Books, movies, TV, songs. They’re all prevalent vehicles of popular storytelling. When we experience story, we allow ourselves to be swept away on a journey orchestrated by the storyteller. So whether it’s Katy Perry’s Wide Awake, the television series Justified, the animal cruelty commercial overlaid with Sarah McLaughlin’s music, a sports caster providing pre-game commentary, the local evening news, or the latest best-selling novel or blockbuster at the box office, much of how we relate to the world and process information comes through story. But why?Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytellying Animal: How Stories Make Us Human sums up the problem, “Fiction, fantasies, dreams--these are . . . a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot--should not--penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfish genes. … [S]tories--from TV commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of professional wrestling--saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe and what they reveal about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about how fiction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics--how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits . . . force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?”
When stories are told well, we cannot resist their pull. We’re instantly tugged into an alternate reality where we live out the story the narrator is telling. But we are active participants. We fill in the gaps and provide much of the true working detail in the scene. Gottschall says, “[A]uthors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard. … Our minds supply most of the information in the scene--most of the color, shading, texture.”
So as writers, what do we do with that? And how can we use that information as we craft our own stories?
Lisa Cron in Wired for Story helps us understand it this way: “Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it. … Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.” We become intoxicated by story, but not just for the joy of it, but in order for it to teach us something more, something bigger, something beyond our own experience. By understanding story, we can better understand the world around us. We learn about life through the stories we read and watch.
Writers hold a great power in their hands. A well-told story can rewire a reader’s brain. It can move someone with a strong bias to empathy. We can give a reader a glimpse into a life they might otherwise never have experienced. Cron says writers play an important role. “They can transport readers to place they’ve never been, catapult them into situations they’ve only dreamed of, and reveal subtle universal truths that just might alter their entire perception of reality. In ways large and small, writers help people make it through the night.”
However, in order to captivate a reader’s imagination, a writer must meet a reader’s hardwired expectations at every point, leaving crumbs along the story trail to guide them. This isn’t easy. And dissecting story is hard. Understanding what readers want from stories is like trying to perform a complicated algorithm to solve a mathematical problem that’s just beyond our skill set. Cron believes this is “[b]ecause of the ease with which we surrender to the stories we read tends to cloud our understanding of stories we write.” We easily recognize a good story when we hear it. So we believe we should be able write one just as easily. When we can’t, we get frustrated.So unless we write stories that meet the hardwired expectations of our readers, we’ll never find the success we desire. Our brains are hardwired for story. It’s how we make sense of the world around us and it helps us find meaning from everything that’s happened to us. Cron says, “Story is the language of experience, whether it’s ours, someone else’s, or that of fictional characters. Other people’s stories are as important as the stories we tell ourselves. Because if all we ever had to go on was our own experience, we wouldn’t make it out of onesies.” Through story, we can experience intense situations without the danger of living them. It’s a way we can explore our own thinking and imagine future possibilities that help us survive both physically and socially.
Now that you’re beginning to understand why we’re such story creatures, join me here in May for “Hardwired: Creatures of Story - Part II,” where I’ll lay out Cron’s explanation of those elusive reader expectations writers need to meet to capture the hearts and imaginations of their readers.