By Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, July 10, 2012, 1607742454

Lisa Cron tells the story of stories. Less of a history than Sapiens, but she goes into the evolution of story. She quotes Antonio Damasio like many other books on our evolution do, but Wired For Story is about writing, not history, neuroscience, or evolutionary biology.

It took me six months to read this book. I don’t remember why, but must have been reading other things. I finished in April 2013. I still remember many things from this book, many years later. For example, the importance of the first sentence and what plot is. Cron helped me become a better writer. I try to stick to the point (plot) when I write, but allow various themes to creep in.

Not that I claim to be a writer, but I write things down so it was good for me to learn a bit about writing.

[k83] Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution–more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.

[k103] For a story to captivate a reader, it must continually meet his or her hardwired expectations. This is no doubt what prompted Jorge Luis Borges to note, “Art is fire plus algebra.” Let me explain.

[k129] After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life.

[k274] As readers we eagerly probe each piece of information for significance, constantly wondering, “What is this meant to tell me?” It’s said people can go forty days without food, three days without water, and about thirty-five seconds without finding meaning in something–truth is, thirty-five seconds is an eternity compared to the warp speed with which our subconscious brain rips through data. It’s a biological imperative: we are always on the hunt for meaning–not in the metaphysical “What is the true nature of reality?” sense but in the far more primal, very specific sense of: Joe left without his usual morning coffee; I wonder why? Betty is always on time; how come she’s half an hour late? That annoying dog next door barks its head off every morning; why is it so quiet today?

[k281] Having our curiosity piqued is visceral. And it leads to something even more potent: the anticipation of knowledge we’re now hungry for, a sensation caused by that pleasurable rush of dopamine. Because being curious is necessary for survival (What’s that rustling in the bushes?), nature encourages it.

[k321] Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels.

[k336] From the first sentence, readers morph into bloodhounds, relentlessly trying to sniff out what is at stake here and how will it impact the protagonist.

[k366] Elmore Leonard famously said that a story is real life with the boring parts left out. Think of the boring parts as anything that doesn’t relate to or affect your protagonist’s quest.

[k413] HERE’S A DISCONCERTING THOUGHT: marketers, politicians, and televangelists know more about story than most writers. This is because, by definition, they start with something writers often never even think about–the point their story will make. Armed with that knowledge, they then craft a tale in which every word, every image, every nuance leads directly to it.

[k507] Happily, theme actually boils down to something incredibly simple:

  • What does the story tell us about what it means to be human?
  • What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control?

[k511] But the real secret to theme is that it’s not general; that is, the theme wouldn’t be “love” per se–rather, it would be a very specific point you’re making about love. For instance, a love story can be sweet and lyrical, revealing that people are good eggs after all; it can be hard-nosed and edgy, revealing that people are intense and quirky; it can be cynical and manipulative, revealing that people are best avoided, if possible.

[k527] Not that you’re as calculating as an advertising executive or that your story has so literal a purpose, which is why writers often have to stop and think about what it is they’re trying to say and what point their story is making. It’s crucial, because the instant a reader opens your book, his cognitive unconscious is hunting for a way to make life a little easier, see things a little clearer, understand people a bit better. So why not take a second to ask yourself, What is it I want my readers to walk away thinking about? What point does my story make? How do I want to change the way my reader sees the world?

[k541] Plot facilitates story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal. The way the world treats him, and how he reacts, reveals the theme.

[k589] If theme is one of the most powerful elements of your story, it’s also one of the most invisible.

[k591] It’s like tone of voice, which often says more than the words themselves. In fact, sometimes tone says the exact opposite of what the words are saying, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship can attest.

[k600] In other words, your theme begets the story’s tone, which begets the mood the reader feels. Mood is what underlies the reader’s sense of what is possible and what isn’t in the world of your story, which brings us back to the point your story is making as reflected in its theme–reflected being the key word. Because as crucial as theme is, it’s never stated outright; it’s always implied.

[k607] Unchecked, theme is a bully, a know-it-all.

[k608] What this means is that the more passionate you are about making your point, the more you have to trust your story to convey it. As Evelyn Waugh says, “All literature implies moral standards and criticisms, the less explicit the better.”

[k773] This means that everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist.

[k776] That’s why in every scene you write, the protagonist must react in a way the reader can see and understand in the moment. This reaction must be specific, personal, and have an effect on whether the protagonist achieves her goal. What it can’t be is dispassionate objective commentary.

[k1100] Mirror neurons allow us to walk a mile in the protagonist’s shoes, which means he has to actually be going somewhere. The good news is that everyone–real, fictional, or somewhere in between–has a goal.

[k1364] Being wrong changes how we see–or don’t see–the world. And we’re wrong a lot, partly because in order to survive, we’re wired to draw conclusions about everything we see, whether or not we have all–or any–of the facts; and partly because, more often than not, it’s our cognitive unconscious that deftly constructs the implicit beliefs that then organize and rule our world.

[k1508] It’s what Fitzgerald meant when he so famously said, “Character is action”–meaning the things we do reveal who we are, especially because, as Gazzaniga reminds us, “Our actions tend to reflect our automatic intuitive thinking or beliefs.”

[k1541] What are we saying about human nature? How about: when you work up the courage to take a risk, good things happen, even if they’re not quite the good things you expected.

[k2094] We’re hardwired to love problem solving; when we figure something out, the brain releases an intoxicating rush of neurotransmitters that say, “Good job!” The pleasure of story is trying to figure out what’s really going on (which means that stories that ignore the first two facts tend to offer the reader no pleasure at all).

[k2621] You might want to keep Samuel Johnson’s advice to writers tucked in the back of your mind as you slash and burn: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

[k2779] In fact, turns out it’s unhealthy to keep a secret, both mentally and physically. According to psychologist James Pennebaker, “the act of not discussing or confiding the event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se.” Thus,

[k2882] Stories are about people who are uncomfortable, and as we know, nothing makes us more uncomfortable than change. Or, as Thomas Carlyle said, “By nature man hates change; seldom will he quit his old home till it has actually fallen around his ears.”

[k2899] We all know what polite society looks like–no one needs to explain it to us; we get it. But beneath our very together, confident public persona, most of us are pretty much raging messes. Story tends to be about the raging mess inside, the one we struggle to keep under wraps as we valiantly try to make sense of our world. This is often the arena the real story unfolds in, and what causes the reader to marvel in relieved recognition, Me too! I thought I was the only one! And so, to both the writer and the protagonist, Plutarch offers this sage advice: “It must needs be that those who aim at great deeds should also suffer greatly.” Often in public.

Or, to put it a bit more philosophically, there’s Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

[k2928] Your brain doesn’t like anything that appears random, and it will struggle mightily to impose order–whether it’s actually there or not.

[k2934] But one thing that isn’t random is our passion for patterns, even if we do get carried away sometimes and see the face of our beloved etched in the clouds.

[k2939] “The brain is a born cartographer,” says neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

[k2942] Stories are about the things we need to keep an eye on. They often begin the moment a pattern in the protagonist’s life stops working–which is good, because, as scholars Chip and Dan Heath note, “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.” Can you see the fine print? In order to break a pattern, we need to know what the pattern is. And as far as the reader is concerned, everything is part of a pattern–and the thrill of reading is recognizing those patterns.

[k3734] Hemingway concurred: “Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.” It’s only then that the real story you’re telling slowly emerges. Here’s a secret: when you’ve tapped into what it is we’re wired to respond to in a story, what we’re hungry for from the very first sentence, it is your truth we hear. As neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum…. The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.”