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    7 Ways to Use Brain Science to Hook Readers and Reel Them In

    Writing and brain science

    Story is universal. There isn’t a society on earth that doesn’t tell stories. It’s no wonder, because stories captivate us in a way nothing else can.

    And yet, until recently, story was primarily seen as a delightful form of entertainment. Sure, we thought, stories make life much more enjoyable, but they don’t play a necessary role when it comes to survival.

    Wrong!

    It turns out story has been crucial to our survival from day one. Opposable thumbs let us hang on, story told us what to hang on to. Story is what allowed us to envision the future and so prepare for the unexpected.

    In the same way that food tastes good so we’ll eat it, stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them. But for writers the real breakthrough is the discovery of what triggers that delicious sense of enjoyment we feel when a story hooks us. It’s not lyrical language, great characters, realistic dialogue, or vivid images. Nope.

    Curiosity is the trigger.

    In other words, the desire to find out what happens next. That feeling of pleasure is actually a rush of dopamine. It’s our neural reward for curiosity, urging us to keep reading until we find the answer.

    This information is a game changer for writers. Especially given how often we’re led to believe that “having a way with words” is what hooks readers. In other words are the handmaiden of story; story is what captivates the brain.

    So, with that in mind, let’s explore 7 ways your story can hook the reader’s brain.

    1. Surprise Us

    Surprise gets our attention by defying our expectations. We’re wired to immediately start figuring out what’s actually going on, the better to gauge whether we’re about to get whacked or kissed.

    That’s exactly how a story grabs the brain’s attention: by instantly letting us know that all is not as it seems – yes, beginning with the opening sentence.

    The reader’s first question is: “What’s this story about?” What they’re really asking is: “What problem does the protagonist have to solve, and what will she have to overcome to do it?” This is what’s known as the story problem, and it defines the protagonist’s story-long quest.

    Think of the story problem as the yardstick that allows readers to anticipate what will happen next. A story without a yardstick is just a bunch of random events – and how boring is that?

    2. Make Us Feel It

    Science has proved that the brain uses emotion, rather than reason, to gauge what matters to us and what doesn’t. Our feelings – not some “objective” logic — drive every choice we make. So it’s not surprising that when it comes to story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.

    In a compelling story the reader slips into the protagonist’s skin and becomes sensate – feeling what she feels, wanting what she wants, fearing what she fears.

    This means that the protagonist must react to everything that happens, so we understand how she’s making sense of it. This is where the real story lies — it’s often reflected in the difference between what a character says (Yes, Reginald, of course I’ll marry you) and what she’s really thinking (as long as you promise you’ll never touch me).

    3. Let Us In On The Protagonist’s Goal

    Everyone has an agenda – you, me, and every protagonist worth their salt. We’re wired to be goal driven, and that’s a good thing. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker so astutely says, “Without a goal everything is meaningless.”

    Which is why we immediately need to know the protagonist’s agenda. In other words: What does he want? Even more important, why does he want it? And finally, what internal issue must he overcome to get it?

    Why is this so important? Because everything that happens in the story gets its meaning and emotional weight based on whether it moves him closer to his goal, or further from it. If we don’t know what his goal is, we have no idea what anything adds up to, so the story idles in neutral.

    4. Only Tell Us What We Need to Know

    Over 11,000,000 pieces of information dive-bomb our five senses every second. Lest we be overwhelmed, our brain sifts through them at warp speed, separating what we need to know from what we can safely ignore. Thus, 99.9 percent of all incoming data is blithely discarded.

    The same is true of a story. Your reader is wired to assume that everything you tell them is there on a need-to-know basis. That means if you introduce things we don’t need to know, we’ll read meaning into it anyway. And it will inherently be the wrong meaning, since there isn’t a “right” one. You can see where this is going. The most useful skill a writer can develop is the ability to kill their darlings, with gusto, if possible.

    5. Give Us Specifics

    We don’t think in the abstract; we think in concrete images. If we can’t see it we can’t feel it, and so it has no impact on us. For instance, when you think of “love” you don’t envision a concept, you envision images that, for you, evoke the concept of love. Each of us probably sees a very different, specific image (fantasies of Johnny Depp notwithstanding).

    In short, we access the universal only through the very specific. Which is why, as I’m overly fond of saying, the story is in the specifics. Yet writers often write in vague generalities without even knowing it.

    Like what, you ask? Take a simple sentence like: Freddy had a hard day at work. It’s a fine sentence, except we have no idea what Freddy considers a hard day, what actually happened, or even what his job is. After all, a hard day as a barista in Boise is very different from a hard day as a bullfighter in Barcelona. Be specific. Use the eyes-wide-shut test. If you shut your eyes, can you see it? If not, then neither can the reader.

    6. Give Us Conflict

    We don’t like conflict — in real life that is. Ever since kindergarten our goal has been to “work well with others.” So it’s no surprise that conflict can make us uncomfortable. As a result, writers are often way too nice to their protagonist. Instead of plunking him into a really thorny situation, they tiptoe up to it, and then deftly rescue him in the nick of time. Resist this urge.

    It’s conflict that readers come for, so they can vicariously experience what they’ve been scrupulously avoiding in real life. They want to know what it would cost – emotionally – to take those risks. And, ultimately, what they might gain.

    So be mean to your protagonist, make him face whatever demons are holding him back. It’s not just for his own good, it’s for the reader’s as well.

    7. It Must Make Sense to Us

    The brain analyzes everything in terms of cause and effect – indeed, we assume that causality is the cement of the universe. So when a story doesn’t follow a clear cause-and-effect trajectory, the brain doesn’t know what to make of it. This can actually result in a feeling of physical distress, not to mention the overwhelming desire to throw the book out the window.

    The good news is, when it comes to keeping your story on track, it boils down to the mantra if, then, therefore. If I call in sick one more time (action), then I’ll get fired (reaction), therefore, I better get out of this cozy bed (decision).

    Action, reaction, decision—it’s what drives a story forward. From beginning to end, a story must follow a clear cause-and-effect trajectory, so we see the consequence of each action. This tells us what things are adding up to, allowing us to eagerly anticipate what might happen next. Hello dopamine, hello reader!

    About the author:
    Lisa Cron  is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. Visit her blog.  

    About the author

      Lisa Cron

    • I wish I would have discovered you earlier. I love your style! Your language is lovely and remniscent of a bygone eloquence. I’m so glad, after reading this post, that I can follow you from now on.

    • Madison says:

      Informative write up, You consistently come up with the most useful resources and 7 Ways to Use Brain Science to Hook Readers is simply no different!

    • Hi Lisa,
      Fantastic post!
      I have a neuroscience background and also love the intersection of neuroscience and writing/storytelling. I’ve just completed a memoir about my years in medical training, practice, and then what happened after I left medicine (a lot happened). Reading your post gets me thinking about the neuroscience of the writer’s brain as she composes her story. My wheels are turning considering what I do (or what my brain does) as a writer to produce the writing with the qualities you mention. First thing that comes to mind is how I generate the specific details of my descriptions. I take myself back inside a given memory, almost meditatively, and sit with that memory until I begin to FEEL how I felt at the time. Inevitably, as the old feelings come up, I begin to SEE small details in my mind. It may be the polka-dot tie someone was wearing or the faded coffee stain on a counter. As soon as I have the first detail, I begin to write about it. I explain to my reader the setting or significance of that first detail. That’s my entry into the writing for that story, and I just let the flow of feeling and detail go from there. Often, that initial detail is edited out because it’s not critical to the story, but it has served as my portal into the writing. Neurologically speaking, I’m activating a neural network by first experiencing the emotional state of the memory. As you’ve said, emotion is way our brains determine what’s important. Said another way, emotion provides cues for retrieval of information, and information is what we writers need to make our words come alive.

    • My father (91) and I (63) are putting our memoirs into story form for our grand and great-grandchildren to remember us by. The motivation may be partially selfish, but it is becoming clear that the need to be known is as important as the need to know. Your tips are essential to the one-pagers that describe events that molded our lives in a way that is difficult to describe. However, they seem to point at brevity to me and that is the model I am using to encapsulate the events of my life.

      • Lisa Cron says:

        I could not agree with you more, Thomas. The need to be known is definitely as important as the need to know. I don’t think it’s selfish at all, but wanting to be part of something that endures, and wanting to matter — to have what you’ve learned live on, and help others. I once heard a saying: “When a person dies it’s like a library burning to the ground” Writing a memoir is making sure something of that library survives. There’s nothing more profound, or valuable, than that.

    • This is fantastic! I love the idea of storytelling being necessary for our survival, as well as the focus on specifics throughout! Lovely post!

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks, Stephanie! I so agree with you, knowing story was necessary for our survival deepens its meaning by revealing how profoundly stories affect us. Stories make us who we are.

    • PJ Reece says:

      I’m going to print this post and have it handy– excellent stuff. That said, I want to challenge your statement:

      “It’s conflict that readers come for, so they can vicariously experience what they’ve been scrupulously avoiding in real life, etc.”

      That theory sounds good, and for sure it’s the conventional thinking in this matter, but where does it come from? It just doesn’t explain to me why we are so ADDICTED to stories. There’s something deeper going on, and I think it has to do with how stories invariably lead to the protagonist running out of options… her failure… her utter failure. There’s something nourishing to our souls about how protagonists find meaning in nothingness. It’s inexplicable, which is why we feed on it in fiction. No explanation necessary. Just enjoy.

      Food for thought.

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks, PJ. You’re so right, that is food for thought. I’m going to enjoy mulling it over.

    • Sanique says:

      Excellent post! It answer a lot of plotting questions that I had. Now I have more direction! Thank you so much!

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thank you, Sanique. I’m so glad to be of assistance — having direction is a great feeling, isn’t it?

    • John Mohrman says:

      Excellent post Lisa, makes me feel like writing which is exactly what i’m going to do. THANKS!

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks, John, there’ s nothing that makes me happier, good luck with your writing!

    • Beth Havey says:

      Thanks for your post. What you have delineated are definitely the bones of story.

    • Great post Lisa! I love cognitive science. I also love when science or other fields (like architecture) are applied to the practice and craft of writing. Because I love these things, I’ll have to get a copy of your book.

      Best,

      Sarah

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks Sarah! I so agree — cognitive science is fascinating for the same reason stories are — because it gives us insight into what makes people tick.

    • Alyssa says:

      This post should be called “7 Ways to Use Vague Generalizations About Brain Science to Hook Readers and Reel Them In.”

      I don’t really know where to start with this sentence: “In the same way that food tastes good so we’ll eat it, stories are entertaining so we’ll pay attention to them.”
      A) not all food tastes awesome (mushrooms)
      B) comparing the biological need for food with a need for stories is a pretty far leap. In fact, I don’t think you even saw the other side when you made the jump.

      You say that curiosity is the only real reason people pay attention to stories.
      But what about comedy? Do readers read comedy or watch sitcoms because they’re curious about what happens next? Or because they’re being entertained?

      “Science has proved that the brain uses emotion, rather than reason, to gauge what matters to us and what doesn’t.”
      Only some people work this way. Depending on personality type (research Myers-Briggs typing) a person can filter based on intuition or feeling or thinking.

      You say only tell the reader what they need to know, but if you hold back information for too long, the reader’s going to abandon your story fast. Any LOST fan knows this feeling well.

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Looks like we’ll just have to agree to disagree, Alyssa. Good luck with your writing!

      • Rebecca says:

        Wow, Alyssa. First of all, mushrooms taste awesome. They just do. You’re wrong about mushrooms.

        Next, what is the fundamental difference you see between curiosity and the need to be entertained? Are you not curious what jokes will be told on your sitcom? Do you not tune in because the programme has fostered some curiosity in you regarding the characters and their stakes? Comedy is in essence the art of surprising the audience, and people are curious to see what surprises they will get. And if you think it’s impossible to schedule a session of rewarding surprises, then you haven’t had any fun birthdays.

        Also, the Myers-Briggs system is massively, massively flawed. *You* ought to research it more thoroughly before citing it.

        As for this: “You say tell the reader only what they need to know, but if you hold back information for too long, the reader’s going to abandon your story fast.” I think you’ve misunderstood something.

        The advice is to tell them only what they need to know, and to tell them when it’s relevant. Nobody’s telling you to hoard pertinent facts like a dragon, just leave out the superfluous crap. The reader tends to need to know a lot to get along with the story. Pretentious vagueness has not been suggested. In fact, that section of the article decries things like LOST for dropping clues that had no point, causing the audience to attach too much significance to pointless pieces of information.

        God. What kind of a person doesn’t like mushrooms?

    • Tritano says:

      This was so awesome and so timely. I’ve been struggling with a conflict I feel compelled to toss my protagnist in but, honestly, was just afraid to follow through with, until today! It’s the only way to get him to the final stage of his journey. He has to do it. Oh boy. Okay. Here I go….

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Oh Tritano, that is so true! Writers tend to be so kind, they don’t want to be mean to their protagonists, so they don’t hold their feet to the fire. But as Emily Dickinson said, A wounded deer leaps the highest!

    • Hi, Lisa!

      Great article. All of this is good advice for writing ad copy as well.
      Point 7, the cause and effect advice (if, then, therefore) will be especially helpful.

      Thanks again for the great post,
      Steve Maurer
      Maurer Copywriting

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Steve, thanks! I totally agree, the best (not to mention the most effective) ads are stories — because they take info and put it into an emotional context that allows the customer to feel what the product actually means to them, rather than simply telling them how great it is in and of itself.

    • Karen says:

      Love this post. Found myself mentally rewriting/tweaking my latest story in my head as I read it. In fact I’m off to make some minor adjustments to it right now.

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks, Karen! I know exactly what you mean, I sometimes I think I do my best writing when I’m revising in my head.

    • Great list, Lisa. I especially like your advice to challenge the protagonist, force her to do something she doesn’t want to do. Building the right scene for her to have had enough, for her to decide she’s finally going to take action, that’s the trick, isn’t it?

      Great work!

      • Lisa Cron says:

        Thanks, Kasie! You are so right, there’s nothing more revealing than what the protagonist (or us for that matter) do when we’ve finally had enough!


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