, a WU spin on a topic covered in her latest book, STORY OR DIE.

Still Crazy After All These Years

Long time! I’ve missed you, because writers (you guys) are the most powerful people on the planet, and nothing is more intoxicating than talking story. Or, I admit in my case, more incendiary. So, let’s play with matches.

Remember back in college, that lit professor who started every lecture, “In literature as in life…” She was right. Way more than even she realized, I’d wager.

Because as Jonah Lehrer’s book title neatly sums up: Proust was a Neuroscientist. But what does that really mean?

Just this: an effective story mirrors life – our inner life that is – which is precisely why we turn to it. Thus it’s imperative that the protagonist, all characters in fact, have brains that operate the same way ours does. Story is built into the architecture of our brain, and so it must be in theirs.

Especially since we are wired to come to story hunting for insight into how people – real people, people like you and me and that weird guy over there — think. Not what they say, not what they do. But why.

After all, we can see what people do, we don’t need a story to show us that. The question we’re always asking is “WHY? What on earth were they thinking?” Heck, it’s what we’re always wondering out here in real life, and now more than ever.

Story’s goal – and the reason we’re drawn into a story to begin with — is to answer that question. Here’s the thing: our brain automatically knows that’s what we’re looking for, even though, consciously, we don’t. It’s not a choice, it’s not something we’re taught. It’s biology.

The Writer’s Misbelief: The Two Most Damaging Writing Myths

And here’s the irony: precisely because we don’t know what’s really hooking us, writers are often taught not to do the very thing that the reader is wired to instantly hunt for and respond to.

Myth Number One: Don’t give us internality. Don’t tell us what the character is thinking.

Myth Number Two: And whatever you do, if you have to give us backstory, do it sparingly, when the reader needs to know something.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. A hundred times wrong.

The Truth: Brain Science Edition

This is something I thought about a lot as I wrote my new book, Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life. I spent the past couple of years diving deep into current neuroscience research, into evolutionary biology, into social science experiments – and the scientific evidence on what pulls us into a story is pretty definitive. And thrilling. Because it gives writers clear guidelines about what we need to get onto the page. And what we need to create first – backstory — in order to have something to get onto the page at all. (You know I want to point out here that this is precisely why neither pantsing nor plotting work. I’ll refrain.)

First, let’s talk about memory (aka backstory). As neuroscientist Dean Buonomano makes clear in Your Brain Is a Time Machine, “Memory did not evolve to allow us to reminisce about the past. The sole evolutionary function of memory is to allow animals to predict what will happen, when it will happen, and how to best respond when it does.”

In other words, without story specific memories, how can your protagonist (or any character) figure anything out, at all? The answer is simple: they can’t.

We all use the past – our subjective past — to make sense of the present. For heaven’s sake, all that stuff we did in the past is what landed us where we are in the present – you know, for better or worse. Without access to our past memories we’d all be walking around with amnesia, trying to figure out how we got here (and coming up blank). And, probably, wondering how the heck things got so messed up. But that’s another, um, story.

Tucked into Buonomano’s statement about memory is another piece of great writing advice: do not have your characters simply reminisce about the past – because that is not what memory is for. Plus, it’s boring, and likely an info dump – in literature and in life. Rather, characters use memories to figure out how to make the tough decision that each and every scene will force them to grapple with. And that inner struggle – yes, what they’re thinking — is where story logic comes from. Story logic is the subjective, evolving logic the protagonist uses to make sense of the things that happen (aka the plot). That internality is what gives voice to backstory, and is woven into every single page.

And that is what readers (aka all of us) are wired to instantly look for in every story we hear. Whether it’s as short as a headline, or as long as the novel that the protagonist (picture Michael Douglas here) was writing in Wonder Boys.

But, again, this tends to fly in the face of what writers have been taught. Starting with Aristotle. Who has fooled a lot of people, including Steven Brown, director of the NeuroArts Lab in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University in Canada.

Brown designed a study to see what area of the brain instantly lights up when we encounter a story. In other words, what do we innately look for, what hooks us, what makes us care.

He thought he’d find proof of what Aristotle said about story. “Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary,” he said.

But what he discovered is that, contrary to popular belief, our brain is on the lookout for something else altogether. “Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story,” he said.

And not just in novels. After all, story existed eons before novels, memoirs, and all those shows we avoided back in the day but are now binge watching because, hey, it’s been a year, and we’re still stuck inside.

Brown’s study didn’t monitor the brains of people leisurely reading a novel or munching on popcorn while watching a movie. Rather, study subjects read short factual headlines, like “Surgeon Finds Scissors Inside of Patient” or “Fisherman Rescues Boy from Freezing Lake” to see what areas of their brain would activate as they made sense of it—that is, as their brain did what brains naturally do: translate the headlines into a narrative. The result? The second they saw the headline, what sprang into action in their brain were the “components of the classic mentalizing network involved in making inferences about the beliefs, desires, and emotions of other people as well as oneself.”

In other words, our brain is empathizing, and we don’t empathize with the plot, we empathize with the characters.

According to Brown, when we’re grabbed by a story, we’re instantly making inferences about the protagonist’s beliefs in order to pinpoint their intentions and what is motivating their actions. We’re not hooked by what the protagonist is doing; we’re on the hunt for why they’re doing it.

Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, agrees. “One of the biggest contributions of brain imaging is to reveal how intensely social and emotional the human brain is. To me it was a very big surprise. Ask people to read some innocuous little narrative, and the brain activity shows that they’re computing things like the character’s intention and motivation. I think there is a constant tendency to be processing social and emotional information. It’s there, and it’s ubiquitous.”

Not to put too fine a point to it, oh what the hell, why not? So, as Brown said, summing up the results of his study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, in our brain: “narrative production is more associated with character than plot, despite the field of literary studies prioritizing plot over character since the time of Aristotle.”

Indeed. Okay, my work here is done.


  • The protagonist’s internal struggle is what the reader is hardwired to seek out, it’s innate. Pretty writing, or rip roaring “objectively” dramatic events are utterly boring without it.
  • Memory – backstory – is what protagonists (read: us humans) use to gauge the risk of everything they do. Backstory explicitly drives what they’re thinking, in the moment, on the page — it’s the “why” that causes them to take the action they do. And what the reader comes for.
  • The narrative throughline is not the plot. The narrative throughline is the evolving internal narrative that the protagonist uses to make sense of what’s happening.
  • A story is not about an external change, it’s about an internal change, within the protagonist’s belief system. In a nutshell: A story is about how an unavoidable external problem forces the protagonist to change internally in order to solve it.



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