Books on the craft of writing generally fall into two categories: how to write well and how to tell a story well. Most deal with writing words: grammar, style guides, literary devices, structure, plotting, characterization, arcs, pacing, and such fol-de-rol. Far fewer teach you how to tell a good story.
Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence not only offers insights to storytelling, but she explains exactly why each element is important, based on the latest cognitive neuroscience research. Once you understand the why of doing anything, it’s much easier to remember to implement the factor. Otherwise, you’d just be writing by formula, following a sterile checklist of items to be sure to include. A lack of understanding the why to do something inevitably shows up in the writing, either leading to readers’ confusion or boredom.
To reinforce the lessons she offers, Cron presents excellent examples from the film and television industries in which she has extensive experience. And, to be honest, each chapter does end with a checklist containing reminders of the research that forms the basis of each item, but I strongly recommend NOT skipping to these and omitting to learn the lessons of the text.
People who want to be writers, especially budding novelists, frequently seek shortcuts or long-suspected secrets of writing tales that ignite readers’ imaginations and desires for more stories by that author. A practiced professional, Cron told me she spent two years combing contemporary neuroscience research, teasing out the proven processes that lead to these results. It’s all in the story, folks, and genetically based because humans have needed stories in order to survive. Listening to, paying attention and remembering stories is hard-wired into our brains.
All the pertinent psychological research is presented in an engaging, even breezy, informal style of writing with references to the studies at the back of the book for us end note and psych geeks. The book is structured with plenty of quotations from well-known published authors you’ll recognize at the beginning of each chapter.
The chapters also feature what Cron has labeled “secrets” between the clever chapter titles and more familiar quotations. For example, Chapter 9 begins: “COGNITIVE SECRET: The brain uses stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in the future. STORY SECRET: A story’s job is to put the protagonist through tests that, even in her wildest dreams, she doesn’t think she can pass.”
The only part that might be considered a secret is that perhaps you, the aspiring writer, don’t have an advanced degree in psychology or read the arcane journals that provide such information. And perhaps no one has previously gathered together all this recently learned information on how human brains operate and applied it to the art of storytelling. Which author was it who said that anything appears to be magic if we don’t know the science behind it? Probably someone in science fiction, like Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. I should probably research that, huh?
I’d been mentioning this book on Twitter since I first received it. One amateur author tweeted that he’d read it and disagreed with every point. My (internal) responses were: how can you disagree with scientific research and who are you to dispute someone who has studied the research an is an expert in story development?
Cron teaches writing at the University of California Los Angeles and has worked as a literary agent, story consultant or supervising producer for movies and television shows. She’s also cited by Marc Madnick, Founder and President, Final Draft, Inc. (the professional screenwriting program) in Ask the Pros: Screenwriting : 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.