Sunday, May 19, 2013

Creatures of Story: Hardwired for Story - Part II

This week we’re revisiting the idea that as humans, we’re hardwired for story and that when encountering story, we have certain expectations.
Lisa Cron, in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, says that readers look for patterns. Since the beginning of time, humans have searched for pattern in everything from the stars in the nighttime sky, to weather, to crops, to animal behavior and predatory habits. We each have a built-in “passion for patterns.” It’s recognizing these patterns and disruptions of patterns that has allowed us to survive as a species. “From the moment we leave the womb, [our brain] begins charting the patterns around us, always with the same agenda: What’s safe, and what had I better keep my eye on.” She argues that story is something we keep an eye on because stories often begin at a moment in a protagonist’s life when the pattern stops working or has been disrupted. It’s the day everything changed.

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.


  1. Great post, Candy. I love the list of three things that readers look for on the first page. I will definitely look at my wips and future projects to make sure that they include these. I'll have to look for that book as well. I love to learn about the science behind why the brain does what it does. I guess that's me (a reader) looking for order in my world. LOL

  2. I love it when you talk about this stuff, Candy!

    The phrase "readers look for patterns" calls to mindthe title of one of my favorite books, PATTERN RECOGNITION by William Gibson.

    That book is awesome on a lot of levels because, hey, it's Bill Gibson, but one of the things I love about it is that the protagonist, Cayce, is sucked into a situation and stumbles along that line of Whose story is this, What's happening here, and What's at stake--just like the reader. We suss out the pattern with her. And what that pattern reveals is profound.

    Gibson sticks to the more basic pattern of beginning, rising action complete with twists and reversals, climax, and denouement so we never get lost. But because he sticks to that--and we're wired to understand it--he can weave more pattern into his novel. It's a thing of beauty.

    Sometimes, when folks find out I'm a writer, they say they hope I don't stick to a pattern or "formula." They go on and on about how boring it is. And there's all sorts of folks who blog and brag about being pattern breakers in their own work. That just tells me they can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to pattern. After all, those folks who want to tell me all writers should avoid pattern walked up to me and began the conversation with "Hello." They introduced themselves. And they said goodbye when they left. That's pattern and all communication is pattern, from conversation to the novel.

    So I say long live pattern! Let's learn about it and use it to full advantage in our writing. As you say, that's what readers deserve, expect, and need. And if we as writers want to communicate our stories, we need it, too.

  3. Lisa ~ Me, too. I love to think about the brain and our personal psychology surrounding story. It's all fascinating. And, yes, it is you looking for a pattern in your world. Keep looking. We all find it, whether we're totally conscious of it or not! LOL.

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  5. Nichole ~ I'll have to look for Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Ha. Yes, readers want a pattern, but one where they can't necessarily see the framework. Their subconscious brain looks for it, they just don't want their conscious brain to always "see" it. That's what genre conventions are . . . those patterns or reader expectations built into a genre. Not a formula, because that implies all we have to do is insert names and places and a story spits out of our computers.

    And I agree, long live the pattern. The subconscious one is the most satisfactory!

  6. "...they’ll walk away unsatisfied."

    Ain't that the truth! I still remember 20 years later reading a murder mystery where the bad guy gets off scot free. Are you kidding me? I never read another book by that author because I couldn't trust her to deliver the pattern goods.

    My mom tells a story of when I was a toddler. We were in the grocery store and I said, "Look, Mom, two sixes." It took her forever to realize I was referring to a couple of six packs, lol. Guess pattern recognition really IS hardwired into the brain!

  7. Candy,

    I love your blog and Lisa Cron. I found a review of her book at and a few things caught my eye.

    Story Vs Writing: "Great language is fantastic but it’s not what pulls us into a story. Writing is taught as if the goal is to write ‘well’ but it should be about how to tell a great story."

    Now, I'm not advocating for schlocky writing, but I happen to agree that I will plow through a poorly written novel, if the plot and characters are compelling.

    Conversely, my eyes glaze over when I read beautiful writing lacking a strong storyline. I felt that way about "Past Imperfect," by Julian Fellowes, creator of "Downtown Abbey."

    How, I wondered, could the author of dramatic--perhaps even melodramtic costumed soap opera--write such a boring book?

    Don't know, but he did and it was a hard read for my book club. I skipped pages of lovely prose to get to "the good stuff"-- the high emotion scenes, the reveals, information I needed to understand the story.

    Thanks for spotlighting Cron's book. Can't wait to read it.

  8. Keely ~ LOL. Yes, even as toddlers we're looking for pattern. Love the anecdotal story. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Shellie ~ Great insights. You're right good story-telling is a must. Often we'll follow great characters or a compelling plot, but if the story-telling is sub-par, we might be loathe to buy the next book. Thanks for sharing!