This week we’re revisiting the idea that as humans, we’re hardwired for story and that when encountering story, we have certain expectations.
For readers, information gathered in a story is evidence a pattern exists, and the excitement they draw from reading comes from recognizing patterns and piecing the meaning of the pattern together. They engage and they feel smart when they’re proven right. “When a story meets our brain’s criteria, we relax and slip into the protagonist’s skin, eager to experience what his or her struggle feels like, without having to leave the comfort of home.” Readers believe that everything authors include in a story is there for a reason. A story is an interlocked pattern that will lead them somewhere meaningful.
In The Beginning
In a story, a reader expects three things: a setup, a payoff, and the road between the two situations. A reader wants a pattern to begin to emerge that tells them the elements of the story. They want to see the plot--what happens, the protagonist--the someone it happens to and how she changes because of what happens to her, and the story question--the goal.
But why is it necessary for us as humans to engage with story and put the pieces of the pattern together? Why do we even care? This story we’re experiencing hasn’t happened to us, it’s happened to some fictional protagonist. So what’s the draw?
Cron says we care because “[s]tories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change. They grab us only when they allow us to experience how it would feel to navigate the plot. Thus, story … is the internal journey, not an external one. … All elements of story … work in unison to create what appears to the reader as reality, only sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining, because stories do what our cognitive unconscious does; filter out everything that would distract us from the situation at hand.”
And it’s on this search for pattern that the reader will identify with your protagonist to navigate the rough waters of your story to find truth, meaning, and/or an entertaining experience.
Cron asserts that the three things readers look for on the first page are:
1. Whose story is this?
Who is the protagonist? “[W]hat the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin” and we feel what she feels. Give readers a visceral experience.
2. What’s happening here?
Big picture clues in the first few pages tell us what’s happening and what issue the protagonist will struggle with for the full story. We want to immediately understand the pattern of her life and what has disrupted that pattern as the story opens.
3. What’s at stake?
Something important hangs in the balance for the protagonist, something specific to this protagonist’s quest. What is it? The reader needs to know the stakes to invest in the story.
In the End
In the end, it’s on this internal journey “along the road from setup to payoff, the reader always has the sense that it might go either way. What keeps us reading is the building desire to find out.” The internal journey creates an anticipation that readers love and keep them following the story and the character arc and it gives them an emotional payoff by the end.
Therefore, to meet these reader expectations that readers often don’t even know they possess, as writers, we need to follow three rules:
1. Provide a clear path between the setup and the payoff.
2. Create a road or journey that unfolds for a reader on the page.
3. Give the reader (and the protagonist) a payoff that is not logically impossible.
Readers are smart. Once they spot a pattern, readers will test it against their own knowledge of the world. If you, as a writer, don’t think about the road between setup and payoff, take them on a meaningful journey between the two, and give them a logical payoff in the end, they’ll walk away unsatisfied. And there’s nothing worse for a Creature of Story than to walk away dissatisfied from something they were hardwired to crave and use to find meaning in their own lives. Give them a worthy setup, a good payoff, and the emotional journey between the two.
It’s what readers deserve. It’s what they expect. It’s what they need.