Wired For Story

Photo by Clayton Austin.

Photo by Clayton Austin.

I’ve started work on a new novel—THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO—and I’m going to do something different this time.

It starts with an idea: I wake from a dream in which I hear a line of dialogue spoken in a distinctive voice; or an unexpected character shimmers to imaginary life like a mirage in my mind, compelling me to find out who she is and what she wants; or I’m stuck in a thought-loop about one of humanity’s conditions and I want to explore it from a safe distance. Then I wander into the story, letting the characters reveal themselves, and over the course of a novel, I figure out the “what happens” parts and hopefully, we all (the characters, the readers, and I) end up in a satisfying place. It’s not a bad way to go about writing a book—I’ve done it three times so far—but as close friends and family will confirm, it doesn’t happen without much gnashing of teeth and crying jags and crises of confidence during those inevitable moments when I have no idea what happens next and we all go pen-first off the nearest cliff.

When it’s over, I struggle to explain how I did it. The writing is intentional; I sit down every night and work toward my self-imposed quota and eventually cobble together a whole novel. But the not knowing how is a confidence cancer. Since I can’t explain how I did it, how I wrote a novel that supported the weight of entire communities of people and kept the reader engaged, I’m not sure I can do it again. Each time I sit down to start a new chapter or a new book, I throw up in my mouth a little.

But then my pal Dave gave me a copy of WIRED FOR STORY by Lisa Cron, which he blurbed, and the how became utterly obvious. Lisa, who has worked as a story analyst, literary agent and writing instructor, has applied principles of brain science to creative writing. She doesn’t put forth a story structure template or formula. Instead, she discusses the indisputable need we have for stories, and how we will or will not react to them—and why. Readers are programmed with certain expectations within a story, she says, and if a writer fails to meet those expectations, even if she has a beautiful command of language, the story won’t captivate the reader.

“Story is crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. 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—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. 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,” Lisa says.

So this time, before I write the first sentence, I’m going to spend time building the framework that will underlie the story. I’m going to delve deeply into Clara’s and Nick’s minds until I figure out exactly what it is that they think they want, what they really want, and what’s keeping them from getting it. I’m going to think about what kind of shit to throw at them that will force them to deal with the stuff they’ve spent their lives trying to avoid and allow them to earn their victories, whatever those may be. Then I’m going to write the best story I can so that when you finally read it, it will scratch all your brain itches and you’ll become so engrossed, you’ll forget it’s a story at all.

Read more about Lisa here.

Buy WIRED FOR STORY from Amazon, Indiebound, or B&N.